Thursday, December 23, 2010

A blog finds its way home - The End of NinetyNineWeeks and 64 North

Ah, good friends, the time has come to migrate this blog back over to my home at I've long written a blog called Killing Ernest, and I always planned on Ninetynineweeks being just what it was, temporary. So, from here on out, I will be posting to Killing Ernest, which can be found at

I've migrated all the old posts to Killing Ernest, and I promise to continue to blog our Alaska adventures as well as my take on the media and the big events of our times.

Thanks so much for following me at Ninetynineweeks and 64 North. I really enjoyed the interaction, and I hope we can continue that at



Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The surreal life and the lunar eclipse

Just as the last sliver of what we call moonlight and what is actually reflected sunlight flashed silver in the deep black background of space, Carson asked me a philosophical question.

I told him that moon watching makes me philosophical too.

Carson is a scientist in a 9-year-old’s body. And as a journalist, I have a curiosity streak like nothing else. Whenever you find an odd or rare occurrence in the cosmos, it's likely the little man and I are outside with our eyes gazing up at the heavens.

When the moon was in a full eclipse, we danced a little pagan dance, whatever that is, and we reveled in the shadowy darkness completely enthralled by this element of space and time.

“Dad, it must be really difficult being God.” he said.

“Really, why do you think that?”

“Because He has to answer all these prayers and help people and take care of things like this,” he said, pointing to the orangy moon hiding in earth’s shadow.

We talked a little about how people perceive God as a person with the same limitations that we understand and the possibility that God doesn’t exist in the same time and space that we occupy.

Carson is a big idea kid, and when he hits on something that brings understanding, he is quick to move beyond whatever was hanging him up.

We stared at the moon for another 10 minutes and called it a night.

And then it hit me again as it has several times over the last few weeks, this surreal life.

I’m watching a lunar eclipse in the backyard of my home in Anchorage, Alaska.

What about this makes sense?

What if we hit the rewind button?

Four hours earlier, my wife pulled into our driveway where a rather large moose was eating God-knows-what off the trees in our front yard.

Three-days ago I was dancing salsa at a company Christmas party.

One-and-half-months-ago I took a job as digital director at a broadcast station in Anchorage, Alaska.

Two-months-ago we moved out of the first home we purchased in Missoula, Montana.

Three-months-ago I got laid off from my job at a small newspaper in Missoula, Montana.

This has been a surreal year.

There are these moments in your life where you try to pull it all together to create a framework for your life. But the corners don’t come together neatly.

There are times when you look out on some astrological entity like a lunar eclipse and think, where am I?

It’s the philosophical question, but in my case, it has physical implications. Where am I standing?

In ankle-deep crystalline snow in the backyard of a house I just moved into with a chunk of fence missing where a big, bull moose jumped over and broke a couple boards with his massive belly last week.

Where am I standing now?

In the backyard of our house in ankle-deep crystalline snow on a crisp December night in Anchorage, Alaska.

It doesn’t make sense, no matter how many times I say it out loud to myself.

But it’s real. As real as the cold air that chokes me up like the first puff of a cigarette when you don’t smoke. As real as the way your breath curls up into the still, frozen air like smoke with no wind.

And I think to myself, “It must be really difficult being God…”

Friday, December 17, 2010

What started like a bad novel has turned into a masterpiece

It started like a bad novel, on a dark and stormy night. It was December. And after all these years, I still don't know why we picked December.

She looked like a queen in a white dress with her hair done up in curls.

I remember that she looked so soft and like porcelain. Too valuable to be held. And yet all I wanted to do was grab her hand and run away with her.

There's a photo of my expression when I saw her for the first time in her wedding dress. It's completely true and honest if you ever have a chance to see it.

We met in 3rd grade. Well, I was in 3rd grade, I think she was in 5th. She tutored my brother in math. I don't think I gave her a second thought then. But I knew of her.

As we grew up together in a small school in the Oregon countryside, our paths crossed more frequently. When I could drive, in 9th grade, I gave her rides to school. In my senior year, we took a trip to the beach. She fell and scraped her knee on a rock, and I fell in love with her completely.

We dated for almost three years before we decided that our next obvious adventure was marriage. She planned it all.

I still don't know why, but we picked December 17, 1994.

It was a cold and stormy night...

Our families showed up and loved on us a lot.

I think about the person I've loved all these years. I worry about her wellbeing, especially as I've dragged her delicate heart all over the map in my mad quest to live this life and experience as much as I possibly can.

Do I believe there is one person out there made for us? Of course. How could I not? She is like a glove. The perfect fit for my heart. She is patient and demanding. She makes you love her and fights for what she perceives as justice.

If love is like finding a needle in a haystack, then my heart must have long ago been drawn to the right haystack in the right state, the right city and the right neighborhood.

So here we are, 16 years after we decided to formalize our love affair. It has not been easy, but it's been fun, and I don't think there is much more you could ask for than a life full of laughter and fun.

She has suffered every setback with me. She has forged ahead when I wanted to quit. She has loved me when I'm completely unloveable. She has weathered every storm by my side and given me the three most beautiful gifts a man can receive.

There are no words for the good love you find in your youth. The kind that sustains you and envelopes you. The kind that protects you and lifts you up when you fall down.

I only understand the great love stories through the life we've shared together these long years. And I'm enthralled with the possibilities in the years to come.

Beautiful, I can't thank you enough for 16 wonderful years together. This love affair was born in a storm to temper us for times like these. And when the wind howls and the rain pours down, I always know where my heart is safest.

Love you,


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The art of mushing

I think a lot about Hemingway's passion for bull fighting. He was an aficionado in an era when that meant something.

Sometimes I wonder what led him to his passion for the fights. Was it the Spanish countryside, the pace of life and the affinity that the people shared for what was then the national sport of Spain?

I've read and reread Hem's bull fighting material many times, but I don't live near enough to a bull ring to relate to the sport.

Recently I experienced, if it can be called that, a sport that I could very much find myself becoming an aficionado of. To Alaskans, it is the national sport. At times, it seems it's the only sport.

It has almost nothing in connection with bull fighting, but had Hemingway made it to Alaska, he might have found similarities.

Papa wrote a lot about the kind of man it took to fight the bulls. About the mental tenacity required to bring down such a large beast so delicately. But he also wrote about the beauty of the beasts and the role they played in what is essentially a death ballet.

Dog sled racing traces its roots to necessity, to survival. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that bull fighting can trace its roots back to something similar, to man's great dance with nature.

I have never been dog sledding before. My only exposure to the sport came from covering the start or end of the Race to the Sky, Montana's premier mushing event.

So on an extraordinarily cold December morning, I traveled to the home of Dallas Seavey to try my hand at a sport that is so much more than just endurance. A sport that just might be the most beautiful embodiment of man's great dance with nature.

There are no beautiful accouterments in dog racing. Survival clothing is very grounded in practicality and its most basic function.

The first thing you must know about racing dogs is that they bear very little resemblance to those massive huskies, samoyeds or malamutes you might think of when you imagine sled dogs.

Great sled dogs are not generally a single breed from what I can tell. The Alaskan Husky is not in fact a breed, but a category of dog.

And to look out on Seavey's racing dogs is to see what look like smallish, husky-esque muts.

The dogs spend their non-running hours in a pseudo pack chained nearby to one another on a large, flat pad. The snow is meticulously cleared of their poop, while the chilled air smells distinctly of their urine.

Their excitement reaches a sharp crescendo as they realize it's time for a run. Below the shadowed kennels is a large snow-covered marsh lit up like a concert stadium by a bright northern sun. When the teams are hitched to the sleds, they are run down a large shoot out into the open track.

I rode a trailer sled the first time around the loop. It's a way to let people experience the feeling of driving the sled, while an experienced musher guides the well-trained dogs. Sort of like parachuting for the first time tandem with an experienced jumper.

The low sun is extremely bright shortly after rising to its zenith in the northern sky, just a little over the tree tops. It will set by 3:05 p.m.


Contrary to popular beliefe, mushers do not usually say mush. It's too soft a word to be an effective command word for these dogs.

We set off directly into the light with the dogs tugging and then smoothly pulling us out onto the track. I grab on to the sled hard and attempt to find something akin to sea legs as the sled shifts across the uneven snow.

Soon the sled starts to circle the wide marsh, and we turn our backs on the sun and gaze at its blinding reflection. I can sense the dogs' anticipation of a good, hard run as they surge forward. A fork appears in the snow, demarcated by a slight shadow.

"Gee!" the driver shouts and the dogs veer right. I attempt to shift my weight to the left runner as the driver does. Because of the full circle of the track we were running, we don't here the command for left, Haw!

The driver asked if we thought we could handle a thousand miles of this. I gazed out across the sun drenched snow-palace marsh and briefly thought, "yes." But the penetrating cold physically hurt my toes, which were encased in boots advertised to be comfortable to 40 below. The sting of cold on my face numbed me to the point where it was difficult to sound coherent.

The driver explained that he frost-bit his toes a week ago after taking the dogs on a run in something other than his normal boots.

Shortly after this, I fell through the ice into a small creek. I soaked one leg good, and I was at least a quarter mile from the house. I took off running, the slosh turning to slush in the -7 degree air.

Dallas Seavey, the youngest person to ever run the Iditarod, and whose dogs pulled me around this marsh, looks young. To know that he's finished one of the most grueling races in the world is enough to respect him. To know he finished in 6th place in 2009 is astounding.

After running the dogs, we sat inside his yurt, which is outfitted like an Ikea catalogue. Three Alaska husky pups are receiving a king's pampering in the arms of visitors. But they're soon put back out into the cold they are bred for.

Seavey talked about his grandfather, who raced in the first ever Iditarod

His wife, Jen, sits on the floor and cradles their young daughter. Jen ran the Iditarod too. It's what they talk about in the summer when they're not racing. And in winter they're living it every minute of every day.

Mushers don't live on a schedule like normal people. They work always and always in increments. Six hours of running, four hours of feeding and resting the dogs and then another six-hour run.

Even when they train, they keep to no schedule but the pull of the dogs on their harness.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Riding the last great whistle stop train

The pleasure in riding trains is derived purely from the physical experience of riding on trains. I can only imagine how good it must have been when the herky, jerky steam engines ruled the planet. But even the smooth-running diesel engines of today with the beshocked cars still give pleasure in the way they yaw and chuck along their way.

On Saturday I rode the Alaskan Railroad 100 miles north to the town of Talkeetna. The journey, while short, is a phenomenal experience in an increasingly rare form of travel.

The conductor pops his head into the station and yells, "Goooooooooood, mooooooooorning," to a sleepy group of passengers. He barks out a series of instructions, and like good farm animals, we corral ourselves through the doors toward assured shelter.

He's done this, this railroad, for 40 years. It's his life. He checks his gold pocket watch regularly to make sure the train is slightly behind schedule. For people who rely on the train as a way of life, it wouldn't be a good idea to be right on time or, God forbid, early.

This is the last whistle stop train in North America.

A whistle stop train is a very particular form of transportation for a very particular person. The kind of person who wants to live out in the wild. A wild so wild that only a railroad passes nearby. These people ride many miles on snow machines to catch the train into town or down the tracks to a neighbor's house to fix a problem.

Along the way, the conductor tosses a newspaper out every once in a awhile when he knows someone will find the orange bag containing this week's news updates along side the tracks.

Along the way he welcomes passengers for whom the train is no novelty. Their belongings are not tourist bags or traveler's packs.

As we disembark the train in Talkeetna, he wishes us a fond farewell, by name, each of us, with a smile.  As we walk away from the train into the quaint little valley town, he checks his pocket watch and hops aboard the train for the nine-hour journey to Fairbanks. Into the cold, cold north. Chugging along and telling stories and hearkening back to a better time when travel was as simple as the monstrous engines that carried us here and there.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

One Month in Anch!

Who moves to Alaska in the winter? November isn't exactly the heart of winter, but it's close enough. The lack of a sunrise before 9:30 a.m., the strange, heavy snow followed by a fast melt, the way the air takes your breath away when you first step out a door, this far north is exactly what you'd expect it to be this time of year. 

In the month since we ran to catch our plane at PDX, we've done a lot and a lot of nothing. Downtime after a huge move is good, and we've taken the cold snowy nights to watch movies, eat around the coffee table, learn how to tiptoe around the apartment, enjoy chilly walks down the Park Blocks after dinner and walk downtown to have coffee or watch the lighting of the Christmas Tree.

Call us cautious, we've made new friends, but good relationships often grow slowly, developing deep roots, so we're not in a hurry. We've learned to like each other in cramped quarters. We eat dinner in shifts, because our dining room table is a green fold up for two. 

We share a bathroom, which is decidedly tough with a nearly teenage boy who likes to shower every day, a younger brother who'd rather not shower at all, and a little sister who seems to have to go pee every 10 minutes or at least every time I am in the bathroom. 

Because many people rent these fully furnished apartments by the week, we've had a lot of neighbors we never get to know. The good news is that after a month, Cheryl finally found out that there is a laundry room in the building, and she got the lock code. No more long nights hanging out in the green fluorescent light of the laundromat up on Fireweed. 

We've seen many moose since we saw the big mama moose eating leftover pumpkins on our first weekend in town. Cheryl saw a huge bull moose in front of the library in midtown last week, and we saw another big cow and her baby on the way to visit Portage Glacier with a visitor. 

We've been ice skating with the kids on the oval at Cuddy Park as the sunset just after 4 p.m., casting an orange-creamsicle light over the midtown oil buildings. And we've spent an afternoon sledding and cross-country skiing at Kincaid Park, with a stop for hot chocolate on our way home. 

Saw the Nutcracker ballet and enjoyed evenings out and about at clubs and pubs.

Life is not perfect, but it is good. The adventure of Alaska is in the daily experience of living here. You don't have to launch an expedition to go and find it. In a place so beautiful, danger is an overabundant commodity in Alaska.

On a long-enough timeline, Alaska will kill you. I can attest to this just in the news reported every day on our station and in the local newspaper. Living here is surviving here. Even in the crowded metropolis of Anchorage, death isn't very far away, be it bullet, cold, car or plane crash. 

The dark won't kill you, but I can see why so many give up and go back south where the dark hours play more fairly with the light. There is a certain anxiety until the solstice comes around and the simple knowledge that the days are growing longer brings those first hopeful thoughts of spring around again. 

My claustrophobia gets the best of me occasionally. I wake up feeling a bit stifled, but I know that is a product of the fact I haven't driven much farther than the 45 miles it takes to get to Girdwood. I haven't been to the valley yet. I haven't been to Homer. Until I get a sense for the bigness of the place and the few roads that take you anywhere in this state, I'll wake up feeling a bit stifled, or I'll look out my window at work at the Chugach Mountains and wonder what is behind them and behind that. 

One month and so much to look back on already. The adventure has good start. 

Saturday, December 4, 2010

"What's so civil about war anyway?"

I'm a Duck. My brother is a Beaver. And today we engage in the seventh oldest college football rivalry in the United States.

We're not a football family. We didn't grow up passionately cheering on our teams. Even in high school and the years between that and college, I never really cared about the Oregon rivalry specifically, but then again, there wasn't much to celebrate in those years.

I remember walking around on campus and seeing Joey Harrington  in between classes during his final year there. Later I had a class with Kellen Clemens. Something about collegiate football grows on you. By the end of my two years at the University of Oregon, I was a full-fledged Duck fan.

Early in my awareness of football as a national sport in the United States, I was under the misguided notion that your team somehow defined you. I would pick the best team and claim that I was there number one fan. My first was the Dallas Cowboys, a team I picked after watching them destroy the Washington Redskins on a Thanksgiving many, many years ago.

Years and many teams later, I watched a Super Bowl with my father. That year I was a fan of the Cincinnati Bengals because they were beating everyone else. I was a candle in the wind fan if ever there was one.

My father had sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge into a new life in America as a young boy. Into one of America's greatest cities. As a San Franciscan, he loved Bay Area football. Having been born in the Bay Area but never having lived there long, I did not inherit his love for the 49ers. Not until that game.

Watching Joe Montana and Jerry Rice march down the field and a John Taylor touchdown with 35 seconds to go was pure, unadulterated football beauty. And I was hooked. I have been a 49er fan ever since.

Watching the Ducks dominate this year has been a pleasure. The pure machine that is their offense is so fluid and fast, one can't help but enjoy it. Well, unless you're my brother. He tends to think that the coach is a classless lout and that the Ducks cheat at every available opportunity.

But I also find myself falling back to something that my dad taught me along the way. A close game is better than a blowout any day. In every high-scoring game this year, there came a moment when you'd just know there was no way the tired opponents could stop the Ducks. You'd watch the defense give up, and the Ducks would reach for 20 and 30 point leads.

After spending three years in Missoula, Montana, a place where the football team's unbroken streak of conference titles is the second or third thing you'll hear when you arrive, I've grown a little tired of college football state rivalries.

Facebook is full of Beavers complaining about a surge of "new" Duck fans that seem to have come from nowhere and Duck fans taunting the Beavers about their lack of ability to find the goal line. It was the same in Montana with Griz fans mercilessly taunting the beleaguered Bobcat fans in the windup to the Brawl of the Wild.

I'm going to be very happy if my Ducks beat the Beavers today and go on to the National Championship. That can almost go without saying. A big bowl game and a national title would be incredible, if not tainted by the fact that the BCS is so corrupted and the two best teams may not even be playing in the final.

But if the Ducks happen to drop the ball today and the Beavers win out in a hard-fought game, I'll be all right. I'm a Duck, but their football team doesn't define me. I wish I could say the same for my kids, three kids bedecked in green and yellow and as rabid as any fans I've ever seen.

Go Ducks!