November 1, 2014


Those Who Wander Find Themselves: Three Peculiar Days in Alaska

wander10/26/14 Train from Anchorage to Talkeetna

Despite the early morning departure, drunken revelers in full Halloween costume fill my train car. Not quite in the mood for their unapologetic reverie, I retreat to the dining car.

Silver landscapes slide by my window – snowfields boxed in by white-capped mountains, rivers gray and still as steel, pale slivers of fog stream between stunted evergreens.

“Moose on the left! Moose on the left!” says the conductor.

I swivel my head to catch sight of mama moose and almost full-grown calf galloping away from the tracks - that odd gait that looks more like falling down but still seems to move the beasts along awfully fast.

I order a signature scramble, which arrives as a glorious heap of eggs, bacon, potatoes, onions and cheese. The concoction sends off a delicious steam than fogs my window and turns the world outside a lighter shade of dreary.

Back in Seattle, my husband’s truck won’t start. I didn’t think to leave behind the keys to my car. His anger sparks and we volley back and forth in texts. He rails against my late-paying clients, about our apparent poverty. When he says that all I do is stroke male egos for a living, I swear at him and tell him not to text me again until he calms down and is ready to apologize.

I put my phone to silent and try to ignore it, shoveling big spoonful of cooling breakfast into my mouth. My phone thrums and vibrates. A quick glance at the messages tell me I still don’t want to talk to him, so I put my phone on airplane mode. I can still snap pictures of the scenes outside, but I can now pretend that this little world around me is all that exists.

I hop off the train at Talkeetna, a small town that serves as base camp to Denali. At the river park, the ice slides by in the water making a sucking scraping sound. Cheeks red with cold and fingertips starting to tingle, I make my way to my log cabin, drop my backpack and call my husband. We growl at each other first, but soon soften and yield. We manage to end the call with love; such is the luxury of a young marriage.

At dark, I steal away to the Fairview Inn bar, chat with bearded men, order a $5 local stout and retreat to tall table to capture lines in ink. When the man in a flannel shirt hauls in a stand-up bass, I know this is going to be a good night. A flyer on the wall says that a girl will sing – Hannah Yoter. My guess is she’s the brunette in the corner with the red lipstick the earrings that dangle. That’s about as dressed up as you get here – aside from my person, with my carefully contoured make-up, manicure and white furry vest. It suddenly dawns on me how ridiculous my fitbit is here. At least I had the good sense to order a local beer instead of a red wine. Of course, later I want a bourbon, but a smart girl paces herself.

In the span of a single song, new people have packed this bar wall to wall. My quiet writing retreat transformed into party place. I feel so conspicuous with my tall table to myself and my journal open before me. The barkeep has removed the big round tables from the main floor. I watch a girl standing on the edge, balancing a drink in each of her upturned palms. I should leave. I’m not really a party person. Or a crowd person. Or a girl alone in a party bar person. I jostle the young people around me for space to put my coat back on.

Miss Yoter starts in on a Doc Watson song that I love and stuns me still. Doc Watson? She follows with “Valerie” and I take my coat back off and hang it on my chair.

The violinist’s girlfriend asks to join me. She’s alone, save for her new boyfriend on the stage. I watch the singer moon at the violinist, the violinist moon at his girlfriend, and his girlfriend jump into the arms a yellow-bearded man that appears out of nowhere and yells her name. The violinist looks everywhere except for at his girlfriend. The singer smiles, takes her voice a little lower.

A young bush pilot buys me a Crown Royal. The second time his hand touches my back, I turn and face him full on. “I am about the farthest thing from single a girl can get. Sorry.”

“Damn,” he says. “Oh well!”

“I’m sure there are lots of single girls here. Saturday only comes once a week. I won’t feel bad if you go talk to someone else.”

“I’m talking to you! Cheers!”

When the band breaks, we chat about choosing life in Alaska, about reading Into the Wild, about how sometimes the things that seem the most insane to others are the most sane to you. He shows me pictures of his plane, pretty little thing painted blue and white, with a name I’ve sadly forgotten.

We’re interrupted by two brunettes who want to know if the book on my table is a guest book and if they should sign it. Yes, I say, you should definitely write in this book. Here’s what I find when I check the pages later:

We’re here!

We’re queer!

The Hulk sisters wuzz herr!

Their names are Kelly and Chelsea. From Palmer. I tell them my name is Kelsye and they scream in delight. Kelly composes a secret handshake on the spot, ending will a finger wiggling move she calls salmon spawning.

“Salmon spawning sisters forever!” Chelsea takes a staggering, half-step back, right into the arms of the bush pilot.

I slip out unnoticed, hunting aurora borealis. A faint emerald glow appears on the Northeastern horizon, rising as though green steam from the black forest. If it reaches the intensity so often seen in photographs tonight, it won’t happen for many hours. I wrap my arms around my chest and walk back to my cabin under a sky crowded with stars.

10/27/14 Talkeetna to Anchorage

I take the once a week train back to Anchorage. The members of yesterday’s Halloween party stand like zombies on the platform, red-eyed and remarkably quiet. A few minutes before scheduled departure, a pretty little blue and white plane buzzes the depot, tips it’s wings. I leap, wave and whoop. The pooped partiers send icicle sharp glares my way. A woman still wearing her curly Victorian wig, but with ski parka instead of gown, puts her hand on her head and whimpers.

I laugh and leap and wave again as the plane loops around. This is my life right now!

This is my life right now.

Darkness falls in Alaska. When I look out the train window, my own reflected image blurs into the shadowed landscape. The evergreens are scrubby here, as though malnourished dwarves compared to the towering giants of my beloved Washington. Birch trees stretch tall, like naked white legs standing on overgrown lawn.

My trip will come to a close. I must exit solitude and kneel again at the altar of my computer. Calendars. Meetings. Deliverables. A gnawing terror scrapes at my heart. My official work in Alaska done days ago, I could return home tomorrow, but I choose to stay a few more days to prolong the strange. I must work, connected to the Internet and clicking away at the my laptop at the far end of the hostel dining table. But when work ends, no dogs will whimper for food, no kids will text for pick-up, no laundry will lay about in piles for me to ignore.

Instead, I have a date with my new Alaska friends to go to a roadhouse that specializes in bacon and bourbon. In other free hours I will layer on faux fur and quilted down, pull on gloves and boots, head out to wander down frozen streets. I will take my meals in cafes where I will order local standards unknown to me (reindeer sausage?) and drink countless cups of coffee from thick-walled ceramic mugs.

Suddenly it is dark, dark in Alaska. An inky black presses against the train window. Forward motion may only be assured by the bump and sway of the rail car. We may have launched into a Miyazaki film, the train rolling through a tunnel into the populous spirit world for all that I know. A pleasing sensation.

10/28/14 Anchorage

Back in Anchorage, I fail intentions to wake early to catch up on email and sleep a full eleven hours. My anxious mind and unceasing ambition make it so I can rarely rest completely. Sleeping late is out of the question. Naps, though highly desired, end up fitful and unsatisfying. Yet in Alaska, I have found sleep. Even with the time zone change, I sleep through my alarm. Come afternoon, I may lay back down and slumber another hour or three.

The girl sharing my bunkroom at the hostel is a champion sleeper. I wonder if it’s her gravity pulling down my eyelids, and pinning me to my bunk. All rockets must fire before I may break orbit and escape our warm room.

I take a late breakfast at Gwennie’s Old Alaska café – the place where they leave the entire pot of coffee on my table. Glorious. Turning to client work, I open my journal to a blank page and mark down my task list. A chorus of opinions negotiates in my mind, padding and stripping my to-do list. Anxiety gnaws at my stomach. How will I get this all done? My hard-earned peace from this long, wandering weekend slips away from my spirit with frightening speed. Panicked, I sit straight, tell myself to breath. Look around.

Prince’s “Doves Cry” plays on the speakers positioned behind the stuffed bear and fox diorama. Two grizzled, bearded men at the corner table mumble the words and bob their heads.

I smile. This is my life. This is my life.

A few select photos from my trip to Alaska...


Fiction vs. Non-Fiction: Less structure does not mean fewer hours

fictionvsnonfictionGuest post by Seattle-based mystery author Tom Kelly. Originally published here.

I’m often asked about the difference between fiction and non-fiction writing. Both require dedication and preparation, yet a different mindset.

Both also involve a ton of time. Less structure does not mean fewer hours.

Forty years in the newspaper business teaches you all about deadlines, importance of accurate facts and writing to a definite space. There are hours spent on developing sources, research and interviews. In my case, it led to books with major publishers (McGraw-Hill, John Wiley & Sons, Dearborn-Kaplan).

The business did not encourage exploring a creative imagination or wondering what could be. Get it done, get it right, get it in the paper.

For example, I loved covering college football. I’d start the day by submitting a first half play-by-play from the press box, add the second half action, and then sprint the locker room for quotes. Returning to the press box, I’d file a game story, locker room sidebar and then sub both pieces for the next edition. Action happened in front of me. People spoke with me. I recorded both in a logical way and sent it to the newsroom.

When I began focusing on fiction, nothing happened in front of me at a specific time that I needed to document and record. There was no finite space to fill. Much of my research became remembering the thoughts and emotions, smells and colors of places I’d been. Observations and reflections needed to be stowed in a memory bank or an entirely different kind of notebook. Sure, facts needed to be checked and dates confirmed, but there was no library to visit to find what could be.

What I underestimated was the time and discipline required to enhance personal imagination. What are the variety of things possible? The results proved to be more rewarding—and the preparation more time consuming. Fiction may be more casual, but it’s not easier.


smallcoverTom's debut mystery novel Cold Crossover is free today on Amazon. Get it here!

"Cold Crossover is a riveting mystery based on the drama of small-town high school basketball, complete with the missed shot no local will ever forget. Along the way, Tom Kelly takes the reader from the Northwest’s wild frontier days to its equally crazy present as a real-estate mecca. Kelly weaves the ferries, crabbers, and timber-men of his region into a timeless and page-turning tale."
Jim Ragsdale, Minneapolis Star-Tribune