Stories of my friends: Ruby

For a few years Ruby Gott was the closest thing I had to a sister. She and I bonded over the untimely death of a mutual friend, and we became unlikely — but intimately close— friends. So, when other people mentioned that we looked or sounded like siblings, we decided to go with it. In our story, we had the same biological father and different mothers. There was an affair and secrets and we didn’t find each other until we both moved to Oregon from the neighboring states of Iowa and Nebraska. Or something like that.

The Ruby I knew then was shy and often unsure, but lovely and kind and funny and always smiling. She, more than anyone else I know, could create a cozy, inviting living space regardless of the location. Ruby’s houses were always homes. In fact, Ruby infused all or her surroundings with delight and beauty, whether at work or in front of the magic heater in my first apartment or sitting outside smoking.

But she could also fall into a deep sadness when someone or something hurt her. I have seen Ruby’s eyes filled with pain nearly as often as they were filled with joy.

That’s the thing about Ruby, though, she feels everything with abandon.

……

One day, we were walking across a parking lot and a boy looked at us and said, “Whoa. Twins.” I didn’t know whether to be flattered (she’s 10 years younger) or insulted (she was four months pregnant at the time). She’s gorgeous, so I settled on flattered.

That was one of the last days we spent together before she started her new life as a single mother of her very own twins.

Ruby is easily the strongest woman I know. Her story is not mine to tell here, but what she had to go through after her daughters were born would have broken many. I regret that I was not as emotionally or physically available to her as I would like to have been at that time.

Now, she is happy and beautiful and raising three gloriously wild children in the Alaska bush with her husband and a pack of dogs. The live off the grid in a cabin they built, which is heated in the 40-below winters by a wood stove. They travel by dogsled, snow machine, boat or the occasional bush plane. They see wolves and bears and lynxes and moose regularly.

I miss her. But, I also know that Ruby will always be my sister, if not by blood, by love.

Me: Hi. I miss you. What crazy thing are you doing today?

Ruby: Hi! I miss you too!

Let’s see…Today’s crazy thing is ordering garden seeds from the comfort of my home, while the outside temperature is 45 degrees below zero. There is something about that that I find very funny, yet also absurd.

Me: Sum up what a normal day is like for you, please.

Ruby: To sum up a normal day I have to first say that it is hugely dependent on the season, the weather and if Nate is home. This time of year, and at these temperatures it is all about keeping the wood stoves going, taking care of dogs, baking bread and having school with the girls. I think the last time the main stove was cold must have been sometime in early September. The other stove is a wood fired cookstove and I typically only fire it up when it gets really cold outside (otherwise the house is unbearably warm). On those days, I bake the most delicious breads, muffins, and pizzas.

When Nate is gone guiding sled-dog tours, taking care of dogs is the biggest task and the most important at these cold temps. In the mornings I mix their warm soup with kibble, refresh their straw, and make sure everyone eats. When I come inside I refill the big water pots on the stove. Then it is time to get breakfast for the kiddos and start school. The day goes by quickly, teaching and wrangling my unruly toddler. Soon it is time to start dinner and wash dishes. The girls usually help with all of that these days. Then time to feed dogs again. If it is really cold we stick with a professional quality dog food. When it is average winter temps (between 0 and -30) we make a “cooker” which consists of water, whole salmon, rice and sometimes moose and bear scraps which is all cooked to a bubbling perfection over a fire outside. This is the dogs’ preferred food, and is perfect nutrition for them. After tending dogs for the night, the kids and I usually read together before going to bed. That pretty much sums up an average winter day for me.

Me: What animals have you seen lately?

Ruby: Right around the first week of October, we were winding down for the night, when the dogs’ barking became really intense, and it was obvious there was some sort of intruder. I went out on the back porch and watched and listened. Before too long, I saw a large white creature bumbling through the thick brush just outside the dog yard. Out of the woods, heading straight for a 75 lb. barking dog, was a gigantic (but immature) trumpeter swan. I ran down the stairs yelling and screaming at this thing to get away from my dogs. It was slow and awkwardly moving, and kept making a strange hissing sound. Keep in mind that it’s completely dark, and my entire yard of 18 huge Alaskan huskies were barking wildly and trying to get loose from their chains. Nate came running out with his gun, prepared for a bear, and was bewildered by the giant white bird. We didn’t know what to do, or how to help it. Eventually it wandered around to where we have been digging a well hole. It is only about 4 feet deep at this point and we had not hit water yet. The swan tumbled into the hole and was stuck. We decided to try to maneuver it into a dog kennel, and relocate it to the river in the morning. After some work, and gentle nudging with a long stick, we were able to get the swan to walk into the dog kennel. It did not appear sick or injured, so we decided the best thing to do would be to release it. The next morning we took her down to the beach, put the kennel in the water and opened the door. As awkward as she was on land, she was the picture of effortless grace once in the water. She swam out into the morning sun, took several long drinks, and then paddled downriver a bit to a group of ducks. That was the last we saw of her, so we hope that she made her way back south and found her family.

Another visitor was less invasive, but equally dramatic. Early Thanksgiving morning the dogs began sounding off. They were barking in the direction of the river. We had just finished breakfast and Nate and the kids were looking out the window. After a few minutes the barking reached a very uncommon intensity, and I walked out onto the back porch to investigate.

Across the little slough, in the surreal sub-arctic blue light, appeared a large white wolf out of the woods. He was maybe 100 feet from the dog yard and was strolling along completely unconcerned about us, or our cacophony of dogs. We just happened to be the awestruck observers. We watched, holding our breath, while he continued walking down the slough and eventually back into the spruce woods.

Me: How are the dogs?

Ruby: The dogs are all well. This is, of course, their favorite time of year. Our kennel is at 18 right now including three gorgeous puppies. They are all the absolute core of our existence here and our love for them is utterly complete.

Me: How are the kids?

Ruby: The children are great. Grace and Genevieve are wild (not in the hyper sense, but something more like feral), kind, attentive, empathic, confident, capable and so beautiful. They love each other with a fierceness that is almost scary at times. Their 8th birthday is next month!

Hunter is another kind of human. Almost super human, he defies the laws of physics on a daily basis. He currently spends his days looking out the windows, destroying his sisters’ toys, eating non-stop, and playing with Legos. I feel like I spend a lot of time just trying to keep him in one piece.

Me: What one or two events/people have had the greatest impact on your life?

Ruby: While I have been lucky enough to have many, the two most powerful events/people undoubtedly happened in Salem.

The first was becoming a part of the family that was the Coffee House Cafe. From that one seemingly small event, infinite paths of my life spiral out. Friendships and relationships, experiences and memories, endless laughter, belonging, and acceptance. Tears of utter devastation, tender and vulnerable. A feeling of complete belonging and contentedness. I have never seen the like of the old CHC and I am sure I never will again. It could not be contrived. When I was hired there, it was an opportunity for me (a shy, quiet girl from Iowa) to learn about and create my own identity, become a confident and independent woman, shape the future of my world one conversation at a time, and understand my own creative power.

The loves, lives, music, walks, trees, bricks, trains, parties, books, friends, bikes, adventures, ocean waves. All of it.

How could any of the rest of my beautiful life been possible without it?

The second…

Being a friend to the one and only Katie.

For a fleeting moment in my life, she held my attention so completely.

I was rapt. Spellbound. Her head of fiery hair, her disney princess eyes, the freckles…. Her love for her daughter, her love for life, and her unadorned passion for toddy mochas. She inspired me, and continues to do so in so many ways. I learned from her what it really means to be alive.

I try to thank her every day in ways that seem fitting. By raising two strong daughters, by creating art and by trying not to lose the wonder of it all.

I plant catmint every spring for her. And, of course, Katie led me to you, Jill, and for that I am eternally grateful…

Me: Aw, I love you. And I’m not crying at all. What are your future plans?

Future plans. We don’t really have any. I mean we have lots of goals. Tons. But as far as actual plans go, I think we are just living right now. Enjoying this life we have created. But if I could say one thing about my personal plan, I am working on writing a cookbook.

It’s essentially a homestead-centered cookbook that is part visual journal, part collaborative wilderness living advice from friends in northern lands, part homestead organizer/helper, and of course the recipes.

Me: Cool. I’m excited to see it. How do you feel about socks?

Ruby: Socks are like my cocoon of warmth, my shield from the cold floor. I cannot sleep without them!

Me: Say something nice about yourself.

Ruby: I work hard and love deeply.

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