Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Movie: The Mists of Juneau

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.

The moss is slippery, though there's been no rain.

The pine sings, but there's no wind.
Who can leap the world's ties

And sit with me among the white clouds.

--Han-shan, "Cold Mountain Poems," translated by Gary Snyder

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Great Northern Tour, Part I: The Last Frontier

M and I are back in New York now, still sorting through the many great photos and memories from our Great Northern Tour. We gave it that name out of an eagerness to inject a little dramatic narrative into our trip, and it turned out our journey more than lived up to the implied drama of its title.

The trip began in Juneau, moved on to Whitehorse, and ended in Banff, with pit stops in Seattle on either end. Each step of the way it was like God was hitting us over the head with the beauty of nature until we city people cried out in awe-struck submission.

I'm going to divide the tour into three parts, one for each of the three cities we visited, starting with...


From the moment we landed, Juneau blew us away with its wild beauty.

Actually, the magic began even before we'd touched down. See that big, shiny, blue-white, waterfall-like thing behind us? That's Mendenhall Glacier, and you can see it from way up in the air, like a gorgeous mirror inviting you to land and have a look.

Here's a closer shot of the glacier. That bright blue spot that looks like it was crayoned by a child wasn't photo-enhanced by me--that's really how blue the fresh ice is. You're looking at an area where ice has recently calved off.

All of Juneau is located within a national state park, and you can feel that wildness without straying far from the paved roads. For example, all the street lights have a T-shaped bar on top that turned out to be eagle rests.

As soon as we landed, Jeff, gracious host and managing director from the theater who was presenting us, took us to the glacier. He said we wouldn't actually stop, but that since it was so close to the airport he always likes to bring folks by there before heading into town.

Now, some of you may already know this about M and me, but it's important I make this clear before we proceed. The husband and I are wild about bears. And never having seen one in the wild before, only in zoos, and never having set foot in Alaska before, it was my deepest wish that I might be granted even the slightest glimpse of a bear during our time in the Great North.

But given that we'd arrived in late September, I wasn't sure if the bears would already be off getting their winter dens ready. I was shyly asking Jeff about our chances of an ursine encounter as we were pulling into the parking lot for the glacier's visitor center, and lo and behold--what do we see but a beautiful black bear with two little cubs right on her heel, one black, one cinnamon?

These particular bears were very used to the presence of humans. A harried park ranger stood by the side, warning us and the rest of the gawking, paparazzi-like tourists to STAND BACK! SHE'S BEEN IN A BAD MOOD ALL WEEK AND YOU DO NOT WANT TO STEP CLOSER, SIR!

But what a stirring sight! And what a spectacular omen of good things to come, that we saw three bears within fifteen minutes of landing.

A few days later we'd see a convocation of bald eagles--which, it turns out, is the name for a grouping of eagles, much more dignified than a murder or a gaggle, and befitting of a national emblem. There were at least twenty-five of them, young and old, feasting on salmon that were trying to make their way through a channel to the river. (The ones with darker heads in the photo above are still young; as they mature their heads and tails turn to that distinctive white.)

Growing up in Seattle, I'd seen bald eagles before--but never so many of them all together, and never so close. They are big. Like, imagine my pug dog, but with wings.

Did you know that eagles mate for life? Did you also know that the leading cause of death for young eagles is having a jealous sibling push you out of the nest to your death so that he or she can keep all of your parents' attention for themselves?

Juneau is full of landscapes ideal for contemplating the harsh mysteries of nature.

And for feasting on it. One of the theater's board members had us to her home and served us two types of smoked salmon that she and her husband had caught and smoked themselves. I'd had smoked salmon before, but never smoked salmon belly. Wow. It's good stuff.

Locals sometimes apologized for the weather, which was unrelentingly rainy while we were there. "You should see this place in May," they said, when the views of the encircling mountains are clear.

But I loved the clouds. They weave among the trees in rapid, graceful swirls. They are unlike clouds or fog I've seen anywhere else, and for me are the most breathtaking and dynamic aspect of Juneau's beauty.

Our final night in Juneau, after our performance, we were heading back to our hotel around midnight. The hotel was downtown, in the most populated part of the city.

And what do we see, about a block away from our hotel, in front of the Subway sandwich shop? A huge grizzly bear. We stopped the car and watched him through our rear view mirror. We could hear the laughter of a large group of humans who had just exited a nearby bar.

The bear appeared unfazed. And then another car approached and strafed him with their headlights. At this, the bear began to ran. He dashed across the street and into a nearby construction site.

It is really something, to see so huge and lumbering a creature suddenly break into a run. He must have been going 35 mph, and he went from zero to gone, just like that. Having seen it with our own eyes, Mike and I finally understand why everyone tells you you can't outrun a bear.

Next up: Our ferry from Juneau to Skagway, and our drive to Whitehorse through the scenic Canadian Rockies. Highlights will include . . . another bear! We'll get even closer. And survive to tell the tale.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sunday, September 13, 2009

How Did It Get To Be September?

When I read other blogs my least favorite posts are the ones that begin with an apology for why the blogger has failed to update.

So when I started TRAVELMONKEYS, I vowed never to make such a post myself, and I swear to you now, this is not an apology. Even though I have not posted since late July, I mean it, this is not an apology. The very idea of an apology is ridiculous anyhow! As if I've somehow left you all bereft, with a dark TRAVELMONKEYS-shaped hole in your heart as you wonder where I and Mike and the dog might be now, what exciting things we might be up to. Why, it's the heart of narcissism to believe that anyone else might actually notice my long silence. So I promise you: not an apology.

And yet.

There were a few of you who quietly left some notes on my Facebook page suggesting that you might like to read some new posts from me. And I will admit that I enjoyed hearing I was missed. (It's always wonderful to be missed, isn't it? Wonderful to sneak away, to escape, to hide, but right after that, even better to hear someone calling your name...)

So though I am behind, let me tell you a little bit about what we've been up to.

First of all, we spent the first week of August in Portland, Oregon, that hipper-than-thou city of the west filled with well-read hipsters and eccentric (also well-read) homeless people. We were there to workshop our newest monologue which I shall not list by name, as I like to keep this blog semi-private, but I will tell you that the principal theme of the new piece revolves around money and our relationship to it, and I'm finding it quite a provocative and intriguing piece of work.

Then we headed up to Seattle for three weeks, during which time we continued to develop the same monologue. And we relaxed. Oh, how we relaxed.

I ate oysters with my siblings, played tennis with my father, shopped for wedding dresses with Mary, went for long leash-less walks in the park with Baci, watched rows of fishermen pluck one salmon after another from Puget Sound like it was the easiest thing in the world, went dancing with all our people late into the night, ate amazing meals with my parents and played cards nightly...

I tell you, folks, I had such a wonderful time back in Seattle that I started to feel like the character of Emily from Our Town when she gets to go back after death and visit a day when she was still alive. You know that scene? I cry like a baby every time.

But it's one thing to feel that when you're in a theater, quite another to feel it when you're actually just trying to live your life. As the trip neared to a close I felt an overwhelming sense of dread. Surely this meant that someone was about to die. That some terrible news was imminent. That I was paying in advance for something that would counterbalance all this happiness.

Michael begged me to stop being so Polish.

Back in New York, we had a little less than a week to pack for the trip that lay ahead, a five-city tour that would take us to Philadelphia, Chapel Hill, Juneau, Whitehorse, and Banff. I am, in fact, writing this entry to you now from the first city, having just completed stage one of the tour.

Originally, I'd imagined that I would use TRAVELMONKEYS as a kind of tour diary. Less long entries like this one, and more short daily updates. Something like this:

Day 1 in Philly. Met our crew. That's Jacob, and he's awesome. Not pictured: Sam, burping.

But you know what happened? Ohhh, a bundle of troubles. Lots of tiny other shoes, dropping.

I want to tell you all about it. I really do. But my alarm just went off reminding me that we leave for Chapel Hill early tomorrow morning, and of course, we've yet to pack.

So let me sign off now with the promise that I'll return sooner than I did last time. (Again, the narcissism!) Maybe I'll even be able to update with the kinds of posts I'd hoped to make from Philly. Let me also say that no one has died, that the dog is ok, and that Michael and I are still married.

Also, Philadelphia is pretty wonderful, from what I can tell. We're going to come back in a few months to see our friend Kyra in a show here, and we're hoping to check out some of the stuff we couldn't see this week during our non-stop freak-out, including this.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Mazel Tov!

Big congratulations to Mary and John, who got engaged last week!

I had a feeling this was in the works, so I've been sitting on some very special footage of the two of them for just this occasion.

Mary and John, you've done your time, you've taken your chances, and clearly you've got the skill to survive...

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Meet Me At The Luau

This family I married into? I'll tell you one thing. They know how to throw a party.

Last month we made the pilgrimage to New Jersey to visit the good folks of The Compound for their annual celebration that is so much more than any family get-together you TRAVELMONKEYS readers can imagine.

The theme was LUAU, and there was everything that word conjures, and so much more.

Picture tiki huts and margarita machines, massive piles of pulled pork and about twenty other kinds of meat. Picture dogs wearing leis and women wearing flowers and men wearing pirate hats--because this year, the idea was that the luau was overtaken by pirates.

There's Uncle Dick, looking none-too-menacing. Arrrrr.

Now picture being greeted upon entry by a massive boat, decked out with an actual anchor and a wheel that really turns, and a massive black pirate sail--all built so that guests could have their pictures taken as a memento.

...and so that as the contents of the margarita machines dipped lower, they could re-enact their Titanic fantasies.

Now imagine that there is also a pool, for overheated guests and hyperactive kids.

And now imagine that there's an enormous treasure chest outside, and when opened, it reveals every kind of novelty ice cream bar you can imagine--even the ChocoTaco.

A live band? Of course.

Daring feats of strength? You bet.

An incredibly meticulous cake featuring three completely different layers, bedecked with a treasure chest made of chocolate and studded with gold? Oh, sure.

There were over 200 people there, many of whom I never even met, but all of whom knew Baci's name because he went from table to table, introducing himself and begging for scraps. The poor boy wasn't right for the next 48 hours, but now when he's yipping in his sleep, I know exactly what he's dreaming about.

I wish I had a group picture of all the folks who worked so hard to pull this epic event together--Martin, who built the ship and ice cream chest, Aunt Angela, who must have cooked and cleaned for a week straight, David, who was the sound engineer for the karaoke and live band and the go-to-guy for just about everything else, Connor and Amanda and Uncle Dick (all pictured in various shots above), who all gave enormously of their time and talents.

But being a director myself, I have to give special mention to Kris, who really was the mastermind behind the operation, overseeing this epic event from start to finish, and somehow managing to never lose her cool or forget to have fun.

We had a blast, and can only begin to image what the gang is going to come up with for next year's party. Whatever it is, and whenever it is, we'll do our best to aim our ship straight toward it so we don't miss out on the fun.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Things To Do In Bangor

First things first, stay at the Charles Inn, in the heart of downtown. Connie will set you up nicely, and if you've got a stowaway pug...

...he can play with Lacey, the resident Boston Terrier. (Can you spot her in the painting below?)

Staying downtown means you'll encounter statues and old cannons and neat walkways like this one.

It also means you can walk to important destinations like the Friar's Bakehouse.

This is not only one of the finest bakeries I've ever encountered (and home of the very best blueberry muffin I've ever had), but it's also run by two joyful friars who wear their full friar regalia (long brown robes) and who, being Franciscans, adore animals and so came out to administer cheese to Baci when he and I were waiting for Michael on the sidewalk.

Also, their whoopie pies are out of this world. (And if you haven't had a whoopie pie yet, you probably haven't been to Maine.)

Next, develop a new show, and workshop it with Penobscot Theatre as part of their Northern Writes Festival.

They did a beautiful job restoring the marquee of the old Bangor Opera House, and their staff is as wonderful and supportive as their audiences are.

Third, eat a lobster. Or two. The price of lobster is at an all-time low now, forcing lobstermen to sell their catch directly from the back of their trucks in some cases. I figure this is one tasty way to help spread the wealth.

(Note that the lack of proper utensils didn't scare us off. Turns out a hammer and pliers will do just fine.)

Fourth, see a Grange Hall musical.

We had to travel a good hour into the woods to see the Marsh River Theater's production of "Into the Woods," and we ate at Ralph's Cafe, where we were served by the mother of the musical director (and grandmother of three of the cast members).

It's amazing to experience the level of connection between the people in the audience and the people on stage--and then to watch all barriers dissolve during intermission, when the actors walked right out into the house and Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf waited in the concessions line right next to us. Meanwhile, Rapunzel was sipping Diet Coke through a straw.

And finally, see some family. (Note that this is easier to do if you married someone from Maine who happens to have a bunch of family in the Bangor area.) (Note also that by making this fifth I am not saying this is the lowest priority--I'm simply saving the best for last.)