June 2011


The way to see Alaska is in an RV. Everybody does it, and there are plenty of RV parks, of varying quality, facilities, and prices, but if the sampling of places where we stopped is any indication, all adequate.

The six of us rented a 31 foot Winnebago Chalet from Great Alaskan Holidays in Anchorage (http://www.greatalaskanholidays.com) and set off. It was my first experience in or with an RV.

I believe living in a rolling home for two weeks with six other people offered some life lessons. Here they are:

1.  Keep a level head and be on the level. There is a bubble level near the sink in a Winnebago that indicates whether the RV is well, level. The bubble has to be within a black circle or pretty close to it or it will be necessary to put some blocks under the wheels on one side or the other. Why is being level important? If the vehicle is not level, and stays that way for more than 30 minutes, the refrigerator will get a vapor lock and won’t operate properly.  So, if you want cold and/or frozen food, you learn to read the level and put the blocks under the appropriate tires.

So, too, in relationships, it’s good to keep a level head, which is to say, keep our cool, instead of things heating up to the breaking point. We all have areas of our lives, as well, that could use a bit of modification to keep our work, our family life, our inner workings going smoothly. We don’t have a handy little device like a bubble level to tell us where those are, but perhaps we can learn to discern where the problems are as well as relying on others we trust to help us see where we need improvement.

2.  Pay attention to the status of resources. Most RV parks offer full and partial hook-ups. The former includes water, electricity, and sewage (for both “black” and “gray” [dishwashing] water) on your site. The latter may include water and electricity, but dumping is at a common site in the park. When you have either kind of hook-up, water usage or running the microwave or coffee maker can be pretty much as at home. But out on the road or “dry camping” (no hook up), electricity comes from a generator, the refrigerator runs off propane in the RV’s tank, and water is from a limited size reservoir, again carried on the RV. So, checking the panel for the status of the water tanks (you want the potable water full and the not potable empty) and the propane is as essential as keeping a watch on your gas gauge.

In life as well we need to pay attention to available resources. Are we trying to do something important when we’re tired or hungry or unfocused? Do we snap at others because we haven’t gotten enough sleep or haven’t managed our time very well, so we’re hurried and harried? Do we fritter away our money on $4 coffees and $10 burgers, drinks in a bar every evening or some new dust collector for our already full-to-overflowing homes? Do we run up huge charge card bills without monitoring spending, then owe so much we cannot even contemplate giving to a charity or saving?

If indeed we are getting low on resources, do we seek out those who could help us deal with stress and trouble or do we try to go it alone? What about prayer and spiritual disciplines? It’s good to have some way to build up our emotional reserves so that when we’re cut off from sustenance, we will still be able to function well and be there for others.

3.  Improvise/be flexible. By and large, the RV we rented was in great shape. But the cooktop on the gas stove insisted on rattling when we were at highway speeds. A couple of the gaskets that kept it silent had worn out. So, we stuffed a pot holder under one corner, and that helped. And then there was the question of what to do with the coffee maker to keep it from sliding around or where to hang rain jackets and towels to dry. We improvised again. Sometimes the coffee maker rode on the shower floor, sometimes under the sink in the dish drainer. And every available place to hang anything on, including the shower wand, got used as a hook. And how do you grill halibut without a fish basket for your propane grill? Spread some thick foil on the grid. No long sticks on which to roast marshmallows over a campfire for s’mores? No problem: microwave them. A gooey mess, but a treat.

Murphy’s Law being the universal principle it is, we can count on things not quite going according to plan in the Real World. So are we prepared for the unexpected or do we believe the success of our Plan A’s is guaranteed? Can we be creative and “think outside the box” or “move off the map,” as the cliches go or are we so stuck in our usual way of doing things that we are frozen in place if life throws us a curve? Improvisation and flexibility, the willingness and ability to try a fresh approach, are the marks both of the survivor and the entrepreneur, the person who’s growing and the institution that’s adapting to a changing market or constituency.

“RV” stands for “reliable values.”

© 2011 Tom Cheatham

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It’s not a North Face or even an L.L. Bean. Just an inexpensive Faded Glory fleece jacket from Wal-Mart. But it used to be Daddy’s jacket, and when he passed away last December, I took it for my own.

Daddy never went anywhere, but his jacket kept me warm in A laska. He never went fishing, but wearing his fleece, I caught my limit in halibut on Cook Inlet outside of Homhomer fishing10 smaller, and the jacket stunk like the ocean, bait, and fish. And later that day, after thhomer smores2 smalle fish had been processed, and we were resting, I sat outside the RV in Daddy’s jacket and ate gooey s’mores. Daddy would have liked that. He never tasted s’mores, but he had a huge sweet tooth.

Daddy’s jacket was zipped up on the deck of the glacier cruise ship, my shield against the wind, under my rain jacket . It kept me cozy along with some new Alaska gloves when I held a piece of an iceberg in my hands. As far as I know, Daddy wasvaldez cruise 16 iceberg small never on a boat of any sort.

Daddy’s jacket got ashes on it from the campfire when we dry camped along the Denali Highway, with an incredibly beautiful valley vista for our backyard. It kept off the wind at the end of the line on the shuttlebus ride into Denali National Park, with Mt. McKinley in our view as we ate a simple lunch. What would Daddy have thought of such sights or the wildlife we encountered along the way?

I went to Alaska in Daddy’s jacket. My niece Page is in China for two months. We’re  doing things Daddy never even imagined or perhaps never wanted to do. But I thought of him every time I donned that green fleece. And Page is going beyond anything any of us in the family ever aspired to.

Each generation builds on the foundation of the one before. And, if we are wise, if we are the sorts of people we ought to be, we do so with gratitude. Like for a simple jacket that went from Albany, GA to Starkville, MS and eventually to Alaska.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham. Photos by Susan Cheatham.

Note: This is the first of my posts reflecting on our recent vacation to Alaska.

[Following a peak time, a person is] “more apt to feel that life in general is worthwhile, even if it is usually drab, pedestrian, painful or ungratifying, since beauty, excitement, honesty, play, goodness, truth and meaningfulness have been demonstrated…to exist” (Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd ed.: 101).

“…I shall go down from this airy space, this swift, white peace, this stinging exultation. And time will close about me, and my soul stir to the rhythm of the daily round. Yet, having known, life will not press so close, and always I shall feel time ravel thin about me; for once I stood in the white, windy presence of eternity” (Eunice Tietjens, “The Most Sacred Mountain”)

*****

Never in my life have I seen such rugged, majestic beauty as we encountered in Alaska. Literally around almost every turn in the road, there was something new, awesome, overwhelming in its scale. Bald eagles dotted the skies in Valdez. Snow-covered, glaciated mountains surrounded every town where we camped inmt mckinley small our RV. And then there was Denali, whether the incredible vista we saw as we dry camped on the Denali Highway or the view of Denali (Mt. McKinley) itself from various vantage points. Dall sheep surprised us sitting in and beside the road or displaying their curling horns on the mountainside above our shuttle bus. I could go on and on.

denali sheep smallThe six of us traveling together wondered several times whether people who lived in Alaska ever got tired of or took for granted the wonder in their backyards. If you saw such things every day, would you simply shrug  and go on with your business, as we ultimately did when we saw the umpteenth moose? Would you be so concerned with making your living in a harsh land that you would cease paying attention to the world around you, other than to make sure a grizzly wasn’t ripping up your garbage or a sea otter wasn’t too close to the prop of your fishing boat?

Whatever the answers to such questions, Susan and I thrilled to all Alaska had to offer. Indeed, we were so enthralled that we didn’t watch TV for the two weeks we were there nor did we access the Internet other than to send an occasional hello home or check the weather in places like  Soldotna or Homer.

Of course, when we returned to the Real World and switched on the tube, there was the same old stuff about politicians’ scandals, murder, a bad economy, and conflict in the Middle East. The Presbyterian Church was still divided over the usual issues. My mother was still sick.

Still, there is grace and wonder around every turn. There is no Denali in Starkville, no Dall sheep or majestic eagles, other than in our pictures and memories. Which means we just have to look a little harder to catch a glimpse of the Eternal.

© 2011 Tom Cheatham. Photos by Susan Cheatham.