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It's a long climb, to get to the bottom of things

Alaska: a memory for yesterday.

USA | Friday, 14 November 2008 | Views [425]

I know that I have been off of travel logues for some time now. the amount of imposing complications in my life have left me tucking in the hatches and sailing for the solitary reflection without the lure of reaching out to the ones dearest to me for sharing my thoughts. But I couldn't leave you stranded in the "lower 48" without proper introduction to the LIFESTYLE ALASKA, so I am now catching up for lost time with a little bit of swagger in my step.
Off the plane, not certain which direction is forward anymore after 13 hours of trains, planes, and automobiles, I am directed to collect my belongings by a stuffed batch of tangled fur pointing in the direction of the baggage carousel. Hunting for the bright plastic orange of my suitcase, I felt the beady eyes of predator and prey locked in an eternity of taxidermied stalemate boring bullet holes of victory into my back. Yes, everything is larger in alaska, and everything is dead, stuffed, and mounted...or will be at some point in the forseeable future.
We bounded to the highway in our tiny little rental car, dwarfed on all sides by pickup trucks and 4wheel drive. It reminded me of Minnesota, serious about traction in shoes, in cars, in life.
We stopped at a grocery store to stock up for our days at Denali. Man can only take on Nature if he is properly fed and watered!
Car rides tend to be my tranquilizer of choice, just like a baby I slept until the shutting of the engine awoke me to our backwoods wannabe Princess Lodge of People Cruising Alaska. Furniture of rough-hewn logs, check. Bedding hues of testosterone machismo, check. A pillow, check. I was out.
The next day, Adam awoke bursting with excitement to share with me his homeland. My pillow had other ideas. So after waiting out a few clouded hours walking the hillside on his own, he finally awoke me like a child on christmas morning "let's go ! Let's go! Let's go!"
When we rounded the turn to checkout, there she stood, Proud, Tall One. Denali. The decks of the lobby viewing station were a clustered circus of camera's flashing and aged-tinted noggins jockeying for that perfectly framed picture with the mountain showcasing her beauty. I didn't know what all the fuss was about, evidently the lady is a coquettish tease who rarely graces the public with the full naked perfection of her face. We spent a few hours just sighing in admiration; our dumbfounded smiles of whitened teeth echoing the snowcapped horizon in the distance.
Finally, we began to creep ever closer to the base of our newfound friend. We check into our new belogged wonderland of backwoods charm, and then took to driving right into the park. The Denali National Park is 6 million acres of pristine frontier land. They allow you to drive in about 10 miles or so in your own vehicle, past a few campgrounds and visitors center full of helpful lovely hippies that would live off the land in a second if it wasn't so hard to stay alive that way up here. Along the road, we stumbled upon the hotspot of moose rutting nightlife by the side of the road. Mates a calling, bulls a racing, it was hard to believe that this was actually a reality and not just a revisiting of The Call of the Wild!
Adam had kept telling me to look for moose, and I rolled my eyes and played along thinking, we are in a noisy, noisy car and the moose is not stupid enough to want a ride. But proven wrong again and again, I switched my camera into sport setting and went to work documenting just how much love means to moose, and just how insignificant we were in comparison.
We bought our tickets for the public bus- the only way to venture past that 10 miles curfew and see the real deal park beyond. The buses run from the visitors center a the mouth of the entrance and stop at all the campgrounds along the road to Kantishna, some 80 miles inside the park.
A certain Disney tongue-in-cheek humor lacking in the Disney charm- our bus driver was only too aware that the season ended in all of four days; she was long past the freshness seal on her sell by date. Salted, dry, and even a tad bit unenthusiastically judgmental of our animal spotting capabilities, she carted our pack of 30 or so adventure seeking scouts through the rich maze of colors bursting with the celebration that Autumn is upon us. Never in my life have my eyes felt to blessed to have their vision. The landscape was a sunset captured by the brush setting the world on fire, and the sky greedily defended the only color not stolen by the earth and polished her blues with an intensity to match the sea.
Sprinkle in a mother bear and her two cubs racing along the peaks of the mountain beside us, and you have an entire National Geographic photoshoot.
As we ventured further along towards the Polychrome region, the brush gave was to rock formations lecturing the mountains about the history of geologic time. Red, beige, grey, white, black- the layers landed like the sand mosaics we had made in art class in junior high- pleasant swirls forming circular plaids climbing up to reach the sky in snow clad peaks of Burberry perfection.
When we approached Denali from the southern face, she smiled, flipped her foggen hair, and gave us just a flash of a flirting wink before disappearing once again. Now I understand why so many men are trapped by the obsession with climbing her peak. She charms you, beguiles you like the rarest and most beautiful of geishas, but as masterfully as she can shroud herself from view, she cannot escape the most driven expeditious suitors. They conquer her snow drifts and fight off her furious winds, and if they are truly the luckiest of foolish souls, they make it to her summit alive and filled with the knowledge of her soul. I do not envy those unlucky in love with her fickle flame.
When we at last reached Eielson Visitors center, we had filled our cameras with Dall sheep, moose, caribou, and even a couple of bears. We felt proud of our safari, and even ready to try to push a bit further on to Wonder Lake. By this point, we were eating our peanutbutter and jelly picnic and waiting for the next bus to adventure, when suddenly we hear shouts of "bear!! BEAR!!!" Now the smartest reaction would be to head into the safety of the building and lock all of the doors. Tourists have never been known for wisdom. In fact, even the most savvy of Mensa candidates must check their brain with their luggage when they board a vacation bound plane. We all jockeyed towards the shouting and saw the rumble tumble linebacker grizzleys setting pace at 30 mile an hour speed. One crowd of hikers happened to be trapped along the section of the nature trail with the ripest of blueberries- the snack of choice our discerning cub. Their arms were waving, they shouted in skittish wavering voices "HEY! BEAR!! YOU DO NOT WANT TO EAT ME! BEAR!" as they backed slowly up the hill never turning their eyes from the pacing, rambunctious predator beside them.
Finally, the rangers got a hold on the attention of the crowd, and pushed everyone reluctantly inside. We boarded our bus excited by the uncertain whimsy of Darwin' survival theories.
Wonder Lake was a taste of summer in the park. The sun had turned the thermostat up to rockin, and the fittest in the wilderness at that mile marker proved to be the mosquito and the gnat. I could see the architecture of Ansel Adam's fascination with this scene. The water, the mountains, the trees perfectly framing log cabins of the campground all built utopian visions of man residing in harmony with nature.
This was the farthest we could possibly reach in our adventures for the day. When we boarded the bus back home, we were filled with the restless spirit of pioneers harnessed by the limitations of bus schedules and curfews: two grumpy five year olds in desperate need of a nap.
I had doubts that the road home could be as spectacular as the journey outward. After a few fox sightings, and the rejoining company of the bears- this time just hiking on down the road in front of our bus, like hobos searching out the next homestead to squat upon- we managed to revive our flagging spirits and find contentment again in the visions around us.
The finale of the day was a battle of cloud and sun, the spectacular sunset erupting into a fierce storm of lighting and rainclouds. The middle ground between a garden of rainbows sprouting from the braided riverbeds in the valley below. There is only a vague retelling of Denali- there is no word structure that could harness her beauty and magic suitably enough to recreate a story of her life. Unable to capture the feeling in a journal, I contented myself with salmon bakes and alaskan amber in the Northern Exposure set dive bar that highlighted the nightlife in "town."
The next day we took off for the Kenai Penninsula- the true homeland of Bute, and the location of the wedding-to-be of Adam's sister Alana.
The flight took all of 15 minutes, and the plane was so crammed we had to fold ourselves like origami in order to take our carry on baggage with us to our seats. The herds of roaming Caribou gathered to welcome Adam home. We settled ourselves into the cosy childhood homestead and then warmed ourselves by the glow of familial reconnection.
The next day we took to touring the town and testing out my healing ankle on the running trails that a teenage Adam had built with his high school cross country team. Signs attesting to the dangers of running in the woods advertised the dates of the last bear sightings, and advice for how to handle an ambush in the woods. I had never considered what it was to live in a place where there is danger around every corner, predators waiting to stake out a claim against the suburban sprawl of man. The realization that not everyone can just take off with a wild ambition and a pair of running shoes really hit home in that sign. Illinois was not only "boring", it was safe; and I would never take that for granted again. Especially when the hills were at protractor angles that my knees did not believe existed in nature, and my lungs questioned the oxygen content of the arctic atmosphere.
We spent our last free day before the Arrivals began with a field trip down to Homer. The drive through the more settled neighborhoods showcased the side of Alaska that Robin Leach would have narrated with a tweaking smug satisfaction that luxury can happen anywhere. That said, the standard of luxury is a completely different competition for the Joneses when you factor in the North Shore of Chicago or even the choicest of zipcodes in Malibu. The richest here settle for the finest of what they can get from catalog and paying exorbitant shipping subsidies, not quite the haute couture of the Renoir set of the lower 48.
Homer itself was a quaint tourist reconstruction of a fishing village, not unlike the Cedar Key oasises of Florida. Tiny little wooden slats climbed into a pyramid of shelter that advertised Halibut snares of 300lbs just last week! The fishing expedition charters were wedged in by vendors of humorous chotchky of alaskan pride and handicrafts of native tradition. The beautiful, the absurd, the completely uncomprehensible, alaska is definitely an inside joke to those who have survived the winter's snow.
We hiked along the coast, visiting with the sea birds and the jellyfish washed upon the shore. I have a love of maritime scenes of Rockwellian perfection, and that is a specialty of the region.
On our way out, we rallied our Denali spirit as Adam's dad spotted an otter frolicking in the surf breaking oysters on his belly for an afternoon snack, and eagles just browsing the evergreens for love and patriotic glory. And as we stopped into the Paradisus restaurant for the traditional family dinner on the town, the entire day was eclipsed by halibut the likes of which i have never tasted in my life! So fresh and flaky, so perfect and heavenly- sign me up for the next expedition leaving from Homer, I want to bring home 300 lbs to share with the deprived souls of lake-bound midwestern poverty!!!

The days of the wedding huddled upon us, and family began to trickle into town. Everyone warm and jocular, all brilliant personalities creating a fireworks display of color and sparkle. Not a meal went by that did not contain laughter and recounting of histories that weave the quilt of a family's story. Not a moment went by of feeling alien or alone among the crowd. This is what I love about good people and large families- there is never enough space to get completely lost in your own psychosis, too much distraction to feel like you are outstanding in your folly.
As the rehearsal dinner barbeque (once again, amazing wild salmon caught by the blushing bride to be, undoubtedly in waders and a strong independent spirit of capability) faded into the bachelorette party, I began to realize that according to Alaskan standards, we were both far behind the times. In that way of small town time warp, I would be considered an ancient spinster material, not even once divorced by 30, without a purpose for my life being barren of child and man. The ultimate accessory in the state is not a Louis Vuitton purse or Chanel sunglasses- the ultimate accessory here is a baby. A giggling, mop-headed, bouncy baby that shouts to the world you have arrived into adult independence; fulfilled the goal of human existence. The people are not naive, are not backwoods or redneck in this party; they are all fun, intelligent people who grew up in ways that the urban communities of the world have stopped recognizing as a rite of passage and started to question suspiciously as an outdated construct of society. I was filled with wonder at what these women would have accomplished set about the world with a backpack and a guidebook as I had been. What books could have been written about the fire in their spirits, the compassion of their gestures, their outreaching generosity for human nature! But then when I see the light in their smiles brought on by the toddling comedic routines of their little wonders, the patience with which they explain the world around them, and I understand that we both have made right choices, just upon very different paths. And hopefully the fates will be just as kind to each of us in finding a safe haven for our futures.
After the raucous lewdity of Penis centric bachelorette celebration, we met up with the bachelors for a night of drunken karaoke talent searching. I had been to many karaoke joints in my shady shady past, but had never quite seen such rousing renditions of "Proud to be an American" nor realized Adam's hidden moonlighting as the male member of the B-52s. There is definitely something regenerative in nature of a homeland visit for a man who has found himself carving out a life on the other side of the continent. I had never realized so many dauntless qualities that had muted themselves in Adam's personality the farther he ventured from the wild Alaskan brush; I was proud to see him so sure of himself, so completely centered from within.
The wedding was a low-key celebration of family and future. Traditions were engaged so far as they were enjoyed, and not encompassed as a requirement for passage. It was a party for those who toasted, danced, and conversed until the sun went down the horizon and shooed us gently on our way- we were a merry party of revelers headed straight to the airport, to leave alaska is an evening affair. The bride and groom headed their way to express the luck of their lives in Vegas, I was headed back to a full schedule of touring with Hubbard Street, and Adam back to start his new job full time with Freeman.
There are seasons for family and reveling together, and season of wandering and soul-searching alone.
And there are places that are much bigger than any notch on the timeline of my life, like Alaska.

Tags: alaska, denali, emily predny, homer, mount mckinley, predny, wonder lake

 

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