Sunday, November 15, 2009

Martial arts, bullet trains and Tokyo firsts

I feel like a little girl again. I remember the way I felt when I was young, and the excitement of traveling by plane - the wonder at the airport, the curiosity about my fellow travelers, wondering where they were going, where they had been and whom they would be meeting. The excitement of take-off and landing, all novelties before the dozens of business trips took the luster away. But I feel it again now as the sleek shinkansen train arrives at the station and I make my way to car 12. I reserved a window seat, looking forward to watching the Japanese countryside pass by – but lament not having the words to explain to the attendant I would have preferred a seat on the left side of the train as to afford me the view of Fuji-san. It’s a clear day, and the view should be beautiful.

An uniformed attendant walks to the front of the car and bows. To whom I don’t know, as he is ignored much like the airline attendant teaching the safety features of the aircraft, and I think I am the only one that notices. I imagine him stopping and doing the same on the 11 cars behind me, and I wonder at the tradition.

Several weeks ago, while bravely exploring a Sannomiya bar by myself I met Nobu, Takashi and Tetsuya. Nobu is an old man. He is almost bald, but resolutely keeps the little bit of hair he has ridiculously long. He has the look of an ancient Chinese philosopher and I can imagine him with a very long beard, giving instruction in the secrets of some martial art. I ride up in the elevator with him. He looks out of place here – at a pseudo British pub - but his sparsely toothed grin seems familiar to all here and I get the impression that this is his spot. We bump into each other later and he is quick to introduce me to his two friends, Takashi and Tetsuya. They speak English, although they make apologies about their skills – a typical Japanese trait. They are better than they let on, and I am happy to just have someone to speak to. I’m not sure how the topic of Aikdo came up, but in response to my interest they politely invite me to come watch aikido practice at their former university. We exchange email addresses before I rush off to call James from home since I know he will be able to receive my call at that hour.

I was surprised to receive the polite e-mail from Takashi renewing the invitation. I have a hunch that he appreciates having someone with which to practice his English. I feel confident the invitation is friendly only. When I travel in Mexico I can’t help but notice men looking at me – it’s unnerving but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit a little flattering. In Japan I realize I do not fit the standard of beauty here. Rather than being at all insulted by the polite indifference I find it comfortable – not too unlike going dancing at a gay bar.

Yesterday I met Takashi at Umeda Station. He’s wearing a fedora and I almost miss him. Kyoto University sits on the side of a mountain. It’s a little ways up from the very busy part of the city – quaint and a little cooler. We walk through the campus under a canopy of yellow-leafed ginko trees. Still warmer than usual, the mountainside is not yet fully ablaze in kouyo, but the cooler wind blows the early fallen around at my feet. It smells like fall.

At the opposite end of the campus we reach the dojo. Half of the dojo is floored in tatami mat, the other half is smooth wood. Soji screens wrap around the bottom two feet of the walls and sliding doors are opened wide, inviting in the autumn breeze. I notice that there is what appears to be a wooden shrine of some kind hanging on the wall, lemon leaves arranged as offering. Beside it is a picture of a stoic-looking elderly man in hakama, which I assume to be the sensei. When we arrive Kendo practice is taking place on the wood floor, bamboo swords clacking between grunts. On the tatami students wearing hakama prepare for Aikido. Tetsuya is already there and has begun stretching.

It’s an informal practice today, led by the team captain rather than the sensei. To begin they sit on their legs, bowing low and then alternately sitting upright and clapping four times in unison, and bowing again, arms prostrate in front of them. Tetsuya later explains that this is done in acknowledgment of God and directed at the shrine I had noticed upon entry - no particular religion he adds, just a general acknowledgment of a higher being.

They begin their warm-up practice. In unison they walk in a squat across the tatami and back again. Next they roll, right shoulder, left shoulder, right shoulder, their black hakama swirling around them giving them a look like Sonic the Hedgehog. Practice begins and they quickly pair up, going through the first kyo (technique). They switch partners for the second and so on, slowly and methodically practicing their technique. It looks quite effortless, but then I start to notice the beads of sweat building on foreheads. Takashi and Tetsuya take turns coming over to me and explaining something or another about the art. “This is to help you understand the spirit of Aikido,” Tetsuya explains and then quickly shuffles back to his practice.

Takashi invites me to join. It’s an intimidating prospect, but one I can’t pass up. I’m showed yonkyo and gokyo, and although he humors me, I’m sure I missed the point altogether. It’s difficult for them to explain in English the complexities of the technique, and perhaps I am not yet capable of understanding. I enjoy it though, and leave feeling like I have experienced something of Japan that not all tourists have the opportunity to.

The train glides over the rails - the normal ca-clunk-ca-clunk of tracks below almost imperceptible. I watch bright countryside fly by in the window, occasionally interrupted by intervals of darkness as we dive under mountains. I can feel in my ears that the pressure changes – have we descended or is the change created by the bullet forcing the air before it into the dark tunnel? I think that James would know the answer and I miss him. It’s easier to focus on things in the distance – closer objects pass by in a dizzying whir.

I make my way through Tokyo, change trains and arrive in good time at the Narita airport to pick up Tara, little sis and co-adventurer for the next two weeks. Her flight is delayed, but without too much ado we make our way back to the hotel. She was up for a stroll and dinner out. While on our search for dinner we unexpectedly find Senso-ji Temple. I didn’t realize our hotel was that close to it. It was on the list of things to see and so we put our hunger aside and explored for a while. It was quite beautiful at night. Strings of bright lanterns line the way – something you’d miss entirely during the day. The pagoda is brightly lit, and it’s red an gold make an even more impressive display against the black sky.

We settle on yakuniku, one of my favorites and something I’m confident ordering. Korean BBQ that you grill at your table arrives and Tara and I enjoy ourselves and catch up a little. We soon call it a night - we have a big day ahead tomorrow…matter of fact, a big two weeks.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

So That Others Might Live

"So that others might live." I'm sure you've heard it. It's always said with conviction, of course, and we nod in understanding, perhaps not realizing at the time what those words really mean. If we really understood, if the weight of that burden was clear to us at the time, would we have simply nodded in understanding or agreed enthusiastically? The concept, although easy to grasp in theory, is difficult to truly understand until tragedy touches home and that toll is collected from those we love.

Several years ago I was traveling on a business trip and was in a hotel lobby with colleagues when I received a call from James, "I'm going on a search and rescue, not sure when I'll be back, but I'll call you when I can." In response to my friend's raised eyebrow, I relayed the message. "Doesn't it bother you? Don't you worry?" she asked with concern. "Well, yes," I said, "I do worry a little. But you get used to it." The next evening I had not yet heard from James. As I laid in bed I pushed away worrisome thoughts, convincing myself that the C-130 was rock-solid and chiding myself for letting silly thoughts run through my head.

In the wake of the loss of the Sacramento crew a wave of emotions runs through me. I've cried for those that lost their lives, and even more for those that they left behind. My heart breaks for those that were out long days and nights looking for their own in vain and for those that could do nothing to help. I've had anger, fear and guilt. Guilt at being relieved that it wasn't my husband. Anger that it happened at all. And fear that it could happen again. My self-delusional bubble that allowed me to sleep at night while my husband was flying long hours officially burst. As I read comments from friends in the Coast Guard and their spouses, the sentiment seems the same. The reality of those words, "so that others might live" has officially hit home.

I know my husband. I know he, like others in the Coast Guard are brave and strong and will do what needs to be done in order to get the job done and protect others. Even if it is at the cost of their own safety. And selfishly, that scares me. And while I admire the honor in the phrase, when I think about those that are suffering such great loss right now I can't help but wonder why. Why must some die so that others might live? But I know the answer to that. I know that the world needs the brave that are willing to risk all to save another. Our family and friends in the Coast Guard make that choice every day they get on a plane or go out to do their job. Because of that daily sacrifice they are the best part of humanity.

Perhaps my friend Ta Chan here in Japan said it best. When I first arrived I was trying to explain to him what my husband did for a living. I carefully and slowing laid out the list of things while Yuki translated for her husband. I simply explained search and rescue, port security and drug interdiction, making no attempt at embellishments for ease of translation. Ta Chan, nodding his head let out a slow "ohhhhh" indicating his understanding and added in broken English, "Ah, yes, Hero."

“These poor, plain men, dwellers upon the lonely sands of Hatteras took their lives in their hands, and, at the most imminent risk, crossed the tumultuous sea…, and all for what? So that others might live to see home and friends.” - Annual Report of the Operations of the United States Life-Saving Service, 1885.

My thoughts and prayers go out to those that are suffering something there is no consolation for.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Osaka by Night, Kyoto by Day

From Osaka and Kyoto 10.20.09
Ta Chan's sister, Yumi-san, owns a small okinomiyaki shop hidden in an older part of Osaka. The best way I can describe okinomiyaki is as a mix between a savory pancake and an omelet, with various meats, veggies and noodles prepared in front of you on a large griddle and served with a special sauce and dried seaweed flakes sprinkled on top. Ta Chan had the itch to take me there, and after our workout at the boxing gym yesterday we made the trek over to Osaka for this special treat.

It's a humble establishment with loyal clientele, good food and of course, karaoke. Yumi-san runs the whole place herself. It's early when we get there, and when we walk in there's only Yumi and one customer who is smoking in the corner. We take off our shoes and climb up to the tatami mats and Yumi begins preparing dinner for us. An older couple enters - they are here not only for the food, but also the karaoke and it's not long before they plunk down yen and start belting out what Yuki describes as Japanese "country" songs. Although I can't understand much of it, the conversation feels friendly and familiar and I'm keenly aware that this is a side of Japan that tourists would never see - and I'm grateful. This is what I want from traveling - not only sites, but people.

Everyone is curious about the unfamiliar American and I'm introduced. I can tell they are talking about me, and Yuki explains to them that I am studying Japanese. As if that was the key to the club, I'm instantly in, and I'm caught off guard when they begin urging me, "Shana - song? Shana song please." I would have preferred to turn down the offer, but I didn't want to seem impolite so I sang Alanis Morisette's "Ironic" - the only thing I could think of and easily find in the book. I guess it was a hit - or maybe they were being polite - but they urged for another. Norah Jones gets a turn with "Don't Know Why" and thankfully, my singing career for the night is done.

Wednesday we were off to Kyoto. Once Japan's capital, the city is rich with history stretching thousands of years. Full of temples and shrines, the city attracts vistors from all over the world. We started the day with Kiomizu Dera. This temple rests against the side of a mountain and you have hike up a narrow street, flanked by traditional Japanese buildings filled with wares and treats of all kinds. Tea and spice shops, souvenirs, mochi, green tea and red bean ice cream, swords, dolls - all distractions as you make your way up to the temple.

Autumn is on it's way and the little bursts of red and orange leaves let the cat out of the bag. I can hardly wait for kouyou - which is what the Japanese call the time of year when all the maple leaves are red. For now I settle for just a hint, which still makes for a beautiful backdrop to this ancient temple.

Next on the agenda was Kinkakuji - literally the temple of the golden pavilion. Fine gold leaf covers this temple that sits in the middle of a koi pond. The sun was just beginning to set and the golden temple was beautifully brilliant in the early evening sun. We enjoyed green tea under a bright red umbrella, the sun streaming in from through the maple leaves above.

Girls Night in Osaka

From Osaka at Night
Yuki is determined to have me, like it or not, try all the culinary delights that Japan has to offer. Despite my protests about the hazards of fried food (have you seen my hips lately???) she wanted me to try kushi-katsu. Kushi-katsu is an assortment of foods - anything from squid to asparagus - batter and deep fried on a stick. I was a good sport - and it was well worth it. Thank God I'm walking everywhere!

We started in Namba - a hot spot for food and shopping. Then we were off to look for a club for dancing. We struck out on that account because we were still hostage to the train schedule and things don't get going until after midnight in Osaka. Most young people actually stay out all night and catch the first train home in the morning. With the dance clubs not yet warmed up, we opted for an hour at the karaoke bar (we could pick our own music at least!) and headed home on the last train to Suma.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Tea Ceremony, Sake and Karaoke

From Japan 10.15.09
Like a mother ushering her child off to kindergarten for the first day of school, Yuki says goodbye to me at the front door. I'm armed with a custom train schedule courtesy of Yuki, keys to the house and a note in Kanji that I'm supposed to show the coffee shop clerk so I can purchase espresso roast with beans ground to a number three.

To travel the train you have to purchase a ticket at the kiosk. Above the kiosk is a map of that particular train line, it's stops and corresponding fares. It costs 180 yen to get from the Suma station where I change trains and hop on the JR line. Ten stops later I will change trains again - this one will take me to Rokko Island, which is where I was heading for the Tea Ceremony. The train sounds like it should be easy, but with five different lines plus the subway the chances of me getting my lines crossed, literally, are pretty good. I've given myself no room for error and one misstep would make me late to the Kimono talk. The whole evolution takes me just over an hour and I miraculously manage without incident.

I make it just in time and after being introduced to the teacher, Mizushima-san, we are invited to select one of the ten beautifully wrapped Kimonos displayed in front of us. Orchid-colored silk delicately wraps kimonos that have been carefully paired with coordinating obis, sashes, and cords. Kimonos in all colors with elegant designs and embroideries are revealed one by one. Rich reds, lustrous golds, and deep blues are accented by butterflies, flowers and beautiful details.

The first layer is a simple robe with a thick white color that will later just peak out from under the fine silk kimono. The kimono is next and Mizushima-san expertly pulls, tucks, cinches and ties in what seems like elaborate origami.

Tea Ceremony is a very meditative experience for both the guests and the performer. Contrary to what I had previously believed, Tea Ceremony was performed almost exclusively by men and even Samurai up until WWII. This act of service was done for guests to demonstrate the utmost humility. After the war, Mizushima-san explains tongue-in-cheek, "the women and the stockings got stronger in Japan."

Hidden in this otherwise modern building is a traditional Japanese tea house and small garden. As if you were entering a secret hideaway, you duck through a small square door on the floor. The small door was intentionally designed so that everyone must lower their head upon entering, leaving all rank behind and entering all as equal. "The tea room is an equalizer", she explains. Here we arrange ourselves in a semi-circle, all trying desperately to be even a tenth as graceful in our kimonos as our host.

Mizushima-san is not performing the ceremony herself today but rather her assistant, an elegant, beautiful woman who I imagine is in her early 40's. We are served Japanese sweets and Mizushima-san encourages us to watch all the subtle movements. She cleanses the tea making tools, prepares the tea and gracefully serves - every movement with a purpose. She prepares tea for one person at a time, each time repeating the process with the same dedication. Watching her graceful movements is hypnotic, not too unlike the feeling you get when someone is playing with your hair. Every movement is careful, giving the ceremony the air of a performance. And it was over all too quickly.

Friday I had my first Japanese lesson. Sensei explained to me that to understand English you must have a vocabulary of at least 1,000 words. To understand Japanese, one must have a vocabulary of 5,000 words. Even she admits that this is a difficult task, and I'd be lying if I didn't wonder for a moment just why I had chosen probably one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn. It doesn't matter though. I'm committed to the task and will do my best in the time that I have.

After my lesson I opened my Kobe guidebook and discovered that not far from where I was there was a sake producing area. A short train ride and I was out exploring. Only once did I have to accost a perfect stranger with, "Sumimasen, (enter the name of a place here) wa doko desu ka?" (Excuse me, where is such and such?) I explore the sake museum and one of the breweries where you can see each part of the process in action from behind plate glass. Of course, I got to taste some sake too.

At four I met Yuki, Ta Chan and Hazu - we had a date for Karaoke and dinner. Karaoke in Japan is so different from in the states. In the states, most people wouldn't be caught dead signing Karaoke, but here in Japan it's the hot thing to do as evidenced by the numerous Karaoke bars all around town. Unlike in the states where there is one stage and only brave or really drunk souls venture up, in Japan you go with a group of friends and get a private room with a various array of high-tech equipment. Is the pitch of the song you are singing too high for your voice? No problem, with the click of the remote you can bring it down an octave. Choose from thousands of songs. Make the mic have an echo. You name it, they've got it. In short, we rocked out in true Japanese karaoke fashion.

Yuki and I are heading to Osaka tonight after our work out. I'm looking forward to that and will share an update later.
From Japan 10.15.09

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dreaming of Japan

From Japan
Once on the plane in San Francisco's International Airport I realized that all my diligent Japanese studies only served me the ability to identify that the machine gun-speed string of syllables over the intercom was indeed Japanese. Beyond that I could identify nothing. And as I carefully arranged my carry-ons under the seat I realized, not without hint of butterflies, that I was about to spend the next two months in Japan. What had seemed like a great way to both fulfill a long-time dream and keep my mind away from James being at OCS now sent a flood of thoughts through my mind about how I was about to leave everything familiar in exchange for something completely new. Excited? Yes. Nervous? I'd be lying if I didn't admit I was a little.

Only fourteen hours later I stepped off the plane at the Kansai airport and made my way down to the luggage claim where I was to meet Yuki (who had given me strict instructions not to leave the area even if she happened to be a few minutes late). Within seconds Yuki had found me and in a way that is distinctly Yuki (imagine exclamation points) she calls my name, runs toward me and gives me a big hug. I'm already aware that this display isn't what would be considered "typical Japanese", but Yuki is anything but "typical" and it's this personality that has kept us friends over the greatest of distances for the better part of eight years.

"Kobe is not a very big city," Yuki keeps disclaiming as if she feels I might be disappointed. The funny thing is, as far as I can tell, Kobe is big enough to rival most cities that would be considered quite large in the United States. She considers where she lives the "suburbs", but for the life of me I can't tell why. Kobe sprawls east and west between the Pacific Ocean to the south and Rokku mountain to the north. Glancing either way reveals only more of the same: ocean, city, mountain. The contrasts are spectacular.

My first day in Kobe started with a trip to the grocery store and market at Itayado - which I discover is really quite local as I am the only "gaijin" I see all day. "Gaijin" is what the Japanese call foreigners, and for better or worse, while in Japan, I am a Gaijin. Despite the fact that my size, rosey complexion and green eyes make me stand out like a sore thumb, always polite, no one stares. I had braced myself for odd looks or interest after my cousin who had traveled to Thailand recalled with horror how the Thai people, surprised at seeing such a tall women, would exclaim quite loudly how big she was and stare at her with disbelief. If it wasn't for how keenly aware of how out of place I was, I could quite easily forget that fact based on their reaction, or lack thereof.

The Daie (grocery store chain) is intensely bright and happy. Fresh lighting illuminates colorfully labeled products in every shape and size. I'm sure the things I would normally buy at the grocery store are hidden here somewhere, but alone I have a difficult time distinguishing even water, and end up buying a clear sports drink by accident. Japanese writing explains everything, but I am at a loss and I realize quite quickly how much we rely on this kind of communication in every day life now that I can't understand it. It's all, well, Japanese to me.

The market just outside stands in contrast with the modern grocery store. An indoor arcade of vendors, not too unlike a farmers market, showcases fruits and vegetables in crates and baskets. Handwritten signs denote that green peppers are six for 100 yen (a bargain!) and for 300 yen the man will dump the little basket of tomatoes into your shopping bag.

The train stations prove even further how lost I would be without Yuki on day two. Although the stations are conveniently labeled in Romanji not much else is and with the web of public transportation to navigate I was so lucky that Yuki spent the day teaching me how to take the train to Sanomiya - downtown Kobe.

Saturday night Ta Chan (Yuki's husband) stayed home with little Hazumi (three years old) and it was girl's night. Yuki took me to Sanomiya again. It was completely different at night and as far as you could see, brightly lit signs showcased the locations of bars, clubs, restaurants and shopping. I'm told that this is dim compared to Osaka and especially Tokyo, but to me this could give Times Square a run for its money in terms of how much electricity is being disposed of. It's exciting and intriguing and I try to be cool about it while I whip out my camera and snap some shots.

We had a meal in the style of izacaya - which is small, shared plates, not too unlike tappas. Japanese food is amazing. I'm not particularly fond of fish which is kind of a problem, but you can see the care taken with everything and even the most humble of ingredients is elevated by being served in esthetically pleasing ways. I find it quite beautifully done. I should also mention that Yuki is a wonderful cook herself.

Today we went to Himeji Castle. Built in 1346, the ancient stones and wood proudly and beautifully hold their shape, resisting time itself. To reach the main tower you climb a narrow maze of stone stairs designed to funnel enemies to smaller numbers as they approach the castle. Lookouts and defensive positions above would make the intruders easy targets. Finally, through a gate that I have to hunch to get through we reach the main tower. Upon entry you, like I imagine it was always done, you are asked to remove your shoes. My socked feet glide over smoothly-worn wooden beams and it's not difficult to imagine a time long ago when Japanese royalty and samurai inhabited these spaces. Another maze of steep wooden stairs takes you room, by room, each one growing small as you go higher until you reach the top. From here you can see artful tiles cascading down rooftops meeting a vast expanse of city, the mountains in the distance. From hear I imagine what the view would have been even just a few hundred years ago.

Yuki and Ta Chan have been such gracious hosts and I'm loving the experience of seeing Japan beyond the way a tourist would. Little Hazu is too cute and at three speaks more English than I do Japanese. And like any other three year-old everything is met with curiosity and questions, "Kore nani?" (what's this?). My questions far outweigh hers though, and I feel like I'm in a whole new world. Not just are the words for things different, but so many things themselves are. I'm fascinated by everything and my own childlike curiosity makes for good entertainment for Yuki and Ta Chan.

There's so much more to share, but since this post is already quite long I'll continue another day.

News From the Front - an update on James

As of today James has been at Officer Candidate School for just over 8 weeks. I was with friends the other day when I got a much awaited from phone call from James. To give an indication of what life at OCS is like, James told me to tell our friends, "hi from my dark cell." Life the first few weeks for him was not fun to say the least and when I missed a phone call from him and his barely audible message said, "I'm okay, I'm alive," it just about broke my heart. Squaring his meals and doing push-ups to a cadence contributed to him losing 8 pounds that first week.

The report is that things are better the last few weeks. I suppose these things are measured in the amount of yelling that takes place. James never loses his humor about it and as soon as he received e-mail privileges he included in his signature a quote that had no doubt been directed at his company. "You're all complete idiots and I don't want you as officers in my Coast Guard." - MKC Hillman, Guard Mount, 27AUG09.

I had to laugh.

The class recently completed their trip on the Eagle, the Coast Guard's tall ship. James enjoyed the trip and the ship as well as the slightly reduced numbers of instructors hovering over them.

James wrote from the ship, "Getting underway is an incredibly physical evolution. It's done the same way it's been done for hundreds of years.... climbing masts, furling or unfurling sails and a small army on deck heaving lines. The ship has a language of it's own, 'ready the mizzen royal!' 'Make off the main stay for sail!' - all being yelled from bridge to deck and vice versa."

He is doing very well in his classes and he's showing all the college grads there just how it's done. I'm really proud of him, but then, I've always been a fan. :)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


"Babe, check out my calluses," I say and extend my throttle hand toward him for inspection. He chuckles and says rather patronizingly, "Aw, how cute." I'm indignant, "Hey, don't laugh! I've worked really hard for them - I rode the same 12,000 miles you did!" As I sit down and try to finish writing this post just over a week after being back the ridges on the palms of my softer female hands have already started to fade. Bummer.

We were making our last push through cowboy country, the midwest and then home and I couldn't help but feel a little sad that things were coming to an end on this journey. At the same time my heart was full. The memories we've made, the beautiful things we've seen, and the friends we've met along the way, all part of what was not only an amazing trip, but something even more inspiring.

Riding 12,000 miles in 30 days may not seem like an attractive prospect to many. We certainly heard mixed reactions from friends and family - some incredulous, some concerned and some perhaps slightly envious. I am happy to report that our marriage weathered the trip well (rain tarp and all), our butts only a little less so, and we are only slightly worse the wear for all the miles. We are over 12,000 miles more enriched. As far as vacations go it did not rank high on the physically relaxing scale. But never before have I been able to mentally remove myself from my work or life at home and allow myself the luxury of mental indulgences. Only seldom did I have to make a conscious effort to push away thoughts of tasks and to-do lists that would be waiting for me. Instead, riding along on the bike, your mind indulges itself, mulling over things in detail. Some things important and some much less so. And the focus becomes on taking in the next 100 miles and whatever they have to offer. If I could answer the question about what is so freeing about being on a motorcycle, that would be it.

If you want to see a place, drive a car, take a train or go on a cruise. But if you really want to experience a place, ride a motorcycle through it. Things become rich with detail, smells become stronger and changes in temperature immediately perceptible. You become open to experience whatever the road has in store and in turn, you become part of the place and experience itself. You are no longer an outsider looking in. You are part of the story. There are certainly more civilized ways to travel, but bugs and all, I wouldn't trade this for anything.

We saw some amazing things. I'm sure Alaska is not to be trifled with in the winter. But in summer, just under the rugged exterior, you'll find she has a warm heart that will capture yours. Deeply enchanting, before you suspect you'll find yourself quite taken with her. She'll test you, captivate you and send you home full of longing to be back. She's humbled the toughest of men, yet nurtures an abundance of life.

Canada's Yukon and British Columbia offer sights so beautiful it becomes difficult to take them all in. If you ride with your face shield open at speed, the amount of air that rushes into your face will actually take your breath away. And such was the beauty these parts offered. It leaves you breathless and in wonder at the natural forces and creation of it all.

We met some amazing people along the way. Something about being on a motorcycle makes you more approachable and perhaps less threatening. I can't be sure what it is that puts people at ease, but it didn't matter where we stopped or for what length of time, we always heard, "where ya headin'?" or some similar version from an individual who's interest was peaked by our curious appearance. Covered in dust and bugs we were always happy to tell, and conversations would spark lasting anywhere from just a few moments to 30-45 minutes. Even the little girl at the gas station with her light brown bob takes a break from cleaning bugs off her mom's car to announce, “I'm going to Babba's house.” She keeps an eye on us as we fuel up, and wand in hand, looking closely at the bugs on my face shield offers sincerely, “I can clean that for you.” She wasn't the only one at ease with us, and our new friends Alan and Gail opened up their home to us for the night in Edmonton.

We met those that were just curious and those that were like-minded souls and on journeys of their own. Adventurers crossing paths, we met: Our new friend from Germany who quit his job, bought a bike and is riding to South America; our friend from Texas that was seeing all 50 states on motorcycle; the British fellow who just sold his business and was starting his journey, going wherever the road or whimsy would take him; the young man from Vancouver that was pressing on alone up the Demster highway; the Japanese couple, needing to see Alaska for themselves; the German fellow who rode on bicycle 19 months from Tierra del Fuego, Argentina; the couple, both doctors from Boise, she being one of the very few other women on a bike of her own we encountered; and so many more. Our paths would cross, sometimes more than once, stories would be shared and sometimes bits of the journey as well.

To be a little cliche... "my cup runneth over." I'm filled with a sense of accomplishment, the intense desire to see more and the feeling that there is a lot more good in the world than I think we give ourselves credit for. If there is one lesson for me that stands out the most it's that I've come away from this with a change in perspective. Gathering experiences like these throughout life will always be paramount to gathering possessions for us. The scale has tipped and as James said before we even left, we will never find ourselves reminiscing about the great new household item we've purchased, but trips like these will always yield amazing times and memories.

We found ourselves keenly aware of the blessing that taking this trip has been. Many retired travelers we saw along the way would urge us to make use of this time in our lives. "Use it wisely," they'd say, "do these things while you still have the desire and while the body is still on board with the decision." And we will as much as possible. This will not be the last trip of its kind for us.

Thank you for taking part in this journey with us. Knowing you were reading kept me writing and I've so enjoyed it. Continuing with our adventure theme, James will be leaving in two days for Officer Candidate School in New London, Connecticut. The Coast Guard will do their best over the next four months to make an officer out of him. It might be too late for the gentleman part (I'm sticking tongue out at him as I write this), but in my humble opinion they've already got the makings of a really great leader on their hands. James will have the opportunity to sail the Eagle, the Coast Guard's tall ship, to Spain before graduating in December. I won't be able to join James in the fun (and I'll miss seeing him doing push-ups to a cadence), so I'm going off on an adventure of my own. I'm packing up here, putting everything in storage, taking my dogs to my Aunt in California and heading off to Japan for two months - following my dream of learning Japanese and seeing the country. I will continue to utilize this blog to keep our friends and family updated on progress and where we'll end up as the year comes to an end.

We'd like to thank our friends Evan and Sheila in particular for staying at our home and taking such good care of the kiddos - aka the dogs. I don't think we would have been able to do a trip this long, or at least not with any peace of mind, were it not for their kind offer and we are so grateful.

The journey continues. Carpe Iter Itineris!

Little guy along the Cassiar.
From Jasper-Banff

From Jasper-Banff

Jasper National Park in Canada.
From Jasper-Banff
From Jasper-Banff
From Jasper-Banff
From Jasper-Banff
From Jasper-Banff
From Jasper-Banff
From Jasper-Banff
From Jasper-Banff

Glacier National Park.
From Glacier-Montana
From Glacier-Montana
From Glacier-Montana

Hanging out in Montana.
From Glacier-Montana
From Glacier-Montana
From Glacier-Montana

Did I mention the bugs?
From Glacier-Montana

Seeing fam in Minnesota.
From Glacier-Montana

From Glacier-Montana

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Playing Catch-up

I've been neglectful in my posting. It's amazing how exhausting this adventure stuff can be and quite honestly, I think I had run a little out of steam. When we started I would stay up until 1 or 2 in the morning and write updates while James snored beside me. But the ritual of setting up and taking down camp every day and long days of riding started to wear me out so something had to give for a bit. No complaints though - every bit has been absolutely amazing - a little bit of exhaustion and all.

For those of you that have been watching our spot tracker you'll notice that we are currently in Apple Valley, Minnesota. My last update was about the Cassiar Highway, but we have since gone through Canada's Jasper and Banff national parks as well as Glacier National Park in Montana. Both beautiful places and I have plenty to share about them. I've decided that it would be worth dedicating a trip just to British Columbia - there's so much beauty to see.

We've since been through Montana and North Dakota and we are currently visiting my aunt and cousins in Minnesota, an extra treat along the way. Staying just for one night, it's been good company, a warm bed and a clean load of laundry. We'll be off to Chicago tonight. My back tire isn't lasting as long as we had hoped and we'll have to do a swap there so I can make it home. James and I will split up on Friday. He will continue home and back to work to get ready to take off to OCS on August 13. I will head to Indianapolis to see my grandparents and aunt there for a couple of days. Then I'll make my way home on my own.

I'm hoping to catch up on the blogging while I'm in Indy. I really do have so much to share. More than just about the last few places that we've been, I have to tell you why this has been so amazing. I've had plenty of time to marinate on these things while riding. It's amazing how comtemplative you can get after several hundred miles on the bike. And being the rather "thinky" (as FuzzyGalore put it) individual I am I can get carried away.

More to come....

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Lost World

Cassiar Highway

Along this trip we've seen some amazing things so far. It's hard to believe that things can keep getting better, but they do. The ride from Watson Lake down the Cassiar highway over to Stewart and Hyder (on the Alaska and Canada border) was absolutely phenomenal. It would be impossible to describe it to any degree of justice and I'm certainly no photographer. To my dismay, every time I take a photo of something that looks amazing in person it never quite captures it. I've developed a real appreciation for photographers that are able to capture these sorts of things, but I'm certainly not one of them. But in this instance, I know words and photos will fall short and I write this wishing I could bottle up a part of the Cassiar highway for you - it would be an amazing thing to share.

We stayed the night in Watson Lake, a small community along the Alaska highway that started by consequence of the building of the highway during WWII. Upon recommendation, we stayed at the historic Air Force Lodge, where we were greeted by the owners, Michael (pronounced Mic-ai-il in German) and his Austrian wife. Michael, a congenial, double-dimpled fellow, kindly requested us to remove our shoes, showed us the ropes and gave us the history of the building and his painstaking restoration of it. It was the only remaining one of over a hundred similar buildings erected to house the military during the construction of the highway. This particular building served as barracks for air force pilots, and although all the rooms and bathroom facilities are exactly where they were 70 years ago, everything has been redone and is simple, yet clean and comfortable.

We made off from Watson Lake and very soon hit the Cassiar Highway. It was like stepping into a watercolor painting. The multi-hued slopes where anchored by trees of every shade of green. Wildflowers in bright colors line the road taking center stage as the foreground and background constantly compete for your attention. Waterfalls cascade from white capped mountains down rocky faces in to jade greens. We passed signs warning about avalanche areas and looking up could see fallen trees in rows down the slopes – victims of previous winters.

Some of the road was dirt, but most has been paved and I was left with the feeling that I could ride up and down that stretch and never tire of it. I often gasped in my helmet at something particularly beautiful, taking mental pictures that I'll keep with me forever.

The road y's and we went right, towards Stewart and Hyder. The two towns, one in Canada and one in Alaska, are contiguous and it's difficult to tell where one stops and the other begins were it not for the small border crossing building. Here the Pacific Ocean creeps inland just a ways where it meets Stewart and Hyder. I'm not sure the history of this place, it's origins or beginnings, but just as I was thinking that it was very quickly on its way to becoming a ghost town I see a sign overhead that says, “Welcome to Hyder – the friendliest ghost town.” It truly looks like a lost world and you can see from the barren pilings sticking out of the misty water that this place once hosted busy piers and boardwalks. But now you might expect the Black Pearl ghost pirate ship to roll in at any moment.

This place is beautifully mysterious, with thick cloud cover above and a soupy mist hanging just over the water. Between the grey, spruce and cedar now host hanging mosses in light greens. We stopped at the wildlife viewing area and then headed down the road a ways to see Salmon and Bear glaciers but the road was closed. We rode past the closed signs to see that the night before the road had been completely washed away. Powerful water rushes by below and you can hear large stones knocking against others as they are tumbled down the river, probably once part of the road. Not wanting to miss the glaciers, James had thought that maybe we could skirt around the edge. Taking a look, we decided that there was too little left and deeming the prospect way too pass or fail, we turned around and began heading back out to the Cassiar, to the point at which the road y'ed before. We still had about 100 miles to go for the day and forgetting how south we had traveled, we underestimated our amount of daylight and as it began to rain I had immediately regretted our decision to press on. Just as we started back out, two black bears ran out in front of James. James, putting the ABS to work, grabbed the brakes and had a thought flash through his head, as the brakes grappled with the demands, of him sliding up to the bear, disabled but alive and serving up dinner to the bear.

The bike remained composed and we continued on, making our way back out past glaciers and rivers. Just at the point where we could see the break in clouds ahead of us there was a rainbow. We stopped to try and take picture and noticed gentle upward breezes where raising the cloud cover. James remarked that the colors, somehow bright yet muted and misty at the same time, were like that of a dream.

We made it to Meziandin Lake and camped for the night where James and I almost went to blows over the installation of our rain cover Kelty tarp. Funny thing about that dang tarp, that's meant to keep our tent and other gear dry when it's raining, is that of everything that's happened on this trip that dang tarp has the potential to be a divorce-in-a-bag. As soon as that tarp comes out my blood pressure rises and I've decided that James and I just have fundamental differences in our tarp erecting methodology. All that aside James and I managed to remain on speaking terms and we got a good night's rest.

The next morning just 50 miles or so from where we camped and we were off of the Cassiar. That which would ordinarily be considered quite pretty, in contrast was now, well, quite ordinary.

Our accommodations at Watson Lake:
From pics - watson lake through Cassiar

Adding our sign to the sign forest:
From pics - watson lake through Cassiar

From pics - watson lake through Cassiar

From pics - watson lake through Cassiar

From pics - watson lake through Cassiar

From pics - watson lake through Cassiar

From pics - watson lake through Cassiar

From pics - watson lake through Cassiar

From pics - watson lake through Cassiar

From pics - watson lake through Cassiar

From pics - watson lake through Cassiar

From pics - watson lake through Cassiar

From pics - watson lake through Cassiar

From pics - watson lake through Cassiar

From pics - watson lake through Cassiar

From pics - watson lake through Cassiar

From pics - watson lake through Cassiar

If you look closely you can see the rainbow:
From pics - watson lake through Cassiar

From pics - watson lake through Cassiar

From pics - watson lake through Cassiar