Monday, October 21, 2013


Homer reminds me so much of my favorite little West Virginia blip, Shepherdstown. Nightlife here is predictable, everyone knows everyones name, theres a strange dual feeling of being nestled into paradise as well as being marooned on the monotonous face of Mars. 
And I say that in the most endearing of ways.

I have a serious spot in my heart for small towns with culture. Used book stores and quirky posters for interest groups, local theaters, outdoor education and research sites, wildlife preserves and an eclectic coffee shop -
 these are all the tell-tale signs of vibrant life.

Ivory Goose Antiques and Tea

One of my favorite interactions in Homer was with this man at the Ivory Goose.
He and his wife Coletta, who was out that day visiting with a friend I was told, run what he assured me is the best tea shop in Alaska. Sadly the Ivory Goose shut down just  few months after my trip. I must have puttered around the store for nearly an hour. About half way through tasting and smelling I thought to ask:
"What's YOUR favorite tea?"
to which he answered:
"Pu erh, I'd have to say. Not many folks like it. I'd liken it to lickin on an old saddle. But that's just me."

Of course I instantly fell in love with him and we proceeded to discuss the superior qualities of Pu erh for the next half hour.

Observance of Hermits

It's rare to come upon a bookstore that so enslaves its master's sentiment. The books cling to the shelves and bunker down on the stairs in homogenous clusters. The Russians do not mingle with the French. Nor do the Fairy Tales adventure over to their distant cousins in Science Fiction. The store is open for viewing and potentially for sale, but the master holds his books dear to him and only the step-children are parted with.  

The Observance of Hermits, as the avant-garde name suggests, is a totally different bookstore from any used bookstore you've been in. For one, it's mostly Russian books. Kandror himself is Russian and his story is that of an immigrant whose childhood revolved around the books he collected and was then constantly forced to sell or leave behind. When he came to Homer he decided to collect in earnest. His bookstore is so much an extension of himself that he never mars a book with a scribbled price or a tainting sticker. He knows his books like a parent knows his children. 

I came up to his counter with a handful of books. He smiled gently and took the first from my hand. A first edition Wizard of Oz. The cover was so richly illustrated and so well preserved that the colors seemed to glow in the dimly lit store. 

"This one is expensive," he said, the smile playing around his lips and eyes in an almost mischievous way. "I don't know if you want this one." He set the book down gently and rested his hand on it like a protective mother might cup her hand over her baby's head. He would not be parting with the Wizard of Oz this day.

 I left that day with Eben the Crane. He looked at the book like an old dog, like he remembered it's playful youth but ultimately had no more use for it. 

"Three dollars," he said, with a dismissive wave. He shifted a pile of books and bent to write me a ticket. I picked up my book softly, wondering if Eben's feeling might be hurt. Was Eben looking over at Wizard of Oz with angry tears in his eyes? As a longtime lover of books I was suddenly surprised to find myself thinking of them in a previously unexplored context; in the context that this reluctant book salesman must always have thought of them in. 

Observance of Hermits sits on Pioneer street. Hand painted signs out front say Used Books. Nothing more. Had my host not told me about "the used Russian bookstore that you absolutely must visit during your trip," I might have missed the sign and kept on driving. Kandror doesn't seem to exert much effort to draw people in. You find it or you don't. 

Even the locals tout Observance of Hermits as something other-bookstorely. Homer News wrote this story when the bookstore opened with the title "Don't think bookstore, think center for ideas."
Ultimately the bookstore is an extension of Kandror's personal collection and the space for translation, literary study and bookish reverence are the real items for sale here. 

The third generation booksellers at Old Inlet Bookstore have a floor to ceiling bevy of antique books. I snagged this Bonsai book for $10 and resisted the urge to buy more. I was excited to see so many books about Alaska and living up North. The bookstore is attached to a little inn and cafe. 

Of course what really draws people to Homer is the bay. Kachemak Bay with its views of the glaciers is pretty spectacular. I walked down to the rocky shore and met a man in his Land Rover.

"You from here?" he asked.
"Nope, are you?" I asked.
"Nah I'm a surfer. Came over from Girdwood to surf."
The water was so placidly calm you could almost see your face in it. It rocked gently and broke like a soft sigh over the rocks. He fell into a low yogi squat and pulled out his camera. Switching to the recording mode he held his camera an inch from the ground and filmed the tiny lapping waves.
"Guess I'll send this to my surfing buddies and see if I can fool them. There ARE awesome swells here sometimes with the storms but I guess we didn't get lucky enough this time."
I mused on the luck of missing tumultuous storms as he pulled away in his car leaving me on the beach.

My hosts in Homer were wonderful people - Andrew and Heidi - who I met through couch surfing. Andrew is the local eye doctor and Heidi is a linguist. Their house was stunning and they were so warm and welcoming. 

Homer host house
View from my window

And of course I love a good cemetery and this community plot had some nice old specimens. 

Oh and also everyone has a dog. Homer is so darn cute. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Road Trip to Homer

After a leisurely breakfast in Anchorage I rented a car and headed down Seward Highway towards Homer. No more than 20 minutes outside Anchorage the city falls aways and the marsh rushes up to take its place. Potter Marsh and the Mountains clothe the Turnagain Arm like a brightly colored sari. With the looming mountains on one side and the freshwater marsh on the other, my head was swinging so quick back and forth I had to pull over and speed back to the jutting boardwalks over the tall grasses. 

I walked the boardwalk for half an hour taking in as much as I could before getting back in the car. 

An excerpt from my journal at Potter Marsh: 

"Of course the scale is what hits you first - what at once looks both looming and figurine. My chest felt contracted into my back. My eyes protested with a dull ache, flailing between my feet and the peaks. 
A blue streak cut through my gaze. My eyes shifted focus, pulling back to the yellow grassed marsh I was standing in. Another blue streak glided by, luffing its wings until it caught the wind and locking into a float. Those half-moon, arced wings, that so often find their way inked onto skin, filled the marsh. If I've seen a Tree Swallow before I don't remember it. In the modest trailing marsh of the mountains the swallows vie for you attention. Or rather, they don't. They aren't there for you at all. You've traveled all this way to see them, but you didn't know it."

The drive from Anchorage to Homer is five hours of non-stop beauty. At times I was thankful to be alone and have the freedom to stop as I pleased and at other times I wished I had a companion that I could shake with excitement. 

"Gradually as you drive the mountains kneel down to the lowlands. The scrubby pines take their place. Straight and starving they line the road.
Somehow I missed the transformation. How far back was the last peak? How long have I been in the bush? Somewhere in the last few miles I had started breathing smooth even breaths again. The mist and heavy snow had rolled back, releasing my lungs. To be out from under the gaze of the mountains was a relief I hadn't expected. "

"The grassland here is so beaten down by the weather its a dull ocher. At a speed it blends together like smooth sand. I passed a valley of those squat green pines and had the most surreal feeling that I was driving through a cactus stand in the middle of the desert. It stretched back forever but then it was gone around the bend and I was back in Alaska. "

Follow the small sign for Ninilchik and you'll feel like you've stepped into a Russian wonderland. Ninilchik is not technically an incorporated town but what it DOES have is a distinct Russian dialect, a blend of imported Russian and native Dena'ina Athabaskan, specific only to this place. Few are left who speak it and I saw no one but other tourists in this little town making it feel very much like a ghost town making it easy to imagine this as the original town the Russians from Kodiak Island built when they first came in 1847.

From the overlook where the church sits you can see the Aleutian Islands, the fabled Ring of Fire.  

When you finally break out of the trees the steep cliffs catch you before you tumble into the expanse that is Kachemak Bay. The tension sprang back into my throat immediately. As far as your eye can stretch the mountains run further.

By the time you pull into Homer, neck stiff and hips protesting, there are few emotions left to feel. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Where to Eat Vegan: Middle Way Cafe - Anchorage, Alaska

Before my trip, when I thought of Alaska I thought of bears and mountains and lots and lots of salmon. These things are all true about Alaska - plus the squirrels of Alaska: bald eagles and elk who fly and roam free without remarking or reacting to your lower 48 gawk.

Forward thinking cuisine, rocking allergy sensitive delicious creations, vibrant local produce and the question: 
"Would you like almond, rice or coconut milk for your chai?"

These were things I was NOT expecting in Alaska.  

I give you the Colour's Tofu Snack.

Blackened tofu piled over patties of beet, carrot, zucchini and leeks. Throw in some home fries, ranchero sauce and vegan sour cream and that's a pretty decadent breakfast! 

This was my first meal in Alaska and if the pictures convey anything then you know I was a pretty darn happy girl. I made the short walk to Middle Way Cafe from my host house to meet with a fellow couch surfer to get the lay of the land, look at some local maps and get some food in my stomach that wasn't an airport's attempts at the edible.

Middle Way Cafe sits in an unassuming strip mall in the Spenard neighborhood of Anchorage. To the tourist who travels to see quaint old cities and delights in things like converted factory loft apartments, windmills refabed into restaurants, ancient old squares in southern towns and other gems of our countries offerings - Anchorage may seem like a let down at first glance. The streets are wide and still dusted in mud after the spring meltdown, the buildings are straightforwardly plain reminding you of every dirty, commercial heavy town you've ever sped through on a road-trip. It feels industrial save for the towering snow capped mountains that shadow the city.

But then, sometimes the charm of a city turns out not to be the turreted victorians or the old brownstones or the courtyards. In the absence of these frivolities you find that a city is in fact made up of its people, not its buildings. During my short stay in Alaska I came to Middle Way Cafe three separate times and each time I met someone new: a transplant to Alaska who after 7 years was just beginning to venture out into the mountains and was full of excitement, two Swiss teenagers hitchhiking to Denali and then a man so tan his skin looked charred who had just come down off the glaciers to take a break from work. 

The generosity and friendliness of the Alaskans, both transplants and native born was what made Anchorage attractive. I easily found myself chatting in line with strangers and sharing tables with new friends at Middle Way on the first day.

Temple Bowl and Carrot Juice

Oh and did I mention that I ate like a queen in Alaska? YEAH, back to the food... this cafe has an extensive menu with a cult following that produces lines almost out the door - but don't worry it's worth it! Buddha bowls, burgers, grilled cheeses, vegan soups and smoothies, desserts galore! In much of my travels, places that have professed to be vegan friendly are actually really more vegetarian friendly and they can subtract things like sour cream or cheese from your meal. Middle Way was refreshingly simple to order from but at the same time difficult to choose from - so many choices.

Vegan travelers: the veg scene is alive and well in Alaska so go explore!

                                                    SUITE G
                                                    ANCHORAGE, ALASKA 99503

(907) 272-6433

Mon-Fri: 7:00 am-6:00 pm
                                                     Sat-Sun: 8:00 am-6:00 pm

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Somewhere New: Homer, Alaska


    "I saw you walking around town earlier today," he said. His jaw was tense. He seemed worried I might get up and leave or possibly just ignore his soft spoken attempt at conversation. 
His eyes were soft too. Blue like the reflection of the mountains in the bay, both ringed in a cloud of fine lines, like so many ski lines puckering his skin. Spend enough time outside here and even a young man will earn these. Middle aged women in their recycled air offices who come home to lotion and lather against such lines are a world away here. John could not be called a young man anymore, though he was far from old. 
He sat half leaned, half perched on the table across from me in front of the Coal Town Coffee & Tea. Beatriz, his brindled pointy eared companion sat staring off down the Spit. 
"Yeah I've been all over," I said. "I walked out here even. It's a much longer walk than it looks."
"Yeah," he sighed, looking out over the water, " 4 and half miles to the end, longest spit in the world."
Over our heads a bald eagle was chasing a squawking gull. "You here for the summer?" he asked. That question has already become a familiar opener in the two days I had been in Alaska. 
"Just here for the week," I replied sheepishly, bracing for the reaction I had already come to expect; wide eyes and a breathless and sometimes critical "oh wow."
John just smiled. "Homer's a good place to stay for the week."
"No I mean I'm in Alaska for the week and I'm only in Homer for a day and a half really.'
Then came the reaction. "Well then you better get a beer at the Salty Dawg while you're here. It's kinda what people do who come to Homer. Honestly I think they sell more t-shirts than beers these days."
He sipped at his coffee and I sipped appreciatively at my chai.
He looked pointedly down at my camera slung across my body. "What do you do?"
"Not photography, thought that's what I went to school for." We started talking about jobs, the menial, the tedious, the exciting and the stressful.
"Lotsa jobs up here on boats. Go out for 4, 5 months, come home for a few months. Some of the hardest work you'll do though. And there's some bad bosses out there, some real jerks." As he talked my mind struggled to pull up an image of life on a fishing boat but all I could conjure was a far too romanticized version of what it might be like. Sunsets were prominent and the smell was decidedly salty, not fishy. 
His skin didn't look wind whipped and tanned though, so it has obviously been a season or two since his last boat tour. 
"I'm making a film actually," he offered. 
"Can I take a picture of you?" I asked, pulling off my lens cap and readying my camera. 
"I can't say I like being photographed much but yeah I guess you can take one."
"We're photographers, we'll always be more comfortable on the viewfinder side." I snapped the picture. He had sucked in his lip self-consciously and tensed the muscles around his eyes.
"Yeah you might wana just delete that one," he chuckled. 
But I didn't. It expressed his personality so well that it would have seemed cheap to take a more staged portrait. 
"Well listen, I have to go see this lady over here about something but if you watch my dog we could go see the Salty Dawg and then I'll give you a ride off the Spit.
Beatriz and I sat together as he hurried across the road. She stared after him. I reached out to comfort her but she refused to break her vigil even for a quick peek at me so I went back to sipping my chai. 
A little ways further down the Spit an old wooden lighthouse with the words Salty Dawg Saloon sat in front of the backdrop of the stunning mountains that drew me down the Spit in the first place. 
Inside the bar was cozy in the same way a musty old boat cabin might be. It was familiar feeling and cluttered with dollar bills tacked to every scrap of wall and ceiling.
The bartender waved John down and they fell into small town local talk. We got beer and sat at one of the long communal tables and fell to talking about travel and places to live and how to make a living without selling your soul.
"Oh hey John," came a floaty voice behind me. "I'm finally going to take that charter down there like you suggested."
Her hair was sunny blonde and the thinning skin on her cheeks was pulled unnaturally taut. I forgot her name as soon as she said it just as she seemed to forget my presence as soon as she had taken note of it. "That old fart Pavlov is going to ruin my trip though, can you believe it!" she slurred in reference to the volcano that was erupting a little ways down the chain in the Ring of Fire.
John gave her a veiled smile and shot me an apologetic look to which I shrugged good-naturedly. Eventually she moved off to talk to another friend down the bar and I smiled and remarked that Homer had some local color. He seemed afraid to laugh and this but smiled and nodded with embarrassment. 
"The bar culture here is intense," he explained. "You would think in such a small town that there wouldn't be much of a night life but there's almost too much of it here."
As we got to the end of our beers he seemed to pluck up a little courage and suggested  we share a photograph since we had been talking so much about the things we like to shoot. I pulled out my camera and shuffled back a day to a typical shot of a dish I might photograph in a restaurant. The natural light poured into the shot and the food popped against the red wall. He pulled out his phone and offered a picture of a native woman sitting on her couch with a rifle across her lap. 
"She lives in the town where we're filming. I hate asking people if I can take their picture but we were already filming so it seemed like most people there expected it before I had to ask."
The woman looked directly into the camera, expressionless aside from the way her hand wrapped around the barrel of her gun. He told me that she lives in a town where a mine is set to be started and the film was about the locals response to the possibility that their mountains could be ravaged. 
We rejoined Beatriz outside. Another dog was tied up next to her but she sat with her back to her would-be companion, ignoring the dog like she had me, and instead stared towards the kitchen. 
"Her past owner was quite the regular here," he explained. "She's used to getting hot dogs out the window from the cooks."
As we drove off the Spit the wind picked up and I asked how he dealt with the weather in Alaska. "I like it actually," he said, surprising me. "The crazy wind and the rain and the snow. I don't know why really but I like it. How do you like the Midnight Sun?" he asked gesturing towards the bright orb still floating high above the water. 
I hadn't thought to check a clock in hours. My eyes flashed to the dash. 8:30 pm and bright as mid-day. "Well no wonder I'm so hungry!"
He left my by my car with a business card that he sheepishly produced from his wallet. "It's kinda corny to give this to someone but whatever. If you ever come back to Homer you've got a friend you can look up now." He drove off leaving me at the edge of the beach. As quickly as we had met he left and again I was alone with the mountains.
A little girl was playing nearby while her mom watched from the car. As I picked my way out onto the beach to take a picture the girl ran towards me and yelled, "be careful, be careful! If you go too far the eagles will pick you up and drop you in the ocean."
Not for the first or last time I wondered "How did I get to this crazy, magical place."

Friday, October 4, 2013

Somewhere New: Tybee Island and Savannah, GA

For April's Somewhere New I went to Tybee Island, Georgia with a few friends. Road trips south were an annual occurrence in my childhood but it's been quite a few years since my last family adventure so it was time to hit the dusty trail for the dirty south. As we started our trip at some unholy hour of the morning, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" came on over the radio and we knew the trip was fated.
For my roommate, Virginia was her furthest venture into the south, so on this trip we were eager to show her what the South is all about. Enter the (dirty) South (of the Border).

 Sombreros, shot glasses and ponchos and lots of empty amusement park rides and stores. While this place can obviously be off-putting to the naively excited visitor - it would actually be a really interesting photo project to hang out at South of the Border for a weekend and photograph the festive empty spaces, the droopy employees and the forgotten statues. 

Our adventure at South of the Border was short lived and soon we were back on the road headed to Georgia. Tall, fronded trees replace the oaks and maples of the north, the land puddles and pools into swamps and marsh and the squeeters abound and luxuriously feast on the fainted beachgoers. 
Oh the South.

Tybee Island is a little gem of a town. Complete with waiters who call you brau and locals who ride bikes to work where they weld women out of scrap metal - this is Beach Life in a nutshell. 

Tybee is a few miles outside of Savannah and it was hard not to immediately fall in love with it. 

After setting up our tents and checking out the facilities on site we walked the short path through the tall grasses to the beach and made ourselves at home. 

But let's be real. On the east coast a beach is a beach is a beach. And so we decided to explore our surroundings. 

Oatland Island Wildlife Center  is a short drive from Tybee and is home to owls, cougars and even wolves. A nature trail runs through the grounds taking you by the different animals and highlighting local flora along the way. 

This tree is everywhere in the south: Sparkleberry or if you prefer Farkleberry. Seriously.

If walking through a Georgia jungle isn't badass enough for you then try this on for size: rent kayaks at North Island Surf and Kayak and paddle to Cockspur Island Lighthouse. This husband and wife (and now baby) team run a relaxed surf shop just a short ways from the lighthouse. 

Unlike so many of today's tourist attractions Cockspur Island is still an unpolished gem. Traverse the beach dotted with razor sharp clam shells and you'll have a rickety ladder climb up to the top where you'll get a great view of Tybee and the surrounding islands. There's no admission here, no hampering handrails, just good old fashion terror. We found that singing George Michael's "Faith" over and over was a good way to make it up and down the ladder. 

Right next door to the kayak rentals is Cocos - which really I don't highly recommend since it's not vegan friendly but if you're in the mood for fries and a beer - as we were - then it's convenient and has a great view. 

Kristen and I took a late night walk to the beach one night and happened upon one of nature's secrets. Here's an excerpt from my journal about it:

"Last night Kristen and I decided to look for crabs on the beach after dark. The nervous fiddlers were there, just as expected, but out right on the edge of the waves were mysterious blobs. Earlier we had seen lots of cone shaped, globby jellyfish washed ashore so at first we assumed that what we were seeing was a horror scene of jellies coming ashore.
As we got closer we discovered that there were in fact chains and clumps of mating horseshoe crabs. Every few feet, in the frothy mix between the breaking and receding waves were these love-locked groups.
Some were face to face in a kiss or silent duel and others were piled and linked in androgynous couples. Like so many other secrets of nature, the full moon is their peak time. 
The next morning we returned to the beach to see if any evidence remained. The coast was dotted with lone horseshoes. What has been so passionate the night before had fizzled out with the tide, and just like human lovers they eventually got tired and rolled to the other side of the bed to get some unmolested rest. 
We met a man on the beach who was rousing them from their heady slumber, pulling them free of their trenches and setting them on the course towards the ocean. Each began their slow scoot to the waves. "They get real dug-in like," he explained "Pretty soon the birds'll be peckin at em." Carefully he righted a toppled crab that was still weakly thrusting in a vain attempt to cover its exposed underbelly. 
What a strange hobby, we thought. "Do you think his help will interfere with evolution's plan for them?" Kristen wondered as we trudged off. 
"Those prehistoric looking dudes have already gotten the short end of the evolution stick," I replied.
We walked until the sand fleas and hunger drove us back to camp. The man was still moving crabs as we left, mumbling about how the babies would never make it to the water probably. I had to smile and appreciate the fact that everyone has their babies to worry over.
Cooing over human babies is in our nature. Cooing over horseshoe crab babies is a whole other thing. That's evolution in my opinion."

For a long weekend Tybee had the perfect amount of offering and with Savannah close by it's hard to get bored. We spent a good amount of time just reading, writing and walking.

Jitterbug Bakery  serves up almond milk chai, cakes, scones, muffins and even vegan soups. Kristen and I made the short walk to Jitterbug several times during our stay on Tybee. 

Small art shops, shell shops and piled high antique stores are on the island.

An afternoon spent in Forsyth Park in Savannah.

Until next time, beautiful South!