Monday, June 25, 2012

Running in Circles

Deck Four of the Disney Wonder has a jogging track that circles the ship. Three laps is a mile. I tell you this not because you care how many laps I ran, but to give you some sense of how big the ship is.

The first morning at sea, all I could see during my run was gray rolling ocean and mist. It was that rolling ocean that woke me up. People who say a cruise ship is so big you don’t even know you’re on the ocean are liars. Big fat liars with their pants on fire. Either that, or they’ve never been on a cruise ship in the northern Pacific. It took a whole day to get my sea legs under me. I was never really seasick because Linda came prepared with these voodoo pressure point motion sickness bands, and those suckers really do work. But even though I wasn’t sick, when I lay down, I felt my bed rising and falling, and it wasn’t pleasant. Victor said he felt like he was being rocked to sleep. Me? Not so much. I felt like I was trapped on some sick and twisted amusement park ride. I had some really bizarre dreams. All in all, the motion of the ocean was conducive to getting my butt out of bed early every morning.

So that first morning, I was up at 5:30 and on the track a little before 6:00. We were in open water with no land in sight in either direction, just fog and ocean. The smell of the sea air, the waves rising and falling, and the mournful wail of the ship’s horn were perfect. Zen. We were in a thick fog bank, and the horn sounded repeatedly during my run. Only two other people were on the track that early. The temperature scared most runners into the gym. The three of us hardy souls were spread out around the ship, so for long stretches of my run, I was alone with the waves and the fog. I never really got cold. The track went inside at both the bow and stern, and I always started at the bow. Sailing north, the starboard side was shielded from the wind, and after a lap, the wind on the port side felt good. It was an awesome run, the most incredible I’d ever experienced.

Until the next day.

We stayed out late the night of our first full day at sea, so I was tired enough to overcome the discomfort of the rocking, and I slept a little later. I might have slept a lot later if the ship hadn’t bounced so hard around 6:00 that I was sure Captain Fabian was trying to catch some air…or that we had hit an iceberg. The alarms didn’t sound, so when my heart rate slowed I got dressed and hit the track.

Turns out we were entering Alaska’s inside passage between a string of barrier islands and the mainland. We had to slow almost to a stop to pick up a special pilot for that leg of the trip, plus the currents produce a weird chop at the entrance. The engines revving up in that chop probably woke me up. I’m kinda glad it almost bounced me out of bed because the second morning, I had this to look at during my run.

The second morning was the most incredible run I’ve ever experienced. There was land on both sides of the boat, but the starboard side was all snow-capped peaks. I’ve never been in a place where you can see both ocean and mountains stretching to the horizon. The early hour and southeast Alaska’s ever-present clouds made the world appear monochromatic, everything in shades of gray. I would make a silly comment here about how many shades of gray except it was too magnificent to reduce to a puerile joke. 

The water was silver sliding to a gun metal with the mountains rising almost black. The snow was stark and beautiful against all that gray. I stopped twice to take pictures. Once, another guy stopped running and looked with me. It was the kind of moment you wanted to share with someone, even a stranger.

Morning two was a prelude to some of the most spectacular vistas of the entire trip when we cruised up Tracy Arm to the Sawyer Glacier. I’ll tell you all about that when I write Blue Ice.

On morning three, I needed the alarm to wake up. We reached Skagway during the night, and the boat was blessedly stopped. You really don’t appreciate sleeping in a stationary bed until you’ve slept in a moving one for a couple of nights. I made myself get up because I justified the ridiculous amount of food I ate by saying, “Yeah, but I ran this morning.”

I’m so thankful that I did get up because every morning the view from Deck 4 was different, and every morning it felt like a gift when I saw it for the first time.

This is what I saw when I stepped out onto the starboard side of Deck 4. I thought I had stepped back in time a hundred years.

The view from the port side assured me it was still 2012, but wow…

The track was a bit more crowded on morning three. We were allowed to disembark at 7:30, and folks were getting an early start on the day. I was out by 6:15, and I was dodging other runners and walkers. I didn’t mind because the excitement at finally getting to step onto Alaskan soil was palpable. I’m pretty sure I might have used that excitement as an excuse to cut my run short that morning.

Skagway was my favorite port. The town was quaint. The shops were fun, and I didn’t yet know that the cruise lines owned most of them and that I would see the same shops in Juneau and Ketchikan.

The canoeing excursion to the Davidson Glacier that afternoon was my favorite adventure of the trip. Once again, that is a whole other blog post, but one minor detail is relevant to this one. Hiking out of the woods in the heavy rubber boots we were issued, I wrenched my knee. It hurt like a @#*$! Linda had warned me in advance that there is no cursing on a Disney cruise, so I yelped and bit my tongue. (I should also note that it was Linda who upon realizing that the coffee shop in Skagway was not a Starbucks and could not make her a mocha exclaimed, “This is bullshit!”)

Morning four I woke up in Juneau. My knee was still pretty jacked up, so I didn’t run. I took this pic after we disembarked.

Juneau was the only port we visited which doesn’t rely almost exclusively on tourism to support the local economy. Shipping, mining, and government (it’s Alaska’s capital) keep the town running. Subsequently, it’s not as picturesque as the other places we stopped. If I was going to miss an early morning “first look,” this was the place to do it.

Missing my morning run in Juneau messed with my whole day, and I decided that pain in my knee was the lesser of two evils. On morning five, I got an early look at Ketchikan. Up to this point, both cruise line and excursion employees had been telling us how lucky we had been with the weather. I always raised an eyebrow when I heard this because it was cold and cloudy every single day.  When I stepped out onto the deck in Ketchikan, I understood why we had been lucky.

Rain, and lots of it. Southeast Alaska is a temperate rain forest. That’s why they have all those incredible glaciers and lush green forests. It’s also why I traipsed aboard the ship like a drowned rat at the end of that day. Robert and I were supposed to go on a float plane excursion while the majority of the crew went on a crab boat excursion. Cruise Director Jimmy informed me during my run that all float plane excursions had been cancelled due to the weather.

Bummer. I was disappointed for myself, but even more for Robert. He worked so hard to make everything perfect for everyone else, and the thing he was looking forward to the most got cancelled. We found something else to do that day, and I’ll tell you about it later, but it was anticlimactic after looking forward to the Mystic Fjord Float Plane Excursion.

Morning Six, or If the house is a rockin’…get the hell out of the house.

The weather didn’t improve after we left Ketchikan. In fact, it got all kinds of crazy that evening. Around five o’clock or so, Captain Fabian made an announcement that we would be leaving the Inside Passage and there was some weather ahead. “We might experience some movement.”

Really Captain Fabian? We might experience some movement? What you meant was “the ship is going to crest a huge wave, fly completely out of the water, and then slam back down into the trough like the Andrea Gale in A Perfect Storm. Repeatedly.” We tried to go to seventies night at the ship’s nightclub, but our drinks wouldn’t stay on the table. Watching the band try to keep their footing while playing “Boogie Nights” was fun, but we called it quits early and held on to the wall as we made our way back to our staterooms. I lay awake for a long time listening to things fall in the bathroom. Kaitlyn said the creaking made her think of the scene in Titanic where the water burst through the wall as the old couple lay in bed clutching each other. Happy thought when you’re lying in bed on a ship.

We were still rockin’ and rollin’ the next morning, although not to the same degree. I was out of bed less than a minute after I woke up. Someone should patent that idea as an alarm. The clock strikes 6am, the bed starts rolling, and boom! You’re awake.

My last morning’s run was much like my first. Nothing but ocean on either side. There was less fog than that first morning, and the ship was rising and falling more, but otherwise my run was very peaceful. Zen. Unencumbered by distractions, I ran the farthest and thought the most. Later that day we stopped in Victoria, Canada, and we returned to Seattle overnight, but I felt like my cruise was bookended by those two runs.

Normally, I hate running on a track. Running in circles is boring. I like to go somewhere when I run, watch the scenery change. Running in circles in the middle of the ocean is different. You’re moving forward at the same time. I was moving forward in every sense of the word. Each morning I got up and ran on that cruise was a gift, a gift I gave myself just by getting up and doing it.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Alaska Series

I just returned home from a cruise to Alaska and Canada by way of Seattle. People in each of those places remarked on the exceptionally cool summer they are having this year. The temperature broke 70 in Seattle on the day we sailed, but mostly we never even saw 60, and a couple of days in Alaska, we yearned for 50.

Robert was right. It’s freaking COLD in Alaska. I stepped out of the airport terminal yesterday, and basked in the hot, soupy air that is Kentucky in the summer.

The trip was incredible in spite of the cold, gloomy weather. I had never previously been to any of these places, so my journey was filled with many new and wonderful experiences. Throw in 14 eclectic personalities and a dash of Disney, and you’ve got some blog material.

I had so much material I was overwhelmed at first. Writing during the trip was difficult for several reasons, but initially, the biggest obstacle was the lack of a framework. I was bombarded with stories to tell, but they were all a big jumble in my head. After several days and several false starts, I finally got my ideas to file themselves into neat little rows…

Hahahahahahaha! Okay, okay, I’m just messing with you. Anybody who really knows me knows that NOTHING in my life is filed in neat little rows. My stuff is crammed into any space where it will fit. I was the kid who threw everything in the closet and shoved the door closed, so that when I opened it, everything fell out on my head. And that is the metaphor which best describes my whole life.

My one great skill is knowing exactly what I’ve shoved into the closet and being able to retrieve it when necessary. I have a lot of blog material shoved into my mental closet, so like my physical closet, I’ve separated it into cubbies. Each cubby is messy and overflowing, but by golly, I know what’s there…mostly.

All of this closet nonsense is a roundabout way of explaining I do have a framework for my material. I’ve planned 10 blog posts which will be combined with Gotta Have a Plan and Chasing Daylight for a total of 12 posts I’m going to call The Alaska Series. Some of the posts will be episodic and some thematic. This is my tentative list.

  • Running in Circles

    • By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee

    • There be whale here

    • A Different Kind of Rain Forest

    • It’s easier to get into Canada than it is a pub in Victoria

    •  Seattle: How a town where toilets once flushed backwards became one of America's coolest cities

    This list is not set in stone. It is not necessarily in order. As I write, I may combine ideas or separate them into even more posts. The closet giveth. The closet taketh away.

    Also, it may take me the rest of the summer to get the things written. I’m almost finished with Running in Circles and I have copious notes on the rest. I’ll be spending the next week thawing out on the beach with Bruce and the boys, after which I’ll be too poor to do anything except stay at home, eat peanut butter and write.

    Before we begin, let me introduce you to the players. The vacation was the brainchild of Robert. I will poke at Robert throughout this series because it's fun, but I need to preface all that by saying Robert is one of the most generous men I know, and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to travel with his family.

    He is married to one of my best good friends, Linda.

    They have three beautiful daughters,


    Mallory is the one not foaming at the mouth.


    and Sydney.

    This is their son, Matthew. He’s a huge fan of all things Disney and loves to travel. He’s also autistic.

    This is Linda H. (I know, I know! Two Lindas. Oy vey! So confusing!) She is a long-time friend of Robert and Linda’s and is also Matthew’s caregiver.

    Mallory has two very excellent fellas in her life, Nick and Aiden.

    Hannah brought her friend, Kaitlyn.

    And Sydney brought TWO friends, Michaela and Taidem.

    Not to be outdone, Linda also brought two friends,

    Victor, who justifies everything by explaining that he’s Presbyterian (a minister even. Go figure.)…

    …and ME!

    Robert managed to get 14 people across the continent on three different flights and to Seattle within 30 minutes of each other. Impressive, no? We set up camp for a week in four tiny staterooms on a floating Hotel California (You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave), and no one got mad, lost his or her temper, or otherwise created drama. That’s nothing short of a miracle, especially given that five members of our party were teenagers.

    The only time I saw anyone really lose their cool was in the Seattle airport when Robert was trying to herd the group and our 28 pieces of luggage (no one heeded the pack-light advice) from baggage claim to the shuttle. Four members of our group who shall remain nameless (but who weren’t Kathy), hit the wrong button on the elevator and ended up at the check-in counters in the terminal. Robert, exhausted after being on the flight that had to fly all the way to Manitoba (or as Linda described it, Winnebago) to avoid a storm, had his unshakeable calm shaken.

    “You are all college educated! Use your critical thinking skills! Why would you want to go to the check-in counters?!”

    The best response was clearly no response because Robert was well and truly pissed, but what went unspoken was that no one WANTED to go to the check-in counters, and going up to get to ground transportation was already counterintuitive, so what was one more floor? This is a SeaTac signage problem from my point-of-view, but my elevator stopped at the right floor, so I kept my mouth shut.

    Of course, for the rest of the trip, I explained my decision making processes to Robert with the addendum that I was college educated and using my critical thinking skills. Heh heh.

    That one small blip notwithstanding, we were a happy group. Don’t we look happy?

    It’s freakin’ Disney! You have no choice but to be happy…but that’s another post.

    So, 14 people, 28 pieces of luggage, 7 days at sea, 4 ports of call, one big boat, and a partridge in a pear tree.

    Up next…Running in Circles.

    Monday, June 11, 2012

    Chasing Daylight

    Getting 14 people across the country is an adventure and I have more to tell, but it's 4:30 in the morning Eastern time and I'm delirious. Crossing the continent made me wax poetic. I'll be funny when I'm more awake.

    At 36,000 feet, the Earth expands. It grows larger than the ground under my feet, larger than my neighborhood, and even an entire city. It becomes a planet. The sun sits just over the soft curvature where the land disappears into space.

    The clock, still set for the east, says 8:30 as the muddy Mississippi snakes like a thin ribbon as far as the eye can see.

    10:25 and I can still see the bright red glow of the setting sun. 

    The Mississippi is long gone, having given way to a patchwork sea of brown and green. Nebraska, the pilot tells us.

    11:00 brings brown hills, big ones because even way up here you can see that they’re hills. I think maybe "mountains" would be a more accurate description. We’re 40 miles north of Caspar, Wyoming.

    11:30 and I realize I was wrong. The brown hills were just hills.

    Real mountains, and like anything real and wonderful, they don’t need to announce themselves or brag. They just are. They have always been. They will be when we are gone.


    Clouds camouflage themselves, hovering over and intertwining with the snow caps.

    Mount St. Helens

    Mount Rainier

    12:35. On the ground, night has fallen. Lights twinkle in the darkness, but up here, the horizon still glows a brilliant red.

    A glimpse of the Pacific and then we descend. Even as the Emerald City sprawls, sparkling beneath us, the Earth has become smaller.