This isn’t the Georges Henri’s Twingo as our camera was in our rental car, but it is identical.

This isn’t the Georges Henri’s Twingo as our camera was in our rental car, but it is identical.

Our trip had started in Britain. We saw where William Conquered, where Jack Ripped, and the balcony where Diana kissed her prince. Then, on to France.

When in Aix-en-Provence on Reformation Sunday, my late husband Jay, a retired pastor, wanted to attend the service at the L’Englise Reforme’.

The centuries-old church stood nestled among the shops and bistros of the City Centre’s maze of lanes, and a hand-lettered sign on the door said 10:00 a.m., followed by “Jules Ferry”. We assumed Monsieur Ferry was the pastor. Since it was already 9:45  the locked door surprised us, but a passerby informed us that Daylight Saving Time happens in France too and on this last Sunday in October, the time changed back. An hour later the door remained locked. A lovely young woman and her eight-year-old son joined us. Jay spoke some French and attempted a conversation.

“Espanol,” she said, and told us she was from Cuba.

Her son was learning English in school and she was learning from him, so we communicated as best we could in English. Her name was Mayda and her husband was French. The boy’s name was Javier. Mayda said she understood a little French, but still didn’t speak it well. She told us she enjoyed the Protestant service, even when she didn’t understand the words.  “I feel it here,” she said, placing her hand over her heart.

An elderly gentleman, leaning heavily on his cane, hobbled up the brick lane. His white hair blew in the breeze, and his woolen jacket seemed too warm for the perfect day. He read the sign, then explained it in a Provence dialect Jay had trouble following. Jules Ferry was a boulevard, not a person, and a combined Reformation Sunday service was being held at the church located there. After we exchanged names, Monsieur Georges Henri offered to drive us.

The five of us piled into his minuscule Renault Twingo, with Jay in the passenger seat. Mayda, Javier and I squeezed in the back. We began doubting the wisdom of accepting his generous offer when it became apparent he wasn’t exactly sure how to start the car. He had just bought it the day before. Eventually he found a gear and the car roared to life. The motor revved up to about sixty, the car only twenty-five. The car soon caught up. Aix-en-Provence has roundabouts and we circled them without slowing. Jay occasionally grabbed the wheel to prevent sideswiping anything in harm’s way.

“Whee!” the driver said, before breaking into song.

“I-yi-yi”, Javier said.

“Ooh-la-la,” Mayda said.

“What’s the French word for ‘careful’?” Jay wanted to know.

Me, I just held on. Tight.

We arrived intact, and Georges acknowledged Jay’s help with a high-five. Because the bulletin was in French, a kind lady seated next to Jay felt compelled to turn to the correct hymnal page for him, as if the numerals too were foreign.

After the service, we stepped out into bright Provencal sunshine expecting maybe coffee and cookies. Instead there were three long tables, each covered with a white linen tablecloth and topped with crystal stemware and bottle after bottle of wine. One table each for reds, whites, and blushes. Aproned women circulated with heaping trays of hors d’oerves. We gratefully accepted a glass of courage for the thrill-ride to our car.

Back in his lemon-colored Twingo, Monsieur Henri’s unfettered exuberance returned. “Whee,” he shouted again and again, raising both hands in the air, followed by outbursts of what sounded like French war songs. He understood we were all visitors and detoured up a hill.

Panoram!,” he said. It was indeed a panoramic view of the sparkling city below, and one we would never have found on our own. He said he had one more thing to show us, and parked in front of a residential building. We all got out, and Mayda tried handing him the cane he left behind, but he waved it away and climbed the stairs to the third-floor.

Our host was an artist and some of the works covering his walls were portraits of his wife. We learned she had died three weeks earlier and he had been her caregiver. What a privilege to have joined him in his new yellow car that celebrated his return to life.

Back home we enlightened our pastor on the French version of coffee fellowship, but though agreeing it might spur attendance, he never followed through. C’est la vie. Though I didn’t understand a single word in the Aix-en-Provence church, it remains a highlight of the trip. Long after I’ve forgotten most of France, I’ll remember four adults, aided by an eight-year-old boy, overcoming a language barrier and connecting.  We sought a simple church service, but found true Christian fellowship.

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cover-wwIt’s always exciting to see the cover for a forthcoming book, and I recently received the cover for my second book with History Press which will be released in early September.

This book was so much fun to research. As always, in a research project of any size, I almost always found things that were better than what I thought I was looking for. “Wild” can be defined in a number of ways and the “spunk” in the subtitle describes many of the ladies included. Some shattered glass ceilings before the term was coined, while others were rabble rousers in the fights for abolition, suffrage, and temperance. When someone suggested to Anna Howard Shaw that if given the vote, a vain woman might sell her vote for a new bonnet. Shaw replied, “She might. Who really knows? A bonnet is a fine thing and one to be hankered after. But a new bonnet costs a lot more than a glass of whiskey, and I understand that’s the market price for a man’s vote nowadays.”

There are a few daredevils including one woman who survived going over Niagara Falls in a barrel (after first sending her cat on a test run), and another who hiked around Lake Michigan. A Union spy during the Civil War was caught and sentenced to hang but was rescued in time.

Of course not all were ladies. One of my favorites is a prostitute named Mary who was running her own house as a successful madam when she suddenly and unexpectedly became the legal guardian of her teenaged niece. That sometimes led to confusion as the local gentry weren’t sure if the new resident was an employee or a family member. Anyone with the audacity to hit on the young lady was quickly told to leave her alone. “I’m raising that girl to be a Christian, danged if I ain’t,” Mary would say.

The book will be in bookstores throughout Michigan and I hope people have as fun reading it as I had writing it.

This woman waves her broom in support of Dorothy Leonard Judd’s demand for a clean sweep in Grand Rapids City Hall. Grand Rapids Public Library.

This woman waves her broom in support of Dorothy Leonard Judd’s demand for a clean sweep in Grand Rapids City Hall. Grand Rapids Public Library.

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This isn’t my bear, but isn’t he magnificent? I found him on Wikimedia Commons

This isn’t my bear, but isn’t he magnificent? I found him on Wikimedia Commons

My first National Park Service bus ride through Denali was an emotional roller coaster: I went from euphoric because the mountain was “out”, to dumbstruck when my seatmate asked why we were stopping at Polychrome Pass, to giddy over the red fox, moose, and caribou we spotted. Wow, Wow, and WOW! Only one thing kept it from being perfect. No grizzly. I had been in Alaska more than three weeks and had not seen a single bear.

That’s why I boarded the bus a few years later with a heart long on hope, but short on confidence. Mt. McKinley (now called Denali) was out in all her snowy splendor so I was two for two in mountain sightings. Because this 20,320′ behemoth makes its own weather, many visitors never see the clouds lift to reveal the peak. A wolf darted across the road, then glanced back at the busload of creatures who had invaded his domain. It hit me that, bear or no bear, I was blessed to be in this astonishingly majestic place on as perfect a day as had ever dawned.

It was late July and the magenta fireweed was already cottoning out. Alaska’s short summer was fast fading. I wanted to observe everything and burn it into my memory. Is it a coincidence, or do attitude adjustments foster external changes? As soon as I stopped obsessing over them, the bears came.

“Blond griz to the right,” someone shouted.

The driver stopped the bus as forty heads jerked right. A magnificent honey-colored bear stood no more than 30 yards away.

“Oh look! There’s another one!”

A second bear of the same color joined the first one. We fell into a stunned silence. Bears are loners, yet here were two, and close enough that had we not been in the safety of the bus, we would have felt uneasy. But the show was far from over.

Soon a brown grizzly moseyed out of the brush and stood by himself, maybe 20 yards away from the first two. One honey bear immediately started chasing the other who at first resisted, then left peaceably. The brown bear watched the scenario play itself out, then decided it was time for a little action of his own. He made quick work of mounting the remaining female.

“Slam, bam, thank you, ma’am,” a man behind me said.

The bus driver picked up his microphone. “I’m not sure what you just saw,” he said.

It seemed pretty obvious to the rest of us, so his comment prompted everything from nervous titters to raunchy replies. Then the driver went on to explain that it could have been two females vying for the male’s attention, or a mama bear simply deciding the time had come for her adult cub to brave the world alone. He also told us it was past the mating season. Maybe so, but someone forgot to tell the bears.

The joking resumed. Someone wondered aloud if we would see the male leaning against a tree and smoking a cigarette on our return trip.

Goose bumps covered my arms, and I was still awe-stricken. “How can you joke?” I wanted to ask. “We just watched two bears mate. How many people, even lifelong Alaskans can say that?”

I’ve been back to Alaska many times since, but have yet to see another bear at close range. Sooner or later I will, and when I do I’ll think back to that day in Denali, and wonder if I witnessed its conception.

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In my last post I talked about my children’s book, Show Me the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, Casey Ferguson, and how the subject became special to me after attending the games with my husband Jay. The book I’m talking about today has nothing to do with Alaska and everything to do with Jay.

Where Jesus Slept, also a children’s book and released in fall of 2016, will always be my sentimental favorite. I wrote it in 2012 as a contest entry. There were only about 500 entries and I didn’t even place in the top ten. In retrospect there are valid reasons for that. One, the book is Christian, and probably would only have done well in a competition for Christian stories. The second and most compelling reason is that my story was in no way original. No, I didn’t plagiarize it, but the story of the birth of Christ has been told many times, most notably in the New Testament. Add to that, my retelling was in the repetitive rhythm of The House that Jack Built. Of course it didn’t win. Or place. Or even show.

When we send our work out into the often cruel marketplace, it’s like sending out one of our babies, and it stings when our child is rejected. Jay didn’t see it that way. He liked the manuscript and insisted I send it to a book publisher. By then it was 2013, and he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. It didn’t seem prudent to give him a laundry list of all the reasons why it would never be published, so I humored him and submitted it to the Ideals Publishing Company. Then I promptly forgot about it.

We lost Jay that November. Nearly two years later I received an email from Ideals which had by then became part of the Worthy Company. The editor wanted to know if it was still available. It was. Because of the contest, I had deemed it unworthy of publication and never sent it anywhere else.

The book’s release, published under the Worthy Kids/Ideals imprint, was bittersweet. A thrill to be sure. The illustrator (Katy Hudson) had produced a cover so beautiful it made me cry. But Jay had been my biggest supporter and it would have been wonderful if he had been there to share my joy. I wouldn’t even have minded hearing him say, “I told you so!”

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weio-medalsMany people travel to Alaska via cruise ship or cruise/land tours and that’s fine if all you’re looking for is an overview. I prefer traveling independently even though Alaska’s size alone is daunting. Don’t expect to see the whole state in a single visit. In ten trips there are still wonders I have yet to experience. This year I intend to scratch Kodiak Island off my to-do list and will travel via the state ferry Tustumena from Homer.

How far apart are the destinations on most itineraries? To put it in perspective, the 360 miles separating Anchorage and Fairbanks is roughly the distance between Wichita, Kansas, and Dallas, Texas. Say you’re in Homer and decide to head east to Valdez. That would be the equivalent of driving from Charlotte, North Carolina to Cleveland, Ohio. Don’t let that stop you!

Someone wiser once said that life shouldn’t be measured in the breaths we take, but in the moments that take our breath away. The breathtaking scenery approaching Valdez far surpasses anything you will ever find near Cleveland. And if the weather cooperates, you can see Denali (Mt. McKinley) as you make your way toward Fairbanks.

One plus of independent travel is going where you want, when you want, and staying as long as you want, without a tour director herding you onto yet another bus. For me, the real joy is getting to know an area through those who live there. Some say they travel to meet new people and make new friends. Isn’t it more fun getting to know locals than a bunch of other nametag-wearing tourists?

When you’re alone, or with only one other person, people reach out to you. I was living in Illinois the first time I went to Alaska and was so giddy to finally be there, I practically bounced off the walls. My first stop was Juneau. The taxi driver who took me from the airport to my hotel asked where I was from. When I said Des Plaines she said she was from Naperville, another Chicago suburb. Then she responded to my unbridled excitement by turning off the meter and giving me a short city tour.

That trip, and every one since, has been filled with locals I met along the way going out of their way to help me get the most out of everything I did.

Years later, when my husband Jay and I were there, the same thing happened. On the evening we were leaving Petersburg on the ferry we realized we weren’t allowed in the staging area until an hour before departure. We had already checked out of the campground so we drove around a bit, had dinner, and eventually pulled off the road to read.

Soon, a concerned woman knocked on the window. We assured her we were fine and explained we were waiting to board the ferry. After chatting a few minutes she invited us for coffee. Of course we refused but she insisted, so eventually we followed her home. She stuck her head in the door and called out to her husband, “Are you decent, honey? I brought home a couple of strays.”

We spent two hours in the company of this charming couple who had retired and moved to Alaska to be with their son. When his work eventually took him back to the lower 48, they remained in the town they had grown to love.

One thing we especially wanted to do was attend the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks. On the first afternoon of the four-day event we got lucky and sat next to the mother and aunt of one of the athletes. They took us under their wings and explained everything that happened, and told us a little about the competitors. After that they saved seats for us each day and we cheered for the mother when she entered the Muktuk Eating Contest. For the uninitiated, muktuk, an Eskimo delicacy, is the outer layer of whale skin with blubber attached.

I left Fairbanks knowing I would eventually write about the games. When I met WEIO athlete Casey Ferguson, and then my publisher Evan Swensen, everything fell in place. No matter how many books I write, Show me the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, Casey Ferguson will always hold a special place in my heart.

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I married Jay in 2003. The summer of 2004 we took a motorhome trip to Alaska. My previous visits left me totally in love with everything about the state and I was eager to share its wonders with the man with whom I was also totally in love.

With us was our calico cat, Rachel, and since we also spent time in Canada she needed a health certificate, good for thirty days. Our travels exceeded all expectations until we reached Fairbanks where a drunk driver plowed into us on Airport Way. While no one in either vehicle was injured, the RV was heavily damaged. Because the parts had to be shipped from somewhere in California, we had an extra three weeks to explore Alaska. Yee Ha!

In all honesty, I’m pretty sure that pleased me more than it pleased Jay. All good things come to an end, and the day came when we returned to Seekins Ford, gave back the rental car, picked up the RV, and headed home to Michigan. We left Fairbanks around 4:00 p.m. and expected to be in Canada by midnight. Somewhere along the way, it occurred to us that Rachel’s health certificate was seriously past its expiration date. We decided we would play the Stupid Card, “Expired? Who knew?” Turned out, that wasn’t an option.

In his haste to get on the road, Jay had left the certificate, our passports, and most of our money in the glove box of the rental car. My purse yielded my driver’s license, a few dollars, some loose change, and a MasterCard.

You never know what people are capable of until they’re tested, and given the right set of circumstances even a formerly law-abiding citizen like my retired pastor husband can turn into a hardened cat smuggler. Truth is, when passing through Canadian Customs, you don’t have to declare a cat unless specifically asked. All we had to do was keep her under wraps. She had other ideas. There may be a few cats who understand the concept of cooperation. Rachel wasn’t one of them.

While we waited in the Customs line I tried putting her behind a closed bathroom door. She immediately howled and tried to tear it down. Not wanting to get caught deliberately concealing her, I opened the door. That’s when she discovered the fun of prancing back and forth across the dash. When that grew old, she darted from window to window, sticking her head under the blinds. She did everything except tap dance on the roof and wave a Contraband Cat on Board sign.

We were finally next in line, but the driver of the truck in front of us apparently had problems too. It took forever. When it finally looked as if he was done, Jay rolled down the window and prepared to throw himself on the mercy of the agent. The move was premature. Rachel bolted. She realized that was a mistake and, not knowing what else to do, scooted forward and hunkered down under the agent’s window. Jay got out of the RV and retrieved her. The people in the vehicle behind us cheered.

About then, the driver ahead of us parked his truck and entered the building. We pulled forward to accept our fate which would surely be driving back to the nearest Alaska town large enough to have a veterinarian, get another certificate, and start over.

Luck was with us. A new agent came to the window while the other one dealt with the truck driver. He asked us where we had been, where we were going, and waved us through.

When Seekins opened the next morning, Jay called and asked that someone remove our things from the car, keep $50 plus postage from the cash, and mail us everything else. The car had been immediately rented again, but the person he talked to promised to contact the renter as soon as possible. Arriving home a week later, we found the package in the mail.

Maybe it’s because they know we’re their bread and butter, but I prefer to think it’s an inherent generosity that makes Alaskans go the extra mile in treating tourists with unceasing kindness. Even when, or maybe especially when, the tourists in question do something incredibly stupid.

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StubbsI had one more day in Alaska before returning home to Michigan, and chose to spend it in Talkeetna (population 896). My daughter called to see what I was doing. I wasn’t going to tell anyone, but she caught me off guard. “Nothing much,” I said. “Just stalk the mayor.”

“Try not to get arrested,” she said.

I hadn’t set out to obsess over a small-town mayor, but one glance at his picture and I was hooked. To say Mayor Stubbs is a handsome dude doesn’t do him justice. His eyes shone with intelligence, and though it was only a photograph, they gazed soulfully into mine. No way would I leave town before tracking down this appealing specimen of masculinity.

Unlike most politicians, this guy is no egomaniac. He doesn’t throw a hissy fit every time things don’t go his way. Maybe that’s because he never aspired to office, and because he never campaigned, he never had to make catty remarks about his opponents. He enjoys a 100% approval rating. Even Sarah Palin, at the peak of her gubernatorial career, topped out in the mid-90% range.

Someone said he hung out at Nagley’s General Store, usually in the West Rib Pub and Cafe in the back so I looked there first. No luck. Most mornings after breakfast he makes his rounds, calling on the businesses on Main Street.  All thirteen of them.  He’s proactive, and likes to stay top of things. One of his favorite things to stay on top of is a bar stool at the Talkeetna Roadhouse.  But a thorough search of Talkeetna’s main drag yielded nothing.

It started raining while I fortified myself with coffee and a blueberry scone at the Fairview Inn and chatted with another patron. “Any sign of the mayor,” I asked.

I’d tried to be discreet, but a wink told me she hadn’t bought it. “He’s a sweetheart, all right, but I haven’t seen him today.”

“How did he get elected?”

“Oh, honey, it’s just an honorary title. Somebody nominated him as a write-in candidate.”

That explained it. He had catapulted into office as a write-in after winning the election paws down. Mayor Stubbs is a cat.

When the light rain turned into a gulley washer, I hightailed it back to Nagley’s. No cat would stay out in this.  I checked the pub first and spotted his over-sized martini glass/water bowl. His catnip stash was there too, but no mayor. He wasn’t in the cafe either. Then someone pointed to the produce shelf in the store. Under the onions, in a blanket-lined crate, Mayor Stubbs lay catnapping.

Later, I picked him up and he nuzzled my neck. Holding him, I saw how he got his name. Because the Toast of Talkeetna is part Manx, his tail is only a stub. I’ve never stroked a mayor’s belly before, and I’m pretty sure I never will again, but my Talkeetna dalliance is a cherished memory.

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Expect posts about my Alaska experiences like the one below, other quirky travel stories, and a sprinkling of the every-day ridiculousness that spices life.

I’ve watched glaciers calve and whales breech. I’ve strolled along the Bering Sea in midnight sun at Nome (okay it was raining, but isn’t that as close to midnight sun as Nome gets in late spring?). I’ve been seasick fishing for halibut in Prince William Sound.

In Petersburg I learned that thunder is such a rarity most residents remember the first time they heard it. In Ketchikan I spent a day shadowing Nathan Jackson for a children’s book about totem poles. In Fairbanks the athletes at the World Eskimo Indian Olympics left me awe-stricken.

In Homer I lifted a glass with author Tom Bodett at the Salty Dog Saloon. In Anchorage I was Jason Mackey’s 2014 IditaRider.  

Alaska is my passion. I’m a 30-year subscriber to Alaska magazine and have saved every issue.  My Anchorage visits begin on Northern Lights Boulevard at the Title Wave bookstore where I add to my Alaskana collection.

As I continue experiencing the grandeur of Alaska, I’m increasingly compelled to write about it. In addition to Kasey’s River Song, and Show Me the World Eskimo-Indian Olynpics, Casey Ferguson, I’ve published travel pieces, Alaska history articles, and written about Balto for both Cricket and Dog Fancy.

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