Not so quiet

by Jenna Schnuer on July 9, 2014

I disappeared into my AK life. (The plan was for one year. Now it’s going to be two. After that? No idea. Well, I have ideas but … making definite plans seems a ridiculously boring decision.) But Round-Trip America has been on my mind. So, to break the silence, A Sound Minute from my backyard.

yard

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In Between Days

by Jenna Schnuer on January 12, 2014

Cook InletThe mid-December day felt unsettled, like a bad mood that comes on out of nowhere. Though the sun promised to spend just under five-and-a-half hours over Anchorage, the world had gone faded grey around sunrise, just after 10 that morning, and, now, at, sunset, it was all white snow against a wall of blue-grey. The sky, the water, everything. There were no hard lines, all was muted. A permanent dusk.

“How will you handle the dark?” That’s what people wanted to know when I told them I was moving to Alaska in September. The dark the dark the dark. I wasn’t worried about the dark. I wanted the dark. I love the dark. From the time I was a kid, I’ve been the most me at night.

It was the greyed-out days that were proving my unexpected challenge. They usually came in sets, thick with cloud cover instead of the painted sky days I loved most, the days that were, I know, easiest to love, the ones that served up a sunrise and sunset within hours of each other. Two times a day, the sky would go brilliant orange or turn the world into a watercolor. And, in between, the light … the light.

There had been no orange or pale pink on this day. Standing on the bluff at Point Woronzof, overlooking Cook Inlet, the water looked as still as the sky, nothing seemed to move. The monotone landscape made it hard to focus on anything. But I stood and kept looking, hoping to grab some detail of that moment, to separate it out from the last bunch of hours. I stayed still. I stared into the blue-grey and just looked. My eyes adjusted. The lines sharpened. The water, with sheets and shards of ice floating on its surface, was flowing east toward downtown Anchorage.

The partial lie I’d been telling—that I was content here, that I wanted to stop for a while—became just that much truer.

 

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Arctic Valley in Chugach State Park, Alaska

by Jenna Schnuer on January 5, 2014

arctic valley (2)

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Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge 2:24 p.m. AKST

by Jenna Schnuer on December 28, 2013

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by Jenna Schnuer on December 13, 2013

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Staying Put

by Jenna Schnuer on October 13, 2013

carI was spending a week in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park–a combo of a backpacking trip into the mountains and a hotel stay in the town of McCarthy. Solo travelers aren’t necessarily the norm in McCarthy so, after a few nights at the bar (because that’s what you do in McCarthy), the bartender grew curious.

“Where do you live?”

“Well, my stuff is in storage in New Jersey…”

“Hey, my stuff is in storage in New Jersey, too.”

Having that in common with a guy who was spending the season in McCarthy tending bar in between Antarctica seasons at McMurdo shifted my understanding of myself. Instantly.

Just like that, I knew that I was, if not a seasonal worker, becoming a seasonal mover. Not a snowbird; I tend to chase cooler temps. My wandering up to that point (like most people, a week or two for vacations or work trips) had always been spurred on by place instead of weather. Sun worship always burns me (literally). And now I was at the beginning of what I knew would be a long stretch of living here and there or wherever. I didn’t own a car yet (I had rented one for the summer) but I knew that purchase was coming soon. After 17 years living in NYC, I was a year or so into my new life as a New Yorker who no longer lived in the city–though I still had a stockpile of cranky and, thanks to Vonage, my 212 phone number. I was spending the summer in Alaska and had already started to dream up my where’s next?

The wandering continued for a couple years. On the road (please excuse the Anne of Green Gablesness of this but … ), I felt a kindred spirit with long-haul truckers, campsite hosts who popped around the country in their sizable RVs, and gift shop workers and guides at National Parks. We were not a people who stayed put. We learned how to keep up with friends and family from … wherever. I bought fingerless gloves so I could type at campsite picnic tables until my computer’s battery fizzled out. And I formed even stronger bonds with long-time friends who had also taken up wandering and started new friendships with others who lived the same way (though most I only know online–we’ll meet when our paths cross). In emails, tweets, text messages, and Facebook posts, we all filled each other in on campsites that had ocean views, coffee shops with good WiFi, and, at times, commiserated about things we weren’t supposed to complain about because, as others said, we were all living the life. (Really, I don’t understand that phrase. Living the life. So odd. Anyway …)

After that first full summer in Alaska, I bought a car, spent a winter in Nashville, went back to NJ, took a seven-month road trip (NJ to AK and back again) with an extra-long hurricane-related stop in Nashville, stopped in Jersey again, flew back to AK for most of March, drove to Nashville and Savannah for most of April (or was it May?), went to Ireland for a month, and then went back to Jersey for the summer of 2013.

In late August, I drove off again. To Alaska. To stay put for a year.

It was a real move. Not a for-a-few-months move. A year. Or, at least, that’s the plan for now. The longest plan I’ve laid out since moving out of NYC in 2009.

Though I was excited to stay put in my beloved Alaska, I felt I had betrayed the lifestyle I’d been living for the last few years. I felt I was giving up some of the connection I had with those who were going to keep going. It felt kind of awful. I love that 300 miles no longer counts as a real road trip for me. It’s an errand. I love that I’ve become a person who thinks a spur-of-the-moment drive from Astoria, Oregon to Ogden, Utah to kayak on the Great Salt Lake seems reasonable. I love meeting people in the parking lots of rest stops and taking the time to learn something about their lives. I’ve met a lot of good people in parking lots.

I tumbled it over in my mind again and again during the 5,000-mile drive to Anchorage. As I crossed Pennsylvania and Ohio and Indiana and headed up to to NE Illinois to visit my brother, sister-in-law, and nieces, and crossed Iowa and South Dakota, where I stopped in the Badlands to eat chili and look at up at the stars with two of my favorite traveling friends, Valerie and Ayaz. And then headed up into Montana and into Canada, where I clocked kilometers in Alberta, British Columbia, and the Yukon. And, finally, into Alaska. On that last day, I drove nearly 700 miles. I was ready to stop. I was ready to start doing my bouncing around within Alaska’s borders, to go even deeper into this place I’ve loved for the last decade.

But that doesn’t mean the discomfort has stopped. Some days I feel anxious about the staying put, about having a cable bill in my name. That’s when I remind myself of all I want to see and do here. And, most of all, that no place needs to be permanent. Really, not knowing is what makes me most comfortable.

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The Neighbors

by Jenna Schnuer on October 13, 2013

NYC life rules that also apply in Anchorage: 1) Make sure the neighbors don’t catch you staring. 2) Use a long lens if you’re going to photograph the neighbors. 3) Don’t feed the neighbors. They’ll never leave.

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Ben and Co. at The Franklin Institute

by Jenna Schnuer on September 22, 2013

 

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Passing Through

by Jenna Schnuer on August 30, 2013

The hawk hovered above some tall grass, its talons pointed at something on the field below. It all seemed impossible. How anything could just stop midair like that. I never saw the bird go in for the kill. That moment, the hovering, was like a movie still. A mind snapshot captured on an Interstate highway as I drove across Ohio in late April 2012.

Some people sniff at the idea of driving major highways on a road trip. They seem to believe that all of life’s secrets are revealed on the back roads, that there is no life on the Interstate. While I love a dirt road or a curving county highway that splits off into three other curving county highways, I find just as much life on the wide paved roads that cut across or down the U.S. The moments are quick, but they’re there. Even on the days when orange cones funnel three lanes into one and a single flagman brandishing a stop sign brings the flow of carstrucksmotorcycleshorsetrailersbuses to a halt. On these long roads, the road atlas goes large. The flat of one state connects to the rolling hills of another. The Interstates tie everything together.

Before I started living two months here or three weeks there or sure I’ll come visit you 1300 miles away next week, I thought the Interstates useful. But little more. Point A to point B. Get there fast or, when in NJ and driving down the shore on a holiday weekend, at a crawl.

Now, I can spend hours driving down one straightaway without tiring of it. Even when a stretch of road threatens to make me antsy and I start cycling through music playlists to liven things up, the road always serves up a reminder that there’s more here than tar. With the sun behind him, a Mennonite man, his hat, and horse cart are thrown into silhouette as he drives across his field. A flock of starlings (or, at least, that’s what I imagine them to be) takes flight swooping just ahead of me, no straightaways for them. Or a field of sunflowers bursts yellow against green grass and a storm-cloud sky.

At times, the thought of so many people all going down one road but toward so many different lives threatens to overwhelm. Cars pulling trailers loaded with the family’s belongings, including toys that will, soon enough, be scattered around a new front yard. Trucks delivering goods from over here to way over there. Vans and RVs that, clearly, are the roving homes of other constant roadtrippers. Montana tomorrow. Perhaps Florida the week after? At night, I love the trucks with safety lights that outline their exteriors. The reds and oranges the brightest spots against a black sky. And the triple trailer FedEx trucks carting, I hope, at least a few gifts from one family member to another.

But, most often, it is a bird. A single bird that brings me joy. As I drive, a bird sailing on wind currents over the highway reminds that, luckily, we can only tame the world so much.

And, of course, every exit and rest stop offers the chance to be still in a place. I stop often. I look. And I’m always rewarded.

Mt. Vernon, South Dakota

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A little night magic

by Jenna Schnuer on May 4, 2013

magicmartyThe only open seat at Wiley’s Championship Barbecue was at the end of the counter, sandwiched between a three-, six, and eight-year-old allowed the momentary freedom of sitting almost on their own, and their parents, at a table behind it.

Before I could take my spot on the tall director’s chair, I had to wait out the magic. A customer named Marty–Magic Marty, that is–was working to plant a permanent look of wonder on the six-year-old’s face. With most of the customers either watching the show or immersed in their meals, several staff members also gathered around. He was a sight himself, in a wide-brimmed hat with magenta fabric woven through with flowers around the base of the crown. A bushy white moustache sprawled across his face. He looked like a cross between Albert Einstein and Wyatt Earp.

Marty was doing coin tricks. He made a coin disappear into the girl’s ear and pulled it out of her nose. That coin appeared and disappeared so many times, I was half expecting to see it show up in one of the capped beers in the refrigerated display case.

It’s rare that I think a magician a good addition to a night. Marty provided an exception to my rather strict rule. His magic was as clean as I’ve ever seen—there were no oh, I see how you did that’s because, really, nobody in the place could figure out how he did any of it. The adults were all caught up in permagrins, too.

Marty headed back to his table. It was clear that his dinner companions were used to him popping up to perform during nights out. They went right back to their conversation.

The spur-of-the-moment show kicked off something at Wiley’s, housed in a far-from-magical strip mall on 80, between Savannah and Tybee Island. The kids agreed. “Marty is magic,” the six-year-old crowed. “It’s good that his first name is magic because he is magic.”

“Marty is a magician!” the three-year-old added.

A few minutes later, one of the waitresses asked three-year-old where he was from.

“New Jersey!”

As much as I tried to deny my Jersey upbringing when I was a kid—and on into my late 30s—I’ve come around on it. Jersey roots can’t be denied.

Resisting the urge to yell “You from Jersey? I’m from Jersey. What exit?”—it would have been lost on the three-year-old–I turned and asked his mom where they were from.

“Dumont.”

“Oh, I grew up in Teaneck.”

“My husband is from Ridgewood.”

Then, each of us with a smile: “Oh.”

Jersey credentials established, I turned back to my ribs (which, by the way, had a certain magic of their own).

A few minutes (and, I’d guess, a few bites of sweet potato casserole) later, Marty was back. We were joined by one of the wait staff’s daughters—three months away from finishing up training at the police academy, she’d run over from her shift at the liquor store next door. He decided I looked like the big tipper in the room (Marty’s one misstep) and focused his card tricks on me.

“Choose a card,” he told me as he flipped through the stack.

“You from the Bronx?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

My mother grew up in the Bronx. The Georgia BBQ restaurant had taken on a northeastern flavor. That happens a lot.

After Marty returned to his table again, the conversation with my counter companions went into high gear. Magic. Disney World. The magic of Disney World. My age. More Disney World. Is Walt Disney a real person? “No.” “Yes.” “He made the first Mickey Mouse,” the eight-year-old contributed. “Oh,” said the six-year-old. More on Magic Marty’s magic.

On and on. We built a mountain of conversation as the piles of food in front of us shrank.

The wait staff kept a close eye on my unsweet tea, filling it whenever the plastic go cup was anywhere near half empty.

The kids’ meals done, their mom came over to chat before they headed out.

The dad was in real estate—“I’m the one who caused the collapse,” he joked, before adding, “No, I’m not one of those guys”—and they had moved to the Savannah area two years ago.

“Your kids are great dinner companions. And they seem to look out for each other,” I told her.

“With all the moving, they’re each other’s constants,” she replied. “Tonight will go down in history for them as one of their best nights. A magic show and they got to sit at the counter without us, and talk to adults they don’t know. They’ll remember this forever.”

“Well,” I told her, “so will I.”

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