You’re standing patiently in the air taxi office in northern Alaska waiting for your plane when an old man with a weathered face and oil-stained coveralls comes through the door. Maybe he’s waiting for a plane, too. Maybe he’s just looking for someone to talk to. One thing is for certain: he knows in one quick glance that you’re not from here.
It ain’t Colorado out there,” he continues.
“When you go into the country,” he tells you, “you have only yourself to rely on.”
You nod respectfully.
“It ain’t Colorado out there,” he continues and waves his arm in the direction away from the small village. “Sure ain’t no lower 48 excuse for mountains.”
You listen to the man, but he doesn’t tell you anything you don’t already know. You’ve already noticed that this backpacking trip is different from any you’ve ever done in the lower 48. You’ll have already flown from Anchorage to some regional hub like Fairbanks or Kotzebue, or some jumping off point like Bettles or Coldfoot. You showed up on time at the little hanger near the gravel airstrip in the middle of nowhere, and were asked to wait. The little plane that will carry you, your friend, and your backcountry gear is a little behind schedule. Or maybe the pilot decided to have a leisurely breakfast, who knows? You, the passenger, will never really know.
You look out the window of the waiting room and see two teenage boys zoom by on 4-wheelers, a cloud of dust in their wake. The woman behind the desk laughs into the phone and calls someone darling and tells them to check back with her in an hour. She pops open a can of Diet Coke. Your eyes shift around the room and land on the pot of coffee beside the grease-stained sofa. You pour some into a Styrofoam cup and take a seat beside your friend.
When you see the plane it looks smaller than you think it should. You look at your pile of gear and recheck all of it. You say things to your friend like, You packed the tent, right? Do you think three canisters of fuel will be enough? I have five dinners and you have five dinners, right? Did you grab those two extra lighters? You know that once you leave, there’s no going back.
Your pilot shows up wearing a flannel shirt and a faded baseball cap. It looks as though he hasn’t shaved in a week. He tells you to carry your gear to the scale where he weighs it and then to the plane where he loads it behind your seat. He fuels the plane while you stand beside the hanger with your hands in your pockets.
You and your friend offer each other the front seat like it’s an honor to sit beside the pilot. What you really want is the backseat so that you feel less obligated to make conversation and because it’s easier to look out both sides of the plane when there’s no one sitting next to you. You climb up, strap in, take off. The plane lifts and you see that whatever little village you came from is a speck of development in a sea of wild country. The pilot tells you about the musk ox he saw on the previous flight and where the caribou were last week. You think he might comment on your itinerary or ask about your route, but he doesn’t.
Whatever village you took off from vanishes quickly and as soon as it does, a feeling comes over you that you haven’t felt in a while, maybe ever. It’s the feeling of something about to happen. A feeling as sure as the raw Arctic air sweeping over your skin, whispering that soon it will be your turn to show up for your life. No one else is responsible now.
You climb up, strap in, take off.”
It’s always new, always changing, so that each arrival feels a little jolting.”
The flight takes anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours. During this time you spot no other people. You see sunlit tundra folding to the horizon, gentle green and gravelly mountain ridges, the dark back of a bear to your right, quiet rivers winding into little gorges and reemerging. The sides of the hills look raked by the fingernails of a giant, and you realize these are caribou trails streaking across the plains. You try but can’t quite imagine how many caribou it would take to make all those lines. The plane circles the gravel bar or tundra strip, and the pilot makes sure there aren’t any rogue sticks or big rocks or unexpected divots that could damage the plane. You hold on and hold your breath as the little plane trembles for a moment above the surface and finally touches down.
Disembarking feels like it should take more time. Once, you were compelled to ask the pilot if he wanted to stay for a cup of tea. But he is usually in a hurry. He says, “Enjoy yourselves” or nothing at all, spins the plane around and for a second you feel like maybe you should yell, Wait! I think I forgot something really important! But there is nothing important you forgot, only how to feel comfortable with yourself in a quiet space with the few things you brought with you.
The plane takes off and is out of sight and sound within a couple minutes, leaving you with a large landscape you must suddenly meet, know, and love all in a short time. You’ve been on backcountry trips before, even a few in Alaska; it’s curious that you are wide eyed and fidgety. The wilderness feels foreign at first, even when you’ve been there before, even when you live in Alaska. You think to yourself, I bet I will always feel this way. The fact is, you are giddy and nervous because you have no idea where you are—sure, you have a map, but you’ve barely shaken hands with this new place, much less softened to its touch. Even if you’ve landed at this airstrip before, today the light is different, the wind, the bugs, perhaps it’s a different time of year, maybe you’re with a different companion. It’s always new, always changing, so that each arrival feels a little jolting. Such is the beauty and consequence of air travel in Alaska.
You notice a hollow space where the engine buzz just was. This emptiness feels lonely and you feel a little unsure, even though you are excited to begin the adventure. It’s just so quiet. You cautiously look around. There are enormous mountains and a turquoise river and a sky that might swallow you. All you can think is, Where the Hell am I? This is followed by bursts of, I can’t believe we’re finally here! This is amazing! And suddenly this IS the most amazing place you’ve ever been. The most amazing kingdom and lo and behold you are the fief and the peasants. You are everyone, for there is no one else. You shout out and jump around but then suddenly stop and question whether you’re being disrespectful. You and your companion find yourselves sort of whispering to each other. It’s as if your voices don’t belong here, as if spoken syllables will tear the fabric of wind and rippling water and birds so exquisitely stitched together. You glance around for bears.
You know that it will take a night or two falling asleep here and waking up here before you feel like you belong to this place. Soon though, you grow accustomed to seeing bear tracks in the sand. You figure out how to watch caribou without startling them. You negotiate a steep gorge, cook dinner in bucketing rain, locate a good water source, navigate to the correct mountain pass—you do all of these things just fine. Your eyes become the sun, your hair the wind, your fingernails the sandy riverbank, your feet the tundra. You remember how to listen to the breeze and the branches, remember how to move through the willows, cross rivers and build fires.
You hear a wolf howl and your skin prickles. You look behind you, hoping. You stand on your tip toes. To see one, you think to yourself, would be all you need to call this trip extraordinary. You understand that wolves can only live in a place like this—big enough, wild enough.
You are everyone, for there is no one else.”
You realize you are not your job, or your car, or what you look like.”
And then one day you cannot recall wherever it is you came from. You cannot fathom an office or email. You can barely remember what traffic sounds like or what your daily obligations once were. Thinking about wolves has become the ordinary thing to think about. It wasn’t that long ago you were worried about preparing for a meeting at work. You were stuck in traffic and worried about the line at the post office. How did this place erase all of that?
You inhale deeply, breathing into your body clean fresh air and something else too, something less tangible. This feeling, this energy that is hard to describe, seeps into every neglected part of your body and expands into all of the interstices between cells. It creates a sensation of openness inside your mind and heart. It permeates every last space inside you until you become aware that with each breath, you gain a more expansive perspective on your life. You feel free to take inventory and evaluate your current trajectory. You feel free to dream, free to commit to changes, free to explore the person you want to be. You let go.
You may have felt adamant about an opinion you held. That, for example, it is a sign of strength to depend only on yourself. You may have judged people for the job they took or for allowing themselves to be tied down with kids so early in life. You may have met someone else who confidently aligned his life with his values, something you may have dismissed as lucky, or impossible. Out here you begin to feel more receptive to other ways of thinking about the world. You begin to see that everyone is on a journey and that the best thing you can do to support your own journey is to cultivate this newfound openness. It’s as if the rain and wind have eroded your rough edges, just a little bit.
At some point in your life you may have questioned whether you were slender enough or outgoing enough, whether you had enough money or were accepted by the right people. You realize now that all those things you thought mattered, all those things by which you allowed yourself to be defined, might not be the most important things.
Seeing the sky clear after a day of rain has made you happier than you’ve felt in a long time. Watching a bald eagle dive for a fish makes you think, for a second, that you ought to thank someone—it’s such a fantastic gift. Running down the mountain today you felt like a kid, yelping and leaping and not caring about anything at all. You see what it means to live in the present moment, to live a day using all of your senses, to feel connected to something greater.
You realize you are not your job, or your car, or what you look like. You are not the people you are friends with. You are not the A you got on your English exam, and you are not the rejection you felt when you got dumped by that guy you really liked. You might even begin to glimpse something beautiful inside yourself, an essence of sorts. That’s what this wild place shows you. That’s why you came. After a while, it becomes difficult to even talk about your job, your car, or your to-do list at home. They seem so irrelevant.
Until the day before you’re scheduled to leave. Now you have only a bag of trail mix that’s mostly peanuts. There’s one emergency dinner of pasta. A few soggy dried banana pieces. An energy bar. Your two shirts smell like BO and your down jacket is damp from the rain last night. Your socks and shoes are permanently saturated. Your hair is greasy and matted to your forehead. Maybe you wouldn’t mind a nice dinner out. Maybe a hot shower would feel good. These are dangerous thoughts because once they start, your trip is over. And it’s not like lousy weather will be kept at bay. Who knows, maybe the plane can’t fly today. The pilot might not come for one, two, three days.
So you wait.
Your pile of gear is a touch smaller because your food is nearly gone. You make a thermos of coffee and sit on the pile of gear. Sometimes you wait hours, sometimes you wait days. You begin to hear far-off plane engines that don’t exist.
Maybe some of the anxiety you let go the other day creeps in. You beseech yourself to hold the feeling of spaciousness, but your mind is a trickster and tries talking you into believing that the work that has piled up while you were gone, the social engagements that loom, the car payment that is overdue are the things you must put your energy into. You toggle between the wild and encumbered versions of yourself.
After an hour of silence, perhaps you’re reading, your companion will say, “Do you hear that? Is that it?”
You strain but cannot hear it. It is nothing again. You wonder how long it will be. At the end of the day you pray that the plane will come for you. It is all you can think about.
At some point you do hear an engine and it is a plane and it is the plane that is coming to get you, not just the plane flying much too high on a different course for a different pick-up. The plane angles in and touches down. Your heart now knows that the adventure is over, and you feel sad for an instant. You think I can’t believe it’s over and glance around one last time. Goodbyes in Alaska, even with recent acquaintances, are never easy.
You struggle to say something normal to the pilot – it’s just so weird that someone dropped out of the sky into your kingdom. Can’t he tell that you’ve fallen in love? Can’t he see how awkward this is?
You struggle to reconcile your desire to stay and leave at the same time. Thriving in the wild has transformed you. You are a new version of yourself, one that shed, however slightly, however temporarily, the burden of modern convenience and the burden of your condemning thoughts.
You drag your gear to the plane. You thank the pilot for coming. You watch him load the plane and then, lured by the promise of a shower and good food, you quickly step up into your seat. You’re off.
Goodbyes in Alaska, even with recent acquaintances, are never easy.”
Photo header by Nyssa Landres, and all photos are of Arctic Wildlife National Refuge