This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.
HOUSTON, Texas — I haven't started hallucinating mountains yet. That's the good news.
Every year, I fly down to Texas to visit my family. It's an annual pilgrimage timed to coincide with Thanksgiving, my sister's birthday and my niece's birthday. I love seeing my family. I love remembering where I came from.
What I don't love: being away from home. And for me, home is — unequivocally — Alaska.
Home is the smell of fresh snow falling from the sky in big, fat flakes forming feathery drifts. Home is seeing the green glow of the aurora hanging in the northern sky as it surges and dims. Home is a cup of hot cocoa warming my hands, with maybe a touch of Irish cream to warm my core. Home is the crackling of a fire, the click of a ski binding, the gleeful screams of kids and adults sledding downhill.
Home is also being on edge every time I steer my car over divots of ice to the Rabbit Lake trailhead. Home is the heart-stopping "whumpf!" sound of a snow slab settling under my feet, a reminder of avalanche danger in the mountains we love. Home is the hard crash of my butt on ice when I forget how slick the parking lot is. Home is the stink of my favorite down jacket, which I've never remembered to wash. Home is the sharp, lingering pain radiating from whatever joint I've decided to tweak this ski season.
My feelings about home are complicated. I love them all.
But here I am in Texas. Saturday's high temperature is expected to be 77 degrees in Houston (11 degrees in Anchorage). On the surface, it feels like I couldn't be farther from Alaska.
I've found small things that remind me of home, though, to tide me over until I return.
Something about being squeezed into the back seat of the family car with several people reminds me of nights spent on precarious Chugach ridges, or wedged between rocks. Moving is not an option, and sleeping is impossible.
As I set up my 5-year-old niece's canopy-like tent in the living room, I started planning an overnight trip in the snow after my return. My tent may be waterproof, but hers has unicorns and rainbows. (She wins.)
And when my niece jumps on me, it feels like I'm hauling a 45-pound pack on my back, except this one likes to squirm and announce each of her "toots."
Every time I see pile of dirt or gravel at a construction site — something in Houston is always under construction — I remember what it feels like to have scree shifting constantly under my feet in the Chugach front range, and the joys of scree skiing in summertime.
Running in Buffalo Bayou Park in Houston is a little like running on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail in Anchorage. The pavement hurts and I'm terrible at both, though the odds of body-checking a moose down here are considerably slimmer.
The only spin classes I've ever gone to have been with my sister in Houston. Mercifully, it's a lot harder to fall off a stationary bike than a mountain bike — as long as you remember to unclip. If you don't, be prepared for one heck of a domino effect.
I've seen kayakers brave the murky brown waters of the bayou, which winds through Houston's core in the company of overpasses and skyscrapers, and I'm reminded of my inferior paddling skills honed on Alaska rivers and lakes. It makes me wonder: What would it take to packraft the bayou? I brought my gear just in case.
And while I'm chowing down on Thanksgiving dinner, I'll be glad for all that, um, training I got on this summer's snackpacking trip to Lost Lake, when constant eating required as much energy as hiking.
I'm grateful for the time I get to share with my family, and lucky to be able to spend the holiday with them this week.
But each time I'm eyeing Houston's gravel pits wistfully or scoping out the bayou for paddling hazards, it reminds me: I'm thankful to call Alaska home, too, and I can't wait to come back.