Monday, August 15, 2005

A Three Thousand Dollar Day

When contemplating my favorite family moments I linger fondly over mental pictures of my children building sand castles on the beach, of lakes and parks and picnics and exploration. After this weekend I have another vision to add to the scrapbook, one of me sitting on a blue and white cooler with four children gathered around, waiting in the deserted end of the Sam’s Club parking lot for the tow truck. Sound grim? Well, it was a terrific weekend where the planets aligned and all was right with the world—right up until that last stop light . . .

Andrew took time off this week for some day excursions to places like Whittier and Portage south of Anchorage, but on Friday we drove north to my parent’s cabin on the Kashwitna River. As soon as we got there Andrew and the kids stripped down to bathing suits and ran through the sprinkler, a huge success fueled by the discovery that the freshly mown grass stuck to their wet bodies turning them into green monsters in swimming suits. My own little Chia family. They weren’t so happy when they had to get hosed off, that well water is cold. Talk about screaming and whining. And the kids were loud too.

The next day we packed up and headed east through the Talkeetna Mountains toward Hatcher’s Pass, without solid plans but following the sun and accompanied by a patriotic three year-old singing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" most of the 22 miles there with a Hawaiian-Dixieland twist: Glory glory Honolu-lu, glory glory Honolu-lu, glory glory Honolu-lu, the saints go marching in. She’s patriotic and multi-cultural!

We stopped for lunch halfway through the valley toward the pass and found ourselves surrounded by wild blueberries and had lunch on top of a rock that overlooked the valley. You know how they say the grass is always greener on the other side? Well, it’s true and we found that spot. We gathered about seven cups of blueberries, filling every container we’d brought. I gave Lillian a tiny cup she could get her hands around and she spent the time picking five blueberries, tripping, spilling her blueberries then picking five more. Something about finding free food in the wilderness on a sunny day is destined to put you in a good mood.

After convincing Spencer and David that they weren’t going to lure a gopher out of his hole with their half-eaten Rice Krispie treat we were back on the road. Next stop: Summit Lake, oddly enough at the top of Hatcher’s Pass. That’s the jumping off point for local paragliders and we perched on the side of the mountain while the they tested the wind with their chutes, waiting for that perfect wind that would carry them out over the valley, over the point they call the Diving Board and then up in the drafts to 5,000 feet. The kids loved it. After the first glider launched my boys looked at each other and I could see their minds quickly thinking that never again would they be satisfied with jumping off the stairs using their blankets as parachutes, it would never be the same.

Once through the pass and going downhill the landscape was full of tiny mounds, all grassed over. Grace wanted to know what the bumps were and the easy answer would have been "glacial till deposits," judging from the obvious signs of glaciation throughout the valley but I told the kids we had stumbled upon the Sacred Gopher Burial Grounds. The boys were quite impressed but Grace didn’t believe me until, right on cue, a gopher darted across the road in front of us and ran on up the hill (if he'd been any slower he'd have been even closer to those burial grounds). But you gotta keep ‘em thinking that you know everything. That’s the key to the power.

When the road turned south and hooked up with the main road we stopped at Independence Mine which caused a bit of confusion with Spencer and David who thought I'd said we were stopping at Underpants Mine and were rather excited to think of a clothing-optional historic site. An abandoned gold mine that was working in the early half of the last century, it's now part of Independence State Mine Park and is open for tours and viewing. The houses and shacks built around the mountain rivers are mostly in ruins but some have been rebuilt as museums, all requiring clothing. From there it was a straight shot south in Anchorage—until that first stop light.

When the light turned green the cars around us moved but we didn’t. Our van chugged a few times and slowly started to limp along until we could push it into the Sam’s Club parking lot, looking behind us we could see a trail of transmission fluid like blood trailing a crime scene. Not good. Some informative and optimistic passerby commented (and I quote), “Dude, that’s red. Looks like transmission fluid.” Then, hanging head in empathy he continued, “Transmission fluid. Man, I’m sorry.”

Yes, as even the most basic auto course will tell you a trail of red isn’t good. The car had leaked so badly the transmission fluid had splattered up the back, covering the entire backside in a greasy muddy mess. But I had my cell phone and a call to my sister brought her to our aid within a half an hour and as she so gracefully pointed out, calling on family in times of emergency is the reason for living close by. If you can’t get help when you’re in trouble then having lots of family around is merely annoying, and what’s the use of that? A real poet she is.

Regardless, Andrew and I with our four climbed into her van to join her and her four (yes, that makes a total of eleven) and were very thankful for our Good Samaritan who’d come to our rescue. With a smile she wanted to know what I was going to do if we were to get stopped by a cop—kind of a Good Samaritan with an edge—but I was desperate to get home and assured her I’d pay any ticket for my un-seat-belted children.

Now it's the week after and we're getting a new transmission but enjoying memories of our blueberry picking-gopher hunting-paragliding-underpants wearing-transmission fluid day. Money comes and goes but summer weekends in Alaska are priceless.