Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Alaska — Summer of 2016

I'm in Chiang Mai again. It's wonderful to be back here on Soi 10 and reunited with my darling Nut. As soon as I could I jumped on my motorcycle and had a ride around our neighborhood. The smell of food cooking over charcoal fires scented the warm evening air and the welcoming smiles of Thais greeted me wherever I glanced. The weather in the afternoon is hot and muggy and will take some getting used to but evenings and mornings are fine and I'm getting back in the groove with my tennis coaching.
Summit Lake
My summer in Alaska was about as perfect as I could have wanted. The weather, up until August, was sublime. Living in my little RV gives me a joy that is hard to explain. A big part of that feeling is because it reminds me of the years when I first came to Alaska in that old Ford Econoline van. Another is because I like living near or just outside the limits of what most people consider essential — I don't need or want a big house, garage, patio, or a lawn. Hell, of the 33 years I've called Alaska my home, all but ten were without running water or indoor plumbing and they were among the best years of my life. My Winne does have running water, sort of, a kitchen and bathroom, sort of, but it's small and spare yet quite comfy for one person. Although I wouldn't like it in the cold darkness of winter, Alaskan summers are just about perfect for RV living and I made the most of it. This season I converted my too small dinette table to a makeshift desk by moving it to the front of the living space and retrieving my big office chair from storage. With this "desk" doubling as a kitchen table I can work and eat in comfort. On one rainy day when I was temporarily out of commission with a pulled leg muscle I stayed inside for 24 hours and made out quite well.

Several events unfolded over the past four or five months that weren't on my usual agenda. Just before leaving Thailand I had noticed an alarming development in my vision — there was a gray football-shaped area in my right eye accompanied by a blurriness that made reading difficult. I drove to Anchorage almost immediately after my arrival to see a retina specialist. In all, I made three trips up there for treatments. These consisted of injections, directly into the eyeball, of a drug designed to inhibit blood vessel growth in my retina. These extra vessels had leaked aqueous humor, the fluid that fills the eye, into the tissues near my optic nerve creating a sort of bubble which distorted my retina and caused the blurry vision. Why did they proliferate like that? Will it eventually lead to the feared macular degeneration that plagued my mom during her last years? The shots had a salutary effect and my vision has returned to near normal. Still, it's scary stuff.

As an aside, if I had had to make three long trips, five hours each way, in the lower 48 I probably would have been bored to tears. But this is Alaska where the intrepid traveler is constantly rewarded with scenes of unparalleled scenic beauty. On the last trip in mid-August, I drove the Winne and camped near Hope in the same spot where Tuli, Harper and I stayed last summer. It's a great site having a 5-star view with no other campers nearby and, to add frosting to the cake, it's also free.

Views from my Hope Road campsite (N60.92988°, W149.54192°)

Camping on the Resurrection River near Seward
The other issue that had me worried was sort of lack of balance I had been experiencing, most noticeably on the bike trip in Germany. Back in Homer, this began to manifest itself as a feeling of instability while walking, a loss of confidence in my ability to negotiate uneven ground. I literally fell flat on my face when exiting the Winne one evening. What the hell is happening to me?, I wondered. First the eyes, then this — we can all agree that getting old sucks but I suddenly seemed to be falling apart at the seams.

Then, during one of those trips to Anchorage I was talking with my friend Alisa Carrol, who happens to be a physical therapist, and learned from her that one's balance can be trained and tuned like any other physical skill, just as you can train yourself to hit ground strokes or volleys in tennis. I immediately obtained a referral from my doc for some PT sessions at South Peninsula Hospital in Homer. Working with Karen Northrop, a PT specialist there, my balance and stability began to improve almost instantly. She explained that certain muscles get lazy to the point of mild atrophy after a while and don't do the job they must to keep a person steady and upright. The simple exercises she prescribed have, to my amazement, allowed me to regain the balance I thought was lost to the ravages of old age. Now, every day I do my clamshell and calf stretches, my, for lack of a better term, one-leg dangles, my leg extensions, followed by a balancing act on a springy air cushion, all in hopes of delaying those ravages so I can walk confidently again and keep playing the game I love. I must add before leaving this topic that I now have insights about why so many older folks suffer traumatic falls, falls that often lead to death. Like me, their balance has probably been compromised and most of them are unaware of it. As active as I am at age 73 with my tennis program, I found I'll need to do more to stay in reasonable condition  unless I want to become one of those unfortunates.

Being in Homer means seeing old friends, lots of friends, and is a major reason I so enjoy returning to Kachemak Country every summer. The first few weeks are special because everyone I see runs over to trade hugs and greetings. I enjoy warm welcomes from my partners at Alaska Boats & Permits, and start doing day hikes with BFFs Kirk and Jambo.

Hiking with Jambo and Kirk

Party at Doug's — Alaska Boats & Permits hat circle
And then there's tennis. I left Alaskan winters behind so I could play tennis year round. Luckily the currency exchange rate between USD and Thai baht is tipped so much my way because that means tennis coaching in Thailand is relatively cheap. Coach Aoy, my Thai coach, is fantastic and has helped me improve my game significantly. A few years ago I had despaired of ever getting beyond the level I was at and had even, perish the thought, contemplated quitting . But over time and after many hours on the court with Aoy, my serve has become a shot I can count on instead of a liability and my ground strokes much more controlled and accurate. Each one-hour lesson costs about $9 USD so I can afford to have three lessons per week for under $30 USD. In Alaska, I would be laying out nearer to $200 for the same amount of time, and because regular tennis coaching isn't available in Homer, I'd have to be living in Anchorage to boot. Plus, I love playing tennis in Homer on a court that must rank in the world's top ten for scenic beauty with big, beautiful Kachemak Bay in the background and the formidable, glacier-studded Chugach Mountains behind that. It's an awesome venue and my buddies in the Homer Tennis Association are awesome as well. Here I'm flanked by two of them, Will Files and Chuck Widlowski.

Will, me and Chuck - our ages add up to 227 years!

Time to close this post. There are so many mapping chores ahead and I want to get at them. I discovered a new source of aerial imagery for Alaska and now I'm revisiting areas of interest (on the computer, that is) and adding geographic features that were previously obscured because only low quality Bing imagery was available. Let's see, the Matanuska River needs work, the area around Summit Lake, the Snow River Valley near Seward — the list is long. I'd better get going...

All the best from the Land of Smiles.