Only in Alaska

The VP of our Alaska division sent this over to me this morning, and it made me giggle. As most of you know, I’ve landed the new gig as editor in chief at Alaska magazine and I can attest to it being Texas on steroids. You honestly haven’t seen tough, quirky, or down-right industrious until you’ve spent some time in the Last Frontier. http://www.buzzfeed.com/bennyjohnson/27-crazy-tings-that-only-happen-in-alaska. Check it out. It will make your morning.

Thank God they don't serve moose burgers here.

Thank God they don’t serve moose burgers here.

Bright Lights

Rare Chance for “Southerners” to See the Northern Lights Tonight

Just yesterday my dermatologist told she’d seen the Aurora Borealis in Boulder one night many years ago. This was shortly after she told me that she was raised by a gypsy who was a spell-making witch (no lie, I can’t make this up), so I wrote her off as a little out there and held onto my skepticism. I’m the editor for Alaska magazine and spend a good part of my day evaluating shots of the Aurora taken from places like Chena Hot Springs and downtown Fairbanks.  From November through March, it’s a safe bet that there’ll be at least one photo and article about the Aurora in our magazine, because the light show puts on a fairly steady display in the far north. But this morning, The University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute predicted that tonight, folks who live as far south as central Illinois, Ohio, Iowa, Massachusetts, and Colorado will have a rare opportunity to see it. Apparently, the sun shot out a strong solar flare late Tuesday, which should shake up the Earth’s magnetic field (with absolutely no scientific background, I imagine this to be sort of like a four-year old playing with an etch-a-sketch) and expand the Aurora Borealis to the south. So get out your warm clothes, camera with tripod for long exposures, and see some magic tonight. It’s well worth the loss of sleep to watch God finger painting in the sky.

The End of All Excuses: The Amazing Barbara Hillary

Barbara Hillary doesn’t want to hear your excuses. She knows you’re just afraid of failure or maybe even success. How does she know this? At eighty-years old, my friend Barbara has defeated ageism, sexism, racism, breast cancer, lung cancer, and poverty by becoming the first African-American woman to stand at the North and South Poles. She just sent me this video interview, and it’s my privilege to share her with all of you.

http://www.foxnews.com/on-air/fox-friends/index.html?playlist_id=86912&intcmp=features#/v/1470704535001/barbara-hillarys-arctic-travels-make-history/

A Canvas Beyond Measure: Artist Uses Snow as Inspiration

Snow Circles from Beauregard, Steamboat Aerials on Vimeo.

For several years, German-born artist Sonjha Hinrichsen has used the blank slate of untracked powder as a canvas for works of art best seen from the air due to their immense scope. In Colorado, New Mexico, and Northern California, Hinrichsen’s spirals and swirls etch the landscape for a moment of time, only to be erased by the next snowfall.

Quoted in Steamboat Magazine, Hinrichsen says, “Snow drawings last such a short time. It could be two to three hours, or two to three days. They define the landscape, and they are defined by it.”

Hinrichsen’s most recent installation appeared on Rabbit Ear’s pass (outside of Steamboat, Colorado) last weekend. With five snowshoeing volunteers, Hinrichsen executed her vision debossing a single unbroken path through two feet of snowpack. Many spectators view her work as a peaceful process of environmental communication. For adults, Hinrichsen’s patterns seem to evoke the Native American influences that have guided her work, while children imagine the work of Dr. Seuss at play.

After arriving in the Bay Area of California at the San Francisco Art Institute in  the late 1990’s, Hinrichsen found her work driven by a single thought: I am nomadic. Captivated by the beauty of the West, she set out to replicate the emotional trajectory of manifest destiny as a traveler across the plains and rivers. The riveting impression of her work is magnified by its fragility, and like each snowflake, no single creation of Hinrichsen’s can be duplicated again in an identical way, which may just be the point and part of the natural beauty of it all.

 

 

Miraculous Accidents: Paralympic Athlete Becomes Able-Bodied After Crash

Miraculous Accidents

By Michelle Theall

Van der Vorst in 2011

We’ve all heard about accident or injury leading to the end of an athlete’s career, but 27-year old, Paralympic hand-cyclist, Monique Van der Vost’s story has an ironic twist. While training for the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, Van der Vost lost control of her hand-cycle when another bike struck her from behind. After fourteen years in a wheelchair and over a decade spent defining herself as a world-class athlete, Van der Vost regained the ability to walk and subsequently found herself out of the Games. Here is her incredible story.

At thirteen years old, Monique Van der Vorst became paralyzed after a surgical mishap. Within two years, she tried hand-cycling—at first as a way to get around her small Dutch community in the Netherlands, and later, as an obsession. Seven-hour rides turned into dedicated training and led to her quest to compete at an elite level.

Five years later, her tenacity paid off; she won the World Championship and went on to defend her title in 2004 and 2006. But she wanted more. She wanted Olympic gold.

Competing with a neck brace in Beijing

She spent the next year and a half in single-minded pursuit of achieving the top honor at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing. Yet, just five months before the opening ceremonies, an elderly driver struck Van der Vorst while she was out on a ride and left her severely injured, unable to eat or hold up her head. Instead of giving up, Van der Vorst concentrated on rehab to regain as much function as possible in the short amount of time she had left before her event. She flew to Beijing, secured her neck in a brace, and garnered two silver medals for her country. Had she been completely healthy, she might have come home with the gold. Instead, she would have to wait four more years for another chance. And that opportunity would never come.

In 2010, while training for the 2012 London Paralympic Games, Van der Vorst sustained traumatic injuries in a crash with another bike. Rushed to the hospital, she noticed tingling in her left foot. For reasons no one can explain, the crash stimulated some type of neurological connection and within a few weeks, Van der Vorst could move her leg. From that moment on she rediscovered her body in stages: crawling, standing, and walking again. As exhilarating as it was to regain her mobility, Van der Vorst had to come to grips with the fact that she was no longer an elite athlete. Her entire identity as a Paralympian, and her dreams of competing in the 2012 Games in London, had been instantly derailed. It’s a bittersweet tradeoff, and one that most of us would accept readily. But Van der Vost isn’t like most people. She couldn’t give up her gold medal dreams or the sport that had saved her. She would ride again.

People like to say that something is easy by using the phrase: It’s just like riding a bike. In Van der Vorst’s case nothing could be further from the truth. Though Van der Vorst had the keenly honed mind and upper body of an athlete at the top of her career, her atrophied legs belonged to a person who hadn’t stood for over fourteen years. So when Van der Vorst took her first able-bodied ride at the beginning of 2011, she barely kept the bike and herself upright. It was a wobbly start akin to a child riding without training wheels for the first time and certainly not one resembling Olympic aspirations. But it was just that: a start. A beginning.

Van der Vorst recently told the media, “Sometimes you have to fall and rise to get to where you need to be.” That first trip back on a bike led to a 2,000-mile ride just two months later. Today, Van der Vorst is a member of the Dutch professional Rabobank women’s cycling team with a newly minted goal: to compete in road cycling at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

 

 

A Penitent Carnivore Confesses

I could never kill an animal, but I sure do enjoy eating them. This hypocrisy gnaws at me every time I criticize a hunter or slice through a juicy filet at a high-end steakhouse. How can I be against hunting and remain a carnivore, especially in a place like Boulder where I couldn’t toss a t-bone without hitting a vegetarian?

 

In my lame defense, I tried being a pescatarian (fish and dairy allowed), and lasted four months (I’ve got gut issues, and as I quickly found out, the worst thing I could do was load up my digestive tract with veggies). On principle, I don’t eat deer, elk, lamb, baby cows, or rabbits—these animals are too cute, cuddly, and serene, and I enjoy watching them. Ugly animals, however, are on their own. Still, I’m not completely heartless, even to the less attractive animals. I allow pigs, chickens, turkeys, buffaloes, and adult cows to live free range, cage free, grass-fed, antibiotic and hormone free lives before ending up on my plate. Still, it’s not enough. No animal wants its life taken, even if it was born and bred for that purpose (or has pink hairy skin like an old man’s head or a red waddle dangling and swaying like your old aunt Selma’s bosoms).

 

I realize the gaping holes in my justification the minute I serve up a free-range rotisserie chicken for dinner and try to explain to my five-year old son (usually after he has tried to ride our Irish Wolfhound, Winston) that we are never mean or cruel to animals. I did not kill the bird in front of us, but I am most certainly the reason for its death. How can I wash my hands clean of this every night?

 

The answer has been complicated. I once thought that it was okay to eat animals as long as it was done out of necessity and with respect and intention, much the way Native Americans hunted so that their families could eat and have shelter and clothing. They gave gratitude to the animal for its spirit and nourishment. I based my rationale on the moral judgment that killing should never be fun, done for sport, or bragged about in your living room with the head of an elk dangling above the mantle. For this reason, I’ve been hard on hunters. Yet, regardless of the hunter’s celebratory attitude about bagging a ten-point buck, a clean shot from a rifle might be more merciful than some of the barbaric and inhumane practices at many slaughterhouses. But whether I buy my meat from Safeway or go out to shoot it myself, the end result is the same. I cannot look an animal in the eye and take its life, but I have easily let someone else do it for me.

 

And while I’d like to say when I slice into a filet that I eat mindfully and with gratitude like the Native Americans, I rarely think about the food on my plate. Case in point: As a carnivore, I’ve often gathered friends together for a big meal, purchasing and cooking more food than I know we can ever eat without guilt that I’ve sacrificed an animal for my own enjoyment and wasted its life with my excess.

 

For all of these reasons this Christmas, I decided to go back to being a pescatarian. I lasted until April, when I went to New Zealand, tired of fish and chips and veggie pies, and succumbed to the local delicacies of lamb and venison and beef. It’s with no little shame that I write this.

This weekend, I returned to the States and hopped back on the wagon. I still wear leather hiking boots. And, even though scientists have recently discovered that fish can feel pain (duh), I can’t see a time when they’ll be off my menu. I’m just taking it one day at a time.

 

I Will Run Over You: A Tribute to Coach Jarvis Scott

By Michelle on April 13, 2010

 

“I will run over you.” Coach Jarvis Scott drives the Texas Tech track van behind our team during practice, nudging our calves with the bumper. That was twenty-one years ago. Now, her former student-athletes (including me and many others who didn’t end up under the van that day) assemble into a Lutheran Church in Lubbock, Texas to honor our mentor and swap stories from the good ole days. Coach Scott is in her sixties now and suffered a stroke in 2003. Even with a cane, I’m guessing she could still out run me on the track. I came to Tech, largely because of Coach Scott, because she appeared to be one of the strongest women I’d seen, and she was an Olympian in my event. Before I made the ten-hour drive to Lubbock, friends asked me, “You’re going where? To do what?”

Jarvis Scott
Michelle and Jarvis in Lubbock, TX 

Jarvis cared about us. Not in the fluffy cuddly bunny way. More like the tough love, scared straight way. She used to say, “I’m not your mama and daddy, but your parents entrusted you to me, and that makes you my responsibility.” She also said, “You may not be a champion athlete, but you will train like one. You will be disciplined like one.” She kept her word. When I’m asked: How did she help you? In what way did she stand up for you? I answer: She didn’t. She gave us advice, but didn’t intervene. For most of us, she was the first person who taught us to fight our own battles. That we’d be subjected to all kinds of challenges in life and would need to grow up and face them with courage. Growing up in the projects of Los Angeles, Coach Scott knew first hand how self-reliance could come in handy.

I went to Tech strong, but left stronger. Our coach cared more about who we became as young women, than how many races we won. In a packed cathedral, we waited for Jarvis to speak, still as women in our forties, waiting for her to inspire us and say the one thing we just might need to hear to be our best.

 

You’ve Been Served…An Abnormal Mammogram Report

Four days after a routine mammogram, I received a form letter from Kaiser Permanente’s radiology department. The first sentence, I kid you not, was:

Your recent mammogram revealed an area that we believe is benign.

The automated letter (distinguished by the Oreo-cookie pattern of vertical lines just above my name and address) went on to say that “this type of finding is relatively common and occurs in up to 10 percent of mammograms.” I suppose they could have told me what the “finding” was and perhaps even on which breast and exactly where the “finding” had been seen (even UFO sightings are more specific), but that would negate the convenience of the form letter. Being a writer, I’m a stickler for detail, and resented them telling me that something (an area…a finding…an alien space ship?) was “relatively common” when by their own definition 90% of the mammograms they perform do not yield a result like mine.

The letter recommended I have a follow-up imaging evaluation in six months and told me in bold type that this (letter…test result…extra terrestrial?) shouldn’t be overly alarming since the “vast majority” of these exams ended up being normal.

I’m not panicked. Just a little pissed off at their bedside manner. After all, I believed their cool commercials and rebranding efforts. Seriously, the video imbedded here…awesome. Their multi-year Thrive marketing campaign led me to believe that health care could be, well, personal.

All this to say that form letter #Mammo-6-988 reminded me that I am just a number to Kaiser, and I refuse to be lulled to inaction by the soothing voice of Allison Janney in the Kaiser commercials saying, “may you live long and thrive” (a catch phrase sounding oddly similar to Star Trek’s Live Long and Prosper). As for the mammogram, I’ve already contacted my primary physician for more details, and I will decide how to proceed based on the information I get from her. But one thing is certain, I will never stop being the greatest advocate for my own health—clever Kaiser commercials and automated letters be damned.

Surf’s Up! Read The Wave

As seen in Women’s Adventure magazine:

By Michelle on September 29, 2010 | ,

The WaveThe Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean by Susan Casey (Doubleday, 2010)
Reviewed by Michelle Theall

I opened Susan Casey’s new book, The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean, and read a few chapters before bed. I woke at 2am drenched in sweat, convinced that a four-story wall of water had swallowed me whole. The Wave is that good.

I do not surf or sea kayak or sail. I’m land-locked, and while I like to look at the ocean, watch dolphins, and run on sandy beaches, I am not a water girl. Which is not to say that I don’t envy them. I do. I envy Casey, who is driven to explore waves and sharks (her first book was The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks), completely submerged in her work. Casey’s obvious curiosity, respect, and passion for her subjects, allow readers like me to explore worlds I avoid with the knowledge that a veteran journalist is steering the ship.

The Wave uses historic oceanic events, mariners, big wave surfers, photographers and videographers, and scientists to separate myth, legend, and hypothetic assertions from factual data regarding monster waves, the kind that Casey describes by saying, “I heard it before I saw it, the exploding curtain of glass that hammered onto the reef, the lip of a thirty-foot barrel hitting the earth like a liquid apocalypse.”

Even with writing like that, The Wave could have become a dry examination of physics and weather phenomenon jargon and lost its mass appeal. But it doesn’t—mostly because Casey spends a good seventy percent of the book with iconic big-wave surfer, Laird Hamilton, and his posse as they Jet Ski “tow surf” into “Mother Nature’s biggest tantrums” for fun. Laird is as much a freak of nature as the rogue waves that Casey writes about—but in a good way. He’s a chiseled water god with unmatched athletic ability and a purist’s reverence for his sport.

A bit of subplot in the book comes thanks to the 2004 Billabong XXL and its offer of $100,000 to the first rider to surf a hundred-foot-wave. The prize money draws rabid amateurs, creating unsafe situations for everyone. As Dave Kalama, one of Hamilton’s surfing partners laments to Casey, “They’re going straight to the Indy 500 as soon as they’ve gotten their drivers’ licenses.” Of course, surfers will devour The Wave, but so will land lovers—in large part because Casey gives readers an inside look at the psychology and sub-culture of surfers and their obsession with a force they cannot control and that constantly evolves. As Hamilton explains, “Every wave’s different on the same day…it’s never the same mountain.”

If I rave about Casey, it’s because she has somehow been able to make something as simple and common as our oceans’ waves into a riveting 326-page book, without describing water in the same way twice. Take a deep breath, clear your schedule for the day, and dive in.

That’s Kid’s Stuff: How Old Do You Need to Be to Attempt a World Record?

By Michelle on September 3, 2010 | ,

Where should we draw the line for children setting world records?
Abby

In remote parts of Alaska, a teenager is more likely to ask for the keys to the Cessna than the car. In Boulder, Colorado, kids start rock climbing around six years old. Sailing families on every coast take years at a time to cruise to different parts of the world, homeschooling their children at sea. Depending on where you live and your familiarity with such endeavors, you might find the parents of these children irresponsible. For example, I don’t know anything about hunting, so I think it’s insane that in places like West Virginia you can hand a loaded firearm to a fifteen year old and send him out on his own to shoot wild game. Or, if you’re willing to supervise and are a licensed hunter over the age of twenty-one, you can let your five-year-old niece bag her first deer. I’ve never shot anything in my life, except tequila, so my first instinct would be to call social services.

In January, sixteen-year-old Abby Sunderland set sail on her boat, Wild Eyes, from Marina Del Rey, California, in an attempt to become the youngest person to solo-circumnavigate the world. For over five months, she demonstrated why her parents trusted her enough to support her dream and let her go. Unfortunately, halfway into Abby’s journey, a three-story-high wave in the south Indian Ocean crippled her boat by snapping the mast, and Abby manually set off an emergency beacon for rescuers. It’s hard to say which hit Abby the hardest, the 60-knot winds and 25-foot swells that ended her dream, or the media accusations that her parents were negligent for allowing her to make the trip in the first place.

A quick read of Abby’s blog demonstrates that for almost half a year Abby handily tackled less than ideal conditions aboard Wild Eyes, including faulty wind gauges, deficient solar power, leaks, major storms, engine failure, and the emotional isolation of living alone in a small space that smelled like squid. Abby grew up on boats, and the storm that damaged her rigging had nothing to do with being a sixteen-year-old girl. If anything, Abby’s response to the crisis showed maturity and experience beyond her years and proved that she was well prepared for emergency situations.

While Abby waited for days on her disabled boat to catch a ride with a French shipping vessel, thirteen-year-old Jordan Romero was home in California celebrating his new title as the youngest person to summit Everest. In December, he plans to knock off Vinson Massif in Antarctica and become the youngest person to climb the highest peak on all seven continents. But one out of every twenty-five people who attempt to summit Everest dies, and one out of every ten who make the summit dies on the descent. If you’re into probability, the fact that the boy’s dad and stepmom went with him to the summit meant that they’d not only put Jordan’s life at risk, but also gave him pretty good odds of losing at least one of his parents if he survived. Jordan’s attempt and successful summit brought media debate, but perhaps less so than the squall surrounding Abby’s fractured sailing quest. Why? Because Jordan is alive, well, and one peak shy of conquering the seven summits. Jordan set a world record. Abby went home.

I’m thinking that a child’s success or failure shouldn’t be the litmus test for deciding whether or not a parent is being reckless or irresponsible. Within the bounds of the law, a mom or dad must decide whether or not a child is mentally, physically, and emotionally ready to tackle a particular feat, but that type of discernment can be tough when the child is begging to do something that no child his or her age has ever done before. Without precedence, how do you know exactly where to draw the line?

Thirteen year olds can summit Everest. Sixteen year olds can sail solo. Not all, but as Jordon and Abby have proved, some. Kids are breaking barriers. They are redefining what is reasonable and prudent. As women, we know all too well what it is like to be discounted for our mental, physical, and emotional ability where athleticism is concerned. In 1966, Roberta Gibb opened her mail to find her Boston Marathon entry rejected with a short note stating that women were not physically capable of running a marathon. She snuck into the race and finished with an unofficial time of 3:21:25. She didn’t die. Her ovaries didn’t fall out. And while I will never run a marathon, I know many other women who can, and do, and are thankful that Gibb paved the way and proved the world wrong. Not all women can run a marathon, but some can, want to, and if given the chance – will. Perhaps our kids, when they are ready, deserve the same opportunity.

~Michelle Theall