Monday, September 22, 2008
What is it about Alaska?
There is just something about Alaska. For many people it's on the list of places they want to visit before they die. For others it's a journey ending with roots taking hold deep into the tundra. I was one of the former. Not wanting to wait until I got older, retired, had an empty nest or lost those 10 pounds, I just went. Why miss out because of "waiting". You could miss on the journey of a lifetime, or the love or your life. You never know. Missed. Gone.
It's long been a beacon for dreamers and misfits, people who think somehow the unsullied vastness of the wild will fill in those gaps in the windows of their lives, where the cold slips in. But Alaska is an unforgiving place, that has nothing but disregard for your dreams and your longings, and if you go, you need to go prepared. There's a movie called "Into the Wild" about a young man that left an affluent life and family that loved him and went to the wilds of Alaska, only to (I can't spoil the ending, but it's not pretty). The book on which it was based was a great read and brings to mind these very concepts of nature as a harsh reality. For there's places that if your plane goes down they won't find you for decades, if ever. The mosquitoes will eat you alive if given the invite for dinner and you are definitely on the bottom of the food chain. It's a place you need to live with both your heart and your eyes wide open.
The people that inhabit that great state are unique. Probably as much like the folks of Idaho and Montana I grew up around, and perhaps why I felt so at home up there. These are people that survive everything. Earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, floods and they only take root deeper, growing stronger. They have found that handling such things is a lighter load than remorse.
But once you go there it will lure you back. I will probably always be the occasional lone wanderer of the wilderness. I have always been slightly unsatisfied with life as most people live it. Always I want to live perhaps not as an adventurer, but certainly more richly. And I experienced that up there and learned from it how to live that way even once I came home The beauty of the country becomes part of you. You will feel connected yet distant from the life you left behind and more reflective and calm. It's the closest thing I've experienced to the detached peacefulness of sitting in a tree blind as the sun comes up, or sailing along the edge of the clouds in a Piper as the sun goes down.
I first went up on a flight into Fairbanks to visit a pilot friend and ended up staying for a week. My longest visit was 8 weeks, where I rented a plane and wandered around. I thought I would be bored in that length of time, and lonely. But I wasn't. I never tired of it, and I grew to really enjoy the beauty and the vagrant life I lead during those weeks of wonder. I grew to prefer the obscure and difficult trail to any highway, and the deep peace of a stand of ancient pine trees to the discontent bred by living in a habitat of highways and noise. I missed talking with others, but I had been through so many years where I couldn't share these things that mean so much to me that I had learned to contain myself. It was enough then to simply be surrounded by the land.
I told few I was going, an emergency contact of course, my folks simply thought I was working, as that often took me around the world and when I called they didn't ask too much other than was I OK and happy. It was nice, I'd never been away from work or school or anything for that long of time and I felt like a little toddler learning to walk and explore all over again. There was no one around, family or people whose opinions mattered that I had to explain myself to. I was able to simply commit myself to something absolute, life or truth or beauty, and be ruled by it rather than the rules of the past, surrendering to it more unreservedly than I had ever been able to in life in the past. It was a truly frightening and liberating feeling and when I came home still the same person, yet I was somehow stronger, self-confident and full of peace.
I met some interesting along the way. A retired Baptist minister who ran a trading post and made sure I had enough Diet Pepsi and Beef Jerky. And there was the time I offered a ride in my airplane to two French tourists who had come up for their idea of adventure, paying probably $10,000 for the privilege of camping out alone for a few days, then a carefully orchestrated raft or hunting trip they could go home and brag about. They had missed their pilot who was to drop them at their camp. Since I was taking my plane up that way to check out an eagles nest I'd seen from the air, I told them I'd drop them off close to where they were going to camp as I was going there anyway. I'd like to say that they were gracious, joyous people and we had a wonderful experience, but they were the rudest, nastiest couple I'd ever met in my life. It got to the point I gave up being polite and started to burp and pretend to nod off at the controls muttering the phrase "boy I wish I hadn't drunk that bottle of cough syrup".
In any event, as I left them, I reminded them that if they had any problems, ANYTHING, to put an X on the sandbar or hang out a flag and someone would check on them. They weren't far from town and I, or others would pass over as I frequented the area, and I'm sure the guide service would as well. Well they lit into me and screamed and yelled that they wanted to be ALONE in the wilderness and if they saw a plane they'd ^&#*@ sue everyone for everything they owned. . etc. etc. So I didn't stop, nor did anyone else. When they were picked up days later in the float plane they were a sight. They didn't put their food up in a tree like directed, and slept where they cooked. The first night in camp a bear tore it to pieces. Ate all the food (apparently Mr. Bear didn't like French food or they might have been dinner) and destroyed everything else. They spent the next 2 nights being gnawed on by mosquitoes, wet, cold and munching on some bitter berries. They were a bit nicer on the flight back I imagine.
I landed at one lake on which there was a beautiful cabin. There were no roads to it,you could only fly in and the nearest place was 20 miles away by dog team or snowmobile. A widow lived there, the wife of a Alaska Airlines pilot, she'd never been to the state until she fell in love with a resident and moved. She offered me some gas and coffee and I ended up staying for two days, sharing stories of life in the wild, and learning just how deep love will lead you into the wilderness of your heart.
Don't wait until you retire to grab life's dream, be it a fresh start as you leave heartache for promise, a career change no matter how late in life, or simply a grand vacation. If Alaska is on your "list", find the time somewhere in your life to go.
Haven't you ever dreamed of soaring in a float plane over white-blue mountains untouched by man, to cast a line into pristine rivers for your dinner, the hush of a thousand acres enveloping you as the fire crackles outside your tent? No adventuresome adult with any of the juices of their youth in them has moved beyond that dream. Make the choice to follow it. What you gain for that choice will be more than a few photos and a empty bank account. The true harvest of your dream will always be as intangible and indescribable as the tints of an Arctic sky. It will be a landscape of magic, a segment of the Northern lights which you have reached out and held on to, if only for a moment in time.