Finding myself in Alaska
here in the big wide open
seasons and times have shifted.
Winter not a season to be endured
but a state of mind, a way of living
the snow a constant companion.
This morning birch trees glow white with hoarfrost
even in the pitchy black of morning.
A bald eagle swoops low to give me a better view
While the moose ignores my passing.
Still and always, it is the Alaska sky that fascinates;
the shifting space above, around me.
Clouds rest on the haunches of the Chugach mountains
their jagged snowed peaks pink in the east
afternoon sun’s afterglow
on a short winter day.
The sun a great orange orb
refusing to go gentle into dark
without setting the whole sky on fire.
This morning’s sun shyly insinuating itself
behind mountains, luminescence kindling
still to arise.
Since moving to Alaska in 2009, I’ve struggled to describe what it is to live here, in this place. During my darker moments I have called Alaska a “land island” because of the vast mountainous distance between this state and the “lower 48.” Someone told me shortly after I arrived that she purposely avoids looking at a map so that she can avoid seeing the large topographical space separating her from her family. I nodded in agreement. Better to remember instead the proximity we all have to the airport, than the length of the flight out of Alaska to everywhere else.
But there have been other moments as well, of actually being here, present to all that is in this place, that have slowed me down, made me stop and simply stunned me with their uncommon, sometimes unexpected beauty. As my husband and I came out of the restaurant one night the snow was falling thickly and hugging the trees and every small branch. The snow lit up the trees as we drove home from downtown. We realized that the temperature was a bit warmer than usual (just at freezing) which made the snow cling to the each branch of every tree in an unexpected way. I kept saying over and over, “Look here, look there, and see how the whole block of this urban neighborhood simply glows with the white.”
Like the moose that appear unexpectedly along the road, or in the bike path or simply walking across the little street outside my office window, these moments continue to surprise me. As someone said about a moose sighting, “It never gets old.” Most surprising of all, they happen here more often than any other place I have ever lived before. Sometimes, you have time to just stare and take it all in, but other times the alpenglow of the mountains backlit by the sun just setting or rising is brief and fleeting. I notice it as I’m driving at sixty miles an hour on the Seward Highway. On a good day, I’ll pull off the highway to fill up not just my eyes, but my being with amazement.
I struggled to find words to express these moments until recently when I read an essay by Tony Hiss in The Best Spiritual Writing 2012. He describes these moments as examples of deep travel. “In an instant our sense of the here and now that we’re part of expands exponentially, and everything around is so vivid and intensely experienced that it’s like waking up when we are already awake.”1 These moments can be unexpected and surprising, taking us from unawareness into an almost transcendent awareness, as often happens with me in Alaska. Hiss contends that this way of seeing is innate in all of us, a kind of knowing that is elusive but real, but often our own inattention dulls this ability. Living in Alaska has deepened this kind of knowing in me and given me back that soul-expanding sense of wonder that is both childlike and the wisdom of true experience.
An awareness of time and place seems an accepted part of Alaska’s own culture. A friend of mine tells this story of being confronted by a neighbor when she began washing her windows on a bright, sunny day in the middle of July, shortly after moving to Anchorage. Seeing her hard at work, he looked at her on her extended ladder and called up to her, “I’m sorry but we don’t do that here in Alaska.” She said, looking down at him, squeegee in hand, “What are you talking about?” “We don’t work on a beautiful sunny day in the summer,” he yelled up to her. “Who cares about dirty windows when you need to be outside anyway? Plenty of dreary days ahead for that to be done.” Lesson learned, my friend got down from the ladder and went hiking on Turnagain Arm Trail with no regrets.
I admit to being less quick about receiving my own lesson. A friend with a truck and two kayaks suggested we go kayaking on Westchester Lagoon. We went out and had a great time, watching the nesting birds on the island. The following week she offered again to take me kayaking, this time on Sand Lake. But by then my own to-do list had grown exponentially and I told her I was too busy. “Well, Helen” my friend said, “It is coming toward the end of the best time to go out.” And she was right. A couple of days later a cold front with rain cheated me out of the chance to see the birds, and float languidly along the placid lake’s surface. But it was not the weather that cheated me, but my own inattention.
Another way that living in Alaska has helped me become more aware of my surroundings is by being part of a weekly writing group. At sixty, I am the youngest person in the group by more than fifteen years; the oldest member is ninety-four followed by an accomplished poet who is ninety-two. Based on a writing prompt, the women all write a poem or essay each week (for instance, one week the prompt was an Alaskan saying that describes the male population here, “the odds are good but the goods are odd.”) These writing activities provide unexpected views into my own inner and outer reality, but even more affords me the view I might have missed because of my own inexperience. Sitting with these women weekly, hearing the way they remember details of childhood prairie landscapes, the re-building after the 1964 earthquake, and Alaskan travel before snow machines, or four-wheelers or plane travel, is humbling and wonderful. And it makes me think that genuine humility seems to be a both a prerequisite for the wonder of deep travel as well as its outcome. Hiss writes that “being humble (the ‘holy virtue that according to Dante, acts as an antidote to pride) or at least being more forthright and honest about what you know and don’t know…can certainly restore a far wider range of awareness.”2
I moved to Anchorage from Chicago, where it seemed that one survived in a large metropolitan city by dividing it into smaller neighborhoods, sometimes identifying so closely with neighborhood that the rest of the city might never be explored. But in Alaska, geography and place are stretched beyond my comprehension, always pushing the limits of the knowable. My license plate reminds me that this is the last frontier and like every frontier there is the longing for all that can still be explored and experienced. There is an almost palpable sense of the ‘more’ that might be here if only we would put on our hiking boots and walk all the way to the edge of wherever we happen to be. And yet also a sense of being satisfied with what is. Alaskan writer Emma Brooks captures this in her article in the Anchorage Press, “Long Drink of Silence.”
In the woods I can shuck off my fear and insecurities and my delusions of control. I can shed them like a too-small skin. I can walk to the middle of a snowfield and stand, looking up at the white light of the stars over the white of the snow. I can hear a river’s current creaking beneath the ice. I can look up at the tree branches heavy with moss, can see the river edged white with ice and dark (…) There will be what there is and nothing more, nothing less.3
While I am the first to admit that you can do this sort of deep travel anywhere you live, I want to tell you that here in Alaska these experiences are nearer to me than anywhere I have ever lived. Yes, I can still choose to ignore their presence, I can withdraw my attention and return to my computer and the business at hand. Or I can claim this horizon, this way of living as my own, knowing that embracing it in its completeness will always be beyond my reach. But isn’t that the true beauty of deep travel?
1. Hiss, Tony. “Wanderlust” from The Best Spiritual Writing 2012, ed. Philip Zaleski. (New York: Peguin Books, 2011), p.79.
2. Ibid, p.84
3. Brooks, Emma. “Long Drink of Silence” in Anchorage Press, December 1, 2011.