Staying in Alaska

There is a lot to say about my time in Alaska — my awe of its wild beauty, good company, and real food — but I think this sums it up best:

I came to Alaska for a ten-day trip and left two months later.

I really was done for even before the plane landed in Anchorage.

As you fly way up north in the summer, the sunlight stays with you. It’s something I had experienced once before in Russia where I lived up near the Finnish border for the summer as a very lucky teenager. I love this kind of midnight sun — or belye nochi as they called it there, meaning “white night.” It gives a whole new pulse to the world; a sort of continuous magic to your days and nights.

So when my plane gets above cloudy Denver and finds the sun, I am giddy with anticipation. I write down: “I have that tingling sense of something great to come. I’m chasing the sun to the great north!”

And what a north to greet me! We land and there is the Chugach range, there is Cook Inlet, there are the pines and marshes, and more and more beautiful, beautiful mountains.

Before coming to Alaska, I honestly didn’t know why I was going. I’d love to be the romantic and say “it was always my dream.” But it wasn’t. I booked it in a flurry of leaving my job, leaving a relationship, and really just needing to be somewhere else.

I wish there was more intentionality behind it but in some ways I think that’s why Alaska grabbed my heart. I wasn’t looking for it to change me but it greeted me and said “I’m just what you’re looking for.” And I knew it was right. I knew it was right before I got off that plane.

But I was still only planning to stay for ten days.

To tell the story about why that changed I have to admit something: I have been somewhat of an avid-organizer since, well, since whenever I discovered those wonderful Staples daily planners. Oh heck…it was 1996, I was in sixth grade, and it was love at first sight.

And I appreciate that side of me, and it’s taken me far, and I’ve realized this year that it absolutely needs to get in the backseat and quit driving. Because there is more to me and more to life than planning it. There’s another side that loves spontaneity and wandering and limitless possibilities. And this is who I want to take the lead now.

“Try to experience Alaska, not control it.” This was my aunt’s wise advice on the phone before I left. (I am blessed with many inspiring, independent women in my life who’s words and love are my absolute right angle. Thank you, Annie, for this one.) But, like anything worth doing well, it takes practice. Hard practice. And Alaska really put my new lead to the test, especially one morning up in Denali.

That morning I was supposed to leave the national park area by bus and go seven hours south to a coastal town called Seward on the Kenai Peninsula. I had 5 more days in Alaska. I got up, packed all my stuff at the hostel, and got dropped off in a little turnaround area ready to board my 9am bus.

I remember the sun so vividly that day. It was an absolute brilliant summer morning. The kind of morning that you just want to linger on and on — like a beautiful note or the first taste of something ripe.

So I was feeling pretty content, sitting on a rock in that sun, until I look up the hill at 9 to see my bus drive on down the road past me.

I call the company. “Oh no, the bus will be there momentarily.” I believe them for twenty minutes then call back. “Oh yes, the bus is en route.” “To Seward? Without me?” We go back and forth like this until it can sink in that I have literally been left behind by the side of the road.

And the kicker: “Oh no, we can’t get you on our next bus. You’ll have to take the one on Sunday.” Sunday — the day before I’m supposed to leave Alaska.

What follows is my pretty half-hearted attempt to find a ride to Seward.

And then it hits me: I’m happy. I’m not upset — frustrated, yes, because the company is being an unapologetic jerkface — but what I really feel is relieved. I want to be left behind. I realize then that I’ve totally been rushing through Alaska. It’s time to give up the control and just go off and have the experience.

So I find a shuttle back to the national park, put my stuff in a locker, spend a day in that glorious sun hiking Mt. Healy, and am back at my hostel in time to move into my original bunk (thank you, Denali Mountain Morning Hostel, for being in all ways a very awesome place to land).

And here’s the kicker: that evening there’s a mountain crowd of 20-somethings across the street with free beer, food, and bluegrass until the wee hours. We are celebrating the upcoming solstice but inside I am laughing with joy at the beautiful place letting go of your plans can take you.

A few ask me how long I’ll be in Alaska. I tell them I’ll be staying for quite some time.

10pm: Chasing the sun to Alaska!

Leaving my hostel...or so I thought

View from my hike up Mt Healy...way better than the bus!

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3 responses to “Staying in Alaska

  1. And we are all glad you decided to stay a while!

  2. I love your aunt’s advice! That’s wisdom that can be applied as an approach to life in general too. Experience, not control.

  3. Don’t remember where I heard it or even if I am quoting directly: “Life begins when you step out of your comfort zone”. Go where your heart leads — only you know!

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