Darkness slipped beneath the plane. As I flew south toward home, tears rolled down my cheeks. I was hoping to come out of a month in Alaska’s remote Brooks Range happier and stronger, but instead I yearned more deeply than ever for the people I had missed. The loneliness that I was hoping to shake, well, it sank in more than ever. Some places and experiences in nature mend you, and others simply teach you that however broken and lonely you may feel, putting one foot in front of the other will at least keep moving you forward. After a month spent in the wild and remote Brooks Range in Alaska, I realized I came out with what I brought in: myself. For better or worse.
After a trip into the wild, a friend once wrote, “I don’t know how to get back to where I want to be. I want to say things, to express the way my soul feels when the ebb of my pursuits has dried the flats — and put the water line at its low mark. It will flow again and I will pick up my existence, my place, where I’m at my best, my element — myself. Until then, I’m stuck.”
As I fumbled over the tussocks, I felt myself wallow in every literal and metaphorical sense of the word. My mind felt much like the terrain, unforgiving. I had to remind myself occasionally to lift my chin, stop, and look around: the river winding its way through the immense valley below, and the high passes hugged by clouds that we had hiked through the day before. Each time I whispered, “wow.” I welcomed technical terrain: crossing flooding creeks, scrambling side peaks, and crawling up passes through the biggest, wettest, and most slippery talus I’ve ever been on. Finally my brain could let go of my broken heart and focus on where I was, not where I wasn’t.
The Alaska Brooks Range is phenomenal. Within it are so many different groups of mountains that in any other state would be called ranges themselves. The rock in each group seemed a little different from the last. And each valley? Immensely different. What was maybe even most interesting was directly underfoot, the tundra. The moss was 50 shades of green and in every thickness from solid to as soft as sand. Then there were the other small plants that would grow on top of all this: soft tendrils extending themselves overland, small reptilian-like stalks standing vertical, and all shapes, sizes, and colors of mushrooms. I’m pretty sure one could spend several days just examining the variety of flora in one square foot. And this is not to forget about the fauna: grizzly bears, caribou, moose, and small birds flitting about the willows. Also the elusive wolves, which we never saw, only heard and followed their tracks every day.
Over the course of a month we saw a lot of rain, and only about four truly sunny days that often ended or started with clouds. We eventually gave up on the hope of a sunny day. I joked that the forecast should say, “Rainy, with a chance of sun.” Somehow my clouded brain seemed to match. Finally, the last morning greeted us with the most beautiful, foggy sunrise. Sun was rare, sunrises even more so. A smile, which has eluded me much of the summer, spread across my face. A welcoming finish to a tiring trip.
We reached the end of our intended journey, five other intrepid compadres and myself. I packed up my belongings, along with my loneliness, and boarded the plane.
As summer fades into fall, I hope the missing pieces of my heart will be swept into the cool nights, and just like the aspen leaves, transform into something that emanates bliss… and warmth… and contentment.
I lace up my shoes and jog down the street. One footstep at a time I will find myself again. It is rainy with a chance of sun. I will continue to chase that chance.