The Blue Marble

Is there anyone out there who hasn’t looked up at the night sky and felt a sense of wonder, and well, sometimes smallness? Even as a child, I felt a connection to the heavens and always (yes always) included words of gratitude for the sun, the moon, the stars, and the rain in my prayers at bedtime. Now in my twilight years, the wonder and sense of connection are even greater.

On our first trip to Arizona a few years ago, we went to Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. Constructed high on a hill, the grounds and buildings overlooked the city below. Around and around the curves we went until we finally reached the top of Mars Hill. We oohed and ahed over the several telescopes, strolled down Galaxy Walk, and then donned our special glasses and stared straight at the sun without squinting or doing damage to our eyes.

We were entranced with the beauty, essence, and history of the place. Trees and rocks and century old buildings set the stage for adventure and discovery. Pluto was discovered there in 1930, and although Pluto’s status has changed since then, its sighting was historical. The morning we were at the observatory, astronomers walked about to and from their offices, and one of them willingly stopped to answer questions when our tour guide hailed him.

After learning there would be a lecture and a Saturn viewing that evening, we planned the rest of our day around the night visit. The lecture was enlightening, full of fascinating facts, but seeing Saturn and its rings up close and personal was surreal. I looked at the sky, then back at the telescope several times. How could that barely discernable spot above my head be so large, illuminated, and visible through the telescope lens? What else was up there that I couldn’t see?

I don’t own a telescope. But I do own an increased reverence and awe for our galaxy and the billions of others in the universe. Although I haven’t studied a lot about it since then (so much to learn, so little time), I’m not quite as ignorant as I was four years ago. I’m not a scientific person and don’t grasp concepts like gravity, cosmology, or black holes as easily as some people. Truthfully, I’m more into quotes like this one from Listening for the Heartbeat of God: “…the lights of the skies, the sun and moon and stars, are referred to as graces, the spiritual coming through the physical.” Ah yes, thin places…got it.

 But I’ve been learning. As I look at the night sky, I now understand that earth and space science studies connections between the land, ocean, atmosphere, and life of our planet, sometimes referred to as the Blue Marble. From Wikipedia: “Our Solar System consists of the sun and its orbiting planets, including Earth, along with numerous moons, asteroids, comet material, rocks, and dust.” It’s my understanding that until the invention of the Hubble telescope, we Earthlings thought our solar system was the only game in town. Now we know there are billions of galaxies in our universe. Billions.

I often go walking with a neighbor in the evening, and sometimes the stars are so numerous in the inky sky that we have to stop and stare. And a full, crescent, or half-moon causes the same reaction. There’s darkness all around and above us, and yet here we are in a galaxy floating, twirling around in space with everything we need to support life as we know it. Oxygen, carbon dioxide, stars. sun, moon water, birds, giraffes, trees, roses, owls, starfish—everything is connected and has what it needs.

And high above us is Saturn. But as far as I know, we’re the only planet with life as we know it floating around in the dark universe. A mystery beyond my comprehension.

499 Steps

I was surprised to learn the fee was only $13, and the woman selling tickets said the price had been reduced because the elevator to the top wasn’t working. No one said anything. Not a word.

Tender to the touch, my left shin serves as a reminder of last week’s adventure My sister, her daughter, and one of my daughters took off on a girls’ trip to North Carolina, and after “doing Asheville” on Friday, we decided to make Chimney Rock State Park Saturday’s grand finale.

We cruised into town around 10 o’clock after oohing and ahing over the sights along Hwy 64. We wondered aloud how it would be to attend Bat Cave Baptist Church the next day, and that led to yet another discussion about how many different ways there are for people to live and love and play and worship. We heartily agreed that it was important, imperative in fact, to get out of Dodge once in a while to see more of the world than our own narrow corners of it.

Once in Chimney Rock, the park entrance was upon us before we had a chance to signal and turn in. No problem. We rode through town and took in the sights, and since Lake Lure was right down the road, we went there too. I wanted to have a look at the beach. There were no ocean waves or roaring surf, but there was a beach. Water too. And a lifeguard. The area was fenced in, off-limits to us, and people were lined up to plunk their money down.

We headed back to Chimney Rock, not turning again until we got to the park. I was surprised to learn the fee was only $13, and the woman selling tickets said the price had been reduced because the elevator to the top wasn’t working. No one said anything. Not a word.

“So we’ll have to walk up?“ I asked.

“Yes. Is that a problem?” she said.

The general consensus was that we had come this far and by golly, we were going to get to the chimney and touch the flagpole.

“Let’s do it, y’all,” I said.

You pays your money and you takes your chances.

Feeling overdressed and hot, we stopped at the restroom area and changed into lighter clothes and bought some water. I had learned from an earlier experience not to hike any distance on a hot day without H2O. We got back in the car and around and around the mountain we rode until we got to the parking lot.

We got out of car and looked up at the tall stone chimney. I had climbed this rock before, but it had been a beautiful fall day with brisk temperature. Now it was July. Truthfully, I think we all felt a bit of trepidation. Elizabeth had misgivings about walking in flip-flops, but since she had no extra shoes, it was wait on us at the gift shop or step forward. She started walking.The journey of 499 steps began with the first one. On we went, stopping to peer into a cave, look over the edge at the parking lot, or simply rest a minute. At one point, Elizabeth muttered to me, “This is the worst day of my life.” Lucky girl, I thought, understanding what she meant but knowing she could do it.

“You can do hard things,” I reminded her. No response. She just kept climbing in her flip-flops.

I took dozens of pictures and listened to the encouraging words of folks coming down. “It’s so worth it,” they all said. Some lied and said, “You’re almost there,” when in reality we had quite a way to go. The four of us made small talk and continued climbing—together.

At last we ascended the final twenty or so steps and walked on the rock itself. We laughed and shared “war stories” of the trek. We took selfies, and snapped photos of other people for them. There were so many people with us at the top that I had to carefully maneuver my way between them and the several big rocks. At one point, I got pushed (accidentally) and scraped my shin. Immediately, a goose egg puffed up, and a reddish purple contusion appeared. Ouch.

 After relishing our accomplishment for a few minutes, we began our descent, reluctant to leave the mountain top but anxious to begin the next adventure. Going down was so much easier than going up, and we gleefully told the tired looking climbers that they had a treat in store. “Keep on climbing,” we said. “The view is so worth it.”

Today I’m aware of my tender shin and the memories it conjures up of a day four of us, united by blood and purpose, ascended Chimney Rock. We encouraged one another, swigged our water, kept putting one foot in front of the other, stopped for breathers, and reached the top—together. It’s easier that way.

Last Stop–Ketchikan

Ketchikan, a word I’d heard quite often in the past several weeks. The very sound of it sounded mysterious and conjured up images of trappers, fishermen, and furriers. Named after the creek that runs through the city, it’s the southeasternmost city in Alaska. It’s also known as Salmon Capital of the World.

When we realized that this city would be the last one we’d visit before heading to Canada, we decided to sign up for an excursion. Jeanita and I chose one that allowed us to visit the Saxman Totem Village, and the others opted for a lumberjack competition.

The Saxman Village with its thirty-four totems, a carving shop, a clan house, and a gift shop was all we hoped for—and more. We listened to an interesting lecture by a native Tlingit who taught us about his culture and its clans, marriage customs, and way of life. To paraphrase, “It’s important to know about your people, where you come from and who you belong to, so that you’ll know who you are. You’ll have more of a sense of identify.”

Listening to him reminded me of one of the many reasons I had so easily embraced sociology in my younger years, and I walked out of the building wondering, “Who am I? Who are my people?” Oh sure, I know something of my genealogy, but I don’t think people can look at me and think, “Oh, she’s a native Tlingit from Alaska, probably a member of the Eagle Clan.”

Following the lecture, we looked at some souvenirs in another room and then followed a path through the woods to the clan house. Once inside, we observed a traditional dance performed by Tlingits, including two little children, who like their elders, were garbed in native dress. How rich their culture is, I thought. The smallest child was probably around three years old, and I couldn’t help but contrast her daily experiences with the tots I knew. Not that one’s lifestyle was superior to another, but rather that each had a culture, albeit quite different from each other.

After leaving the village and arriving back in Ketchikan, Jeanita and I met our husbands for lunch at Annabelle’s. It was an “interesting” experience. Leaving the restaurant, we took a left and headed to Creek Street, a wooden boardwalk in what was once a red light district. We even spotted a sign with a directional arrow pointing to “Married Man’s Trail.” Today the boardwalk is lined with restaurants, shops, and art galleries.

The menfolk soon tired of browsing and left for the ship. Jeanita and I found it absolutely necessary, however, to get online and do some work so we found Polar Treats, a combination ice cream/coffee shop, and settled in for about an hour. To be honest, we had been hankering to visit Sweet Mermaids, but as soon as we walked through the door, one of the employees let us know that they were closing at 4:00. It was 3:55. We took a quick look around at the creative artwork, sighed with regret that we hadn’t arrived earlier, and took off in search of Polar Treats.

Our work complete, we walked briskly back to the ship, passing the Tongass Trading Company on the way.

“Want to stop in for a quick look?” I asked Jeanita.

“It’s 5:20,” she said, grinning, and I knew what she was saying. Our curfew was 5:30, and we both knew it would be impossible for us to do justice to the huge store.

“Maybe next time,” I replied, knowing that we’d probably never visit this spot  again.

We were sad to be ending our last shore excursion but glad we had made it happen. Good-bye Annabelle’s. So long Creek Street. Farewell to the Tlingit people of Saxman Village.

Above Busy Juneau

By this point in our trip to Alaska, I realized that many of our co-travelers were going on expensive excursions and seeing things we were missing out on. We considered signing up for the Best of Juneau excursion that offered at least three fun experiences, but we were too stingy to spend an extra $400+ dollars. Besides, there were things I wanted to do in Juneau that didn’t involve salmon or whales.

The day in Juneau began pretty much like the Skagway morning had. We hustled down the gangway like kids let out of school. When we reached the main drag, there was jewelry store after jewelry store, all of them proclaiming to have the most beautiful and reasonably priced gems, gold, and silver. Since ours was the last tour for the season, their prices had been reduced.

Already having more jewelry than I could wear, I sauntered in and out of a few shops to browse for souvenirs for the girls on my list. Most businesses were giving away a free gift, and I ended up with two charms, a turquoise bear and an onyx whale’s tale. We bought Northern lights pendants and earrings for the daughters, daughters-in-law, and granddaughters on our list.

Except for Otis and me, the rest of our party went back to the ship. Determined to explore the city, I set out for a walking tour while my husband hung around the harbor checking out the sights and sounds. After telling him exactly where I’d be going and when I’d return, I took off up the hill to the left. A few blocks later, I came across the State Office Building and the Alaska State Museum, both of which were closed.

Disappointed but undeterred, I continued climbing until I spotted the Governor’s Mansion, a big white Southern Plantation-looking house. The juxtaposition of the colorful totem on the side of the white mansion was, well, interesting. Another noteworthy detail was how close the mansion was to the street. There were no barriers between Sarah Palin’s former residence and her neighbors. What was to prevent people like me, curious tourists, from coming onto the lawn for a photo op? The yard, incidentally, was average, kind of on the small side. The governor’s family could stand on the front porch and have a conversation with the neighbors!

Leaving the Governor’s neighborhood, I walked over a few blocks for a glimpse of several churches, including a Russian Orthodox Church, St. Nicholas, that I’d read about in a brochure. I then climbed what seemed like 150 steps of an outside staircase until I arrived at the Wickersham House, the home of a well-known judge who, among other things, was instrumental in the creation of Denali National Park.

On the way back down to the main thoroughfare, I saw an arresting site, a single chair placed on what appeared to be wooden planks. A closer look revealed a plaque entitled The Empty Chair, and a little research revealed its significance. In 1942, the United States forced many Japanese people into internment camps, one of whom was a young man named John Tanaka. Valedictorian of Juneau High School that year, he didn’t get to graduate with his class. A bronze replica of the folding chair like the one Tanaka was unable to occupy at graduation was later placed on this Juneau hill to represent this young man and 50+ others who were sent to interment camps.

Sobered by the history lesson, I turned and began the descent into the busy shopping area. From atop the hill, I could see water, ships in the harbor, and a bustling downtown. The hilltop seemed the perfect spot to honor those interned in camps so many decades prior.

Before leaving Juneau, we bought some hot chocolate from a kiosk and sat sipping and watching the tourists and townspeople walking briskly by us. Reluctant to leave, we finally rose and ambled into the Alaska Fudge Company for a tiny wedge of fudge. On the way out (just couldn’t see to tear ourselves away) we walked into a specialty shop, one that claimed to have unique Alaskan wares, and I left with a small Nativity scene with Baby Jesus and his parents in Eskimo garb.

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That night at dinner we compared notes of our day over yet another delicious meal, this one including raspberry sorbet served to cleanse our palates and an extra plate of pistachio cookies—just because.

All Aboard!

Whittier-Tunnel-01

My last post ended with the anticipation of the bus ride through the Whittier Tunnel, the only passageway between us and the Coral Princess. Like it or not, we had no choice but to go through it no matter how intimated we might feel. Sitting still as statues, the other passengers and I looked straight ahead throughout the entire two and one half miles. If anyone spoke at all, it was in whispered tones, but for the most part, we were quiet, our eyes straining for a glimpse of light at the end.

I almost laughed with relief when I finally saw the light.

shipinharbor

The bus emerged from the tunnel and took a curving road to the left. There she sat in the harbor, the Coral Princess. As the driver parked the bus, I looked to the mountains to my right and saw what appeared to be apartments. Later, the woman checked our passports told me that’s where most of the town’s residents resided. Most of the time, she said, that was about 200 people. Now, however, approximately 400 people lived there, many of whom would leave after the last tour of the season: ours.

The baggage handling was a snap and was efficiently taken care of by Princess employees. The passengers stood in line for about twenty minutes, and then we were out the door and walking up the gangplank. Once inside the ship, I noticed a man to our left taking pictures of all who came aboard, including us. We gave him tired smiles and then went in search of our room on the Baja Deck, Room 626.

Happy with our home for the next week, we went exploring and oohed and aahed every few minutes—er, seconds. There were several restaurants, a variety of stores, a casino, a theatre, a lounge, a bar, an outdoor movie screen on the top deck, hot tubs, a library, and plenty of other attractions. I knew right away that none of us would have occasion to say, “I’m bored.”

That evening, we had dinner in the Bayou Café, and our primary server was a delightful young woman from Macedonia. Pleasant and outgoing, her most frequent expression was an Italian one: “Mama Mia!” She and her two assistants made our first dining experience one to remember. Very attentive, they made certain everything was just right.

The menu was extensive, and although two of us ate salmon (after all, we were in Alaska), the others of our party sampled a variety of entrees. One of the men at our table enjoyed his shrimp cocktail so much that he ordered two. After all, he reasoned, we had paid for everything ahead of time. Not even the most disciplined among us could resist dessert. From tiramisu to shortbread and tarts to mousse, there was something delectable to suit even the pickiest of palates.

As we walked back to our cabins, we chatted about what the following day would bring. We knew we’d be at sea throughout the night, and much of our conversation revolved around the anticipation of that experience. About that time, we heard a loudspeaker reminding everyone to report to a “muster station” to learn what to do in case of an emergency.

The muster station experience brought reality home: You are traveling on a huge ship with hundreds of other people. Look around you! If something goes wrong, these are the people you’ll be sinking with!

On the Road Again

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Our bus pulled into the little town of Denali late in the afternoon, and we were delighted with the Princess lodge and our accommodations. The rest of the crew went out for pizza, but I settled for snacks and an invigorating walk around the property and across the street. Naturally I took plenty of photographs, especially of the river flowing behind the lodge.

Before shopping at the souvenir shops the next morning, eight of us gathered for breakfast at a restaurant on the property that served delicious food in an atmosphere of warm ambience. And what a view! Overlooking the Chena River, the restaurant’s wall of windows afforded panoramic views of mountains with aspen and spruce trees. The snow on distant mountains looked like vanilla glaze on a Bundt cake. We loved seeing the leaves shimmering in the breeze and the chandelier lights from inside reflected in them.

After breakfast just about everyone on the trip found their way across the street to the souvenir shops. Fortunately for us, some of the merchandise had been reduced to half price. We were the last tour of the season, and the businesses were eager to move their wares. I settled on some bookmarks and a navy sweatshirt jacket with a ALASKA written on the front. No bears or moose—just a word to remind me of a cool damp morning in a small Alaskan village.

Around noon, we were on the road again, reluctant to leave Denali but looking forward to the next destination. On the way, we passed mile after mile of breathtaking scenery: huge rocks, tall evergreens, mountains, and well, wilderness. I learned that 75 to 80 percent (depending on which tour guide was talking) of Alaska’s inhabitants live in Anchorage, and I can understand why. The wilds of AK are not for sissies or the faint of heart. Alaska is beautiful, but there’s no scooting out to Wal-Mart for contact lens solution or half a gallon of milk.

Like the drivers before him, the bus driver regaled us with stories of early inhabitants and information about the terrain and temperatures. Along the way to McKinley National Park, he told us about an independent woman called Mary the Homesteader who got so tired of going to far away Anchorage to get her supplies by river that she bought a plane and built an airstrip. He also pointed out a road called Honolulu Road and said he thought it got its name from the men who cleared the land. As the weather became increasingly cold and dreary, they named the road after a place that conjured up sun and surf and tropical flowers.

When we arrived at the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, we could see right away that it was an isolated place—but beautiful indeed. We checked out the Welcome Center, and then Otis, Thomas, and I went for a walk to explore the property. We soon chose a trail appropriately called “Hill Trail,” and trekking up, around, and down it gave us a workout. The views of foliage, sky, and mountains were spectacular.

After our walk, the six of us reconvened at the 20, 320 Alaskan Grill for a delicious dinner. We sat around a round table and had a great time talking and sharing stores. By the way, the restaurant was called the 20,320 Alaskan Grill because of the height of Denali. Recently, however, climbers with more advanced measuring devices have discovered the mountain is actually ten feet shorter than that. Sooner or later, all signs will change to 20,310.

After a yummy breakfast at the grill the following morning, I walked another trail, a popular one with many people out to great some fresh air and savor the sights and sounds in one of America’s most beautiful state parks. How many ways can a person say gorgeous? Throughout my walk, I could hear birdsong, leaves rustling in the breeze, and the rushing of a nearby river.

Around midmorning, we left for Talkeetna for the next adventure.

Mountain, Rock, and Ridge

On the way into Denali National Park, the driver shared history of the area along with some fascinating facts about the people and terrain. Naturally, he talked a little about Mt. Denali and the recent name change, adding that the native Athabascans had always referred to it as Mt. Denali. He urged the passengers to look to the left for signs of the famous peak but cautioned us not to get our hopes up. Fog and distance were working against us.

Suddenly, the driver spotted a clear view of Denali on the horizon. From a distance, it looked like a dollop of cool whip, white and almost indistinguishable from the surrounding clouds. To our delight, he pulled the bus off the road and encouraged everyone to jump off for photo ops. Some people opted to stare from the bus windows, but Otis and I disembarked for a closer look and a photograph to commemorate the moment.

Our picture was fine, standard fare. I noticed others having pictures made on “the rock” and suggested that we take a moment to have ours made there too. The hubs was having nothing to do with such a foolish idea and repeated the words I’d heard every day all day long, “Come on. Let’s go, let’s go.”

A woman from California overheard this exchange and said, “Are you kidding me? You’re leaving without a picture on the rock? “

I shrugged, and she reminded me that I’d probably never pass that way again. “Get over there on that rock,” she said, “and say cheese.” So glad I listened to her and took her message seriously, not just to sit on the rock, but also to remember that we may “never pass this way again.”

Back on the bus, we traveled to Savage Cabin where we listened to a knowledgeable park ranger tell us about the cabin and surrounding area. After perhaps thirty minutes in the cabin vicinity, we departed for Primrose Ridge, an area in Denali National Park. The driver told us that Carol Reid was there that day and would be speaking to us on the ridge.

By this time we arrived at Primrose Ridge, one of the most beautiful places on Earth, we were getting a tad weary of getting on and off, on and off, the bus, but like good soldiers, we complied. None of us were prepared for the treat in store for us. A petite gray-hair native Athabascan woman stood on a slight incline ready to address us. Her hair flowing behind her in the slight breeze, she shared the history and tradtions of her people.

Until that afternoon, I hadn’t given much thought to the various tribes and their languages and traditions. Carol opened my eyes, not only to her own culture and background but to my own as well. I looked at her face and saw the features of her ancestors. She reminded us of the importance of knowing your family as a means of better understanding yourself.

After a serious and stirring presentation, Carol smiled broadly and sang out that she was the grandmother of “ten little Indian grandchildren.” Before we left the ridge, Carol said she hoped our paths would cross again and that she was not going to tell us goodbye.

She had cast a spell on all of us. Even the tough guys in the group were mesmerized by her words, gestures, and very essence. After a moment’s hesitation, I walked over and asked if I could hug her. She smiled as if to say, “Of course,” and I took her up on her inviting expression. I then told her that her words had touched my heart and asked if it would be okay to have a picture made with the three gals in our party.

We all walked quietly back to the bus, talking in low tones about our experience. I think Thomas spoke for all of us when he said that was the best presentation he’d heard since arriving in the 49th state.