He said, “Only you know”

It finally hit me the other day, walking back to my apartment with the July air hanging heavy and days away from moving out, what to call this here thing.

I left my job in May after four great years in Chicago working in nonprofit communications (so I should be good at naming things, right?) and had always wanted to start something blog-like. All I needed was a name that could resonate and inspire me. A place I’d want to come to and write and share stuff with those kind friends that say “sure, I’ll read your blog.”

I had some ideas along the way. The first was “Wanderland.” Second, I think, was “Ready, set, open.” Neither felt quite right, like Goldilocks and her porridge. Over goodbye drinks, a friend suggested “Where in the World is Courtney S-M?” and I have to say I got pretty excited about dressing in a red hat and trench and living it up as the new Carmen Sandiego.

But walking home it hit me. I had been telling this one particular story from my recent time in Alaska a lot. So much so that I realized (by shouting “Yes!” out loud right – and I’m not even kidding – as thunder started to rumble announcing a shower) that it is more than just a story to me. It has become a mantra to come back to again and again in the dark and happy times.

It’s a pretty short but sweet story. Here goes:

I am on the bus in Denali National Park in Alaska. This is not a highway but a 85-mile or so dirt road with intensely beautiful views that takes you deep inside the park and then back out the same way. It is 12 hours round trip and goes by too quickly in my opinion (there are numerous tourists with screaming children that would disagree.) I am on this bus with said screaming child, on the return trip.

A few details: I am new to hiking in Alaska. I am still working on my stay-away-from-me bear song repertoire (so far: “Bear Necessities” and for some reason that song by Train that goes “Hey Soul Sister” seem to keep them away…it’s probably my singing.) I do have a couple hikes under my belt, including one earlier that day out to the McKinley River Bar from Wonder Lake. I do this hike (along with two new friends I make on the bus, Portia and Nick) for a few reasons. One, it has a path and there aren’t really any other trails in the park that far out. (There actually aren’t really that many trails in Alaska. I soon grow to love this.) Two, winding your way down a gradual hill into a low pine forest with Denali (also known as Mount McKinley, tallest peak in North America – I prefer Denali because it means “The High One” in Athabascan and looks just like it sounds) rising in front of you in all its snowy glory is an excellent warm up hike. And the kicker – I have a friend who is about to start his month-long ascent of Denali (that means he’s going to climb over glaciers all the way to 20,000 some feet) later that day from the river and think “wouldn’t it be cool to leave him and his ranger buddies a message on the trail?” I mean, when do you get to do that for someone?

So I’m back on the bus. I did my warm up hike. I laid out some stones that say “Go Skander and friends!” by the river. I’m feeling good with a healthy dose of nerves to keep my wits about me. I am ready for my solo hike in Denali. (The fact that a child has been exploring the far reaches of his vocal range for the past hour may have something to do with my readiness too.) I tell the driver, “Umm can you stop here?”. I mean to sound more confident but the rain has just started to come down and really I have no good reason to pick this spot over all the other miles and miles ahead of us. The driver must sense this because he questions me. “You want to get off here?” I’m a little taken aback. I don’t really have a good reason but do I need one? I decide I don’t. All I know is I feel like it’s time to go.

That’s when my driver says it. With a shrug of his shoulders, he says “Only you know” and swings open the bus door. I walk out and watch as it pulls away and hear the little boy, who’s not crying anymore, turn to his mother to ask “Why did she just leave?”.

Because only you know. Only you can know what calls your soul to life. And only you have the power to truly do something about it. It’s a lesson that carried me through Alaska and, with practice, will continue to shape my journey forward, wherever and however it unfolds.

Here’s the beautiful thing I am discovering too: when you follow this lead, awesome things can happen. So this story isn’t quite over…

I’m on foot in the middle of the park and totally loving it and totally coming up to a protected wolf sanctuary (gulp). I need to get back on the bus. Needless to say, I’m feeling slightly deflated by this prospect as I walk the road. That’s when a truck pulls up with two big, beefy maintenance dudes. “Are you lost?” one asks me. “Ah no, just walking” I say, slightly offended that I look like a lost tourist and not a mountaineering expert on a mission. They offer a ride and, seeing how I am that tourist and not about to take on a whole wolf pack, I accept and squeeze in between them.

I can’t remember what we talked about, something about a buddy of theirs marrying a Filipino woman because they all head there for the winter to work (and apparently find wives). All I know is I start to realize in the truck that we might pass my friend on his way to the mountain. I do the math: “okay, I was in the bus 2 hours plus a 1.5-hour hike puts me at 3.5 hours, at mile 53, Tokolat River. Let’s see he’s probably…carry the one…holy crap! mile 53, Tokolat River.”

And sure enough, the truck pulls in and I see my friend at Tokolat River.

You know those moments where you can see so clearly how everything unfolded just right to allow that present moment to come? That was one of those. And it all happened because I got off that damn bus when my soul said “Go!”.

There’s a final encore to that day and it comes after I’m back on another bus. I strike up a conversation with this sweet, older Austrian gentleman named Hans (of course). Hans should not be on this bus because he’s part of the package deal Carnival Cruise tourist mob that has their own bus and neatly packed sandwiches. But they were overbooked and Hans gave up his seat and found his way onto my bus heading home (they still gave him a sandwich). And I’m so glad he is.

Hans is wonderful — open, kind, hilarious. Everything you want in a bus neighbor. We talk about life, good choices and bad ones, love, science, marriage and how his would have ended had he not learned patience. As we start to near the park entrance, we get around to asking the standard “Where do you live?” question. “Oh,” Hans says in his singsong accent, “we live in Ohio but every summer we go up to this little Adirondack lake.”

Every single summer of my life I too go to a little Adirondack lake called Lake George. “Wow” is all we can both say. We’ve lived every summer 10 minutes away from each other.

Like I said, awesome things happen. It’s a beautiful world. I have since moved out of Chicago and am nestled on the couch with my cousin’s cats in Guelph, Canada on a trip back East. Tomorrow, I will push off for Lake George where I’m planning to give Hans a call and bring him a pie (better than a sandwich). So, really, this story isn’t over yet.


11 responses to “He said, “Only you know”

  1. beautiful. and what a perfect blog title too!
    love you!

  2. Ahh sister you are true painter of words, thoughts, and feelings. Thank you for this beautiful story, especially the part in bold that is speaking to me so loud right now. xoxoxoxoxox

  3. Amazing, Courtney! I’m looking forward to following your adventures — I already feel inspired by them!

  4. Jessica Gingold

    I’m sorry I missed you. This is a wonderful story and inspires my own year of adventures.

  5. stephanie arias

    Very bummed I didn’t get to say goodbye, but will happily be following your blog. Incredible stories so far! Keep em comin!

  6. go courtney! go courtney! Your story brought tears to my eyes. I’m so happy that you’re following your dreams (or finding them as you go).

    The Waking – Theodore Roethke

    I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
    I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
    I learn by going where I have to go.

    We think by feeling. What is there to know?
    I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
    I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

    Of those so close beside me, which are you?
    God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
    And learn by going where I have to go.

    Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
    The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
    I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

    Great Nature has another thing to do
    To you and me, so take the lively air,
    And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

    This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
    What falls away is always. And is near.
    I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
    I learn by going where I have to go.

  7. Court –
    It sounds like the syncronicity of the universe at play. And, boy, it gave you such a beautiful reign of seemingly perfect cohesion.
    This story inspires me… with it’s meaning, lure, universal following-your-heart theme… and hearing your heart in it. I know we haven’t been connected in so many years, but this still sounds just like you. 🙂
    Blessings, dear.

  8. Vicki Rosenberg

    I am so glad we were able to hear these stories directly from you and that you had time to stop in Saugatuck for a respite. Eddie and I have repeated your bus story and the now infamous “only you know” quote to lots of people. That really sticks.

    Keep the blog going! We want to hear the stories of your next adventures and include lots of photos!!!


  9. Courtney! I’m so glad to have made it to your site. Beautiful stories from a lovely gal. If you ever wander through Michigan again…don’t be shy. I miss you.

  10. Courtney. I am at dinner in Chicago with mark for the policy works retreat and was asking about you. I am now signed up for alerts. I will read through everything later but couldn’t wait to say hi!! Xxioo. Vicki

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