Peonies (and an Alaskan cabbage)

Each summer when I am not working I try to volunteer somewhere at least once a week so I have a reason to leave my house and not sit on the couch eating Oreos and watching Call the Midwife or whatever show I decided to binge watch. My first summer after teaching I volunteered at World Relief (shameless plug – literally one of the best nonprofits ever. Check them out). Last summer I volunteered for myself by planning my wedding. This summer I decided to try something new and I am volunteering at the Georgeson Botanical Gardens in Fairbanks. After my gardening failures of early summer (read here for more info) I decided to learn more by working in someone else’s garden.

In case you are not on Pinterest, peonies are a big deal right now. I can’t say I blame anyone. They are dang gorgeous flowers. I had them in my bouquet at our wedding. But fun fact: peony season doesn’t really match up with wedding season in the Lower 48, so it can be hard to have enough peonies to go around. They are also fickle creatures and can be picky about growing. Cue Alaskan summer! Alaska has totally capitalized on the peony boom and peony gardening in Alaska is incredibly popular. Because of our intense amount of sunlight, they thrive up here. Many peonies in weddings in the Lower 48 are supplied from Alaska!

Even better news for you, peony lovers: there is a peony garden at the Botanical Garden. Their blooming season is just about over, but yesterday I went to check them out before I was volunteering. I had to share some photos with you all! They are gorgeous and HUGE. I hope you enjoy this little (#nofilter) walk through the garden.

Some of them, I am not exaggerating, were as big as basketballs. If you can see my hand in the picture, it is because they were literally so big I had to hold them to get a photo. Aren’t they beautiful? I want to weep at how gorgeous they are!

And finally, a photo of an Alaskan cabbage for good measure. I included my feet for scale. The thing is massive.Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

 

Seward: Mount Marathon

Derek and I just got back from an absolutely wonderful trip around Alaska. I can’t put into words how grateful and thankful we are to get to have this time and the resources to go on this trip. I will be writing a bit on those travels in the coming days and weeks, but today I wanted to focus on one specific circumstance.

Seward, Alaska is easily our favorite town in this grand state, and so when we planned our summer travel, Seward was one of our first stops. We spent 3 days in Seward and one of those days we were able to observe Seward’s 4th of July festivities, which include a 5k race. It’s not just any race – it is a 5k that has a 3,022 foot elevation gain. The fastest time ever run was 41:26, which is insane. (For some perspective: the current world record for a 5k is 12:37. Which is nuts as well). The runners run up and down a mountain and it is hard. They finish bloody and muddy and exhausted. And it’s awesome. (Read more about it here).

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The Mount Marathon race includes a junior race, a women’s race, and a men’s race. One fun little activity that they hold is also a “mini-marathon”, where they put race bibs on little kids and let them run the first 200 or so meters of the start of the race and the crowd cheers wildly. It’s really adorable. They do the mini marathon about 10 minutes after the women’s race has begun.

The kids got out of the start fast and we cheered and clapped and then the noise died down. People started walking away or turning to each other and chatting as we expectantly waited for the top women to return from the top of Mount Marathon. But then a little flutter of noise began to erupt from the crowd and people started clapping and cheering again. I turned to Derek and asked what they were clapping for. He pointed back to the start line.

A little girl who couldn’t have been more than three or four was still participating in the mini marathon. She was wearing a Belle costume and was assisted in her run by a walker, her mother, and leg braces. Each step was clearly laborious to her. She was trying with all her might to do that mini marathon even though her peers had long finished.

The best part – the crowd went wild. We cheered and clapped and yelled encouragement. People cheered just as hard for her as they did for everyone else, even for the top finishers of the race. As I clapped I felt my throat get tight as I thought about the beauty of it all.

This moment encapsulated what I love about running, and about people. There are no tryouts and you can’t get cut from the team. Everyone can participate. You don’t have to be fast, but you can be, and that’s okay too. Running teaches us that we can do hard things and that when we do, we will have people cheering for us on the sidelines.

The runners really fought in the Mount Marathon race and it was incredibly beautiful to watch. I will write more later about watching the race because it was so much fun to see and to celebrate people running such a difficult race. I love watching the ends of races no matter the distance because I just think it’s a beautiful triumph. They showed immense courage and fortitude and it inspired me to no end.

But I have to say that I think the person who showed the most courage that day was a little girl in a Belle costume who conquered the mini marathon.

Summer Solstice

Prior to moving to Alaska I have literally zero recollection of giving a hoot about Summer Solstice. One beautiful thing about Fairbanks is that the community celebrates Summer Solstice with gusto. I was so grateful Derek came back from Korea in time to participate in the events and that we got to share them together. Summer has always been my favorite season and I love discovering summer in Alaska together.

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Was this photo taken at midnight or the middle of the day? We may never know.

Here are some of the Summer Solstice activities we have been up to lately…

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Post Midnight Sun Run. This was 11:15 pm.
  1. The Midnight Sun Run. I am a sucker for any fun run and this was a 10k that started at 10 pm at night. There were over 3,000 runners signed up, which for Fairbanks is a pretty big deal. I am not sure how many states were represented, but the last I heard is that it was in the 40s. I saw people with shirts from all over the US, including Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where I went to school (Go Fighting Illini!) The sun was out the entire time, and when we left to go get Taco Bell afterwards it was still completely light out.
  2. The Midnight Sun Festival. It was like Taste of Chicago for all you midwestern readers (mom and dad), except Alaskan, so weirder. There was food, ice cream, and tents selling everything you could imagine, including fidget spinners. I loved walking around on a crowded street with a lot of people, and also running into friends!
  3. Fishing. Prior to this past week my experiences with fishing were one time fishing Processed with VSCO with c1 presetoff the dock of my friend’s lake house in Wisconsin using hot dogs as bait. When my colleague from work reached out and invited me to go fishing, I was really looking forward to it. We went out on a lake near where Derek and I live and it was really enjoyable to me! I had a great time spending time with her and even cooked some of the rainbow trout we caught that night. I absolutely love getting to know people in Alaska and hearing their stories and hearing about life here beyond the military community, and I am really grateful to her for taking time to teach me about life here. People in Alaska have the absolute best stories. I swear NPR is missing out.

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While sometimes the constant light can get annoying, I am trying to soak it up all I can. I know we won’t live here forever and it’s really special getting to live in a place of such extremes, even if that does mean extreme light and extreme dark.

Solstice for me has been a time of connection. We have connected with other people and our community in unique ways, whether it be through fishing or a fun run. I am so thankful for the sun that brings people out of their homes and for opportunities to connect with local culture and enjoy the solstice.

Talkeetna

When we found out a long time ago that the guys were going to be in Korea for 4-6 weeks during June, my friend Stacy and I decided that it would be fun to take a little road trip in Alaska to break up the monotony of the time they were gone. (Her husband works with my husband so they were both out of town). We originally were going to take a trip to Homer, Alaska, which unfortunately didn’t work out, but Stacy found a great Airbnb in Talkeetna and I am so glad we did end up going there! It was an awesome trip and a fun way to discover a new town in Alaska.

I had heard of Talkeetna originally because the town’s standing mayor is a cat named Stubbs. Stubbs is 20 years old and a complete beast, and I was on a mission to meet that cat. (Read about Stubb’s noble reign both here and here).

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Nagley’s, “home of Stubbs”

Talkeetna is also known for being the starting spot for climbers who are planning to climb Mount Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley), the highest peak in North America.

Talkeetna is about a 4-4.5 hour drive from Fairbanks, and so we drove out on a Tuesday and drove back on a Friday. It is the perfect town for a 2-3 day trip. We both loved Talkeetna and really enjoyed our trip. It was so fun to spend time together, and also to discover a new place.

Restaurants

I will start off by saying that the food in Talkeetna was overall really good. Fairbanks food scene is disappointing at times, and so it was fun to go somewhere where there were quality restaurants. There wasn’t a lot, but what there was was really good!

  • Wildflower was the best food we had in Talkeetna. Absolutely delicious with a great atmosphere.
  • Mountain High Pizza Pie was okay, but we ended up getting our meal paid for by a kind retired Infantry Colonel who was thankful for supportive Army wives and ironically was an alumni of the same school as Stacy! He was seated next to us (family style seating). I will take free okay-pizza over good let’s pay for it pizza. Hooah!
  • Denali Brewing Company – great lunch. Sweet potatoes fries were excellent!
  • Roadhouse – this place was a super fun brunch. This is famously the last place people eat before they head to base camp to climb Denali, so there is some fun history there. They serve pancakes that are larger than your plate.

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Activities

  • Susitna River Tour – this was an amazing tour! Our tour guide was born and raised in Talkeetna and he spent the whole time telling us interesting facts about the town and the river. It basically felt like an NPR story for five hours and the time flew by. We loved it.
  • Ziplining – it was a little chilly and cloudy, so we couldn’t see Denali and the tour was a little long, but it was a good thing to experience! Neither of us had ziplined before and we were glad we did it.
  • Talkeetna Historical Society Museum – really interesting history of the Alaska railroad, climbing Denali, and also mining in Talkeetna. Didn’t spend a ton of time here.

 

Since I know you are all dying from the suspense, I did NOT meet Stubbs the cat and I was slightly crushed. Basically the man at Nagley’s (store where Stubbs is allegedly living) said he is super old and doesn’t take visitors. Blah blah blah. Give the people what they want! Stacy held my hand and let me out as I quietly wept. (Kidding).

All in all, it was a really fun trip and a great way to break up the time that the guys were gone. It was fun to spend time with my friend, and also discover a new place together. I am so thankful for the friends that the Army has given us. We have been able to meet and connect with people from all over the country, and it has been such a joy.

If you are ever in Alaska, check out Talkeetna! It’s such a cute little town, and we loved it.

A Love Letter to Derek’s Watch

While Derek was in Korea, it was often running I turned to when I felt lonely or sad or just existentially funky. When Derek left, aside from leaving a giant chasm in my heart (kidding, kind of) he also left his big clunky Garmin watch that he bought for runs with his team when he was in college.

The Garmin was on the counter right where he’d left it and it kept catching my eye. One day I decided to put it on. The watch was far too big for me and wobbled around on my wrist no matter how tight I strapped it, and sometimes held charge poorly. Nevertheless, I took it out for a test run.

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Behold, the Garmin itself.

I gained a strange sense of comfort running with his Garmin watch. It felt good to know that the watch sliding around on my skinny wrist had once sat securely on his, accompanying him and his track teammates or just him alone on many a run through the suburbs of Chicago. It made me feel connected to him, doing something he loved with the watch that had so faithfully kept track of his runs for so long.

The longer he was gone I started to find myself wearing the Garmin even when I wasn’t running, a tangible symbol of connection and closeness when he was so far away. And in a weird way it really helped. If I couldn’t be with Derek or talk to him very much, at least I could be doing something that he loved and holding something of his with me. I’d find myself subconsciously touching it, wiggling it around and thinking of him.

Military life brings with it many difficulties, including extended times separation and minimal communication. At times it is just plain hard, and I don’t want to paint the picture that just playing with Derek’s watch made it all hunky dory. But it did remind me of some truths I could hold onto when the hard stuff felt really hard.

So, dear Garmin watch, this one’s for you. Thank you for reminding me that Derek and I can be connected even when we are apart. During this absence a dear friend of mine encouraged me that God can still grow people together in marriage even when physical distance separates them. In its own strange little way, the Garmin reminded me of that. But now for now, he is home, and to quote an oft quoted Derek-ism, “all is well with the world”. I am so thankful.

The Tale Of My Brave Little Plants

Hello, everyone! It’s me, Sarah! The world’s very worst blog writer! (Note: I reject the term “blogger” because it gets caught in your throat in a weird way when you say it and I don’t like that feeling. It’s just me. I’m strange. So blog writer it is).

One unique thing about summer in Alaska is the immense amount of sunlight. While in the winter we were down to 3.5 hours of daylight at the darkest, now we are experiencing the exact opposite. The sun “sets” after midnight and even when it does set it’s just kind of a sad little gray. No darkness.

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Check out that sunrise and sunset time. Oh yeah.

Despite our summers being short (summer runs end of May until September), the immense amount of sunlight means that gardening is super popular. Alaskan produce is known for growing quickly and some produce can become enormous.

Towards the end of the school year I decided it was time for me to join in on the fun despite 1) having no experience gardening and 2) having no idea what I was doing. So I diligently planted my little seeds and faithfully watered them every day. I sent pictures of the sprouts to my parents and in-laws. (I have no kids or pets. Can you tell?) I was so excited! When I was about to take a trip out of town I realized I had no one to water my little seeds. So I put them in the gracious care of a kind friend who offered to water them for me and I left them at her house. Apparently, seed-plants can go into shock when they leave their house and despite her valiant efforts they did not make it. (It was not her fault. She is an excellent plant babysitter). But the story doesn’t end there.

I took my little seed cells back and put them in my garage to throw away. I had  given up on them because by all accounts they were completely dead. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had put them by my trash can right underneath a window that receives a lot of sun. Today when I went into my garage again to take out the trash, lo and behold…

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My sweet peas and oregano are going strong! They were right next to the trash but still refused to accept defeat. A living picture of resilience. It was such a picture of hope to me. There was a poem buried deep in those little seeds and it came right out without any help or effort from me. How beautiful. It was my own tiny miracle and it was truly wonderful. No matter that some of my plants didn’t make it, these few did and that’s okay by me.

I don’t want to overdo it by talking about metaphors too much and beating the beauty of the story out by talking too much, so I think I will leave it at that.

But I do hope that these plants are a brilliant metaphor for this Alaskan summer.

Reads for Spring

Spring in Alaska is an awkward season. Let’s call it the adolescence of weather. Muddy snow abounds, and as it starts to melt the trash that was hiding beneath it suddenly appears and everything is in a general state of brown. It is actually called Break-Up season up here, and no, that is not in reference to the dissolution of romantic relationships following winter’s end. Rather, it quite practically refers to the breaking up of ice upon the rivers in Fairbanks. (There’s actually a lottery in the nearby town of Nenana called the Nenana Ice Classic where people place bets on when the Tanana River will break. Read about it here – it’s fascinating).

In unrelated news, I think spring is always a good time to pick up a book. (Actually, I usually think anytime is a good time to pick up a book, but there’s something special about spring). There is nothing like pouring yourself a nice iced tea and sitting on the deck reading. These are all books I have enjoyed recently, and I hope in turn you will share with me some books you have loved as well.

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Today is also National Independent Bookstore Day! This is my favorite bookstore of all time, Sundog Books in Seaside, Florida.
  1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I absolutely adore this book and I love F. Scott Fitzgerald. For some reason I find this book fitting to read in spring. Maybe because it touches on themes of renewal and redemption. If you were forced to read it in high school, I encourage you to give it another go without the pressure of having to write a paper on it. I find reading it with fresh eyes teaches a lot.
  2. The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. I am totally riding the Brené Brown train right now and loving it. This book talks about embracing failure and difficulty and seeing it as a catalyst for change and growth. I loooooved it.
  3. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. My book club picked this book for last month. That’s one of the beautiful things about book club – I have been introduced to books I would not read otherwise. It was so good! I could not put it down. It’s a pretty fast read, but also touches on some serious ideas and is the perfect balance of entertaining and thought-provoking.
  4. The King’s Cross by Timothy Keller. This book is an essay-ized version of a sermon series Tim Keller preached through the book of Mark. It is fantastic. I highly recommend reading it along with reading the book of Mark. It gave me a whole new appreciation for the gospel and I learned a lot.
  5. Hope Heals by Jay and Katherine Wolf. This is the true story of a couple who faced a difficult health challenge in their marriage. The wife, Katherine, suffered a serious stroke at age 26 and this book is the story of her recovery and their family’s growth and faith as a result. It was easy to read and really beautiful and convicting. It definitely brought tears to my eyes at certain points. Apparently this is in the works to become a movie soon as well.
  6. A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor. Short and simple, a look into the prayers of a phenomenal writer and a woman of deep faith. This was a quick read and very powerful.

Again, please share your favorite books with me! Have a lovely weekend.