There is a bigger essay in my trip to Alaska. One I am trying to tackle right now, as a matter of fact. In the meantime, this was my first print publication that wasn't knitting related. This essay originally appeared in the Rio Review, Spring 2009 edition.
Every muscle and bone in my body seems to ache as I settle into a scoop-shaped plastic seat at Gate C1. Out the giant windows I catch glimpses of the Alaskan wilderness that has been my home for the last eleven days. I feel a touch of vertigo as my mind bounces between the dense woods so many miles away where I broke camp for the last time yesterday and the shiny glass and steel that surrounds me here in the Ted Stevens International Airport. My notes tell me that I have hiked nearly 47 miles in the last week and a half. I have been up the side of a giant continental glacier, and down slick mud banks to the edge of more than one lake. I reread the notes to remind myself that it all really happened. The airport is so sterile that even the pine needles seem to have dropped out of my boot treads at the door.
I am excessively early for my flight but it is one of only 9 flights out of Anchorage today and I didn't want to miss it. But is that entirely true? I think about it, and am confident that I have not missed the city at all since I stepped out of the cab last Monday to meet up with the hiking tour group. However, last night, while trying to sleep in the modest downtown hotel, I am sure I missed the smell of cedar camp fire coals and the rustling sounds of sleeping bag against tent side that filled the nights outside.
It is a passing fancy to think of staying past my scheduled departure, however. As much as I loved my wilderness adventure, I was still just visiting. I was one of the nearly two million tourists per year that would drop into the largest state in the union for a week or two to sample the smallest bit of Alaska's bounty (whether fly fishing, mountain climbing, wildlife watching, or one of a host of new multi-sport eco-tours like mine) before rushing back home to more temperate climes. The endless days were lovely, but the crisp night breeze intimated at frost leading to snow leading to weeks of endless night. Snow is charming to me in the doses one generally encounters below the Mason-Dixon line. I know my biology and comfort zone. So I show up early, despite a small voice in my mind that romanticized a life scripted by Jack London for me at a young age.
The average tourist to Alaska stays, like I did, for 11 nights. He is more likely to be male than female, and is in his 50s. Every year he is more and more likely to arrive by cruise ship than plane. The group I was traveling with was not average. Our ages ranged from late 20s to late 40s; there were three couples, and two single women from the United States, two Swiss brothers, and our guide. We came to hike, raft, bike, and climb through some of the less traveled roads. We came to stand under a dead tree in the middle of a flooded river system and watch a young bald eagle preen his feathers for ten minutes in complete silence. We came to sing and stomp our way two miles to a dead moose that might have been guarded by a grizzly bear—we would never be sure if the bear's absence was due to our noisemaking or some other call of the wild. And we came to eat a collectively prepared raspberry crisp by campfire after a long day of hiking and foraging.
Despite our more rugged intentions, we still wore the same tourist uniform as nearly every other visitor to the largest state in the union: at least three clothing layers from Columbia, Patagonia, and REI, a camera, mosquito repellent, and handfuls of maps and guides to each stop along our itinerary. When the group drove out of the outfitters lot, we were indistinguishable in our freshness from the cruise folks who sail in and out with only a day or two on land, to shop Anchorage and maybe ride the bus through Denali National Park. By the end of the trip, we felt redeemed by our battle scars: our muddy boots, dirty hair, and frayed pants legs bespoke our hard work and honest adventuring.
Not a difference any native would likely notice. What is my 47 miles worth of hiking compared to Alaska's nearly 600,000 square miles of landscape? How could I truly appreciate the Land of the Midnight Sun without knowing the Winter Night? Did I really know any more about this last great frontier than I did when I started out? I look to my journal for assurance, but it is full of a gawker's exclamations: “ ... another day with no bears, the group is getting surly about it, but what can Jay do, bait one for us? ...got some great snaps of the pink fireweed all over Skilak. ...smoke was so bad that we couldn't see a thing the whole day at the park. ...we jokingly named Jay's hike today 'the death march.' He was not amused.”
I stare out the window at the spot in the clouds that marks Mt McKinley's peak and wonder if I have come to any greater understanding about Alaska, any great truths about this controversial geography in the last two weeks. The answer is most likely no and I worry that my integrity as a traveler has been impugned by the unknowable immensity of the land. But as I flip through the hundreds of images on my camera it is undeniable that Alaska has changed me. I made a concerted effort to get off the proverbial bus and take the more mysterious path. And now, I know I can stand in awe for ten minutes and not make a sound, I can dive into a glacial lake and I can climb a mountain. And while it is a skill that will likely go untested back home in the city, I can maybe even scare off a bear.