There are no words to adequately describe the excitement and anticipation I felt upon learning my family would be moving from our typical neighborhood on the outskirts of a larger city to a remote spot on the earth that was accessible only by plane. Or ship, during summer when the sea wasn’t frozen over. Putting the facts together, I realized this meant we would be flying to arrive at this new home. I’m certain there was plenty of screaming in delight and jumping up and down the day I got this incredible news. I had never imagined getting to fly, I knew very few people who had flown and when they had it was a super big fancy deal. Like a once or twice in a lifetime thing. (And you dressed up!) Regular people didn’t fly and certainly none of my friends had ever traveled to some only previously imagained location on a plane.
But we had stepped on a plane. In second grade our class had the most amazing field trip where we were bused out to the airport and guided through the terminal to arrive at a gate – no security to be bothered with – then escorted onto a real plane with a pilot and stewardesses. Flight attendants had not yet materialized. The crew welcomed us, providing instructions on how to get buckled into our seats in preparation for an imaginary take off and even provided a snack. Amazing stuff! And what had my stomach fluttering with butterflies and glee was a secret I held in my heart. In just a few months I would be returning to an airport to board a real flight that would take my family to a far away place on a new adventure. I could hardly contain the emotions, life was about to really begin!
This is when my love of adventure was born. It’s been a key component of my makeup ever since, though at times fear causes me to become heavily planted wherever I am at that moment, staying past that experience’s due date. There are many things I struggle with about my upbringing, but I fully appreciate that this love of adventure and a willingness to try new things and places comes from my parent’s decision to jump in with both feet when an opportunity out of the ordinary crossed their path.
Finally the school year came to an end, summer arrived and the day of our departure drew near. I recall my family hosting a huge reunion at our home, with uncles, aunts and cousins, grandparents and friends filling our small house to say their goodbyes. There were games and jokes, food and celebrating, us kids running around until exhausted. Then the whole caravan loaded up cars and hit the road driving a few hours north, to the larger airport we would fly out from. How times have changed! There we all were at the gate waiting for our flight to depart. All my grandparents, my dad’s brothers and wife, more kids, everyone acting as if they would never see or talk to us again, that was how far away we were going. In actual distance it wasn’t that far, but the communication barriers were great. These were the days before computers and cell phones, cheap long distance calls and Amazon. My parents, learning how difficult communication might be had actually taken the time to learn morse code, enabling them send messages to my uncle, who also knew the code. I can still call out my name in morse code, it’s a skill people.
The remote town that was to become our new home had no TV, but did boast two small radio stations. One operated by a protestant church playing country music, news, and serial radio shows such as the Lone Ranger airing after school. The other was run by catholic church. I loved that station, though I wasn’t allowed to tune in. But how could I resist when I could find a moment alone, they were playing rock n’ roll! Mail service could be slow, my dad’s mother once sent him a block of cheese and oh lord did that package smell the day I picked it up at the post office, with the clerk behind the counter telling me everyone had been putting bets on what the heck was in that box. Long distance rates were astronomical making only the briefest of calls possible, reserved for the most important of reasons. Getting supplies was also tricky, a loaf of bread purchased locally cost several multiples of what it had in our previous grocery store and there was no way were would be able to survive purchasing our goods from the town’s limited stores. So once a year my mom would place a order through a company in the lower 48 who would then ship it up to our town, being offloaded from the ship onto a barge that would then bring it into our shallow port. It was like Christmas every summer, getting pallet upon pallet of boxes filled with our food and supplies to last us through the next year. Except the first order of flour. Mom miscalculated the amount of flour per loaf of bread and how many loaves she would bake a week, and that first year’s order of flour lasted several years.
But back to the gate and our pending flight. It was delayed causing me to become anxious to just get going! This made my grandmother, my absolute favorite person on earth, very sad. “Why are you in such a hurry to leave, I don’t know when I’m going to see you again.” From a child’s eye I didn’t realize just how much I would grow to miss her in the years to come, with each short visit intensely savored. It’s the one thing I regret about this chapter of my family’s life, I would have done well to have her in my life on a day to day basis. She was my angel who loved me unconditionally and everyone needs at least one person providing this necessary gift to them during their life.
But eventually the flight was called and after a stop in the state’s largest city for a few days we completed our journey to the remote town that would become home. Stepping off the plane into this new world overwhelmed the senses. The previous city several hundred miles away had in no way prepared us for what we would encounter. It was a different world from what I had never experienced or imagined. And this was summer. Wait until the brutal, and in many ways magical, winter arrived. The airport set off a few miles from the edge of town was simply a hanger, no frills, just walk down the back steps of the airplane across the field through the door where an airline employee dressed in a color fur trimmed parka was waving to the passengers. Looking around past the tarmac the landscape was shades of brown and green dotted with spots of color, covered with tundra and wildflowers. But not a tree to be seen. This was such a strange sight from someone who only knew the forests of the pacific northwest. Taking the bumpy road into town there was little to be seen apart from the two civil defense towers rising out of the one large hill a distance behind the city, with a forgotten looking cemetery encircled by a chipping white picket fence in the foreground. The town didn’t seem to have any reason to have sprung up where it did, in the middle of nowhere, with not much to distinguish the landscape beyond the treeless low lying hills to the east and the sea to the west, an island dotting the horizon. The roads were rough gravel with a huge billowing cloud of dust forming behind the old van that was to be our vehicle. It left the mouth, eyes and nose dry with a taste of dirt. A tour of the entire town took very little time, a dozen streets north to south with another dozen east to west, rundown looking homes with makeshift repairs and occasional boarded up windows lining the narrow roads. But the highlight was arriving on main street which featured several blocks of two story buildings butting up against the sea wall, looking out onto the arctic sea. I thought I had stepped into my black and white tv screen to walk the streets of an old western frontier town, with the wooden boardwalks, saloons and false front facades giving the buildings a character I associated with the old west, not the far north. This was a place still holding on to the spirit of a long ago gold rush. The air was slightly warm with a constant breeze, a slight smell of salt in the air mixing in with the dust. And the women walking down the boardwalk wore clothing I’d never seen, colorful patterned pullover smocks with ruffles along the bottom, large pockets accented with colorful trim and a large hood worn over pants. All the women and girls had pants on, while my mom and I stood there in dresses. This was going to take some adapting. I struggled to take it all in, every single aspect of this place was foreign. And now I lived here. Where to begin learning our new day to day life?
Then we arrived at the house. Our new house was a dump. A real dump. My mom was visible shaken but she and my dad immediately rolled up their sleeves – and put us kids to work – cleaning and fixing and making nice to provide a place of comfort to settled into as we learned a new way of life. It was a true adventure, one of those moments where literally everything shifts and new rules apply and to get along you must also shift with the new reality to survive.