Momma G’s Alaskan Adventure

Picture 098In the fall of 1978 I enlisted in VISTA- Volunteers In Service To America.  I was single, finished with college and wanted to make a difference in the world.  I loved my family and New England, but I craved adventure and a  new beginning, so after spending a few hours with a recruiter, I signed on the bottom line, and requested an assignment in the Pacific Northwest- preferably Alaska.

The first assignment I was offered was in East Harlem, New York City.  I turned it down and was offered an assignment in the Midwest.  I turned down that one as well, but knowing recruits could only refuse a limited number of options, agreed to the next offer, which put me in Boise, Idaho.  I never made it any further west, except for a week of training in Seattle.

It took thirty-five years, but I finally made it to Alaska.  Almost two weeks ago, I stepped aboard a vision class ship for a seven night Alaskan cruise.  I’m afraid I lost part of my heart in the Pacific Ocean.

I was not one who dreamed of cruising.  In fact, I had always considered it rather bourgeois.  Indeed, once I agreed to accompany my brother and his family on the Alaskan cruise, I found that many of my friends and family had at one time or another elected to sail the high seas for their vacations. Still, I was apprehensive.  Mass media loves to tell cruise ship horror stories, and I had no desire to spend my vacation stranded at sea or praying to the porcelain god.   However, I committed and on May 31, 2013, with virgin passport in hand, boarded the Rhapsody of the Seas.

I needn’t have worried.

Before we left port I was settled in a chaise lounge, drink in hand, wondering what the people at work were doing.  By the second day at sea, I had forgotten that I have a job. 

And then we reached Juneau. 

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI had seen mountains before.  I have skidded through snow in New Hampshire’s Franconia Notch.  I have driven through the Painted Desert in Arizona and Utah’s Wasatch Range.  I have flown over Mount Rainier and camped in the high desert of New Mexico.  And although all these places are breathtakingly beautiful, they do not compare with the rugged beauty of Alaska’s mountains.

If the only thing I had done in Juneau was peer at mountains that extended past the clouds, it would have been enough.  But there was a whale watch and salmon bake to attend.  Whales are some of my favorite creatures, and I excitedly scanned the water’s surface for spouts that betrayed their location in Auk Bay.  We caught sight of a mother and baby humpback.  Seeing them glide effortlessly through the water caught my breath, and when they fluked, I nearly cried.

The following day we docked in Skagway and took a jeep tour through the mountain passes ofwolf 2 the Yukon Highway.  Our guides led us past black bears munching on spring grass, porcupines waddling across the road, and a lone grey wolf that regally eyed our passing jeeps and then calmly loped after the caravan as if to accompany us across the Canadian border.

After another day at sea, we rose at five in the morning to stand on a cold and rainy deck and watch our ship navigate its way through Tracy Arm Fjord to the Sawyer Glacier.  Its jagged edges of turquoise silently reminded me that our lives are but a drop in the continuum of time. 

And then, all too soon, the trip was over. 

As a writer, I struggle to translate my heart onto paper.  But just as photographs fall short of paying Alaska’s rugged beauty its due justice, so do my words.  If I revered God before, I do all the more now, for such artistry to create the vast expanses of pristine land, ocean and sky could only be accomplished by His hand.  I can only bow to His creativity and the majesty with which he touched that portion of the world. 

bear2Since my vacation I am calmer.  More centered.  Less edgy.  I’m not sure if it was the crisp clean Alaskan air, or the gentle rocking of the ship at night.  But I can guarantee you one thing- Momma G will not wait another thirty-five years for a vacation again.

What I Learned from Being a VISTA- A.K.A.”Figure It Out!”

My “goodby and good luck” party. I’m at the far right.

When I was twenty-four years old, I joined VISTA.  I was a child of the 60s and enthusiastically gulped JFK’s Ask-not-what-your-country-can-do-for-you-ask-what-you-can-do-for-your-country-Kool-Aid.  Initially, I wanted to join the Peace Corps, but after talking to the recruiter, settled on Volunteers In Service To America- VISTA.

In 1978, VISTAs worked for $340 a month plus food stamps.  From this budget, volunteers were expected to pay for their own housing, transportation, medication and personal items.  It was not high living, but I had grown up pinching pennies so I was confident that I would be able to manage.

Once I signed up, I eagerly awaited my first “project”- a description of an assignment at a specific location that I could either accept or decline.  I had requested an assignment in the Pacific Northwest and was particularly interested in Alaska, since I had never seen that part of the country.  To my surprise, the first project sent to me was in East Harlem, New York City- not exactly the Pacific Northwest.

I declined that project and the next, but finally was offered a position in Boise, Idaho.  I accepted and several months later, flew across the country for a week of pre-service orientation in Seattle, Washington, followed by a train ride to Boise. 

My fellow VISTAs and me at Pre-service Orientation. Not sure what I was thinking with that hair…

I arrived at midnight and was picked up at the station by a fellow VISTA named Ann, who was supposed to provide housing for me for the next week or two, while I found suitable housing.  She led me to a guest room, where I fell into an uneasy sleep, excited about what the next day would hold.

In the morning, Ann hesitantly told me that her husband had decided he did not want me to stay with them and I needed to leave immediately.  I was crushed.  He hadn’t even met me.  I was three thousand miles from home with nothing but a suitcase and a guitar, and I didn’t know a soul. I had less than a hundred dollars in my wallet.  There were no computers, and no cell phones.  I had no car, and no way to get home.  I was stranded. I felt lost.  And abandoned. And very alone.

I did what any calm, confident young woman would do in the same circumstances.  I locked myself in the guest room and cried.  I wished I had never signed up for VISTA.  I wished I was still living at 30 Green Street.  I wanted to be where I jockeyed with my siblings for time in the bathroom. I wanted to hear my father’s smoker’s cough announce his arrival home at the end of a work day.  I wanted to trip over our dog, Greta, who had a habit of lying in front of the porch entry.  I wanted to smell coffee brewing in the kitchen.  I wanted my own pillow.  But mostly, I wanted my mother.  I wanted to search her soft gray eyes for answers.  I wanted to feel her strong arms around my shoulders, and hear her reassuring laugh.

But my mother was not there with me.  The reality of this brought a fresh stream of tears. They rolled down my cheeks and spattered on my jeans.  They turned my eyes red and my face splotchy, and brought sobs so deep that I had to muffle them in a pillow so Ann would not hear.

Finally, the sobs subsided.  I sat on the bed and wondered what my mother would say and in the emptiness of Ann’s guest room, I could almost hear her voice.

“C’mon Boo, dry your eyes.  Figure it out.”

And that’s what I did.  I dried my eyes.  I picked up my suitcase and guitar, left Ann’s house and wandered through Boise’s residential areas until I came across a big white house with a sign in the window that said “Room for rent.”

I straightened my shoulders, took a deep breath, and  knocked on the door, and a half hour later was settled in a small room with pink walls and a tiny three-quarter en-suite bath which was to be my home for the next several months.

It is now 2012. In the years since those first days as a VISTA, there have been many storms, and many times I have felt uncertain.  Often I have wished I were back in the old house on 30 Green Street.  I have longed to hear my father’s cough.  I’ve wished to step over Greta lying on the front porch, and I have ached to  look into my mother’s soft gray eyes, or feel her strong arms around my shoulders.  But in those times when my steps are unsure, when I feel abandoned and alone, I remember that I was once that skinny twenty-four-year-old who was three thousand miles from home and heard her mother’s voice say,

“C’mon Boo, dry your eyes.  Figure it out.”

And I do.

Just One Thing

One of my children’s favorite books was “Miss Rumphius,” by Barbara Cooney. For those who may not know the book, it is the charming tale about a little girl who tells her grandfather that she will grow up to travel the world and then live in a house by the sea.  Her grandfather agrees with her aspirations, but charges her to leave the world more beautiful than the way she found it.  The story documents her adventures and how she fulfills her grandfather’s edict.


I love the underlying themes to this story:  Live life to its fullest.  Seek adventure.  Grab hold of your vision and make it happen.  Make the world a better place.  Dreams are to be large and full, and in brilliant color- not to be inhibited by fear or self-doubt. 


My friend, Mary, is a Miss Rumphius.  She charges through the world, unafraid, full of expectation.  She samples food. She bathes in hot springs.  She visits worlds I know only by pictures.  With her quick grin and dancing Irish eyes, she always, always, always leaves the world a better place. 


My children are like Miss Rumphius.  They travel.  They have adventures in exotic, far away places.  And because while other children grew up listening to Madonna sing “Material Girl” my kids listened to Peter, Paul and Mary sing “No Easy Walk to Freedom,” they will leave the world a better place.


I, too, wanted to travel the world.  I wanted to live in a house by the sea.  Mostly, I wanted to change the world.  But sometimes life changes our plans, if not our priorities. More a George Bailey than a Miss Rumphius, I travel from my office to my apartment, and occasionally down the aisles of the grocery store.  I visit the sea on warm summer days, but leave when the sun sinks below the horizon.  My life is not adventurous, or exciting, or extraordinary.


Don’t get me wrong- I freely made the choices that have defined my life.  I do not regret trading travel tickets for diapers, music lessons and basketball games.  The world I have carved satisfied my heart’s true passions.  And truth be told, I no longer hunger for travel.  At the end of a long day, I crave the familiarity of my creaky recliner and the scent of my own pillow.  I have seen the rewards of investing time and energy into raising my children.  As I watch them evolve, I realize it truly is a wonderful life.


However, least I become too settled, I need to remind myself that regardless of our lot in life, we all share the responsibility to leave the world more beautiful.  This is not a responsibility relegated only to the young.  Miss Rumphius didn’t start scattering lupine seeds until she was old and gray.  It is up to all of us- no matter what age, what station of life we inhabit. We need not all sow lupine seeds, like Miss Rumphius.  We might sow seeds of hope, like George Bailey. 


As my sister Martha-Jean recently reminded me, the trick is to find out what one thing we can do.  A smile to a stranger, a cup of coffee for a coworker, feeding the hungry, saving the lost. It all starts out with one thing.  And the world becomes more beautiful.

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