After seven years, if you make it that long, you get to lose the "cheechako" moniker and become an honorary "sourdough. After thirty, it's as good as it's ever going to get without the ultimate badge of honor: "I was born here. Once we made it through Canada, after our delayed holiday visit, and crossed the border back into the US, where the local license plates were stamped blue on gold with "ALASKA — The Last Frontier," the mercury sank to twenty below zero, and the rumbling metal horseshoe crab took even a second of my inattention to make a suicidal beeline for the guard rail or skitter toward the ditch across a patch of invisible black ice.
The entire steering process felt more like a suggestion than a command, and I'd spend hours on end with the copper taste of adrenaline in my mouth. Although we were now technically back in the United States, a feeling of familiarity never came. This was an alien land. The twenty hours of frigid darkness pressed down like a weight, my nose hair crystallized into needles with every inhalation, and when I went outside to piss, I swore it would freeze before it hit the ground.
We'd planned our trip segments between off-season motel and off-season motel, connecting the only dots we could find in the travel guide. Polyester bedspreads, watercolors of wolves and mountains bolted to the wall, rust-stained sink drains, bad paneling, tiny crappy coffee makers with tiny crappy Styrofoam cups began to blend into the same never-ending room.
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Every morning that the engine of our truck groaned to life with metallic cries of protest felt like a victory. Again and again, Stacey and I would begin our sleepy ritual in the dark, feeling our body heat dissipating into the biting air. She scraped the thick frost from the inside of the windows where the moisture from our breath and yesterday's coffee had condensed and frozen, and I got the outside.
One foot on the front tire, my body stretched reaching over the windshield, I shoved the plastic ice scraper across the glass. Did you know that 'Alaska' is actually an ancient Eskimo word for 'Fuck you'? I loved that woman. The first ray of the sun had just peeped up over distant mountains like a single-pointed yellow laser.
Four and a half hours later, after a half-hearted journey skimming the treetops, it blinked out. My eyes, dry and burning and losing focus, had finally had enough and started playing tricks. The blackness began to pulsate and flicker, and the snow looked almost green at times. Clearly I'd spent too many hours of my life in the eerie, two-dimensional greenish glow of night-vision goggles, and now I was paying for it.
Her hand shot out and she tapped my upper arm, never breaking her gaze at the sky. It wasn't my eyes. The aurora borealis — the northern lights — were out to play. We got out. Even this frozen piece of meat, this sunlight-starved, grumpy U-Haul chauffeur who was counting the miles until the next cheap motel bed and dribbling shower, stood speechless.
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It didn't matter that my analytical brain knew that molecules in the upper atmosphere were becoming excited as solar particles from a magnetic eruption on the sun reached Earth. Standing under these pulsing ribbons of light that stretched from the mountaintops to the right, over our heads and across the open tundra to the left — green, and red, and pink — rippling across the blackness, moving like a thought, in and out of existence, crackling with a sound that took up the whole sky and came from nowhere, could make you believe you were witnessing magic.
Only genuine fear of frostbite eventually got us back inside. Alaska was not going to be ordinary. Message received. Anchorage, the state's largest city, was our final destination.
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It's thought of as "Seattle Lite" by the rest of the state, but that's not meant to be a compliment. In a uniquely Alaskan brand of reverse elitism, only "the frontier," made up of rural areas, many in the vast and isolated interior, is considered the "real Alaska. Go to Alaska as a tourist and expect to impress anyone with your expensive shoes, or your Italian sunglasses, or your Rolex watch, and prepare to be branded a complete and total douchebag. You're the weak member of the herd. You're the one they'd eat first in an emergency. Nobody has to outrun the bear; they just have to outrun you.
Despite the mockery Anchorageites endure from the rest of the state for living a comparatively coddled, out-of-touch city life, it's a place most of the country would consider rugged wilderness. Residents regularly deal with a half-ton bull moose in the driveway or bears rummaging through the trash; they can go fishing for all five species of Pacific salmon, backpack or bike remote mountain trails, ogle the tallest peak in North America on the morning commute, and ski world-class runs, all from inside the city limits.
And even though half the state's residents call Anchorage home, its population is only , people. The rest are scattered across a land mass that, if superimposed on a map of the lower forty-eight states, would see San Francisco mark the end of the Aleutian Island chain; Jacksonville, Florida, the tip of the southeast panhandle; central Minnesota would overlap Barrow, Alaska's northernmost settlement; and Anchorage would be somewhere in Texas.
And the Anchorageites wouldn't like that at all. The strategic geography and readily available space means a large military presence in the state, with nine bases. The civilian population is a strange mix of oil-field workers, adventurers, commercial fishermen, federal employees, naturalists, bush pilots, environmentalists, hardscrabble wilderness survivors, entrepreneurs, those looking for second chances, those fleeing the law, and a large indigenous Native population of federally recognized tribes whose history spans 10, years.
It is a tug-of-war between those who want to develop and those who want to preserve; those who want to find themselves and those who don't want to be found. In a state that has leaned politically at various times in its history to the left and to the right, a strong libertarian streak unites both sides of the aisle. Alaskans don't need anyone telling them what to do or how to do it. And "Outside" is always capitalized. This is a land where Democrats carry guns.
Because Democrats also don't want to be eaten by bears, and do want to eat moose. Firearms are an elemental part of a world that is quite literally "eat or be eaten," and where defense of home and property often falls to the owner, especially in remote areas. Those in the "Lower 48" may be accustomed to federal regulations and programs designed for urban dwellers who possess modern conveniences and infrastructure, and can't fathom a world where a working generator, the right extra pair of boots in the back of the truck, a bear gun at the ready, or remembering to file a flight plan when you go moose hunting can mean the difference between life and death.
They don't understand only being able to travel to the state capital by boat or plane; or rural schools hundreds of miles apart from the nearest neighboring school; or needing to know how to fix an engine, or a heater, or a generator, because there's no one around to call to fix or replace things that get broken. Alaska may as well be a series of small, sparsely populated islands — geographically, politically, and sociologically. And to most Americans, it may as well be another planet — one that nobody in his right mind would ever want to live on.
And that's OK, because Alaskans don't want you to live there, anyway.
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They're happy the wildness weeds people out. They'd just as soon keep the place to themselves. As the big blue horseshoe crab and its menagerie thrummed up the snow-packed highway, north and north and north, all I knew was that this was my assignment. This is where my country told me to go. And there were only five bags left on the dashboard, so I'd better get there fast or it was going to be a complete fish genocide.
As the miles passed, the idea of being in the Army in Alaska began to feel real, and I found myself smiling out of the blue — like a kid anticipating a grand adventure. It's a page turner that combines the thrilling elements of a Richard North Patterson novel with the hard hitting gonzo reportage of the late Hunter S.
It's publication couldn't be more timely. I salute Bill Fulton. This book taught me what patriotism really means. His humor and constant redirection of credit away from himself, does nothing to change the stress and real danger that he and his family went through. See All Customer Reviews. Shop Books. Read an excerpt of this book! Add to Wishlist. USD Sign in to Purchase Instantly. Overview When Bill Fulton arrived in Alaska, he was filled with optimism and big dreams. About the Author Bill Fulton is an Army veteran with extensive and ongoing training in anti-terrorism; weapons and explosives; hazardous materials; nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons; WMDs; public health and safety; emergency management; surveillance and operations; law enforcement; and military justice.
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