Changed by Alaska
Into the Wild
I was listening to the book on tape Into the Wild today, having read it before and being too lazy to read it to myself again. I was newly fascinated by many parts of the book and listened with a growing melancholy as the narrator read the story about a young man's journey into the Alaskan wilderness. Alone in an abandoned bus that was his makeshift camp, Chris McCandless realized a large portion of his life's dream: to live off the land for several months, with no phone and no human contact. Ultimately, though, circumstance moved against Chris, and he starved to death.
The author of Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer, shared a story of his own need to wander into the wilderness when he became obsessed with climbing the Devil's Thumb, a giant, unforgiving mountain that shoot's up out of a glacier at the Alaska - British Columbia border. Upon his second try climbing the mountain he succeeded, and headed back down to civilization. He was 23 and had spent 3 weeks escaping death with a few provisions, a couple of ice picks and incredible strength and intestinal fortitude. He was thrilled he had achieved his goal and his first night's sleep off the mountain was impossible. He was wired from the climb. He went to a bar to kill some time and was confused to find himself slipping into sadness. He had achieved an incredible feat that took every ounce of his strength and spirit. As he sat on that bar stool he realized that although he felt profoundly changed, no one would notice.
It made me think of all the things we do that change us and nobody knows. It's a secret we keep with ourselves. We may want others to understand - to see it - but feel frustrated when they can't.
3 girls in the back country
I went to Alaska, too, when I was out of high school, with my sister and a friend. We drove through Canada in a Ford Escort, camping all the way until we hopped across the border and braved the Alaska Highway. I spent a little time in many of the places McCandless passed through, and everywhere we went we met weird and fascinating people. When my sister and our friend Melanie had to fly out from Anchorage to the fish processing plant in Naknek where we had secured jobs, I was left behind to fend for myself for a few days. I was 19 and a stickler for safety, so I immediately picked up a hitchhiker on some remote stretch of road. He was small in stature, with dark brown hair and a short beard. He had a big backpack with a bed roll and a tent attached. After driving for a while we decided to pull down a dirt road and pitch our tents. We slept in our little private domes and in the morning I took him down the road a little more and he was on his way. He changed me a little.
At another location I set up my tent beside a stream that was pure glacial run off. It was the most intense blue green water I had ever seen in person. The mountain rose dizzyingly up on the other side of the stream and it was white with snow. The beauty was humbling. I washed a little in the freezing water and then ran back into my tent because Alaska is indeed breathtakingly gorgeous, but it is thick with mosquitoes. Any poetic waxing in which I wished to partake was cut short as the swarm caught my scent. But they didn't kill me, either, and yes, I felt like that night changed me.
In Denali we hiked the open country. At one point we ascended a hill and looked across the valley. There, on the other side, were grizzly. Several grizzly. The bears could have crossed that valley in seconds had they wished too, but luckily they stayed where they were. The rest of our adventure was punctuated by cries of "Hello bear," and "Hey bear, coming through," etc., so as not to sneak up on one of them. Our mortality was always on the tips of our brains as we hiked over muskeg and rock. It rained heavily at times and when we made camp I hung my dirty, wet clothes on a spindly bush near the opening of my tent. A lone caribou walked by in the dusky twilight of night and I snapped a photo of him. My underwear is in the foreground of the shot. It looks like a giant pair of panties about to swallow up a tiny little caribou. I changed my underwear that night, yes, but mostly it was me that had changed.
Only you know what you are really capable of
I think our parents were pretty proud of us that we had made the trip, worked for a month and a half in the fish plant, saw Alaska and made it back with some cool stories. Our dad was an outdoorsman and he wanted to see Alaska, too, but he never made it. He instilled in us a great love of nature and helped us learn to navigate it a bit. Our mom wanted us to be smart and strong. The world seemed different to me because of what I had seen and done, but things went on as usual back at home and I think I understand what that author, Jon Krakauer , was feeling when no one back home really "got it." But the great equalizer is that everyone has their Alaska. And no one else really gets it because the change is imperceptible to anyone but yourself. It is yours alone. Own it and carry on. Take the thing to work with you and when no one else believes in you, tell yourself, I hiked beside grizzly bears in Alaska in the pouring rain and ate dry Ramen Noodles for 4 days (insert your secret change here). I made a fire with the flyleaf of Bronte's Wuthering Heights near the Yukon. And you believe in you. Whatever your thing is: I survived an assault, I rescued a kitten, I lost 20 pounds, I am kind. Cash it in once in a while. Believe in yourself.