Category Archives: Travel

Blogmas 2019 Day 4: Take a Sad Song and Make it Better (repost)

Four years ago today, Ben and I went to Thailand to visit our sister Amy for Christmas. What happened next was one of the most dramatic Christmastime experiences of my life. Today, I decided to revisit that memory by reposting my blog post about the experience.

I knew that I’d figure things out eventually and everything would be fine, but sometimes my emotions don’t listen to my logic. I didn’t want to cry, but I felt the tears trickle down the side of my nose anyway. Blast.

What was wrong? Let me make a list:

  1. I had been traveling for a day and a half, with no end in sight, because…
  2. Our flight to Kunming, the second leg of our three-flight journey, was delayed for four hours due to a “mechanical issue…”
  3. Which we didn’t know any details about since we didn’t speak Chinese
  4. However, we knew we’d missed the third flight entirely
  5. And we couldn’t contact my sister Amy and tell her what was going on, because we weren’t able to connect to the internet at the airport
  6. And when the delay was over, and we got on the flight, they kept saying something about going to “Nanning”
  7. But we didn’t want to go to “Nanning,” we wanted to go to Kunming
  8. And then the flight attendant got on the intercom and explained in hard-to-understand English that if we wanted to head on to Kunming after Nanning we had to *garbled words* and collect a *garbled word.*
  9. And I was very confused.

Confusion+tiredness=tears, probably a very natural reaction, but I turned my head to hide them anyway. I looked out the window. And what I saw took my breath away.


Source: Wikipedia (Not exactly the same as what I saw, but the closest I could find.)

What are those squiggly things glinting in the sun? Oddly-shaped ponds? I peered closer. Rice fields! Of course!

We flew down, down, over green forests and red, red dirt, and terraced rice fields all over the hills, making the landscape look like a topographic map. It was unbelievably beautiful.

Nanning turned out to be a tiny little airport with only one gate, and a crisp-but-pleasant breeze blew in our faces as we descended the steps of the airplane, a nice contrast to the freezing temperatures of Shanghai. We followed the crowd across the blacktop, hoping we were doing the right thing.

A lady in a long blue coat stood by a door, yelling something, waving a handful of what looked like blue laminated bookmarks. Her voice was lost in the swift breeze. We left the pack, and walked closer. “Kunming! Kunming!” she was shouting, and so we took some blue bookmarks and walked into the gate area through her door.

It was only a short wait. I had time to use the bathroom. The toilet was the  the squatting-kind, which made me feel happy inside, because I was in a place that actually felt Chinese, instead of the sterile generic airplanes and airports I normally find myself in.

And Ben was able to connect to the internet and send Amy an explanatory email.

In short, my spirits were refreshed.

Of course with all the hopping on and off of airplanes and shuttle buses, and with boxed dinners being thrust under my nose every time I began to doze, I was quite tired by the time we reached Kunming. Too tired to keep up with Ben’s rapid pace, I sat down to send Amy another email on Ben’s phone while Ben fetched the luggage.

I typed a message, and clicked “send.”

“Message held in queue,” it told me.

I looked up at the message Ben had sent earlier. That one was also “held in queue.” It had never sent. Amy had no idea why we didn’t show up at the airport.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t connect to the internet. The only way to get the password was to put in your phone number, and they’d text you the password. Which didn’t exactly work for foreigners without overseas cell service.

Ben fetched the suitcases, left me with them, and ran off to talk to the people at the China Eastern counter about the next flight to Chiang Mai. I was alone in a strange airport with two suitcases I could barely pull, and no way to contact my family. I spread my Tinkerbell blanket on top of the largest suitcase and lay my head on it. Unbidden, another tear trickled down my nose and dripped off the tip.

Suddenly, someone beside me began talking very excitedly in Chinese. I looked up. A lady with a yellow scarf was gesturing wildly to me. She pointed to her phone, handed it to her friend, and scooted up next to me.

I smiled, wide. The friend snapped a picture.

“I want one too!” I said, handing her my camera so she’d know what I meant.

Then everyone in the friend group wanted a picture with me. They all wore magnificent brightly-colored clothing, and they jammed a red hat on my head and took pictures of me in it.

It was so much fun. They knew two English words, “yes” and “hello,” and I knew no Chinese words at all. One lady tried very hard to communicate, pointing to her nose and tapping her hand and holding up two fingers, but I was completely lost.

Then Ben came back, and they wanted to take pictures of us together, though Ben wasn’t particularly enthusiastic.

They gave me a bottle of water, which was nice, since I’d lost mine along the way, and we looked through the pictures we’d taken and gave each other smiles and “thumb’s up” signs until they had to go.

“So what’s going on?” I asked Ben, my spirits once more revived.

“They only fly to Chiang Mai once a day, so we have to spend the night here,” he told me. “They put us up in a hotel.”

“Did you tell them we were brother and sister so they’d give us two beds?” I asked.

“I just hoped they’d figure it out.”

“WHAT? You just assumed they’d KNOW?”

“I told them we were brother and sister.”


We waited for the shuttle, and I longed in my heart for some music to listen to.  I had nothing. Even Chinese music would have soothed my soul. Instead  I sang, so softly that no one could really hear me over the general airport buzz, and pretended that I was listening instead of singing.

“Hey Jude, don’t make it bad, take a sad song, and make it bet-ter-er-er…”

“That’s what I’ll do,” I decided. “I’ll make this sad song better. I’m in China. I’ve never been to China before. I’ll have fun.”

We walked into the hotel room, and the first thing I saw was that, blessed relief, there were two beds. As I stood there admiring this fact, I heard Ben say, “wow, the shower’s not very private.”

Yes, that is a giant window between the bathroom and the rest of the room. Ben hung out in the hall while I used the bathroom, and then he got his chance to go when I went downstairs to ask how to connect to wifi.

“It’s easy,” said the receptionist. “No password.”

It wasn’t easy, though. Facebook wouldn’t open. Gmail wouldn’t open. Twitter wouldn’t open. Google wouldn’t open. “You can go down and talk to the receptionist this time,” I told Ben.

“It’s weird, though,” said Ben. “I can connect to ESPN just fine.”

“Really?” I tried opening Internet Explorer instead of Firefox. When I typed in “Facebook,” it re-directed me to a Bing search of headlines like “sites blocked in China.”

This was the one time in my life that Bing was more helpful than Google. Because apparently Google was blocked in China. Along with Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

Thus began a frantic search for an alternate way to send a message. “Can you comment on Mom’s blog?” “I think I had a Yahoo account once.” “Do you remember the password to Mom’s old Juno account?” “Maybe I could post on my blog.” “I guess I can message my fantasy football league members through ESPN.”

It turned out that Blogger was blocked, but WordPress wasn’t, at least not entirely. A basic HTML version of my blog loaded, but it wouldn’t let me post. I tried posting using my phone.

“Success!” I shouted.

“Oh good,” said Ben. “I don’t know how long it would have been until my friends saw this fantasy football message.”

And then we collapsed in gales of laughter at the random and bizarre communication methods we were resorting to.

The next morning I woke up before Ben, and held a towel up while using the bathroom in the off chance that he groggily opened his eyes. I wondered around the hotel looking for breakfast, and found nothing. It was absolutely frigid, and the hotel doors stood wide open. Burr. I returned to our room.

Besides two pairs of crocks and a roll of toilet paper the size of a can of cream-of-mushroom soap, the hotel room didn’t have much. It did, however, have all the necessities in the way of tea-making.


That was quite nice. I wrapped myself in my bedspread and drank tea and ate crackers with peanut butter. Man, it was COLD.

Ben finally woke up. “It’s snowing,” he told me, looking out the window.

“What? Really?”

“Yep. See the snow on that car?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Did we forget to turn on the heater last night?”

“There’s no heater. I checked. There’s no heat in the entire building.”


Happiest of happys though, when I checked the comments of my blog post I saw that, not only were Mom and Amy vastly relieved to see that we were okay, but a girl that Amy and Ben knew was actually living in Kunming at the moment. Amy typed in her phone number, and I scribbled it down on a piece of paper and went down to the lobby to ask if I could use the phone.

Felicia, was the friend’s name, and she was as friendly as friends can be. “I live an hour away, but I’m not doing anything this morning,” she said. “I’ll take a taxi over right away.”

Ben took a walk while I showered. The water was hot, warming me through and through, and I sang “hey Jude” at the top of my lungs. I was making the sad song better.

I hadn’t packed for cold weather, I’d packed for Thailand, but I did the best I could. A skirt, under which was a pair of leggings, under which were my pajama pants, rolled up to the knees. My light jacket over my t-shirt over my long-sleeved shirt. Socks borrowed from Ben, and a light scarf wrapped around and around my neck. My Tinkerbell blanket wrapped around my shoulders. I was as ready as I’d ever be.


“Where do you want to go?” Felicia asked when she arrived, all friendly and smiles.

“Someplace where it’s warm,” I said.

She chatted a bit with the Taxi driver in Chinese. “Do you like hot pot?” she asked us.

“What’s hot pot?”

“It’s a Chinese dish…there’s a heated pan in the center of your table and you put in all sorts of meat and vegetables and make a stew.”

A warm soup in a warm place sounded heavenly. “Sure, let’s do that.”

We walked down the street and around the corner, as I tried to avoid getting water in my not-particularly-waterproof shoes. Flakes of snow nestled into the purple fuzz of my Tinkerbell blanket.

“You just had to be stuck here on the day it snows!” said Felicia.

“Does it not usually snow here?”

“Oh no! They call this the city of eternal spring. A couple years ago it snowed, and people were so excited because it was the first time it had snowed in seven years.”

We stepped into a tiny restaurant that, like the hotel, left its doors wide open. This made me dubious, but it did seem to be warmer in here. Someone gestured to the floor and there, in a square pan, was a pile of burning coals, keeping the customers toasty.

We gathered around the low table: me, Ben, Felicia, and the taxi driver. The waiter brought a pan of broth and set it on the burner in the middle of the table, and then brought us plates of meat and vegetables, and a large kettle full of tea.


This already seems like a core memory, forever powering travel island. Sitting there on that low stool, in a completely unexpected location, with two brand-new friends.

The taxi driver ladled meat and veggies into my bowl. “How do you say ‘thank you’ in Chinese?” I asked Felicia.

“Syea-syea,” she said.

“Syea-syea,” I told the taxi driver. I now knew a word in Chinese.

But what I remember most was the juxtaposition of cold and warmth. The snowy wind blew in the open door, nipping at my nose and freezing my toes. The coals warmed my legs, as I tried to get as close as possible without burning the edges of my Tinkerbell blanket. The soup warmed my insides, and the kindness of strangers warmed my soul.


Photo credit: Ben

My logic was right. We figured things out, and everything was okay. We paid for the hot pot with the 400 Yuen we’d been given as compensation for our delayed flight, and gave the leftover money to Felicia hoping to cover a fraction of her taxi cost, even though she insisted it was okay and she was happy to come.

We went back to the airport, checked our bags, and got on the plane for Chiang Mai. We were delayed over an hour while they sprayed the snow off the plane and waited around for other unknown reasons, but at this point that seemed like pittance.

“How many hours have we been traveling?” I asked Ben when we finally reached Chiang Mai and were filling out immigration paperwork.

“Fifty hours,” he said. But I added it up later, and it was actually sixty-two hours. Over two and a half days.

But we fetched our suitcases and walked through the big glass doors, where Amy was waiting with her arms full of hugs.

We had finally arrived.

Alaska, Part 3: The Way it Invaded our Souls

I heard a rumor that one of the Kuhns babies looked at his mother, wide-eyed, and whispered, “are there dragons in Alaska?”

That may be the best description of how Alaska made me feel. Like there could be dragons here.

After Elaine’s wedding, I was so tired that I sat in the red chair and didn’t move. For three days I’d focused on wedding, wedding, wedding (you can read about that in Part 1 and Part 2). But now the wedding was over. 

I ought to just go home and sleep. Should I just go home and sleep?

It was bedtime, after all. But the sun was still up, in that curious Alaska way. And I felt like maybe there was yet another adventure awaiting, once I got my second wind.

“Let’s go to the river, or something,” said Karli.

So we drove down to the river, a strange, gray, churning thing full of glacial silt. We wandered over the bridge and along the riverbank.

The endless twilight. Everything seemed moody, and weighty, and powerful. The world was a vast expanse of wonders.



I wanted to capture the way Sherri smiled as she squished her feet in the clay.



Pic by Karli Kuhns


Karli, Sherri and I made Wesley take a picture of us.



Later we got a proper selfie with all four of us.


Karli ate the moon.

We got back into the car, and then we took some wrong turns. Was it nearing midnight? Time seemed irrelevant. We hopped out and wandered around. Aimless. Drunk on the enchantment of tonight.

The next day we went to Hatcher pass. Everyone came: The Stoltzfus clan, the Kuhns clan, the randos…even Elaine and Brandon. Yes, the newlyweds themselves decided to show up.

“Our honeymoon doesn’t really start until tomorrow,” said Elaine.


Elaine and Brandon


Daisy and her baby beside a mountain stream.

Oh yes. I should tell this story. Remember that cute to-go mug I got at the coffee shop on Friday? Well, it was so adorable that I didn’t throw it away. I continued to brew tea in it throughout the weekend.

On Sunday, when I went to brew myself some tea, I noticed that someone had attempted to wash it. And it was a paper cup. But it still looked usable, so I poured boiling water into it, clicked the lid on, and carried it across the room.

The weakened paper walls of the cup began to collapse. Boiling water spilled out onto my arm. I dropped it in pain, and ran to the sink to run my arm under cold water. Even so, I had a pretty bad first-degree burn, and a mess to clean up.

I found a bag of frozen peas in the freezer, and I wrapped it in a towel and held it on my arm. That helped with the pain. But by the time I got to Hatcher Pass, the peas were melting. Besides, I didn’t want to hike around holding a bag of peas onto my arm. So if my arm started to hurt pretty badly, I’d just dip it into this cold mountain stream, and feel blessed relief.



We ate a picnic on the mountain. Without plates. No one remembered to bring plates.


Photo by Karli Kuhns


Photo by Virginia Kuhns Petroski



Photo by Virginia Kuhns Petroski



Photo by Karli Kuhns

On Instagram, Karli wrote, “Words can’t quite express the way Alaska made me feel. Mixed emotions. Happiness, longing, joy, peace, turmoil…I wanted to sit on the top of a mountain and dream for days.”

And I don’t think I could say it any better than that.

Later that Sunday afternoon, Karli and Sherri took me to the airport in Elaine’s car. I waved goodbye to this majestic place that now held a snippet of my heart.

I’ll be back, Alaska.

I promise.

Alaska Part 2: The Wedding

Elaine and Brandon’s wedding was to take place in a pavilion on top of a hill. But the reception was to be held in the somewhat-boring-looking church sanctuary, so we made it beautiful using all things twinkly (candles, string lights, twinkle lights, etc).

Most of the transforming was done on Thursday (you can read about that in part 1 of my Alaska adventure). But in order for the sanctuary to be properly twinkly we had to solve the problem of sunlight streaming in the large front doors.

Friday morning, Mimi, Elaine’s mom, attempted to solve the problem. “I went to Fred Meyer, but I couldn’t find black paper anywhere!” she said. “So I bought black bed sheets.”

Karli and I looked at them dubiously. But what do you know, folded in half they were the exact width of the door, and long enough to loop over the top. We secured them with bright blue painter’s tape, rolling pieces and tucking them under to hide the bright-blueness as much as possible.

The double layer was rather opaque. No more Halloween cobwebs. Karli and I gave each other a high-five.

Someone told me that Elaine wanted to talk to me about desserts, so I went over to where she was sitting. “Oh hey Emily,” she said. “So when you and Eileen are serving the desserts tomorrow…”

“Wait,” I said. “I’m serving desserts?”

“Oh, yeah, didn’t I ask you to?”

I laughed. “No, you didn’t. But of course I’m happy to help.”

Friday was a lot more relaxed in general, since we’d gotten most of the work done on Thursday. Now that Kim was here with her rental car, we took full advantage of the freedom and went out to get coffee at the cute coffee stand where Elaine works when she’s not, you know, prepping for her wedding.

Only of course I got hot tea, and it came in the most adorable to-go cup I’ve ever seen.


After that we had just a bit of time before the rehearsal dinner, so Kim and I went over to the apartment where Elaine and Brandon would live after they married. Kim had the address, but when we went inside we just saw office space, not apartments.

“I think the apartments are on the second floor,” said Kim.

“Where’s the staircase?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

We peeked around corners. No staircases were to be found. “Let’s just open some of these doors,” I said. Kim looked a bit dubious, but what do you know, the first door I tried had a staircase behind it.

We went up the stairs. “Which apartment is hers?” I asked.

“I don’t know…all she gave me was the address.”

Kim tried calling Elaine, but Elaine didn’t answer. So we walked along the hall, and I carefully listened at each door. Then, oh! That was definitely Elaine’s laugh.

I knocked. She opened.

It was a small studio apartment. Nothing fancy, and a bit old-fashioned, but quite charming. Virginia, one of the Kuhns siblings, and Daisy, who was married to a Kuhns sibling, were relaxing on the floor because there were no couches or chairs yet. Kim and I sat down too.

“This is so great!” said Elaine. “Finally, a chance to just chill with my friends for a bit!”

The “chilling” didn’t last long, however, because soon it was time for the rehearsal dinner.

The rehearsal dinner was held at Brandon’s parent’s house. The kitchen was brimming with food, so many dishes I knew I wouldn’t have a chance to even try them all. Victoria, Brandon’s mother, told me what each of them were. There was lots of salmon of course, as well as seal soup, whale meat (both cooked and uncooked), and herring eggs, which were on some sort of seaweed…kelp maybe? And something called “Eskimo ice cream,” which was sort-of like a fruit salad.

“I also made chicken for the English people,” said Victoria. I thought it was so funny that she used the word “English” to refer to non-Native people, because it’s the same word Amish people use to refer to non-Anabaptist people.


Elaine’s dad prayed in English, and Brandon’s grandpa prayed in Yupik, and then we got to eat. It was an amazing meal. I didn’t get to try nearly everything, but I ate all the most interesting-looking foods. Especially the seal and whale was a real treat, because in Alaska it’s illegal to hunt whale and seal unless you’re an Alaskan Native. It’s also illegal for an “English” person to buy whale and seal from an Alaskan Native, so our only hope of eating it is to have a Native friend.

However, if I’m gonna be honest, I couldn’t figure out how to eat the raw whale. I just couldn’t chew it. “You have to bite off the white part, and leave the gray part,” said Kim. But I could not for the life of me bite off the white part. Finally I realized that Kim had gotten cooked whale, which was much easier to chew. I’m still not sure how one eats the raw whale. Just stick it in your mouth and chew it like a piece of gum? Does it eventually break down?

The herring eggs on seaweed tasted exactly how the Newport Bayfront smells. I don’t know how else to describe it.


Relaxing in the back yard, eating delicious food.


Elaine and Brandon at the rehearsal dinner. Poor Elaine was exhausted!

Almost everyone was either in the bridal party or married to someone in the bridal party. Karli, seeing Elaine’s stress, appointed herself wedding coordinator. So from the end of the rehearsal dinner until the end of the reception the next day, Virginia, Wesley, Eileen, and I were the randos who had no specific job and so did all sorts of sporadic tasks.

That evening it was mostly running errands. The next morning we didn’t do much, because everyone else was in and out of wedding photos, but then we went to the church early and did all the bippy things that still needed to be done.

Eileen and I, of course, were doing desserts. There were cheesecake cupcakes that needed to be served on these artsy birch slabs. But then, we heard that the guy in charge of the meal was short-handed. So, maybe we’d have time to help him with food if we got all the cheesecakes onto their slabs early.

This was like, forty-five before the ceremony was to begin. We started clearing off surfaces in a back classroom, and filling them with frozen cheesecake cupcakes atop birch slabs. And then…

“Um, Eileen?” I said. “This birch slab has bugs on it.”

“What?” she looked closely. “Oh…yeah…it does…”

Another chance to be innovative. Thankfully there were many more birch slabs than we needed. Eileen began checking and sorting them, while I double-checked the good ones to make sure they were decidedly bug-free, and continued arranging the mini cheesecakes.

“I’m sure this is enough,” I said finally. “We don’t want to arrive at the same time as the bridal party and have to try to dodge out of pictures.”

Of course in the end I did a couple more random tasks, and what do you know. I ended up arriving at the pavilion at the same time as the bridal party, and had to try to dodge out of pictures. Haha.

It was an absolutely beautiful ceremony, though. There was hardly a dry eye in the place as they read their hand-written wedding vows to each other. Next thing you know, everyone was laughing when they tried to do a unity ceremony with salt, and the salt stuck to its container and wouldn’t pour out.

Laughter and tears. The perfect wedding.


(I didn’t take photos during the ceremony, but I stole this one from Karli.)

Eileen and I skipped the receiving line because there were things to get done. Wesley and Karli had skipped ahead to light the candles and switch on the twinkle lights. “Hey Emily,” Elaine said as we zipped past the receiving line, “can you get drinks out?”

“Sure thing!”

That’s how Eileen and I found ourselves in the kitchen, mixing up batches and batches of lemonade, and handing them over to whatever strong-looking person happened to be in the kitchen right then. “Can you put this on the drink table? Thanks!”

Okay, lemonade levels were stable. What about water levels? What about coffee levels?

Oh! No one put creamer on the coffee table.

Oh! What are we supposed to put the creamer in? Surely we have something nicer than just the jug it came in? A chance to be innovative! Soon we were washing up some sugar dispensers we found in a cupboard in the church kitchen, and labeling them using scraps of paper, scotch tape, and a green marker. “It’ll look fine. It’s pretty dark out there,” said Eileen.

Then we set up the dessert table (using only bug-free birch slabs, of course), and then Virginia was like, “you do realize there’s another grocery bag full of lemonade concentrate, don’t you?” We hadn’t realized, but now we did, so we mixed up even more lemonade. And then finally, we had a chance to take a breather.


Karli came by. “You can sit at that table up there, with the assorted bridesmaids and Wesley.”

We kept the dessert table filled. We ate our food. We admired the couple.


We signed at the romantic-ness of their first dance.


And then we looked around and realized that people were leaving, and the whole thing was almost over. We took out our tiny bubble wands and blew a cloud of bubbles over Elaine and Brandon as they dashed away, into their new married life.

From Friday morning until Saturday evening, I was so focused on the wedding that I didn’t have much time to stop and appreciate Alaska. But then, once we’d gotten Elaine and Brandon married, restored the twinkly reception hall back into a run-of-the-mill church sanctuary, and eaten a supper of wedding-food leftovers, things changed.

We had time for the wilderness.

However, I’ll talk about all that in my next post, which will be the final post in my Alaska series.

Alaska! Part 1

My first introduction to Alaska came 45 minutes before my flight was supposed to land, when I finished my movie and lifted the window shade. As I peeked out upon the Alaskan landscape, still brightly lit at 9 pm, my jaw hit the floor.

Look. I thought Oregon had “real” mountains, and I’d snicker at what passed as a “mountain” on the east coast. But let me tell you. Oregon mountains are nothing, NOTHING compared to Alaska mountains.

A quick Google search would have told me this. The top 10 highest mountains in the USA are all in Alaska, while Mt. Hood doesn’t even make the top 200. And while I knew Alaska mountains are taller than Oregon mountains, I had NO IDEA the disparity would be this drastic.

Here’s where I ought to post a photo. And let me tell you, that was my first reaction when I saw the splendor of peaks and glaciers spread out before me. But the blurry through-the-window phone photo was completely inadequate to represent that sort of glory, and I quickly scrapped that idea and just stared.


So mesmerized that I thought crashing into one wouldn’t be such a bad way to die, as modes of death go.

I was in Alaska because my friend Elaine was getting married. I’ve known Elaine since 2016, when she first messaged me on Facebook and we got into a long conversation about living in vans and then we decided to go camping together in the Redwoods.

For Elaine, the adventure never stops. She ended up moving to Alaska, where she met a swell guy named Brandon, and then the two of them decided to tie the knot and invite all their friends to come watch.

Thanks, Elaine and Brandon!

I was picked up at the airport by Elaine’s parents, as well as what I call “The Kuhns Clan…” three Kuhns siblings, one spouse, and three of their children. Also Wesley, who wasn’t related to but often hung out with the Kuhns siblings. They were all friends of Elaine, and they’d arrived an hour before me. We all were in a large white van. Elaine told me that I didn’t need to worry about renting a car. Apparently rentals are really expensive in Alaska.

I snapped this blurry photo out the car window, trying to capture the looming mountains as well as the endless twilight. It was too far south, and too late in the year, to see the midnight sun. But the golden hour stretched on and on, and when the sun finally set at 10 pm, the twilight seemed never-ending.

Pete, Elaine’s dad, had the sharpest eye for wild animals. “Moose!” He’d call out, and sure enough, there was a moose. “Fox!” He called. And there it was, bushy tail and everything.

After an hour of driving we reached Palmer, Alaska, and Pete dropped me off at Bob and Dianne’s house. Bob and Dianne were friends of Elaine who had some extra room. Several other people were planning to room there over the wedding, but since I’d come early, for now it was just me. Everyone else in the van was staying at this place called InterAct Ministries, which had a large guest house.

You’d think it would give me FOMO, but the introvert and needs-her-sleep in me was rather delighted.

The next morning I was picked up in a stretch Hummer limo.


I opened the door to this thing and it was a PARTY CAR. Mirrors, neon lights, lava lamps, clear-plastic cup holders, glass bottles for booze. Only of course there was no booze.

There were, however, lots of car seats.

(Sorry for the terrible photo. My phone camera is iffy at the best of times, and downright terrible in low light. Also sometimes I just push the button and then forget to look at the picture and make sure it’s not blurry, LOL)

For some reason Elaine’s brother, who also lives in Alaska, has a friend who owns a stretch Hummer. “Oh, that can haul a lot of people,” Elaine’s brother thought. So he borrowed it for the wedding.

The Hummer was filled with Elaine’s parents, siblings, siblings-in-law, nieces, and nephews. Also her cousin Rose and her cousin Eileen. And Sherri, her friend/bridesmaid. We all went to the church where Elaine was going to get married, and we weeded, spread pea gravel, strung up lights, set tables, etc. The Kuhns clan arrived and also helped out. I’m not sure how they got there, because I overheard someone saying that the van we’d taken from the airport had broken down, and I never saw it again for the rest of the weekend.


Trying to figure out table placement.

Elaine wanted the reception to be lit only by candles and string lights, so Karli and I took on the task of covering all the windows.

“I feel like at home we’d just run to Walmart and get what we needed,” said Karli, looking at the collection of tape, scissors, and Fred Meyer paper grocery bags she’d collected from the church kitchen. “But that’s not Elaine’s way.”

“Oh well, it’s a chance to be innovative,” I said.

The sanctuary, where we set up the tables, was surrounded by classroom doors that had little rectangular windows. We taped brown paper bags over them, from the inside of the classrooms, so that from the main room it looked rather nice. We were stumped by the big nursery window for a while, but I found a huge roll of paper in a back storage room of the church. I had to lie on my stomach atop some broken-down chairs to retrieve it, but we managed.

The big glass doors leading into the sanctuary were the last hurdle. The white paper had worked on the nursery window, because it was tinted so you couldn’t tell that the paper was white. But for the big main doors, we wanted black.

Garbage bags? No, too tacky. Table cloths? The only ones available were spandex. We stretched them over the doors. Hey, that kinda works!

But when we shut the doors, and the sun shone through, they looked strange and creepy. “Do they look like eyes, to you?” I asked. Because something about their placement rounded the edges of the doors, and the two posters already taped to the doors looked like pupils of two giant eyes.

“Yes!” Karli agreed.

Rose chimed in to say that to her, the stretched-out spandex with the sun shining through looked like black Halloween cobwebs.

She was right. It did.

Giant eyes? Halloween cobwebs? The spandex tablecloths had to go.

Karli and I made up our minds to just drive to Fred Meyer and buy black poster board. But what were we supposed to drive? The Hummer? In the end, we didn’t go after all, due to vehicle shortage. “I guess we’ll just get it tomorrow,” we decided.

After all, it was only Thursday. The wedding wasn’t until Saturday.

We all went over to the InterAct guesthouse for supper. Elaine and her immediate family, their spouses and children, her two cousins, and Sherri were all in the vast upstairs space. The Kuhns clan and Wesley were downstairs, in a smaller apartment. It began to feel like everyone was part of a clan, either the Stoltzfus Clan or the smaller Kuhns Clan. Sherri, Wesley, and I were the random wild cards who weren’t related to anybody.

The cool thing about Alaska is that you can just go on a hike after supper without having to worry that it will get dark.


The dirt was soft, like powdered sugar, and many of us went barefoot.


Elaine pointing.


Rose, Elaine, Elaine’s niece, and Karli


Elaine and I. And Elaine’s brother Mel’s thumb.

Kim, my roommate from Kansas, called me while I was on the trail. She was the wedding photographer, and she was going to stay at Bob and Dianne’s with me. “I’m coming in about 3 am,” she said.

“Okay, do you have an address for your GPS?”


“Well, when you go in the driveway there will be a log cabin on your left, and then a new house on your right. I’m in the new house. You can go around back to the basement door. I’m the only one in the basement. Just open doors and poke your head in until you find our room. If you have any trouble, call me.”


We all piled back in the Hummer, and they dropped me off on their way back. Hard to believe it was nighttime already, with the sky in its endless twilight, but it was. I went to bed.


I woke up. Groggy. Picked up my phone. It was Kim. “Hello?”

“Hi, I don’t know what to do. All the doors of the house are locked.”

“Okay, I’ll let you in.” I stumbled out of bed and opened the basement door. No one was out there. “Are you sure you’re at the right house?”

“It’s a blue house, right?”

“Um…no…it’s a yellow house.”

“What? But I went in the driveway, and there was a log cabin, and a newer house…a blue house…”

“Oh yeah, sorry. You have to keep going down the driveway a bit. Sorry I forgot to tell you about the blue house.”

Soon I heard a soft rumble, and Kim’s car came purring up. She’d opted for a rental, despite the expense. She was mortified. “I can’t believe I went to the wrong house!”

“I can’t believe I wasn’t clearer in my instructions! And I told you to peek into all the rooms! What if you’d actually gotten inside and went peeking into stranger’s rooms!”

We heard footsteps on the stairs. Bob came down, in his bathrobe. “Is everything all right?”

“I accidentally went to the blue house instead of this house!” said Kim.

Bob laughed. “Heh heh heh. Yeah, that’s my uncle’s place.”

He trotted back upstairs, and we all went to bed.

This has been part 1 of my Alaska adventure. Part 2 is coming…soon. In the next day or two hopefully. I have many projects to work on this week, including a play that I need to have done for VBS next week, so we’ll see.

Endings and Beginnings

Well, there you have it. My year-long adventure is over, and I am back in Oregon.

I anticipated having a few weeks to relax, get some writing done, and enjoy the Oregon summer before harvest starts. But life just bellows full steam ahead, doesn’t it? So many friends to catch up with. So many events to attend.

Amy graduated from Linn Benton Community College on Thursday. Exactly six years, to the day, after I graduated from LBCC.


“It’s a funny thing, having my big sister follow in my footsteps,” I joked.

Jenny is also finished at Linn Benton, but chose not to walk. Both of them are going on to Oregon State University. Amy will have her Bachelor’s in another year, and Jenny will have her Bachelor’s in two years. With Ben finishing up his PHD around the same time, and Steven completing his second Associate’s degree this fall, hopefully my geeky family will be finished with schooling and ready to settle down and start families already, heehee.

Well, not Jenny, I guess. She’s planning to get her Mastor’s yet. But she has plenty of time.

Anyway, I don’t know where Ben was, but the rest of us went to Amy’s graduation. Of course it was rather long and boring, as graduations are in general. Someone’s name would be announced, and a small group of their friends and family would cheer from one corner of the room, and then another name would be announced, and another cheer would erupt from another corner of the room.

I cheered for Amy, and also our friend Rachel Nissen. But Steven cheered for some random person I didn’t know.

“Do you know her?” I asked.

“No, but nobody else was cheering for her,” said Steven.

I thought that was the sweetest thing.

As the line got shorter and shorter, Steven started cheering for more and more people. I wasn’t listening too closely most of the time, but my ears perked up when I heard the announcer lady say “Waldo French.” I’d seen Waldo’s name in the program, and it had stood out to me as being very odd. People, I was sure, must constantly make jokes about it.

So, “Waldo French!” said the announcer.

Steven, only half-listening at this point, cheered. “Woo hoo! Yeah Rhonda.”

“It’s Waldo,” I corrected him.

“Heh heh. Oops.”

“Where’s Waldo?” Dad asked, looking around.

Steven and I lost it. I mean, such a Dad joke, but funny.

I’m sure Waldo wouldn’t find it funny, though. I’m sure he hears this joke approximately twice a day, 730 times a year.

We all went to Dairy Queen for ice cream afterwords.


This has been a weird week for me, as I’m sure it’s been a weird week for every Mennonite everywhere. I’d sit down to write and get so distracted reading every new article about Jeriah Mast’s sexual abuse of Hatian boys and the CAM cover-up. And then reading all the comments. And then getting angry. I mean, this shouldn’t be news to you…I’m sure that’s how at least 80% of my readers spent this week.

I finally got to the place where I didn’t let myself read any updates, comments, anything for 24 hours. I was just so worked up and not in a good head space.

I did write a draft of a blog post for my Patreon blog, all about how to grapple with your Mennonite identity when you come face-to-face with evil in your culture. But I didn’t post it because I was so worked up and needed to get some distance from the topic for a bit.

I do plan to return and finish it, though. Hopefully this week. At least by the end of the month.

Also, I will add that the first Patreon post I wrote Is actually rather applicable to the Jeriah Mast case. In it I explored the term “toxic masculinity,” a term that is thrown around in greater American culture today. I argued that Mennonites are actually a feminine culture, more likely to suffer from what could be called “toxic femininity.” Which people tend to be skeptical of, because we’re also a patriarchal culture. But I think people see it a little clearer now. People from greater American culture would want to punch the living daylights out of a pedophile. People from Mennonite culture want forgiveness, compassion, remember-that-we’re-all-sinners. It’s a feminine cultural trait that seems so good at first, but was absolutely toxic in the case of Jeriah Mast.

So yes, that’s where my brain was at this week, as I caught up with friends, and tried to get some writing done, and unpacked my belongings.

Of course, now you’re probably wondering what my life plan is now. Have I moved moved back to Oregon? Wasn’t the whole point of this year of travel to try to find a place where I could move permanently?

Well, that was one of my points, though not the whole point necessarily.

The biggest roadblocks I ran into this year were health issues and financial issues. With my health, I’ve decided that moving around every month is not something I should really ever do again, as fun as it was. Moving anywhere seems beyond me at this point. So I’m planning to stay in Oregon now at least through the summer and most likely through the fall as well.

I had fun in every place I went this whole year. Besides Oregon, Lancaster was the best place as far as people go, since I was near my cousin Annette and some of my close friends, including Esta and Janessa.

I really really loved Philadelphia. I was only there for a week in March and another week in May, but I would love to move there if something opened up. It would also have the advantage of being close to Lancaster, and also close to DC, where Matt lives.

I might have recency bias with Kansas, but I could also seem myself moving there. It has the advantage of cheap rent, and I love the way the community is involved in outreach right there in the town of Hutchinson. It’s also somewhat close to my Uncle Fred, and it’s the only place on the whole trip where I felt healthy the entire time I was there.

As far as money goes, I find myself in an odd financial situation. This year I lived off of freelance writing and editing jobs and some of my own savings. But I found that, while freelance writing and editing pays the bills, my heart is in writing books and plays. It’s also financially smarter, especially for someone with dubious health, to write things I can continue selling. That way if I’m, say, too sick for a month to do any freelance jobs, I can still earn money by selling books and plays that I’ve already finished.

Still, it’s tough to make that transition. Freelance writing pays right away, whereas these longer projects require a lot of work with no immediate payout. But since I am trying to slowly make that transition, it means that I have a hard time predicting what my monthly income will be six months or a year from now. Which makes it hard to plan a move.

Right now I’m planning to stay in Oregon until I get my book about this year finished and self-published, hopefully this fall.

Beyond that, I’m not sure. I do dearly love Oregon. Maybe I’ll live here part of the year, and jaunt over to other places for random three-month trips now and then? Just to keep life interesting? I don’t know. I honestly don’t feel very settled anywhere. Someday I really do want to buy a house and settle down. But I’m not financially there yet.

So for now, I guess I’ll live like I’m 19 instead of almost 29, just bipping hither and yon like I’m young and carefree. And then I’ll sleep on a hard mattress somewhere and get back pain and remember my age again, LOL.

Anyway, whatever the future holds for me, I’ll be sure to keep you all updated here on the blog.


Driving from Kansas to Oregon to Surprise my Family


I hatched a wild plan to drive to Oregon with my brother Ben, hide in the cupboard while my family was at church, and surprise them all. Would I succeed? Watch to find out!

So yes, this means that just like that, my year of travel is over! Hopefully in the next few blog posts I’ll process how the trip as a whole went for me and meant to me.


Notes on Kansas

lightning during nighttime

Photo by Johannes Plenio on

It was 1:30 am, and I was eating donuts and pretending I was still a teenager. It was a funny little donut shop. With its outdated wallpaper, random mugs hanging on the wall, and old paneling, it reminded me of somebody’s basement, mostly finished back in the ’70s, and then forgotten.

Apparently the place doesn’t even open until 11 pm.

I was hanging out with my roommate Kim’s youth group, and when they suggested a donut run, I couldn’t resist the enchanting allure of midnight donuts. But then, after those midnight donuts were ingested, there were storm warnings and we all got worried and scuttled off towards home.

Thankfully I wasn’t driving, because there were warnings of hail and severe winds and all sorts of frightening things. We drove straight into the storm, and I sat in the back seat, mesmerized by the purple. It was everywhere, in bursts of lighting that lit the entire sky.

I’m remembering, now. If you want to be awed by mountains or oceans you go to Oregon, but if you want to be awed by the weather, you to to the Midwest.

One Oregon night a few years ago there was intense, sky-splitting lightening, and no one in my family could sleep. We all ended up on the front porch in the middle of the night, watching it together. And yet that lightning was perhaps only half as intense as this stuff.

For some reason I ended up in either the East or the South this entire year, so I’m glad I decided to get a small taste of the Midwest before heading home.

Wait…what all states are considered to be “Midwest?” I just googled. Ohio is part of the Midwest? How?

In my brain, the Midwest ends with Illinois. In my brain, the Midwest is where land is flat and roads are straight and everyone waves at everyone and you say “hi” to every Mennonite you see and folks are chill and the weather in the spring is absolutely crazy. Where Mennonite communities are not so isolated as they are in the West, but they’re not piled up on top of each other either.

If you are from Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, etc, do you think of Ohio as part of your Midwestern culture? I’m just an ignorant Oregonian who knows nothing about this.

I’ve been here for two weeks, and it’s been absolutely magical. Not because of the weather or the people or the midnight donuts, but because I’ve felt so healthy. 

Health is such a funny thing. All of the things I dislike about life–all my feelings of incompetence, or loneliness, or the burden of having a to-do list that I can never possibly finish–seem to quietly become not-big-deals if I’m feeling healthy.

Maybe Kansas has a magical climate that is perfectly suited to my health.

Although, after experimenting with so many climates and houses this year, I’ve come to the conclusion that my health woes are probably not related to climates and mold and things external to me.

I think–sad as this sounds–I think that my body is just not suited to the nomadic life I crave.

Stress makes me sick. It has, ever since my West Nile days.

My last week in Lancaster I got horribly sick–the worst of this whole trip–but I felt a strong conviction that after I recovered I was going to have a time of wellness.

That’s what I’ve had, so far, in Kansas. The sort of wellness that allows me to eat donuts with teenagers at 1:30 am.