Sunday, July 24, 2016

Goodbye Alaska!

I’ve been thinking about this post for quite some time.  I’ve actually been writing it for about four months, visiting it occasionally making changes…adding additional thoughts.  And now it is time to post.  It’s a long one so sit back and enjoy the read.  To understand our journey, he best part starts here!
We crossed into Alaska on May 26, 2000.  Leaving Texas was emotional for a dozen reasons, but we both wanted out of the south and there was an opportunity for a quieter, gentler way of life.  It was an awesome adventure driving up from Texas, across the US and into Canada, and entering the state at its north most crossing point.  That was also the day I decided to quit smoking.  Other than a three week relapse in China, I’ve held true to the course.

We were starting a new life together; moving 6,000 miles to begin living together for the first time since we met a year earlier.  Up until that time we had simply dated; every two weeks we would take turns driving between Houston abnd Gulfport, MS.  Trip was nine hours round and usually for about three days.  During a conversation about living in Houston, Bobbie informed me that she owned a house in Anchorage and would I be interested in moving there.  It took me a nanosecond to accept.  And so began our life together as a couple. 

Now I call that a commitment.  I had no preconceived notion.  I did no research.  I actually never saw a photo of the house.  I wanted it all to be a mystery.  Bobbie had purchased the property as an investment when she was stationed at Elmendorf AFB and had been renting it to an Alaskan musher for the past several years.  I wasn’t sure what to expect.

After a recovering from a breakdown that stranded us on the Top of the World Highway in Chicken, we arrived in Anchorage a few days later; we had already traveled over hundreds of miles of Alaskan terrain.  It was breathtaking to say the least.  As we climbed the mountain to get to the house, paved road turned into dirt and there were plenty of logs popping up.  I soon learned that this would be common as the years passed.  And this has been one of my most vivid memories of the our first days in Anchorage. 

And there it was, a quaint cedar sided home with a balcony overlooking Cook Inlet and the city far below.  I couldn’t believe I would be living here and those are exactly the words that came out of my mouth.  Panoramic windows from floor to ceiling, water and mountains in the distance, and in the middle of our own private Spruce forest…what a dream!

Over the next six months we tried out new jobs.  I took on a running a telecommunications company.  It was a family owned business and the board of directors consisted of a tyrannical matriarch, bigoted husband, hair-brained and jealous daughter, and a narcissistic son with visions of grandeur.  After six months I doubled the company in profit and resigned.  Bobbie starting flying bush trips, only getting paid for when she was in the air, and working until her back and arms hurt from loading the plane…that part without pay.  She soon quit as well.

In February, now without jobs to keep us occupied and already skied out for the winter, a conversation one night started on the subject of running a bed and breakfast.  By morning we had plans drawn to renovate the lower floor, a business marketing plan designed, and a budget developed.  Work started two days later converting the lower floor into three bedrooms and three bathrooms.  We built a website, began marketing it and greeted our first guest on May 10th.  They were a gay couple from Boston who enjoyed the lavish breakfast; although they commented that there was too much furniture in the room.  We had our first lesson in innkeeping that day and developed an attitude of listening and paying strong attention to comments.  We sold out completely the first season…every room, every night, albeit at below market rates…that introduced us to certain members of the bed and breakfast association; we joined.

The second year was the same and we grew in both experience and knowledge.  Bobbie was still flying for a smaller better run company that respected her time.  I took on a part time teaching position.  We thought we could handle it all!  Our routine and jobs led to quite long and interesting days!  We learned quickly that we needed to hire a housekeeper lest our relationship dissolve into the toilet.  It was a tough year of growth.  This was also the year our son came to live with us for a while.  That was the best part.

During this time I would visit the downtown tourism providers monthly to gather brochures and maps from the convention bureau.  On one occasion I noticed a historical walking tour taking place.  I signed at how boring those often are and noticed that no one was really listening to the guides drone.  Somehow the word “historical” got stuck in my head as “hysterical” and the concept of a walking comedy routine began to brew.  It would hold until winter.

Now that our little B&B adventure had proven profitable, our second winter came with upgrades to the rooms, menu, marketing plan, and the design of the comedy tour business.  Oh, and also a marriage proposal that was accepted the prior Christmas.  We deecided to get married this year at the end of the season.  By that point we had also become heavily involved with the local B&B association…I was now the Director of Publicity.  We spend the winter upgrading the B&B and I constructed the tour concept.  Bobbie began volunteering at the local museum.  She gave them a lot of hours that first year…she made some great friends as well…and she also quit flying.

Alaskan Leopard Comedy tours debuted in Spring 2002 with a script, a route, marketing, reservations, hired actors, costumes, and a lot of really bad jokes.  I decided that telling bad jokes was a lot easier than telling great jokes.  The concept stuck.  Our B&B was also booking solid.  The tour launch went off without a hitch and it was a blast walking around dressed in buckskins, telling really bad jokes in character, all the while sharing historical knowledge in a hysterical way.  It was a hit.  Over its run we had at one time six actors, each doing a tour a day, and it lasted all summer long. We were pulling in a huge profit and were aligning ourselves with several booking agents for more business.  This was the year we met the current buyers of our home.

By May, with the tours in full force and a staff to handle most of the flow, we decided it was time to increase the size of our home.  So we hired an architect to design the lower floor guest lounge and decks addition.  By June we were building that addition…by ourselves.  The $65,000 in materials was well spent and we learned a lot about pre-marital arguments, compromise (me mostly), and the rewards of hard work.  Rick joined in and he soon learned how to swing a hammer with the best of them.  We also started to plan our nuptials for September 21st.  We were fully booked that year and had guests right up to the week before the big day.  Our construction project was done, our friends and family arriving daily, and we were at our wit’s end.  We were married on Flattop Mountain on a bright, sunny, warm fall day with about 100 folks to witness me yelling at the top of my lungs and directly to Mt. Denali that “I loved Bobbie Hougland.”  Bobbie was a bit more subtle.  The reception that followed was at our now good friend’s place, Alaska’s Natural Wonders B&B.  We were starting to collect a nice assortment of friends by that time and there were lots of parties and get-togethers.  We were beginning to blend into the community and contribute.

Winter settled in and it was planning time once again.  After a season of walking tours and paying attention to our guest comments, we decided that we should convert the walking tour to a riding tour.  The walking tour was four hours long and covered a lot of ground.  Lots of folks told us that they would gladly pay more to ride from spot to spot.  Bobbie did some research and we purchased a 15 year-old, 29-passenger tour bus from a local transfer company.  Over the winter we renovated that bus installing a stage, log paneling inside.  May 2003 saw the debut of the comedy tour by foot and by bus.  We advertised the bus tour as a comedy revue on wheels.  Bobbie drove and I sat in the actor’s seat telling jokes and handing out stuffed moose dolls.  The bus tour was four hours long, included lunch on Flattop Mountain, and was a huge hit.  At $69 a person we sold a lot of tickets.  It was a mad dash each morning, preparing and serving up to ten custom ordered breakfasts, and then turning everything over to Madeliene and heading out to begin the tours.  All the while our acting troupe wandered the streets, and our businesses grew.  By the end of our third season we had won Best Breakfast in Alaska, Best B&B in Alaska, and a few other awards.  Our tour business was starting the gather some attention as well from local media.  Rachel Gregory, as “Sourdough Sue,” got us a front page piece in the local papers.

Over the course of the next year our B&B made it to the top of Trip Advisor, our tour business was booming and it was time to develop something new.  Leopard Consulting and Design was born and I started traveling throughout the state giving seminars on how to open and bed and breakfast, create marketing plans for businesses, and our web design company also started taking on customers.  During that time we also acquired the vendor database of a large Alaska travel company and Leopard Trax Alaska Travel and Vacations was created.  We opened offices in San Jose and Phoenix and with seven employees, we were pretty darn busy.  Bobbie was by now working at the museum instead of volunteering, I was still teaching at Alaska Career Academy, and we had fifteen or so employees running the various aspects of our enterprise.

We treated ourselves in the fall to a seven week vacation staring in Washington, D.C., then on to Italy, Kenya and Tanzania.  This was our reward for working really hard for the last four years!  It had also been a dream of mine since I was a kid, wander the plains of the Serengeti.  When we got back many of our friends said they wanted to go along on the next trip.  Using our newly acquired travel agency status, we began building Dik Dik Tours and Travel with a fellow we had met in Africa.  Over the course of the next year we were not only selling travel in Alaska, but also in Kenya and Tanzania.  We planned to take our first group of friends with us to Kenya again next year.  Our concept of building a group trip full of discounts and then splitting the net cost among all of us caught on.  There was no profit to be had, just an amazing time with a great group of avid adventures.  The concept grew.

During that same year we also noticed that there were a lot of tour busses hauling folks to and from the cruise port in Seward.  By the end of the season it was announced that Princess would start coming into Whittier the following season.  We took advantage of that news and converted the daily comedy bus tours of Anchorage to a comedy transfer to and from Whittie and Seward.  The first year we sold out just about every seat on every day.  I drove five days a week, 12 hours a day, with hired talent doing the comedy on stage behind me.  Over the next eight years our fleet grew adding rented busses with reservations overflowed.  In 2009 we started hiring full time drivers.  In 2011 we sold our tour business to one of those drivers and kicked back a bit.  We started concentrated on our five year retirement plan.  By then our travel club had gone on trips to Ecuador, the Galapagos, Peru, Chile, Patagonia, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Antarctica, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Germany, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, and Jordan.  Our membership was up to 75 folks with an average of 15 on each tour.  A core group had developed and it had become a very private traveling club that occasionally accepted a new traveler.

We closed our B&B in May 2011 and began a long term professional traveler accommodation model.  We wound down the travel agency, closed the consulting company, and settled back into a much gentler flow.  We bought a boat and we spent a lot of time on the water.  We also began to talk a lot about world travel and a nomadic lifestyle.  We started doing research and making lists of the countries we wanted to visit.  I began following a blog of a similar couple already on the road, and we started to investigate the actual reality of living abroad for an extended period of time. 

We also bought two motorcycles to add to our toy collection-a new hobby.  In the next two years our club visited Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Taiwan, New Zealand and Australia.  I went alone for a five month trek by overland truck starting in Turkey and ending in Mongolia.  In route I visited Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan (came within a mile of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan), then on to Kyrgyzstan, China, and South Korea.  Along the way I made friends would have lasted to this day…and we will see many again as we depart Alaska. 

Those five years were so full and yet, in retrospect, they went by so fast!  With all our planning, our five year plan will complete itself almost to the day this month.  Pretty amazing, even for me!  So dear, dear Alaska, thank you so much for the dozens of really true friends we have made and will keep , the thousands of guests, customers, clients, and the money we have earned.  It’s been an amazing 17 years so far…and the best is yet to come.


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