Bridge To Everywhere

Kit Messick Issue: Section:

This past summer my in-laws offered my husband and I an opportunity to
travel with them to Alaska on a "cruisetour" package sponsored by
Princess Cruises. As intrigued as I was by the prospect of seeing one of
the last great wildernesses in America -- and as overwhelmed as I was by
the generosity of my in-laws -- somewhere, deep inside, the ghost of my
disaffected adolescent self cringed just a little. I didn't think of
myself as a Princess "cruisetour" kind of girl-- or a Princess kind of
anything, for that matter. Conceptually, packaged tours and full-service
cruises brought to mind more than a couple of the age-old, brutal, and
seemingly inescapable Midwestern archetypes that gave me mental hives:
Women Of A Certain Age in bedazzled sweatsuits bum-rushing a steam table
buffet; sorority girls with plastic hurricane cups going “Woooooo!” Old
men with anchor appliques on madras pants giving me unsolicited advice
about my tattoos, and the requisite regret I must feel about them;
Captain Steubing.

But Captain Steubing or no, I wasn't about to decline such a gracious
offer, and as it turned out, our travels were -- as travels so often are
-- touching on the transcendental. The backs of my eyelids have been
permanently imprinted with visions of snowy mountain peaks and caribou,
of glaciers and wolves. My in-laws' gift proved greater than the sum of
airfare and a lush vacation.  They gave me the opportunity to get to know
them as the exceptional people they are. They also gave me something
perhaps even more intangible than that: along with the requisite Ulu
knife and bags of chocolate-covered raisins not so cleverly marketed as
"moose poop," I took home the priceless gift of perspective.


After a long cross-continental flight and a weary night in Anchorage, we
boarded observation cars on an Alaska Rail train heading north to
Talkeetna, a little bush town serviced mainly by sea planes, past
Wal*Mike's -- a general store festooned with antlers and snowshoes -- and
on to our lodge on the banks of the Chulitna River. After another day's
travel, we reached the Denali Princess Lodge, just outside the borders of
Denali National Park & Preserve. With every mile of steel
clackety-clacking under my feet, I felt more at ease, and more enthralled
with the scenery. The trip  became a surreal confluence of the
extraordinary and the banal: eating a burger and fries out of a plastic
basket while a bald eagle took flight from a tree and sailed above us.
Drinking an overpriced cocktail while a pair of moose grazed
indifferently under the eaves of the boreal forest. The sublime had met
the ridiculous.

The next morning, we entered Denali National Park where we boarded
repurposed school buses for the nine-hour Tundra Wilderness Tour which
took us 50 miles down the 92-mile Denali Park Road -- a mere fraction of
the six million acres that make up the park. For those of you playing the
home game, six million acres is an area roughly the size of the state of
Massachusetts. That figure alone was enough to boggle the mind.

Our naturalist, Bob Tourtelot, proved a knowledgeable guide and wonderful
nature photographer. He narrated parts of the ride with personal
anecdotes about his experiences in the park, and instructed us in the art
of being quiet and allowing the park to do the talking. Which it did. It
spoke of taiga forests, and the broad expanses of tundra turning red and
orange and gold in the last weeks of summer. It sang of the shining
Teklanika river turned nearly silver with silt. It lectured on the faults
and folds of rocks that had forged their way into mountains over one
hundred million years. "There is much to offer those who understand the
language of the great silent places," wrote Henry Karstens, the park's
first superintendent, in 1916. "Here will be found an indescribable calm.
A place just to loaf, healing to the sick mind and body, beyond the reach
of present day mental and nervous and moral strain." I was beginning to
understand, in spite of my usual cynicism, why a young man like
Christopher McCandless might be driven to forsake family and friends in
order to put his life in the hands of an older and wiser master than he
was likely to find elsewhere, until he succumbed (both metaphorically and
literally) to the call of the wild, to the lure of this primal land of
permafrost and drunken forests.

As we neared Polychrome Pass -- named for the colorful strata of rocks
visible on the mountain sides-- a mother wolf and three of her pups
dashed onto the road in front of us, and led us casually for four or five
miles, stopping and looking back every now and then, not frightened of
us, but wary, in the manner of any wild animal who has seen humans but
not interacted with them. Eventually, she tired of sharing the road and
took her pups off into the brush and up into the foothills, leaving me
awed by her brief presence.

Far above us, a flock of Dall sheep appeared
as pinpricks of white on vertiginous paths of the Alaskan Range. I
thought of the wolves making their way upward. Lunch, perhaps? No steam
table, but definitely a buffet if your tastes ran to mutton.
Our tour stopped at the basin of the Toklat River, a broad, sandy bed
twined with streams of glacial runoff. Bob had informed us that only 1/3
of the people who come to the park actually see the peak of Mt. McKinley
(now Denali), 20,230 feet up. We had been obscenely lucky: with the
exception of our first dreary afternoon in Talkeetna, The Great One had
come out for us every day. I was, myself, feeling particularly lucky at
that moment: I was in the midst of a truly humbling experience,
surrounded on all sides by nature at its most raw: ancient and savage,
beautiful and terrible. Later, as we were leaving, a rangy brown bear
ambled down to the riverbed to splash in its puddles. Like the wolves, we
humans were of no import. He had business of his own.

The gift of perspective is a wonderful thing. When we are finally given
an opportunity to step outside ourselves and see just how big, how
timeless, and how honest the natural world around us is, most of our own
foibles and frailties and "issues" suddenly appear as petty and
insignificant as they really are. Or, at least, as they ought to be. I
mean this in a positive way, of course: I came back from Denali feeling
lighter, and wanting less. My little Saturn-rings of accreted day-to-day
minutiae suddenly appeared to be a ridiculous waste of energy and brain
space. I had been given a scale with which to measure myself against the
infinite, and I had come up wonderfully small. It wasn't, as I've
sometimes heard this phenomenon described, a question of submitting to
the power of nature, or of being cowed by its majesty, but of finally
seeing my proper place in it. My brief and tiny and glorious place.

The next day, we wended our way back south by train, past treeless tundra
and fireweed, past a pod of beluga whales frolicking in the bay, on down
to Whittier, where we boarded our ship. In spite of my prejudices, I
found I rather enjoyed my time on the boat -- most of it spent on the
balcony, watching the majestic glaciers of the Inside Passage pass by
with husband and in-laws. The close quarters reiterated my impulse to
simplify, to jettison the superfluous (there's no room for superfluidity
in those cabins, let me tell you!)... and to be quiet. Yet my mind
returned again and again to Denali. When I closed my eyes, it was the
peaks and the colors and the empty Toklat riverbed with its braided light
that rose, immutable and mountain-like, from my memory.  It was being
small and surrounded by the ageless and the incalculably large that I
most remembered.

I returned to the city determined to keep Denali's lessons with me -- to
not sweat the small stuff...to let things--and "Stuff"-- go. It's an
ongoing process, and not always a successful one, but slowly, I'm
becoming more conscientious of the vast chasm between what I truly need,
and what I think I might want. I'm en route to becoming a more relaxed
and flexible human. I am perpetually shuffling off the metaphorical
combat boots to put on my metaphorical-- and literal!-- hiking boots. My
memories of Denali remind me to lose the inner cynic and hush the inner
critic. I am regaining the ability to feel awe and wonder.

I am being quiet. I am being.


Notes for travelers:

Denali National Park & Preserve is serviced by the 92-mile long Denali
Park Road. Only the first 15 miles are paved, and private vehicles are
not permitted beyond that point except for winners of the annual Road
Lottery. The rest of the road is accessible by NPS buses or by human
power. I wholeheartedly recommend a guided tour such as the Denali Tundra
Wilderness Tour — even if you plan on hiking or camping in the park on
your own, the vast knowledge and experience of the naturalists, as well
as their obvious love for their work and for the land they steward, made
this tour an incredible adventure. Adults $99-$140; Children $50-$75
depending on season. Reserve well in advance of your trip. Entrance to
the park without a tour is $10 per adult or $20 per vehicle for a 7-day
pass.

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