Monday, January 17, 2011

Ice Reunion in Alaska

The picture to the left is of the previously unthinkable. Me in Alaska... in January... smiling. Who would have thought? It was cold, all right (about 7 degrees when this picture was taken), but I think the sheer spontaneity of the fact that I was in a state I'd never been to on a day I'd never expected to be there with friends I hadn't expected to see numbed me (appropriately) to the single digit temperatures and five hours/day of pseudo-daylight of the 24... and then 48... hours I was there.

In my previous post, I mentioned the chance to see my good friends Ashley and Robbie was a big draw of venturing so far off course on my way back to the States (anyone else find it slightly ironic that they live in Alaska and their last name is Ice?). Admittedly, part of the draw was the sheer convenience of not having to figure out Alaska on my own, but more importantly for a chance to reconnect with such awesome friends. I met Ashley in college at Florida at the very beginning of my sophomore year. We were eating lunch at our sorority house. She was one of the "potential new members," and we older sisters were supposed to make an effort to get to know the new pledge class. After a brief conversation, I knew I had found my prospective "Little Sister" because she and I had an immensely important thing in common: We were both dating guys at military academies. 

Though Ashley was a year younger than me, she had known her then boyfriend Robbie and had been dating him for longer, plus they already had two years of long distance down since he first left for the Air Force Academy with plans to become a pilot. I couldn't believe how much we instantly had in common in terms of the difficulties in communication, the expenses of visiting, the struggle to make our way through the dating-obsessed world of the Gator social scene while attached to instant messenger. In addition, we both had already chosen these guys when Nine-Eleven happened the year before, and so the prestige and romance of the military academy experience was overshadowed by the reality and severity of their future military careers. We weren't just dating for fun at that point. We knew, on some level, that these guys were our futures and their career choices were very much a part of our decision to continue "dating a keyboard."

Kate, Ashley, Me, Kristen, Courtney & Kim on our wedding day :)
It dawned on me after I (finally) got on the flight to head to Alaska that it had been five and a half years since I'd seen these two. They drove down from Wichita Falls, TX to Houston for our wedding weekend. Ashley was one of several sorority sisters who came in for the celebration and mini-reunion.

Five and a half years later, here she and Robbie were picking me up in Alaska at 1:30 in the morning after my flight from Guam. And, now nine months pregnant, Ashley looked a little different than the last time I saw her!

Planning to only be in Alaska for 24 hours before hopping a flight to the Bay Area, Ashley helped me pack in a mini-tour of Anchorage in the short time we had. We started out by trying to go for a short hike, but quickly went back to the car upon discovering the trail was completely icy (not a good idea for el bebe) and I was sufficiently freezing three minutes after getting out of the car. I took this picture of the thermometer in Ashley's rearview mirror, but I should have waited until later that day when it said 3 instead of 10. Even so, 10 was a rather ridiculous temperature drop from the 88 degrees I soaked in as I boarded the plane in Guam just hours before.

Me, Ashley & Robbie
After our "hike," I joined Ashley for one of their previously scheduled events, lunch at Robbie's squadron for a going away party of sorts. Robbie's squadron is deploying to Japan and before they return, Ashley and Robbie will be drastically changing climates and moving to Hawaii. So we ate pizza in their squadron bar and listened to some speeches about how great an asset he had been to the squadron. That's always nice to hear, but not as nice to hear as the beautiful words Robbie had to say about Ashley when he had the floor. I was so proud to be there to hear Robbie thank his wife (my friend!) for always supporting him, even while plowing through grad school, working full-time as a second grade teacher, and carrying his baby. Yeah, military wives are pretty impressive across the board. Even the Air Force ones, it turns out (badoom-ching!). This was perhaps my favorite five minutes of my, albeit short, stay in Alaska. So great to witness firsthand that the authentic love these two shared years ago when I met them has carried them through all these years. That just gives me the warm fuzzies (the warm part being a major bonus about this point).

Next on the one-day tour of Anchorage was a combined "welcome back to America" type visit... shopping at REI! Okay, so not the most original Alaska stop, but major bonus that they don't have sales tax and it was still post-Christmas sales. It sounds so silly, because I have certainly done plenty of shopping in Tokyo, New Zealand, and even Guam, but it still felt so amazing to be in an American store for the first time in six months. People who worked there were helpful (weird). And they had a great selection of colors, sizes, fabrics, and prices (also weird). All in all, it was a great stop that made me even more excited about the fun to come these next few weeks.

That night for our last meal, Ashley and Robbie took me to the Bear Tooth Grill, an awesome restaurant that served its own microbrews. I got halibut fish tacos (locally caught Alaskan halibut... yum!). We took this picture thinking it was our last hurrah and continued back to Ashley and Robbie's so I could start my long night ahead of packing and traveling. All packed up, I drove Ashley's car to the Elmendorf terminal, arriving 30 minutes before roll call for the 0225 flight to Travis AFB near Oakland, CA. It was a bit intimidating that my first time driving more than 50 mph was in someone else's car on an icy freeway in the middle of the night in a city I'd never been to before (not ideal). But everything went just fine. That is, until i got to the terminal and discovered the flight had been diverted to Japan and would possibly take off the next day. Directions were given to call in the morning for an update. I headed back to the Ices, put sheets back on the bed (that's what I get for being a polite guest), and fell asleep not knowing what the next day would bring.

The next day I got my first real taste of the Space-A frustration. When I called at 7am, I found out the flight was now scheduled to depart Alaska at 0300 the next morning. Another night of driving on icy roads, showing up at a freezing terminal, and taking my chances that I would find my way out of Alaska, especially since the plane had picked up more cargo in Japan and they couldn't guarantee there would be any seats. Not awesome. At this point, I was really ready to get to California and start my previously planned visits, so I checked out my commercial options and was relieved to see I could book a flight on miles and get to San Francisco by 10am the next morning, all for $5.00. It was temping, for a minute, to fly straight to San Diego, but since I'd already been planning to fly into the Bay Area, I had made tentative plans with some really awesome people. It was too many great hugs to turn down, so I stuck to Plan A, well, Plan B at this point :)

The extra day in Alaska was pretty awesome, all things considered. For Ashley, it was the first Saturday in two years she didn't have homework to do. With their baby's impending birth scheduled for the following Friday, it was the last Saturday they had to not yet be parents for, well, the rest of their lives. I had already crammed in the Anchorage-type things I wanted to do. So the three of us just hung out and did absolutely as little as possible.

One of the things we did do was talk a lot about Guam and Alaska. It was amazing to me how many similarities we found in the ways we approached living in these two very different places. Like in Guam, people in Alaska don't check the weather. Ashley explained, "The weather doesn't keep us from doing anything. If you plan to go hiking and it snows, you go hiking anyway." Pretty similar to Guam where getting an accurate weather forecast is nearly impossible, and getting rained on is nearly certain.

One of the other similarities was the availability of fresh fish. I got to experience this again firsthand that night when they treated me to a dinner of wild King Salmon that Robbie caught the previous summer. I meant to take a picture of our beautiful dinner, but didn't think of it until our plates were empty. Robbie had a brilliant backup idea, and he sent me this picture he took of the actual fish we ate just after it was caught. Pretty awesome :)

As Ashley and Robbie dropped me off at the Anchorage airport, I found myself in a very grateful place. I was so grateful for the precious time we'd spent catching up on our very different but very similar lives. I was grateful to have had friends help me maneuver my way through a midpoint Space-A stop as well as winter in Alaska. I loved getting to check a new state off my list. Though I didn't see much of it, Alaska is absolutely beautiful and it's definitely somewhere I hope Nick and I make it to one day. Hey, if I can do it in January, the rest of the year can't be so bad, right?

All that, and I found myself particularly grateful that I had a boarding pass in my hand on a confirmed flight that had already made a space for me. No more uncertainty! And at the end of this flight would be another familiar face. Not my "little sister," but this time, my big sister :) Just like that, I was off to California, my second stop on what was quickly becoming my reunion tour of America.

****UPDATE! Ashley and Robbie had their baby, Robert Jeffrey Ice on January 14, 2011. Mom and baby are doing well. Can't wait to meet little Jeffrey in Hawaii one day soon!

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