Ketchikan, AK: All Trails Lead to Gold

On the way back from Los Angeles to Sitka, I had an 8-hour layover in Ketchikan. I did a little bit of research before I arrived, so I knew that I had to take a ferry from Gravina Island, where the airport is located, to get into town.* The booth to purchase tickets ($6 roundtrip) was right outside the airport, and five minutes after getting off the plane, I was being transported to Revillagigedo Island. Since the loss of my dear bicycle (I still have hope in humanity, and pray that it will be returned!), walking has played an increasingly important part of my life. At first, I would always think about how much faster I could get around on a bike. But now, given that I can’t make my beloved two-wheeled vehicle magically appear, I try to be more deliberate about strolling and sauntering. To pass the time, I listen to podcasts sometimes. But more often, I find myself walking in silence. I am trying to be more aware of the things around me.

The ferry stop is approximately 4 miles away from downtown Ketchikan, so I turned right when I hit the road and began walking at an eager pace. Surprised by the sight of a Safeway, I stopped in to fill up on water and purchased a couple of snacks for the day while I was there. After another half hour of walking, I was in town, taking in the distinct buildings, the empty boardwalk, and the dark waters. Ketchikan Map

I stopped by at the visitor’s center, but it was closed. I suppose the first week of January is not exactly high-season for tourists in Southeast Alaska. Visitor's Center This positive take on rainy season (which apparently occurs year-round) in Alaska made me smile. Liquid Sun Gauge Continuing my stroll, I began walking towards Deer Mountain. My internet research told me that DM trail would be a challenge, but totally worthwhile. Plus, its proximity to downtown made it accessible and possible to do in a few hours. I walked past the Totem Heritage and City Park areas, and when I hit Ketchikan Lakes Road, the pavement started going uphill. A little bit of wandering led me to the trailhead (turn left before the potholes and gravel roads!). Deer Mountain was heavily wooded, and the trail was clear and easy to follow. Average 850 ft gain per mile, but I only walked up to the snow line, about 2 miles up the trail, before turning around and heading back down.** Deer Mt Map It was Sunday, and several other parties were hiking as well, but I found plenty of time and space to be alone. I later googled views from Deer Mountain’s peak, and they are spectacular. Unfortunately, my eyes could not penetrate the thick fog that had enveloped the area. I would love to come back when it is less cloudy, and make it up to see the lakes and the cabin. When I was back in town, I had a couple more hours so I walked through Ketchikan’s own Totem Park, and stumbled across some gold. I found it strange that this precious metal would just be left there in the ground with a metal pole sticking out of it, self-proclaiming that it is, in fact, the “World’s Largest Gold Nugget”. But this is Alaska, and standard rules need not apply. I snapped a picture.

The solitary walk around town and on the trail reminded me of why I’m so fortunate to live in a place like Southeast Alaska. In Juneau, Ketchikan, and Sitka, I get to experience such a rich sense of the place and, even as an outsider, feel a deep sense of belonging. And in the past few weeks without my bike, I’ve learned that, in an increasingly fast-paced and frantic society, walking is a rebellious yet innocuous way to slow down and simplify our lives. It’s a more intimate way to get to know a place and see the impact that humans have on the lands we inhabit. I’ve found that walking, though sometimes slow and inefficient, is truly a wonderful way to get to know Alaska. This is not to say that I am abandoning my love for speeding around town on a bicycle. I’m just learning to appreciate a new speed until I am, once again, reunited with my two-wheeled companion. I’ve never put a quote on this blog before, but I want to end this post with one from Dickens:

“The sum of the whole is this: walk and be happy; walk and be healthy. The best way to lengthen out our days is to walk steadily and with a purpose.” DM Trail Scratch that, I want to end with this one (also Dickens). “If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.”

*I later read up on the controversial history surrounding a proposed project to build a bridge from Gravina Island to Ketchikan. Apparently, the issue began in 2005 when a senator from Oklahoma offered an amendment to divert funds for the Gravina Island Bridge to rebuild a bridge that had been damaged by Hurricane Katrina. It became a point of contention for the 2006 senate candidates, and a 2008 presidential campaign issue. **Approximately 2.5 miles from trailhead to summit.

moving towards minimalism

I’ve always talked about wanting to reduce the quantity of my physical possessions. And though I’ve never been one to make New Years’ Resolutions, I decided to make “the first day of January in the year two-thousand and fifteen” the arbitrary date to start simplifying my life. Yesterday, before flying out of Sitka to spend a week with my parents and grandparents in California, I packed up all the things that I haven’t been using and took a little inventory of the things I had left in my room.

The number of things that I now own in Alaska:

Clothing: 65

Shoes: 8 (pairs)

Equipment/instruments: 14

Electronics: 3

That’s a total of 90 items.

But I’m kinda cheating. I didn’t count toiletries, and although I didn’t bring any cosmetics to Alaska, I do have quite a few body washes, facial cleansers, toners, serums, lotions and masks, thanks to my mother. I also received some jewelry from friends for Christmas. However, knowing my habits and history with small pretty things, these are bound to be worn, enjoyed for a short while, and lost. I did not count my bedding. I didn’t count all the books I have either. Many of these were borrowed–from people, from work, or from the library. The several books that are mine, I intend to give away as soon as I finish them.

Books

(I promise I read more than just childrens’ poetry)

I didn’t count the clutter of CDs in my room either. Some are borrowed, others were brought back home to California.

CDs

And of course, I’m also cheating because I basically have a warehouse of items in my room back in California. These are the books, stuffed animals, old clothes, sports medals, homecoming mums, and banners that my mom has been hoarding for me since I was a kid.

So even if I’m not letting go of everything but the absolutely necessary things in my life, I can distance myself from most of the clutter. My general goal over the next year (and the one after that…) is to only acquire a new item if I can convince myself to exchange it for two things I already own. It already sounds challenging to me. To get myself pumped up and in the mood, I’m even listening to the music of John Adams and other minimalist composers as I write up this post.

I hope that having fewer “things” will allow me to focus my time and efforts on the things are really important, like improving my personal and professional relationships, reading, blogging, hiking, traveling, and playing the piano, ukulele, and harmonica. You know, all that hippie good stuff about accumulating the intangible but invaluable things in life.

So, hello 2015! The year of the sheep, the year of thinking big and seeing much. The year of living light and going far. I wish you all good health and genuine happiness.

Weekend in Juneau

At 6 PM on Christmas Eve, I set out on my first solo trip in several months. At the ferry terminal, I loaded Jessica’s bicycle onto the ship. Unfortunately, my bike had been stolen the previous afternoon. I left Sitka, and arrived in Juneau, in complete darkness. Pleasantly rolled up in my sleeping bag, I slept through most of the 9-hour ferry ride.

The first day in Juneau was a rainy, typical Southeast Alaskan day. Because I arrived early on Christmas morning, I rode from the ferry terminal into town in the dark. With my headlamp bound to my bike helmet, I slowly found my way to my host’s home. After an early morning nap, I set out to explore Juneau. I quickly found an icy path, and rode Jess’s bike to the Mendenhall Glacier, which was way more beautiful than the image I had drawn in my head based on descriptions from the Internet.

Juneau, though a city of only 30,000, felt huge and a little overwhelming. I realized how much I had grown accustomed to the small-town life in Sitka. In this new city, I knew that there was no way I could bike from one end of the road to the other in an afternoon. However, my nervousness soon turned into excitement as I admired the new landscape around me. On the second day, I biked to the end of Thane Road. I was hoping to catch a beautiful sunrise, but only saw the heavily-clouded sky get lighter. After recharging at a coffee shop with some delicious cocoa, I found my way to Roberts Mountain and began a 1500-feet hike up the mountain. It was pretty cloudy throughout the hike, but there were still some amazing views.

So beautiful, but so cold! Luckily, my walks on Sitka’s trails had prepared me to go up snowy slopes. After the hike, I biked back with freezing slush in my socks and a big smile on my face.

On my last day in Juneau, I was out the door before dawn. I rode out to Mendenhall Glacier again, this time under clear skies. The air felt thin and rarefied. I hiked out to the tongue of ice, and watched the sun rise in the east, casting its light onto the glittering ice.

I found my way over to Nugget falls, which is this loud and powerful waterfall right next to the glacier.

Nugget Falls

In the afternoon, I rode about 15 miles on the bike path back into downtown Juneau. After some wandering, I found Perseverance Trail and began a slow walk in the snow. This trail was much easier, but even more breathtaking. All around me, ranges of smooth but serrated mountains stood out against a clear blue sky. I felt a light breeze push me along the winding trail.

That night, I hopped back on the ferry and set off for Sitka at midnight. This time, after 8 hours in my sleeping bag, I was lucky enough to be on the ferry after dawn. I woke up in the morning to a beautiful sunrise on the water.

It was an exhausting trip, and it felt wonderful to come home to Sitka feeling both completely spent and totally rejuvenated.

10897058_10152619047882423_6276007097900445255_nHappy New Year, everyone. Here’s to more adventures in 2015!

The Story Continues!

I am currently layover-ing at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, fresh off the plane from Los Angeles. Going west was cool, but living in the Alaskan wilderness is the real, unsanitized frontier experience. Just kidding. In a few hours, I will board a northwest-bound airplane to a quaint, but “burgeoning”, city in Southeast Alaska. For the next four to nine months, I will be working with the Sitka Conservation Society as a service fellow.

I hope to continue posting updates and photos to share with my family and friends. The blog has been refit for that purpose–hope you continue to enjoy my posts!

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A Letter of Gratitude

The memories I hold from this trip stand on many shoulders, especially those of my donors. Some of you were friends, family, coaches, or teachers. Thank you for believing in me and for believing in this cause. Others, I have never met in person. A special thank you for taking a chance on me. None of these experiences would have been possible without your generosity and support.

To the people I met along the way–from churches, at build sites, in gas stations, and on the road, thank you for your time, your kindness, and your genuine stories. Mary from Parsons, West Virginia, I can’t thank you enough for your words of wisdom, sadness, and hilarity. That hot shower was great, too. Robert from Moab, Utah, your warm-hearted smile will not be forgotten. Payton from Kansas, keep it real with those boots, little man. 

Thank you, drivers who gave us 3+ feet when passing on the road.

To my teammates, I can’t imagine sharing those dance moves, emotions, sunsets, digestive hardships, and physical challenges with another group of nuts. We might not see or speak to each other for a long time. But we will always have these 10 weeks to look back on, whether with fond warmth or dramatized harshness. Either way, it was 70-something days of summer when our lives crossed paths and we did something that was incredibly unique. Our collection of oddities, traditions, and strange events might never be understood by anyone else. 

And to you, dear reader, thank you for joining me on this adventure. It was a pleasure to share this thrilling experience with you.

You all make my heart swell.

With love and endless appreciation,

Michelle

One Last Sunset Together

Hello, everyone. If you’re wondering, I’m mostly OK right now, with some slight symptoms of withdrawal. I don’t know if you noticed, but I have been trying hard to avoid writing this post. Because it really does put me in an anxious place. Maybe it’s too soon to be talking about the end of this journey, especially since it ended so quickly, and in such an unexpected way. But I figure I should do this as soon as possible, even if my emotions are still in a weird place. I figure this will be interesting for my family, friends, and future self, to read.

In my current state of anxiety, I have started and deleted the first sentence of this post about 10 times, cut off the same number of inches from my almost-dreadlocked hair, and had countless solo dance parties in my room to all the summer tunes I’ve missed while on the road.* I also find a pile of Lindt chocolate truffle wrappers in front of me, and I simply do not know how they got there.

I’m sitting here, consulting the frenzied scribbles in my personal journal, trying to decide what I want to give away, and what I want to keep for myself.

I’ll go back to Stockton first. We had our last build day of the trip in Stockton, California. When we got to the build site, we met George, a man who clearly had a lot of experience with building and wore his Carhartt overalls with deserved pride. He told us about the Habitat for Humanity in Stockton, as well as the importance of location and orientation of homes. George talked about some of the green building methods that the Stockton chapter uses in order to make homes more cost efficient. “Minimize to maximize, maximize to minimize,” he’d say. We were then directed by Rene, a charismatic, and interesting, build manager. As a reader of this blog, Rene was already familiar with some of our team and the shenanigans that we engage in on this trip. We were split up and put to work roofing, fencing, and digging holes. It was great to work with a Habitat affiliate that, days earlier, after our deliberations, we had decided to give a grant to.

The next morning, we set our sights on Palo Alto. My tire had reached the end of its life, and by mile 20, I had a flat and found several large slashes in my tire. I decided to wait for sweep while taking a nap underneath a tree by the road. When Trevor and Stephen pulled up, they had red, white, and blue stripes in their hair and a matching patriotic tire, that had been donated by “Dan from Central”. I set off in high spirits, with a new tire and war paint on my face.** We rode through a pass that was surrounded by hills of dry yellow grass, wind mills, and solar panels. This, to me, was proof that we were, in fact, in California. Lunch, at mile 50, was at Todd’s house, where his parents and siblings greeted us with kindness and delicious food. After lunch, I was still the last person before sweep, so I set off on my own, but rode with Grace and Kelsey for a while before riding on by myself. I was glad to catch up with Cindy and Emily, because we hit a windy and busy one-lane road. Then, things became a little blurry.

The last thing I remember with any clarity, after the accident, was being in an ambulance with a friendly, young guy who was telling me about his life as an EMT. Once at the hospital, I felt a bit woozy, but generally well. Besides some road rash and a bruise on my cheek and lips, I was physically fine. I later found out that I had lost consciousness for quite a while. There was also a conversation or two that I had had, and now have no memory of.

At the hospital, I was given a CAT scan and IV. The doc recommended that I stay at the hospital for at least 12 hours, in case the concussion was more serious than they had initially thought. I was hesitant to stay the night and potentially miss our last day of riding, but I was also too tired and dizzy to really question his advice. Stan, one of our leaders, came to visit me at the hospital and talk out the options. In the end, I decided to stay in the hospital, which would mean I would miss our last day of riding to the shore. I felt disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to finish this journey the way I thought I would, and knew I could. Even so, I felt more relieved than sad about the whole situation. Concussions (I’ve had one in the past) scare me to no end, and the idea of losing memories is one of my biggest fears. I began to rack my brain, making sure that all the sunsets, inside jokes, valuable conversations, dance moves, and silly moments were still there. I hoped to keep these memories safe and locked up in my brain for a long time, and I was so thankful that they were still intact and lucid in my mind.

That night, Stan left me with an amazing bar of Godiva dark chocolate and a not-so-amazing styrofoam box of chinese food. Then my phone started to buzz. I received so many positive messages, silly photos, and funny videos from my teammates. It felt great to smile, even though it hurt my bruised face pretty badly. There are some gems from Kaitlyn, Beth, and Sarah that really made me laugh.

The next morning, after I was cleared for discharge from the hospital, I met Mr. and Mrs. Huntley, May’s parents, in the lobby. They had kindly offered to pick me up from the hospital, which was a 40-minute drive from Half Moon Bay. The Huntley’s are such a positive and energetic family, and even though I would have rather been on my bike, I am glad I got the chance to ride to the bay in the car with them.

Moments later, I was standing next to my teammates, just yards from the Pacific Ocean, still in my paper scrubs. It was a sunny and clear day, one of the best days I have seen in the bay area. The waves were huge, both threatening and hypnotically inviting at the same time. We ran into the water together. Since I was still not feeling that well, I retreated pretty quickly to the sand while everyone played and swam in the ocean. I found a spot to sit in the sand, and video-called Melissa, one of our riders who left the trip early to start her job in Ohio. I’m glad I got to share that moment of joy and accomplishment with a teammate, even though she was thousands of miles away.

Watching my teammates play in the ocean was a moment I won’t forget. I thought about how we had met just 10 weeks ago, as strangers, eager to embark on a grand adventure that was not yet grand nor yet an adventure. Though there have been other Bike and Build trips, the unique memories that we created, both as individuals and as a family, make #P2C14 so special.

After the wheel dip, we headed back to the church, where I began dealing out some early goodbyes. The initial plan was for me to figure out my own way of getting back home, probably by greyhound or the train, but my worried parents had driven up from Southern California earlier that morning because of the accident. I was sitting at a table when someone tapped me. I turned around to find my mom standing there. I felt a bunch of indecipherable sensations in my stomach, and for a moment, I thought indigestion was the culprit, considering the mess of foods I had stuffed in my mouth earlier that afternoon. I hugged my mom. I don’t remember how long it lasted, but it was so nice to be in such a familiar embrace. My dad joined us in the church, and I could see the concern and relief on both of their faces.

We met later that night on the beach. My parents drove me, Rob, and Cindy back to the shore, where we found some Bike and Build alum working a grill. The sun was beginning to set. We were bathed in California’s golden light, and it was surreal. Everyone was enjoying the view, the food, and the drinks that were thoughtfully provided and planned by our alum. There was a certain satisfied sadness, knowing that this would be the last sunset we would watch together. The Pacific Ocean was a goal, a motivating force, that we had been talking about since Providence, but now that we were finally here, it didn’t seem real. It was romantically melancholy to think that the Pacific was not just a goal, but also an endpoint to this journey. Someone started a bonfire, and s’mores popped out of nowhere because that’s what happens. A cop came and made us put out the fire, because that’s the law.

After the party, we drove back to the church, and after some more extended goodbyes, I parted ways with the strangers that had become my friends and family over the past two months.

*If you know me, you know that I’m just playing that new Taylor Swift song on repeat.
**Bike grease from my dirty chain

Relaxing and Reflecting in Tahoe

Yesterday was our third (and last) rest day of the trip. We were lucky enough to get to spend it in South Lake Tahoe. It’s a bustling tourist town, so unlike the ghost towns we have been staying in for the past week in Nevada. Oh–almost forgot to mention–we made it to California! The day that we rode into town, everyone dispersed to explore the exciting city. Some went to cafés and souvenir stores, others to get food or bike stuff. A lot of people chose to nap. I joined this last group and took a satisfying siesta on the floor of the Grace Center’s stage. Afterwards, a few of us went to the beach, less than a mile up the road, for a quick dip before the sun set.

Even on off days, I find it hard to sleep in, no matter how tired I feel. This time though, I woke up with a mission to see the sun rise over North America’s largest alpine lake. Rob and I found a spot by the same beach we swam in the day before, and sat there, watching the sun’s glow grow out of the mountains. I listened to the ducks and the seagulls and the waves, all singing their distinct morning tunes. It was otherwise silent. So different from the later hours, when cars would constantly be whizzing by.

When the sun finally came out, it put on a magnificent and complex show. Facing the light in the east, the colors in the sky were vibrant and dazzling. Looking towards the west, they were pastel and calm. Both were breathtaking in their own way.

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The day was filled with fun and relaxing activities, including browsing the fruit and veggie selection at a local farmer’s market (have you ever tried an undried prune? They’re delicious!) and sipping mint tea at a cafe. In the afternoon, Adriel, Rob, Todd, and I sat at the beach again, this time with a grill. Todd grilled some chicken, while Rob cooked squash and udon noodles. I took this time to lay on the grass, alternating between reading my book and staring off at the cloudless sky.

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Some of our other teammates joined us by the grill after their cliff diving/jumping excursion. By this time, people had crowded out the water with paddle boards and kayaks. The place was buzzing with human activity.

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With only 4 days left on the road, I realize how much this journey has taught me. Watching the sun rise on the water, I made a promise to be humble to the vastness and beauty of this world. The brevity of our stay here asks us to decide what we want to do and how we want to do it. Some days, you do well. Other days, you can’t wait for the setting sun to erase the records, allowing you to start anew in the morning. Among many other things, I have learned to appreciate the fact that things don’t last forever.