Traveling Light: Holiday House

When someone offers you a cookie, do you reach for the chocolate because you know you’ll enjoy it, or choose one you’ve never tasted before?

So many choices!

Vacations are like that. Do you explore strange new worlds or head for the cabin on Lake Chelan, the timeshare in Hawaii, or the river that spawned you? If you want to have it all, both the strange and new and the near and dear, just help yourself to another cookie! Even as I chip away at my to-go list, I keep finding my way back to Juneau, Alaska.

Point Louisa, a favorite fishing spot where we have yet to catch a fish.

A trip to Juneau hardly counts as travel any more. For one thing, it’s almost as quick to fly there as to drive to Seattle to catch a movie. For another, it’s almost like going home.

Getting drenched, but still smiling at the Mendenhall Glacier.

I’ve been visiting Juneau for 35 years, to perform at the Folk Festival, go fishing, for writing retreats, but mostly to visit my sister Constance, a well-known Alaskan artist.

Summer in Juneau—don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

Before we had kids, my husband Thom came to Juneau with me. He enjoyed it, but having been there and done that, he felt no call to return. Over many visits and years, I’ve come to know my sister’s friends, their dogs, cats and kids. Better than the glacier on a sunny day, I enjoy Sunday night folk dancing, meeting the ladies at the Coppa for coffee, and stopping by Barbara’s studio to bum a Diet Coke and look at her latest work.

Local artists mugging for visiting dignitary.

When we planned a family reunion in Juneau, with all the aunties and cousins, Thom came back by popular demand. On our first day there, the family herd was moseying from my sister’s house to her studio. Her neighbor Jeff was on his deck grilling salmon and having a beer with friends, and he invited us to join them. “There are 18 of us,” warned Constance. Unfazed, he said, “We’ll throw some hot dogs onto the grill.”

While we made coleslaw for the party, Pua stopped by with a king crab her husband Leonard had pulled from the sea that morning. We introduced Pua and Thom, and invited her to Jeff’s party, because that’s how Juneau rolls.

Pua and Leonard with my sister and my son.

Thom and I proceeded on foot to Foodland to buy party treats, when a car braked in the street, blocking our way. The driver rolled down the window and hollered my name. “I heard you were coming to town!” It was another friend of my sister’s, who insisted we follow him to his house, just down the block, so he could show us the painting he’d bought at Constance’s last show. Before we left, he invited us to the party he was hosting later that week. Thom was beginning to understand why I keep returning to Juneau. He shook his head and said, “This would never happen in Edmonds.”

Hey, Rocky, watch me pull a party out of my hat!

Hey, Rocky, watch me pull a party out of my hat!

Maybe not. But why? Juneau and Edmonds are both small- to medium-sized cities. Juneau’s population is 32,000, Edmonds about 40,000. Both are historic waterfront towns with a ferry terminal, city museum, college, downtown shopping, and lots of art galleries.

Looking across Gastineau Channel.

Juneau is a state capital, which means an influx of legislators from January to April. Edmonds is the gateway to the Olympics, plus we have our own travel guru, who attracts visitors with his travel seminars and festivals. Downtown Juneau is flooded by a million cruise boat passengers a year, which is probably why they have so many tee shirt and souvenir shops, while we have a curiously high proportion of beauty and nail salons.

Washington State Ferry at Brackett’s Landing.

It might boil down to location, location, location. Being so far north, Juneau’s summer nights are great, but it’s colder, wetter and darker in the winter. On the winter solstice, the sun rises at 8:45 a.m., and sets around 3 p.m.. Perhaps Juneauites depend more upon each other to help push back the darkness. Also, Juneau is no island, but an island mentality might apply, since it is accessible only by boat or plane. We can drive 20 minutes to Seattle, with its big city attractions and services: the opera, theater, museums, festivals, zoo and aquarium, but in Juneau they have to make their own fun.

Gold Town Nickelodeon Theater, where you butter your own popcorn.

My sister’s show, Breakthrough, was featured at the Juneau City Museum for the city’s Gallery Walk, held every first Friday in December. The night before, I flew up to help hang her show, which drew a large crowd of people, many of whom I knew.

“Breakthrough” by Constance Baltuck, Juneau City Museum.

Every shop and gallery in downtown Juneau was serving refreshments and featuring the work of local artists. People came out in droves, wearing sequins and snow boots. At Annie Kaill’s my sister’s painting, Holiday House, was displayed in the front window, on loan from its owners. My favorite artworks tell a story, and this one tells a story I know. Constance painted it as a gift for her neighbors Jeff and Terry. Look closely and you can see Jeff in his overalls on a ladder, putting up his Christmas lights.

“Holiday House” by Constance Baltuck.

Jeff is the kind of neighbor every neighborhood needs, but few are lucky enough to have. When he mows his lawn, he also cuts the grass of an elderly neighbor. If Constance comes home to a shoveled driveway, she can guess who did it. She first met Jeff decades ago, when she bought a sandbox for her kids out in the valley and it wouldn’t fit in her car. She recognized him and asked a stranger’s help transporting it in his pickup. He’d already set it up in her yard by the time she got home. One summer we were visiting in Juneau when Jeff heard that my son Eli wanted to go fishing. He took Eli out on his boat and helped him land a 30-pound king. It was the highlight of everyone’s trip. Eight of us ate fresh salmon every night, and there was still plenty to share with the neighbors.

Catch of the day!

Each year Jeff spends the weeks before Christmas decorating his home with tens of thousands of lights, and dozens of Santas and snowmen. His electric bill spikes each December, but the people of Juneau count on him to put some serious twinkle into their holiday. Some folks save their treasures for heaven, but I think there’s a twinkle light shining on his house for each kindness Jeff has paid to others. They add up, those little lights, and push back the darkness for us all.

Jeff and Constance.

I could almost imagine living in Juneau—but not quite. Maybe that which makes Juneau so special already exists in Edmonds, on some streets, in some lives, in some homes.

Christmas Eve at home.

My closest connections are based on interest rather than location. My storytelling community meets in Seattle, so that’s where I go. I host events, so friends and colleagues often come to Edmonds from Seattle, Whidbey and Vashon Islands, Tacoma and even Victoria. But such distance precludes the spontaneity I so appreciate about Juneau.

I’m exploring the many services and attractions available in Edmonds. I’ve learned that I don’t have to go to Juneau for an Art Walk: we have one every third Thursday from 5-8PM. I joined a great new writing group, part of the Edmonds EPIC organization of writers, and consequently here I am, writing for My Edmonds News. Add an Edmonds walking group and neighborhood volunteer activities, and that’s a good start. On my own street, I often stop to chat at the mailbox or over the fence, and it’s hard to say no when the neighborhood kids ask for a story. But it’s high time to show a little Juneau hospitality here in Edmonds, and ask a neighbor in for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

Jeff’s Holiday House, Juneau, Alaska.

— By Naomi Baltuck

Naomi Baltuck is a storyteller, author, and longtime resident of Edmonds. When she isn’t writing, she loves to travel, almost as much as she loves coming home again.

 

 

 

 

  1. This is a lovely, heartwarming holiday story of a town, and its people, which I knew very little about, Naomi! You also gave us all a good reminder to bring neighbors and friends together more often. Thank you! (I look forward to seeing you at our next travel writing session in February, if not before…)

  2. Thank you, Vivian! Juneau is unique–a world apart, and yet not so very far away. I’ve enjoyed participating in the travel writing group–thanks for making us all feel so welcome. Best wishes for a happy holiday.

  3. Your story made me lonesome for a stronger sense of community in my daily life. Juneau community stories leave me with a sense of longing. Juneau wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for me, really, except that it would put me even farther away from all my children and grandchildren.

  4. Thank you for sharing a part of your world. I can see why Constance is reluctant to leave Juneau. Such a close knit community. A family.
    And yes, Edmonds is also a wonderful place to live. So beautiful, so much to do. Plus it has you and your amazing family which makes it a special place.
    Merry Christmas Naomi!

  5. This was a fun, inspiring, And delicious article, Naomi. I can almost taste the salmon and king crab!
    Thanks for sharing and Best Wishes for the Christmas Season, in 2017 and beyond…

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