Alaska: A Love Story

Alaska was already wild before I got there. There were already bears and moose and thick gray glacial rivers winding through the tundra. There were mountains and Dahl sheep and strong people living there already: men and women in Carharts and plaid shirts and brown Extra-Tuff boots. There were other kids too, like me, teenagers and 20-somethings breaking free from the lives we’d always known: from tiny towns in the middle of nowhere, or big cities where we didn’t feel we belonged, from conservative families, or parents who didn’t understand us, from the stories we’d grown up with, from college programs, from expectations, from beliefs that no longer suited us, from feeling trapped, or too secure. We were all breaking free from something. And chasing something else.

I went to Alaska to break free from Portland, Oregon, where I had lived almost all of my life, and where I was tired of working multiple part-time jobs, going to school and not having a sense of direction or purpose. And I went chasing a boy, a wirey brown-skinned boy named Dave, a musician with a broad nose, high cheekbones and jet-black hair. We were in love. As much as 18- and 19-year-olds can be in love, which is to say possibly more in love than you can or ever will be again in your whole life. Dave had been in Alaska the summer before. Through a mutual friend he’d gotten a job in Denali, a small town in the middle of Alaska, at the entrance to the national park of the same name. He played piano for the Cabin Nite Dinner Theater, a tourist attraction. I’d visited him briefly that first summer and gotten a taste of the mountains, the long days and the dusky twilit nights. I liked the tiny little town, the wooden boardwalk and the strip of log cabin shops. I liked the crisp air and the mountains rising up all around. I was attracted to the wildness of the land, and the generous, eclectic group of people who were drawn to it. I could tell it had changed Dave, not just because of the way he grew a beard and let his hair get long, but also because of the way he carried himself. He had a new confidence, a new daring about him and I wanted to know more. I wanted to taste what he’d tasted. I wanted to be changed the way he was.

So the next summer when he left to go up to Alaska again I decided to follow. I’d been working several different part-time jobs to save money for the trip, and one-by-one I quit them all: housecleaner, barista, farmer’s market sales person, and nude art model. I drew a big circle around departure day on the calendar and slowly weaned myself off of everything else in my life. Beyond that circle my calendar was empty, wide open. I bought a pale green Mountainsmith backpack from the local outdoor store. I moved out of the room I’d been renting in Southeast Portland, packed all my belongings up into cardboard boxes and stacked them in my parent’s garage.

I was planning to drive to Alaska with my friend Jake, who’d been Dave’s roommate in Denali the summer before. Jake had been living in the Bay Area over the winter, with a job painting boats. He was going to take the train up to meet me and we were going to drive my little blue Honda Civic Hatchback. But then I got in a car accident two days before Jake was supposed to arrive. I was okay, though badly shook up, but my car was totaled. It looked like road trip plans had crumbled, until Jake showed up in front of my house with a beige Volvo station wagon he’d bought on the side of the road. He had spent the last of his money on it, but he said, “We need something to drive, right?” The car was a beater. It ran, but not well, and we both had serious doubts that it would make it all the way to Alaska. This was our backup plan: we made sure everything we were taking would fit in our backpacks, and if the car broke down we would scratch out the Vehicle Identification Number, take the license plates off and walk away, leaving it on the side of the road. We’d stick our thumbs out and hitchhike the rest of the way.

The Volvo made it to Denali though, despite the way the brakes shuddered coming down every mountain pass, making us cling to our seats. The CD player overheated midway through Canada and refused to play another tune but that was the worst of it. We didn’t have to abandon ship. We didn’t have to hitchhike. We named the Volvo Champ and pulled in grinning and whooping and hollering to the dusty gravel parking lot of the Salmon Bake Restaurant in Denali. We’d made it.

Alaska exploded into me during that first summer. And I into it. It was a whirlwind of work and play. I got a part-time job right away at a gift shop called The Magic Carpet, and then set my sites on a job at The Black Bear Coffee House. It was the coffee shop, right in the middle of the boardwalk. Dave and I had gotten espresso milkshakes there the summer before and sat on the railing of the boardwalk swinging our feet and slurping. I had dreamed of having a job there ever since. I dropped my resume off and then went in every day for a week to check in and say hi, and see if they’d made a decision. At the end of the week when I walked in the manager laughed, gave me a big big hug and said, “I knew I was going to hire you after the first day, but I just wanted to make sure you were serious.”

So I got it, the first full-time job of my life. I moved into their employee housing, a tiny plywood shack of a cabin, big enough for a bed and a chair and a rack to hang my clothes on. There was a propane heater in the wall that flickered blue flames. I worked opening shift at the coffee shop, 5:30am-2:00pm and then I’d head over to the gift store three days a week and work the closing shift, 3:00-10:00. In between and afterwards and in every other waking minute I raged. That was the energy of the place, we all raged, all the time. We drank shots of whiskey at the pizza pub and danced as if our lives depended on it, as if our sole purpose was to burn straight through those old wooden floorboards. We went to bluegrass festivals and sat on the tailgates of pickup trucks around bonfires swinging our feet and listening to the sweet sounds of banjo and guitar and upright bass. We took off hiking and backpacking every chance we got, rolling back into town just in time for work.

The Alaskan summer days grow longer and longer as they head towards solstice and the collective energy of the people is carried along with it, the lengthening daylight pushing everyone onward, harder, faster. You’d be hanging out in the evening, setting sun casting a soft light onto everything, and you’d think ok, maybe I should go to bed soon, and you’d look at your watch and realize it was already 1:30 in the morning. The midnight sun, as it’s called, made adventure possible at any hour. On my first camping trip with Dave, we left late one evening after he got off work. It got dim, but not dark and we hiked late into the night. We didn’t even need headlamps to set up our tent at 2:00 in the morning.

You could start walking in any direction from Denali and go for a hike. The national park was on one side, six million acres of wild land, and all around it was national forest, full of mountains to climb, rivers to cross, wilderness to blow your mind. You could climb Mt Healy, which rose up across the street from the coffee shop, and look back down from the top at the tiny town. Out back, behind the boardwalk shops Sugarloaf Mountain sat plump and round, offering a web of trails to hike up and run down, leaping off rocks, launching off the base of tree trunks, careening and zig-zagging down the paths. There was Horseshoe Lake and the beaver dams to explore just down the road. One time I came around the corner at Horseshoe Lake and looked up to see a mama moose not 15 feet in front of me. My breath caught in my throat and my feet froze mid-stride. I took in the scene in one blink: the line of her jawbone, the muscles working as she slowly chewed on a clump of pond grass that dangled from her mouth. I noticed her two babies at her side, a lighter tawny brown than their mother, and still awkward on their long legs. Fortunately they had not been startled by my arrival, and they continued to graze at the edge of the pond. The mama moose hadn’t noticed me either, and I said a silent thank you as I backed away slowly, until I could cut through the forest in a wide arc and regain the trail a safe distance past them.

Another time at Horseshoe Lake I heard a bunch of rocks falling and clattering down the hillside and looked up to see what was causing the ruckus. At first it looked like a little brown bear, clambering around on the scree slope, but then I realized it was a beaver. I watched as it slipped and skated its way down the slope, dislodging rocks the whole way, and then waddled across the trail in front of me and slid into the water with a loud slap of its tail.

There is something about moving to a new place where nobody knows you that is liberating in itself. Every young person should do it. When that place is also a small town where everybody knows everybody, you think carefully about who you want to become. Alaska offered me a chance to reinvent myself, away from the friends and family and neighbors who’d known me most of my life. I chose to take parts of myself with me, like my loud infectious laughter, my love of going out dancing, and my sense of adventure. I also left parts of me behind, like the shy girl and the college student who didn’t know what she was doing with her life.

Alaska rocked my world. I spent the next five years going up there every summer, joining the pack of migratory people, gypsies who could not be tamed by normal lives in stationary places. Wild spirits, we ran north every year at the first sign of summer, and then migrated south again in the fall as the snow crept down the mountains. North to south: chasing sunlight; chasing warmth. Because I had arrived in the middle of the season the first summer, I had only ever seen Denali alive and buzzing. That fall I watched as everyone left, and the lodges and restaurants and shops locked their doors and boarded up their windows. Denali only exists May-September. The rest of the year it’s a ghost town. As a seasonal employee that means decision time. The season ends, and suddenly you have no job, nowhere to be, and (if you’ve played your cards right) all the money you’ve saved all summer. Some went back home, or back to school. But many, if not most of us, went on to the next adventure.

The first winter I went to Hawaii, still following Dave. He decided to stay in Hawaii to pursue his music, but I wanted more adventure. So I broke loose from him, went to Australia with a girlfriend, then New Zealand. Every winter after that it was something different: a road trip across the United States or Canada, backpacking through Europe or Mexico or Central America.

Each summer I returned to Alaska and she took me in. Time and again she chewed me up and spit me out, always better, braver and stronger than before. I was not an outdoorsperson when I went to Alaska the first time. I didn’t own any camping gear except the green backpack I’d bought in Portland. I didn’t own hiking boots or a tent; the first summer I had a pair of black Converse All Stars that I went everywhere in. My outdoor adventures started small, with the hikes I could access from my front door, or walking across the street from the coffee shop. But gradually each summer I began to explore more, diving into backcountry camping trips, spending multiple days deep in the national park.

I remember getting off the bus in the park for my first backcountry trip and looking out from the Visitor’s Center, imagining what it would be like to spend two nights out there, somewhere down that braided river bed, out of sight and sound from anything else. My pack was heavy on my back, even though it didn’t seem like I was bringing that much. I had the requisite bear can, a bear-proof canister borrowed from the park service, loaded with delicious food and tucked into the bottom of my pack. The rest of my gear and clothes were crammed in around it.

Most of Denali National Park is a trail-less wilderness. You learn to pick your way through it, scouting ahead for the best route, sometimes following game trails, sometimes skip-hopping your way along rocks at the edge of a river. It’s always a gamble to see where you’ll end up and whether the line you’ve chosen will actually take you where you’re trying to go. Sometimes a game trail fades out into nothingness on the side of a cliff, leaving you wondering if the Dahl sheep don’t actually sprout wings and fly away. Sometimes you’re following alongside a river only to have it push up against a steep bank, leaving you backtracking or scrambling up the craggy embankment, hoping for a clear path up above. Hiking is a puzzle, finding your way, scanning ahead for danger, pulling out the binoculars to check and make sure that the lump you see in the distance is actually a rock and not a grizzly bear. You learn to make noise regularly to alert bears of your approaching presence. You talk loudly, or you sing, or you call out “hey bear” every few minutes, especially if you’re walking through dense brush where visibility is limited, or along water where sound gets muffled and fades away.

The landscape in Alaska is so big it’s deceptive. I can’t tell you how many times I would look out at the scene and say, let’s hike over there, only to discover that “over there” was actually across a river, through a forest of thickly twisted willow brush, and several miles away.

My sister came to visit one summer and I took her out into the park on a camping trip. I realized then that I had always gone with more experienced friends, who I looked up to for advice, and trusted with decisions on where to go and what to do. I realized that I had also trusted them to make me feel safe, because when I went with my sister I was nervous the whole time. I felt responsible for her safety. I was on high alert and it was exhausting. I second-guessed every decision. We had to cross a river to get to the area where we wanted to camp. The ranger who’d helped us decide where to go had said that the water would be shallow, “It won’t come past your knees,” she had said. But when we went to ford it, even at the place where it feathered out the most, and spread itself between multiple channels it was still deep and racing. As we stepped in to cross it, the silty gray water came up nearly to our waists, pushing icily against our legs. I went in front, with her behind me, her hands gripping my shoulders the way we had seen in the backcountry training video. We took one step at a time, my right foot, then hers. Right-right, left-left, slowly finding our footing far below us in the frigid dark water. As we neared the other side I had the urge to take the last few steps quickly, wanting to reach the safety of the shore and feel the dry ground beneath me again. But my impulse nearly tripped her, and in the moment before I steadied myself and we returned to our slow right-right, left-left rhythm, it flashed before me how quickly she could have been swept downstream, how easily she could have pulled us both down into the glacial current. When we got back on the bus to leave the park at the end of that trip, I breathed the deepest sigh of relief I had ever felt in my life.

On another trip with a good friend, we set out to hike to the tip of the Sunset Glacier. Along the way we followed a small creek for a while. We saw a caribou up ahead of us, prancing and splashing back and forth in the water. We could see no rational explanation for his behavior, but we figured he must know best, so we decided to give it a try. The creek was red, deep metallic red -we guessed it must be from a high presence of minerals – and shallow. We pranced in it, singing to the tune of the Yellow Brick Road “follow the red rock creek. We’re off to see the glacier, the wonderful sunset glacier,” and “caribou and creeks and glaciers, oh my!” and marveling at how cool the water felt flowing over our feet, but how dry and comfortable they stayed in our waterproof hiking boots. I felt like I could walk forever.

As we got closer, the terrain became pockmarked and rough. We joked that it looked like the moon. We were walking in the footsteps of a glacier. The valley got narrower and the flat riverbed gave way to lumpy mounds of rock. The sun was deliciously hot. Then we came around a corner and saw the glacier. Where it ended was a gaping hole, a giant mouth with a roaring brown river pouring out of it. Icy water rushed past us. From underneath the surface we could hear the intermittent booming sound of giant boulders being pushed and rolled along the riverbed. Everything around us was gray or brown. I looked down at myself, gray hiking boots, gray pants, gray t-shirt. I lay back against a gray sun-warmed boulder. I could feel my body buzzing, muscles tingling from the hike, sun slowly seeping in to my bones. Suddenly I had the sense that I was no different than the rocks that surrounded us.

Denali taught me about getting to know a place. I’d grown up in the Pacific Northwest. I knew that saturated green landscape because I’d been absorbing it all my life, but Denali was new, Alaska was new. I found myself wanting to understand it. I had to learn how to learn about it. I sought out people who knew more about it than me and went hiking with them. I read books about Alaskan history. I purchased a guidebook to the wildflowers of Denali National Park. It and a book of Rumi poetry earned their weight in my backpack. Many happy evenings were spent at camp reading poems to the mountaintops and bouncing from flower to flower, guidebook in hand, flipping through pages, comparing pictures and repeating names. Monkshood, Lessing’s Arnica, Siberian Aster, Whitish Gentian. Most of the wildflowers are small in interior Alaska; they hug close to the cold hard ground, where they create a microclimate just warm enough to support abundant plant life in the cold artic air.

Those were summers of reckless abandon, of wildness and freedom and discovery, of defining and redefining myself. Those were summers of mountains and midnight sunsets and bluegrass festivals and backpacking trips and campfires and whiskey and dancing. They were summers of working hard and playing harder, juggling jobs, saving money, and dreaming of winter travels. They were summers of realizing how easily we could have died. But didn’t. Instead we lived. We all lived. More than we ever had before. We blew the roof off our previous existence. We threw the windows open and stuck our heads out screaming. Life came flooding in, unexpectedly potent and strong, full of surprise and beauty and sorrow and joy.

I went because of a boy. But, as it turns out, Alaska was her own love story. She broke me open slowly. I began to understand something, something that had to do with wild places, with putting myself at the mercy of the wind and the rain and the grizzlies, something to do with trusting: trusting in the wild, trusting in myself, trusting my own two feet to carry me up mountains, across rivers; trusting my own two shoulders to hold my backpack; trusting my eyes to stay watchful, scanning the horizon; trusting my mind to guide me safely. I began to understand something to do with being small in the world, something to do with finding my place.

In the end my place was not Denali. Despite how much I loved it, I knew I couldn’t keep chasing summers forever. I began to miss the four seasons, and to yearn for a deeper, year-round relationship to a place. Eventually a summer came when I did not head north, and instead began the process of rooting down. After so many years of seasonal work and travel, it was surprisingly easy to stay in one place. I was ready. I found land in southern Oregon and started a farm. I embedded myself into the small town community there. I am now approaching my fifth year in this place and I will have spent more summers here than I spent there.

Alaska still lives inside of me though. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t think about it, that I’m not reminded of the beauty and vastness, the mountain ranges, the tiny wildflowers, the scent of the tundra. Alaska gave me more than I ever could have hoped for. It poured itself down my throat and made a home there. It planted a seed deep in the belly of my being, so that wildness grows inside me. It influences me daily. It effects my decisions to take or leave a job, to stay in a relationship or break up, to go for the scary, new possibility or stay in a comfortable rut. I hear it calling like the roar of a river, or a guitar around a midnight bonfire. Yes, Alaska was already wild before I got there. I was the thing that changed.

Elizabeth Tobey, fall 2015

denali

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