Six months ago, ended a journey started back in 2007. A journey that’s not been so much hard, as blessed with necessary diversions and roadblocks; moments where frustration collapsed under the weight of enlightenment and education. At the time, I knew that travel (specifically solitary travel) was to be a major catalyst for growth in my life, yet failed to fully realize the scaffolding with which to support my desires. I’d like to admit to inexperience but nearer the truth would be the suffocating hood of comfort; a veil that took several attempts, before being pulled sufficiently from the eyes.
When trying to reflect on a trip that symbolized something so grandiose, it’s too easy to submerge the real motivation in a sea of roiling detail. Getting lost in those details has been the biggest factor in taking so long to write about the ending – my 50th and final U.S state – due to the anti-climatic nature of the homecoming and my need for internal processing. After stepping off the plane and turning the key to a house I purchased the week before I left, there was just such an empty feeling, as the dread of the word comfortable, bawled out closure. I had obscured the original vision with the focus of completion, trading the joy of the journey for a formulaic bucket-list. Once the catalyst was identified, it was fairly simple process to again narrow the focus, thus enabling me to reflect increasingly more positive on that last state; the impossibly majestic landscape that is Alaska.
Alaska defines the word frontier with such embellishment of remoteness that it’s almost impossible to blind one’s eyes with romantic overtones. An epidermis of permafrost, mountains yawning so wide that the tongue laps eagerly at the cloud-line and landscapes of fierce outlines chorusing a guttural howl, only to be softened by the endless emerald army of trees; a fir invasion that banishes all but a microscopic element of human life, yet balances out the landscape perfectly.
Exiting the Anchorage airport (and briefly returning, to pick up my forgotten sunglasses), I walk a couple of miles to an intersection of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail; this is also my introduction to the notoriously relentless mosquitoes. Not ten minutes along the trail, I’ve had enough of being dined on and switch to a hooded sweatshirt. The trail continues to slice through clouds of bloodsuckers for the next three miles, before thinning woodland and increased distance from water, deliver welcome relief on the last couple of miles into the center of the city. Anchorage has an obvious layer of social structure, not unlike most cities and heading further east, the sterility of central shopping areas breaks apart into boarded up windows of past lives and incoherent shouts from shuffling residents, revealing that borderland town edginess that links it spiritually with it’s beginnings. I’ve always tried to frequent these areas behind the smoke-and–mirrors of capitalism and here is where my hostel is located, for the two visits I will make to the town.
The following morning is again spent heading North, toward Denali National Park by train. It takes half the day to get to the park along 470 miles of steel river, co-extending timberlines from Seward to Fairbanks and connecting pockets of mostly isolated civilization since completion in 1923. The sheer scope of this cinematic diorama is a movie for the mind, missing only the epic musical score that should accompany such theater. Several hours of meditation are interjected regularly with tales from the conductor, elucidating the history of the passing landscape and associated residential lives along the way. Almost as a punctuation to the end of one act, the train sends out a single, long exhale, to announce arrival at the second act; Denali National Park.
Denali itself needs to be felt, not read about. Pages alone couldn’t detail enough about the infinite forest that both suffocates and liberates. It’s an area of vast hardened green tones that never cease, no matter how high or how far you travel. With only a few days here, there is only one real option to see as much as possible and that’s by getting on the bus to Wonder Lake.
The road to Wonder lake is long. Considering how much of the day it takes to drive, also reveals the true size of Denali – seemingly infinite. Being told we may see some bears along the way is cause enough for excitement and upon return, an overwhelming satisfaction has been acquired from viewing over twenty rolling in the hillside, blocking the road or stampeding at such pace, rangers have to frantically navigate people into buildings or back on buses. Unfortunately since that visit, the proud statement that nobody has ever been killed by a bear in Denali has been muted, after a 49 year old photographer recently became the first ever terminal casualty; truly sad and unfortunate confirmation of the term wilderness.
Between scouting for wildlife, eyes are consistently transfixed by stunning mountains, capped with snow and cloud – none more enigmatic than that of Mount Denali. If you’re lucky enough and the weather indulges, you may be graced as I am, with a brief glimpse of the whole mountain, just before it returns to a teasing peep-show under a flowing dress of cloud. Even without this unveiling of the full 20,320 feet of North Americas highest peak, the drive is surely one of the most stunning visual highs I have ever witnessed.
Departing Denali, leaves one with a sense of possibilities. Seducing the mind with a glimpse of the unknown, readily translates the language of the wild; a joy, excitement and fearfulness which can only be attained by reaching the edge of something new, then stepping back with the vexatious question What if I keep going?‘. These are the kinds of questions that push us forward or draw us consistently back to the same location in search of answers.
On to Fairbanks and a shift in civil attitudes, when compared to Anchorage. Maybe it’s the human reliance on one another as we reach the outer ends of population but certainly, people seem to have more of a disposition to volunteer unconditional help, here. Another thing that is clear, is that the vengeance of the mosquito increases with the increment of latitude and thinning of food stock. Despite multiple nets inside the tepee I have rented, the droning wrath around my ears disturbs my slumber as much as the midnight Sun. I manage around 3 hours of sleep and depart the night with as few bites.
An early start to the following day, is spent walking a few miles to the departure point for the Dalton Highway tour. Here I witness true elements of seclusion, as we pass by the very edge of grid-powered homesteads and into the realms of generators. This slice of road; a minute wrinkle of age that’s lost through the tundra, offers the only reach to civilization and one that if stranded upon, will test your patience in the hope that eventually, you might see a vehicle that day. The extent of camaraderie is effused to us by the bus driver who indicates that everyone will stop to help a stranger because in such seclusion, it could be the difference between life and death. One of the things most bewildering to others on my relaying of the Dalton Highway ride, is the temperature. As we bluster through the silence and growl to a halt of the Arctic Circle car park, the warmth is as surprising as it is impressive. Most people associate the Arctic with cold yet, on this day, it claws toward the mid 70’s with a high and impossibly bright post-solstice sun, burning its turmoil into my face. Tour buses are not usually my preferred method of transportation but right now, cool air and barriers from the flies and mosquitoes is so very welcome.
From the high north to a cold wet south, leaving Fairbanks behind via a short flight and a train ride down to Seward. I’m still not sure why I chose Seward and despite some misgivings on arrival (mostly due, it has to be said, to the drastic change in weather) Seward surprises me with some unexpected treasures and leaves me yearning for more days. From the laboring atmosphere and oil-infused food of the Smoke Stack cafe, the calf-searing incline of Mount Marathon and it’s Zeus-like views from atop, this town is a jewel that has remained so bright by not being a forethought of adventure. It has yet to suffer from the dense tourism crowds that so very often suffocate the environment into a circus of staged performances.
The next morning, I board a boat for Aialik bay. With only glaciers on the official agenda, it becomes an agreeable diversion to be wrenched to a halt, several times en-route, as the cratered and lined bulks of humpbacks inflate from the depths, exhale and disappear back to the darkness. Between these oaks of the oceans, flights of Puffins weaving invisible threads from cliff to cliff and the sky-blue faces of the glaciers, Seward firmly puts a period at the end of the adventure; one that couldn’t have been more perfectly scripted. As a traveler through so much vastness, it is consistently revealed how impossibly small we are in this world and through the fortune of evolution, we are indeed blessed with the senses to appreciate, these gifts of beauty.