Denali Encounters

My whole life, I’ve been intrigued by Denali, even when it was still called the much less exotic Mt. McKinley. I have always wanted to lay my eyes on the tallest peak in North America. But the interior of Alaska seemed forever inaccessible to me.

That is, until this month. This month, I went to Alaska. And I refused to go to Alaska without paying homage to “The Tall One”, Denali.

Denali is 20,310 feet high. That’s hard to wrap my head around. That’s more than 3.8 miles high. Miles. And the National Park that surrounds this mountain is 6 million acres of undeveloped land. That’s bigger than the state of New Hampshire. And the crazy thing is, there’s only one road.

And believe you me, that road is treacherous. It’s so scary bad, in fact, that private vehicles are not allowed beyond milepost 15. That’s disappointing, considering that the road is 89 miles long. (By comparison, New Hampshire has 33,328 lane miles in a smaller area.) But limiting access like this also helps keep this park wild and natural, so for me this roadblock is well worth it.

To go beyond milepost 15, you have to take one of the park’s buses. There are several options. There’s a free, unnarrated one with limited access, an unnarrated transit one, which takes you from one park facility to the next, or there are several tour bus options, including the Tundra Wilderness Tour, which takes you as far as the Stony Hill Overlook at milepost 62. That’s an 8 hour, round trip tour, which tells you a lot about the state of the road, and also allows for the fact that your guide will stop a lot, and by that I mean A LOT, to allow you to take pictures of all the wildlife you’ll encounter.

The buses were a disappointment, though. They were school buses with ever-so-slightly upgraded seats. The windows kept falling open, letting in the frigid air and the road dust. I felt every bump in the road. Even if you had been the size of an elementary school student, you’d have still felt there was not enough leg room. But the place made it worthwhile.

During our tour, we saw 18 Dall Sheep, 8 Grizzly Bears, 5 Moose, 4 Caribou, 1 Arctic Ground Squirrel, 1 Ptarmigan, 1 Spruce Grouse, and 1 Magpie. The only thing missing was a partridge in a pear tree. We also saw glorious Autumn leaves, stunning mountain ranges, braided rivers, and a glacier.

And then… Denali. We joined the 30 percent club. Since the peak is so tall, usually most of the mountain is shrouded in clouds, so only 30 percent of the park visitors get a chance to see it with their own eyes. But we had a bright, clear, sunny day, apparently the first one they had had in weeks, and there it was, rising up to greet us, almost as if it knew I had been waiting for this my entire life.

And I’ll leave you with one final note. I’m so glad this glorious mountain is no longer called Mt. McKinley. It was first called that by a gold prospector who admired President-elect McKinley, and then after the president was assassinated in 1901 the name caught on. There has been controversy over that choice since well before the park was even established back in 1917. The State of Alaska itself has been pushing for the name change since 1975, but was continually blocked by the Ohio delegation in congress, because Ohio was the state that McKinley was from. Nevermind that McKinley never stepped foot in Alaska. (We’ll also probably never be able to do away with the useless penny because Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, will never stand for that.) The mountain only got restored to its earlier, Athabaskan name in 2015, and I’d say it’s about time.

If you ever get the chance to see Denali, do whatever it takes to do so. Its vast beauty will transform you. Here are a few of our pictures from our visit.

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Political Architecture vs. the Architects of Politics

It was an interesting weekend. First, I watched The Post, a movie directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. It’s about the Washington Post’s release of the Pentagon Papers, which proved that several presidential administrations had lied to the American people about the Vietnam war. It was also about the risk that our country’s first female newspaper publisher took to get that information out there, and how it sparked a landmark lawsuit that reinforced freedom of the press. I highly recommend this movie. It’s kind of a precursor to All the President’s Men.

But to say it reinforced my bitterness toward this nation’s politically corrupt shenanigans is putting it mildly. Politicians suck, man. No question about that in my mind. We need some serious political reform in this country. But the rich people will never let us have it.

So there I am, in that mindset, when we decided to take a road trip down to Olympia, the state capitol of Washington.

For starters, let’s get something straight for all the readers from other countries, and for all the readers living on the east coast. Washington is a state. Really, it is. It’s not the same as Washington DC. They’re two distinct places, about 2,700 miles apart. I know. Hard to believe. But there you have it.

Okay, so now that you’re in the right place, let’s get back to the capitol, Olympia. I’d never been there before. It’s a pretty little town, right on the southern tip of Puget Sound. It’s definitely worth a visit, if only to take a tour of the legislative building on the state capitol campus, which we did.

It looks like your typical capitol building. Classical style. Pillars. A dome, rising up 287 feet. Carved sandstone. Granite. Marble. Masonry. Ornately painted plaster. A big fountain out front. Bronze statues. Lots and lots of flags and official seals.

It took 500 master craftsmen 5 years to build it, and it was finished in 1928. It’s overflowing with Tiffany lighting, and one chandelier weighs 5 tons and has 200 lightbulbs.

There’s an ornate reception room on the third floor, where they have the Governor’s Inaugural Ball, which the public can attend, if you can afford the price of the ticket and the formal wear you’d be expected to sport. In essence, publicly, democratically open. If you have the money.

It was really interesting to see the Senate and House chambers as well. They were not in session at the time, but you got a strong sense of the seriousness of the place. The mahogany and walnut desks alone must be worth a fortune.

That’s the thing about political architecture. It’s designed to inspire awe. It made me want to speak in a whisper. I felt funny walking amongst all that marble in my tourist wear. It’s truly a gorgeous building. I’m glad I went.

But I also struggled, because the ostentatiousness of the place really annoyed me when this state has such a homeless problem. And The Post was still fresh in my mind, with all its political corruption.

We’d like to think that We, the People are who these people are serving, but really? Why the need for so much flashiness? Does that much pomp fit our circumstance?

There is political architecture, which is usually stunning, and there are the architects of our politics, and they can be quite ugly. That juxtaposition of this beautiful building housing what can be, at its worst, a pit of vipers, makes it possible to feel pride and disgust at the same time. And that’s a confusing combination.

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Randy Rainbow: What Would We Do Without Him?

If you are on Facebook, and are even the slightest bit liberal, chances are you’ve seen videos by Randy Rainbow. He’s like the Weird Al Yankovic of our time. Not only does he sing much better than Al, but his messages are practically vital for one’s sanity in the Trump era. He shines a light on the insanity, and makes you laugh about it. He makes you feel a little less alone in our present-day Twilight Zone. Bless him!

So, when I discovered that he was touring, and that he’d be in Seattle, of course I had to go! And it was, as expected, hysterical, and delightful, and a much-needed political palate cleanser.

He performed many of his most popular parodies, including:

You Can’t Stop His Tweets!

Desperate Cheeto

Covfefe: The Broadway Medley

The Room Where It Happened

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Korea? (While wearing a nun’s habit.)

Yes! We Have No Steve Bannon! (While wearing a banana outfit.)

This is a comedian and performer who came at just the right time, to just the right place. If you get to see him live, I highly recommend it. At the very least, subscribe to his Youtube channel or his Facebook page and prepare to laugh!

Here are some blurry pictures I took of him in his many costumes at the concert. They’d no doubt horrify him, but hey, who said I was a photographer?  Enjoy!

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Dance, Dance, Dance

Okay, I confess. One of my guilty pleasures is the show Dancing with the Stars. I just love watching people do something well that I can’t do at all. (Oh, I can boogie with the best of ‘em, but formally dance? Not me. I can’t even walk in heels.)

There’s just something so wonderful about being able to express your emotions with your body. It’s as if dancers project their joy from the very tips of their fingers and toes. It’s beautiful to see.

At the end of this most recent season, I impulse-bought myself a ticket to their live tour, something I’ve wanted to do for years, so several days ago I got to experience that joy firsthand. I was rather star struck, because I feel like I’ve gotten to know all these people, and now here I was, breathing the same air! It made me feel like I was back in junior high school or something.

I was really glad that I brought binoculars, though, because I was in the nosebleed seats, and half the time I wouldn’t have known who was dancing without their help. But once I was able to suss out who was who, I could put the binoculars down and just enjoy the big picture. I left there feeling so content.

It’s magical to bear witness to such glorious artistry. We all have so much potential. There’s just so much opportunity for magnificence. I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel like good really is capable of triumph.

Here are some of my blurry photos from the tour. What with all the light and motion, my camera wasn’t exactly up to the task, but you get the idea.

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Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work

I’m so excited! The above titled StoryCorps book is set to come out on April 19th, and yours truly is going to be on page 17! I don’t financially benefit from the sale of this book at all, but I am honored to be a part of it, because I love being a bridgetender, and it makes me proud to know that when they heard my StoryCorps interview about it back in 2009, they could tell that this was the case and chose to include me.

There’s going to be a book tour and according to their Facebook page it will include “stops in NYC (4/20 & 5/4), Washington, D.C. (4/21), Atlanta (4/25), Los Angeles (4/27), San Francisco (4/29), Austin (5/2), Dallas (5/3) and Chicago (5/15).”

Dave Isay, the founder of StoryCorps will be there, as well as some of the people featured in the book. Sadly, I won’t be one of them, as the tour doesn’t come to Seattle. But if you live in one of these cities, I urge you to go check it out!

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I’ll let Dave Isay speak for himself. This is from an e-mail that he sent out:

We’re thrilled to share the news that we are less than two weeks away from the release of our new book, Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work .

We’re really proud of this book.  Callings is a collection of 53 stories of people finding the work they were born to do. These remarkable first-person accounts will resonate with anyone at any stage of their work life. Whether you’ve spent years in the workforce, or are just beginning to think about what career you would like to pursue, Callings offers timeless wisdom and advice from men and women from across America who have, through hard work and thoughtfulness, found their callings.  It’s a great read and a great gift.

When you pre-order Callings before its official release date -April 19- you will also receive additional gifts* like access to a pre-release viewing of our newest animation, “The Bookmobile,” and an excerpt from the two-CD Callings audiobook.
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Thank you so much for your support of StoryCorps over the years. Without you, our mission to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world would not be possible.

A Parade from the Inside Out

One of my coworkers moonlights as a Duckboat Tour operator here in Seattle. I’ve yet to have the opportunity to take one of these tours, but it’s way up there on my to-do list. Just riding in a vehicle that leaves the street then plunges into the water, then later drives back out again, would be worth the price of admission.

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So when he posted on his Facebook page that he’d be driving a duck in Seattle’s annual Macy’s Holiday Parade the day after Thanksgiving and that he needed passengers, I was jumping up and down. “Me! Me!”

The only real down side, aside from the fact that it was bitter cold and raining out, was that we had to meet at the “nest”, where they keep the ducks, no later than 6:50 in the morning. But still, I was excited. I had seen plenty of parades in my lifetime, but I’d never actually been in one.

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I have to say it’s a different experience entirely. After we drove to the staging area and jockeyed for our position amongst a great deal of confusion, there was even more waiting than the spectators experience. The parade wasn’t to begin until 9:00. But the time passed quickly because it was extremely surreal. Clowns and penguins and snowmen were wandering in the rain, some without their costume heads on, looking dazed and confused. Polar bears conferred on the sidewalk. Balloon floats alternately sagged and perked up and bumped into each other. I honestly couldn’t imagine how this chaos would turn into a parade, but somehow it did.

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On the duck we were given a choice of Santa hats or antlers to wear. I went for the antlers. You can never have too many antlers. They were playing some of the funniest ever Christmas music full blast, and we started singing along and rocking out. Santa stopped by to say hello on his way to his place of honor in the back, and high school marching bands started streaming past, looking wet, miserable, determined and excited by turns.

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 And then we were off. And suddenly everything made sense and went off like clockwork. It was really amazing. And I’ve got to hand it to Seattleites. The streets were packed in spite of the freezing rain, and it kind of made you feel proud. It also made me feel even more obligated to give them a good show, so I waved and smiled at every little kid I saw as we boogied on down the road. I even spotted two really nice women I had met at Thanksgiving the night before, and that was really fun. “Look at me! I’m in a parade!”

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And the energy that was directed back at us was amazing. People were so happy and excited to see us! For the first time in my life I got a little taste of what it must feel like to be famous, and it is without a doubt addictive as hell. I didn’t want it to end. More please. What a rush! I was grinning in spite of myself. And I was thrilled to see a reflection of us in a department store window.

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And then abruptly it was over. Balloon floats deflated, characters pulled off their heads, and band members scattered to the four winds. And naturally we were caught in a float jam of epic proportions.

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But eventually we made it back to the nest 4 hours after we had left, still high on adrenaline and rather pleased with ourselves. I will never view a parade the same way again. Each one is a miracle of coordination and teamwork and patience. This was a delightful experience that I’ll always remember. What a fabulous way to kick off the holidays!

The Milk of Human Kindness

A couple of years ago I met a musician in the virtual world of Second Life who went by the name of Strum Diesel. He’s a folk/pop/bluegrass artist, and an amazing talent. I started going to all his performances. I love his music.

In real life his name is Sean Kagalis, and he often tours. I was very lucky to see him when he performed in my town, and I got to meet him in person. Not only is he good at what he does, but he’s a very kind person, and a delight to be around.

Recently he heard about my Indiegogo Campaign. I’m nearly $10,000.00 in debt because I moved 3100 miles across country to start my life over after a long series of setbacks. You can see my video explaining all of this here. (Please do contribute if you can. Every penny will help me.)

When Sean heard about this, he offered to do a benefit concert for me in Second Life. I don’t think I adequately expressed to him just how much that meant to me. Whether his efforts raised any money for my cause or not, just the fact that through his actions he was basically saying, “I am on your side. I care about you. I wish you well. I am willing to donate my time and talent to your cause,” was more precious to me than gold. I’m all alone out here. I don’t know anyone. Everything is new. So having the support of friends means the world to me.

He did the benefit the other day, and I danced for joy throughout. And in the real world I had tears in my eyes. I am very lucky to know such an amazing human being. I honestly don’t know why he’s not world famous. I can’t imagine anyone who deserves it more.

Check out his music video below (for those getting this blog through e-mail, it can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKYP2KXyE-M ) and support his talent if you can. People like this should be allowed to shine. Thanks, Sean! For more than you know.

A Real Cliffhanger

Back in 2005, I took a trip out west with my boyfriend at the time to Canyon De Chelly because I had a fascination with all things Anasazi. The canyon is now a national monument, but people have been living there for almost 5,000 years. Currently about 40 Navajo families are in residence. As with most of the rest of Arizona, the landscape is stunning.

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To go into the canyon itself you need to take a tour or get a permit. We opted to go horseback riding with a Navajo guide. Frankly, I don’t know how anyone manages to live there, because it is, in essence, a big bowl of sand. If not for the horses, we’d have been slogging along in calf high sand the vast majority of the time, with only the occasional grove of olive trees for shade, and no water to speak of.

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Our guide took us to see some beautiful petroglyphs, and then, further along, some ancient cliff dwellings high above the canyon floor. I asked him if he had ever climbed up there, and he said, “No, because it would affect our bodies.”

I thought that was a curious response, and it had me reflecting upon the great cultural divide between me and this man, who had not spoken much at all up to this point. He began to interest me more than the landscape we were travelling through. I’d ask him questions. He’d pause, as if considering the best way to dole out his words in the most economical fashion. Then he’d respond.

“Have you always lived in this area?” Pause. “Yes. Always.”

Hours later, after his occasional brief response to my inquiries, for some reason the dam seemed to break. When I asked him if he’d ever been outside of this area he paused for a long time. Then he told me the following story.

“One time these people came here and booked a 3 day tour. The lady liked one of our horses so much that she offered to buy it, but she wanted us to deliver it to her home near Boston. So we did. We drove the whole way without stopping. Through many lands. Then we saw Boston.”

“Did you get to see the ocean?”

“Yes.”

“What did you think?”

“It was very big.”

I will always have a mental image of this man gazing out at the Atlantic as if he had just arrived from another planet. “Then we came home.”

At the end of the tour we said our good byes and I realized that this man had a much greater impact on me than I had on him. To him, I’m sure, I was like a brief wind. I wasn’t the first. I wouldn’t be the last. But to me, he was like a stone monument. He would always be there in my mind.

That night we camped, and the next day we drove along the rim of the canyon, stopping at each of the overlooks to take in the stunning views. At the last overlook, the eerie western silence was broken by a strange sound. I couldn’t identify it, and the first time I heard it, I thought it must have been my imagination. Then there it was again.

“Did you hear that?”

“No. What?”

“That!”

I got down on my hands and knees, and stuck my head over the side of the cliff, and sure enough, on a ledge about 3 feet below us was a skinny little puppy. He was shivering and crying.

“Oh, shit. We can’t just leave it.”

“Barb, it’s a 1,000 foot drop.”

“I know. But if I drive away and leave that dog, I’ll never be able to live with myself.”

And before he could say anything, I lowered myself down to the ledge, which, thank God, supported my weight. Don’t look down, don’t look down, don’t look down…I grabbed the puppy, handed it to my boyfriend, climbed back up and walked as far away from the rim as I could get so as not to have the panic attack that I could feel trying to overtake me.

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Alrighty then. Next. Feed the puppy. And man, he was hungry. He ate half our picnic lunch. I would have loved to keep him, but Florida was a long way away. So we took him to the ranger station, and they told us they’d bring him to a no kill shelter at the nearest town. We had one request.

“Tell them his name is Cliff.”