I get a text from my friend Tara, who lives in Alaska but is in the lower 48 for the week.
“Are you on the side of the highway outside Anchorage right now, hitching?”
I look up from my phone, at the vehicles speeding past. The wind blows my hat off of my head, and I grab it.
“Yeah,” I say.
“My girlfriend just passed you,” says Tara.
Shortly after I am climbing into Crystal’s car, the girlfriend, who just happens to be heading to Fairbanks and recognized me from facebook, although we’ve never met. I’d been facing at least a day and a half of hitching, but it seems that serendipity is on my side. Thank you, Crystal! Alaska, so far, is a very serendipitous place.
I’m headed north from Anchorage to the Brooks Range, which is a place I’ve never been. The Brooks Range stretches from Canada’s Yukon Territory to the Chukchi sea, all the way across the Alaskan arctic. There are no trails there, and just one road- the Dalton Highway, which crosses the range en route to the oil fields of Prudhoe Bay, on the Arctic Ocean.
I want to hike for a week in the Brooks Range. In Gates of the Arctic National Park, specifically, which butts up against the Dalton Highway- otherwise I’d have to be flown in, via tiny airplane. The Alaskan Arctic is wilderness, and has always been wilderness- there are grizzly bears, wolves, caribou herds (in their seasons), and the highest concentration of mosquitoes on earth. I can barely conceptualize the Brooks range, having only seen photos and done a modicum of research, and I only have a week to hike there. So I’m starting from the road- it’s the safest choice, should I have to turn around, and the most economical one.
There’s a young Yupik woman in the car with us, Lena, and her one-and-a-half year old baby. And a dog. I sit in the backseat with my pack on my lap and feed the baby grapes as we trundle north in the bright evening sunshine and Crystal regales me with the long history of serial killers in Alaska. Soon I am even more grateful for the ride. The baby pops each grape into his mouth whole, and then mashes it with his gums. Grapes! What joy!
A few hours later we are in Trapper Creek, a small cluster of buildings on the roadside. Crystal grew up in Trapper Creek, and she introduces me to her cousin, nephew, sister-in-law, uncle and brother, all of whom are either working in the small café/store with its racks of dusty sundries or arrive on business while we are there.
“I have fifteen siblings,” says Crystal. We watch stormclouds curdle above the Alaska range, which we’ve been following on our drive north. The dog makes a loping circle around the building and returns, sitting watchfully on the step. The baby has a bright plastic watergun, which makes him very pleased. I ask Lena what sorts of subsistence foods she likes best in her village.
“The herring lay eggs on seaweed,” she says. “We gather the egg-covered seaweed and eat it with seal oil and salt.”
My trip to Alaska did not start out with such serendipity. I missed my flight from Seattle- I remembered it on the wrong day, although I swear I checked the itinerary at least half a dozen times on the drive from Montana. My friend Elizabeth, who lives outside Seattle on the Kitsap peninsula, came to the rescue- she met me at the ferry, where I was crying in frustration, drenched in sweat after a day spent driving around in the heat, running errands and packing my bike, unaware, until it was an hour too late, that I was supposed to be at the airport that day. Elizabeth took me to the cool, comfortable house where she lives with her mother, girlfriend and aunt, and they fed me tri-tip and roasted broccoli, which was like manna from the gods after weeks of my van diet- vegetables and hummus and canned chili, mostly, no cooking. Elizabeth, in her incredible generosity, offered to let me park my van in the shady gravel drive alongside her house while I was in Alaska, next to the green explosion of the vegetable garden. I called the airline and paid $130 to bump my ticket forward, and a few days later I was finally on a plane.
The baby is hungry again, so I feed him ritz crackers. He sucks down a bottle of milk. We read a book that has no words. To our left is Denali, nestled amongst its neighbor peaks, snagging the clouds. Below the mountains the boreal forest, ever humble, clings to the earth. Boreal forest: black spruce, white spruce, alder, birch, and cottonwood. Wild roses and vaccinium. Swamp and mosquitoes. The clouds flame orange with the sunset, which will not turn to night but instead, in about four hours, pale slowly back into dawn. Lena’s small wrists are on the steering wheel, wisps of hair falling down over her face. Crystal passes her a redbull, and cracks one for herself. We’re going to make it to Fairbanks!
It wasn’t easy to find information about how to plan a hiking route in Gates of the Arctic. Alaska is still the kind of place where the best way to learn about an area or how something is done is to find someone in physical reality and talk to them about it, one on one. I was in Montana, though, when I got a wild hair to do this trip, and without a whole lot of time to plan. In my search I discovered the website of a super-hiker by the name of Buck/Bruce Nelson (http://bucktrack.com), who traversed the entire Brooks Range in one summer. He also helped Andrew Skurka plan the Brooks Range portion of his epic Alaska loop. Buck has a cool new book, Alone in the Fortress of the Bears, which I immediately bought for my kindle. I emailed him my phone number, and an hour later my phone rang. Buck was calling me from the middle of a river.
“I’m paddling across the country,” said Buck, “Following the route that Lewis and Clark took, so I might lose reception.” Buck answered the long list of questions I’d written in my journal- how do I plan a route? (If you stay close to the Continental Divide [the northern most portion of which stretches across the top of Alaska, forming the spine of the Brooks Range] the rivers will be small and crossable on foot), how many miles can I walk each day? (Buck can comfortably cover roughly ten air miles per day), what do I do about grizzlies? (it’s so open you see them from a ways away, carry a bear can, they’ll likely run away when they smell you, but if one should charge then bearspray works), etc. He couldn’t tell me where, exactly, to walk, as sharing of routes in the Arctic is discouraged- a number of people walking the same route through the tundra can damage it for a long time. But he could coach me in how to create a route of my own, and talking to Buck put me at ease. The Alaskan artic wasn’t a scary, foreign planet, unwalkable and full of inconceivable terrors- it was just as knowable as anything. Thanks Buck! After talking to Buck I messaged my friend Laura, who I met on the PCT in 2013 (she was Scout/Rafiki then), and who lives in Fairbanks. Her husband, Scott, is a ranger in Gates of the Arctic, and she ran my plan by him. “Scott thinks that’s doable,” she messaged me back, and I felt even more relieved. Ok!
It’s two a.m. when Lena drops me off at my friends Allison and AK’s house in Fairbanks, where I’ll be staying while I’m here. They’re asleep but they’ve left the key under the doormat for me, and I fumble with the lock and tiptoe into the guest room, where a gloriously comfortable bed is waiting for me. Still, I cannot sleep- the pale light of this strange hour filters through the birch forest outside the big windows and hangs in the air around me, illuminating and obscuring the furniture, the walls, my pile of inanimate objects on the floor. Oh, alien light! Why won’t you rest. What is a world without night. I remember my childhood summers in the low-income apartment complexes of Anchorage, where the throngs of children were turned out by their harried single mothers in the morning and not let back indoors until dark. After the long starlit winter we were drunk on the light- we had no money and our toys were precious and busted and we gave no fucks at all. We built forts, climbed trees, swam in frigid bodies of water, shoplifted candy and set things on fire. Now, as an adult, being in Anchorage is a total mind-fuck for me. The days I spent there this time around, running errands and gathering supplies for my trip, were a bit of a bummer. Anchorage is an ugly, if necessary little city, built in the seventies in the cheapest, most hurried way, and seems to grow uglier with time. Busted stripmalls and decaying neighborhoods, the constant roar of traffic, trash blowing in the gutters. To ride a bicycle there is to fear for one’s life. (It sounds like I’m exaggerating, and I know that lots of great people live in Anchorage, and it’s a utilitarian center that provides important resources to an otherwise very rural state, but it really is an ugly town!)
The real reason being in Anchorage is such a mind-fuck for me, tho, is that both my parents are there, and I have no relationship with either of them. My schizophrenic mother, who I haven’t seen in nineteen years, in some sort of halfway house for the homeless mentally ill, maybe. Or- where? Is my mother even still alive? As I made my way around the city I peered at the homeless people clustered in the grassy parks, or asleep on cardboard with their objects arranged around them. I wouldn’t know how to find her, and I don’t think I would want to. My mother was physically abusive, and provided neither food nor nurturing. My brother and I raised ourselves. We’re lucky we survived. The last time I talked to my mother on the phone, maybe eight years ago, she told me I should’ve died when I was a baby. She wasn’t a parent, a mother. I don’t actually have a mother, nor do I owe her anything. But still, as I rode my bike around Anchorage I looked for her, in the faces of the homeless people. And I felt sad for her, for them.
And my father, in his expensive condo, not two miles from where we lived in poverty. He never paid child support, and growing up I thought him dead, or in prison, or something, anything that would grant him absolution. Anything that would explain his absence when we went days without eating, when we were so malnourished we had leg cramps that kept us up at night. I was shocked when I looked him up, at age twenty, and found him there, just down the road, comfortable and smug. He was not stoked when I knocked on his door that summer- it was a terrible inconvenience that I was still alive. Couldn’t I just disappear again, into the ether? And so I did. As much as I have forgiven my mother, and let her go, I have not forgiven my father. My anger at him is totally useless- it eats away at me, solves nothing. Still, what a douchebag.
So I couldn’t wait to get out of Anchorage. Even though I had wonderful people to stay with while I was there- my friend Julia, and her darling 5 year-old son, Sebastian- we sat up late after Sebastian had gone to bed, in that second afternoon that is the long evening of the summertime night, amongst Julia’s houseplants, and talked about love, and loss, and the mysteries of intimacy- and then a new friend, Andy, who housed me in her big, peaceful house in the birch forest south of town, and I got to pet her sweet dog, Piper, who is from South Africa- even among friends I couldn’t keep the doldrums away, and I was glad to get out. And now I’m in Fairbanks, en route to the Brooks Range, where I have never been. Because it’s my Alaska now, my life. And I get to make it my own.
Allison and AK have an impossibly cute three-year-old son named Juno. When I make my way upstairs after sleeping late I find Juno, naked except for a bandaid on his knee, clutching his stuffed eagle (named “Eagle”) and listening to a vinyl record of a Frog and Toad book, read by the author.
“I found these records at my mom’s,” says Allison, as she scratches jam onto her toast. “I listened to them as a kid. Did you know the author is gay?”
“Oh my gosh,” I say. “Frog and Toad. It makes so much sense!”
“Eagle is fwying!” says Juno. He’s staring up at me with his giant blue eyes, flapping the cloth wings of his eagle. “He’s fwying!” I wonder if I could ever have kids. Probably not. They’re cute, though.
Allison is an acupuncturist, and she and AK moved to Fairbanks a month ago when AK got a job sciencing at the university here. The backyard of their house is a forest, the ground feathery with horsetail. I’ve known them both a long time- I first met AK thirteen years ago, when she was dating my housemate, and I lived with Allison nine years ago. Lately I’ve been overcome with gratitude at the realization that it’s possible to know people over a long arc of time, that we get to watch each other grow- not just for a few years, but possibly for the rest of our lives. There’s something so reassuring about this, as though we’re not just all adrift, alone, in space. Like we’re here, together, in spite of everything, and it’s going to be ok.
Allison drops me off at REI and I find a SPOT device and a can of bear spray and hold them both in my hands, considering. I have never carried either of these things, personally, on a hike, although Dan and I shared his PLB when we were on the Hayduke. In Gates of the Arctic I’ll be more solo than I’ve ever been on a trail, with more unknowns, and with a healthy population of grizzlies to boot. These things are worth the peace of mind, and I buy them both.
I like Fairbanks. It’s smaller than Anchorage, and the wide streets and gentle sprawl lend un unpretentious, utlitilitarian air to what might otherwise be a hipster haven. Fairbanks reminds me of Moab, Utah in that way. A wonderful place, a base camp for those who spend a great deal of time in the outdoors, just ugly enough to keep it humble. The Moab of the north! If I lived in Alaska again, I think, I would live here.
The night before my hike begins I can’t sleep. I lay in the bright midnight light from the window, imagining the most impossible conditions, all the way things could go awry. I finally drift off at 2 a.m., curled into a tense little ball. What have I gotten myself into?
In the morning I pack and repack my bag. Have I forgotten anything? My base weight is heavier on this hike than any hike I’ve done- I have rain pants, my new sturdier rain jacket, my two-person zpacks duplex, my kindle, a “real” camera, a thermal base layer, and of course the spot and the bear spray. I need to be prepared for freezing rain, as freezing rain, I’ve been told, can happen at any time in the Arctic, as well as heat, which is also a possibility, as well as bugs. I’m carrying seven days of food. I heave my pack onto my back. Ok!
In even more Alaskan serendipity, two other friends from PCT 2013, Franny (Dingo) and Mudd, live and work in Coldfoot, a wee village north of the arctic circle that serves as a truck stop of sorts for those headed north on the Dalton Highway, the rough road that services the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay. My planned route begins just north of Coldfoot, at the eastern boundary of Gates of the Arctic National Park. Franny, incredibly, is able to get me a standby seat on the next air taxi headed from Fairbanks to Coldfoot, saving me a long, arduous hitchhike on a remote, little-trafficked and very gravelly road. It’s a flight-seeing trip, and I listen to the pilot describe the land below us as we climb above Fairbanks in the little plane. There are the White Mountains, the broad taiga with its small shining lakes, the Yukon river and the Koyukuk. It’s hot on the wee plane and the other passengers fan themselves and take photographs. And then, below us, is the Brooks Range- Sloping green mountains capped in scree and rock, glittering rivers valleys, light and air and wonder.
Franny, who looks exactly as I remember her from the PCT, meets me at the dirt airstrip and ferries me to Coldfoot camp, a cluster of buildings huddled close to the earth beneath the huge arctic sky. We’re almost, but not quite, far enough north that there are no trees at all- as it is, treeline here is very low, just a few thousand feet, and although there are spruce and birch and cottonwood trees alongside the road, the slopes of the mountains are broad, open tundra, lending a feeling of the alpine.
At Coldfoot camp I am amazed to see Will (Teatime), another friend from PCT 2013, who is also living and working here.
“Sarah?” He says, when he sees me. He hasn’t seen me since I grew my hair out, and he doesn’t recognize me.
“Carrot,” I say.
“Carrot?!” says Will. “You look just like Sarah!”
“Who’s Sarah?” I say, but before he can answer Franny is offering me food, and then I’m eating a giant salad on the deck of the little restaurant, with the dusty, saddle-worn bicyclists en route to Patagonia and a woman reading a battered paperback copy of Wild. Franny also lends me her bearcan from the PCT, which I will need. I strap it to the top of my pack. Now my pack is really heavy!
The ranger at the visitor center in Coldfoot, Bob, an older gentlemen who speaks slowly and wears a bright orange hat, is dubious at first when I tell him my plan. Then I out myself as someone who’s hiked ten thousand miles in the last four years, and he visibly relaxes. He points to a map of Gates of the Arctic that’s pinned to the wall, and traces his finger along the drainages and over the high, rocky passes. “You could hike your route the way you’ve planned,” he says, “but this way is better.”
“Thank you,” I say, as I quickly add these new waypoints to the map in my phone. “Oh my gosh, thank you thank you.” He gives me a patch and a bandanna that say “Guardian of the Gates”, and sends me on my way.
Will is driving north of Coldfoot that afternoon with his dreamily beautiful girlfriend, Fiona (they met in Antarctica, as one does) to go on a hike, and they offer to drop me at the drainage where I plan to start. As we drive, Will points out the eerily shaped peaks alongside the road, naming them- “I climbed that one,” he says. “And that one.” It’s six p.m., but time doesn’t matter- it’s never going to get dark. We pull onto the shoulder at my designated starting spot and I triple-check everything in my pack. And then I’m off, stumbling down the shoulder of the road, into a stand of spruce.
Right away I discover the thing that frightens me most about hiking in the Brooks range: dense brush, specifically the possibility of surprising a grizzly bear in said brush. Luckily, however, after a short period of flailing and one stream crossing (as per Buck’s advice, the streams are manageable here, close to the continental divide, even if sometimes I half to walk along the banks a bit to find a place to cross) I am out of the spruce forest and alder tangles and climbing, climbing, up through the open tundra above treeline! In the light and the air and the views that go on forever, green ridges falling away. The tundra is a sponge beneath me, springy and soft, sometimes soggy and sucking at my trail runners and sometimes crispy and able to support my weight. I stop for a moment to catch my breath and touch, with the tips of my fingers, this green mat of life on which I sit- it is an intricate, interwoven riot of lichen, moss and tiny flowers, and I know that beneath this mat is the permafrost, Alaska’s promise that winter is never very far away. Far below me is the Dalton Highway, with the alaska pipeline running alongside it, transporting crude oil from Prudhoe Bay south. And next to where I sit I find my first shed caribou antler, baked white from the sun. I turn it over in my hands. The caribou must migrate through this drainage, or at least they once did. In the coming days I’ll find dozens more of these sheds- single antlers and sets, sometimes with skulls attached, some old, some new, standing still in time or being absorbed into the tundra, a centimeter at a time. A strong breeze blows my hair into my face, and keeps the mosquito hordes at bay. The mosquito’s advances are delicate, at best. Such weak little motors. I drink some of my water, gathered from the stream below. What wonder!
It takes me three hours to climb to the very top of the rolling green mountain, and at nine p.m. I pitch my tent in a gentle sheltered depression between two ridges, right next to the spot where a wee burbling stream springs from the rock. The sun is so bright at 9 p.m., but I climb inside my tent anyway, after placing my bear canister in the moss a little ways away, where I can see it, as though I am setting a trap. I am exhausted from the anticipation and the excitement. Inside the tent I blow up my neo-air and arrange my water, bearspray and other nighttime objects next to my pillow, which is my mosquito headnet full of my extra layers.
I feel pretty good about bears when I’m walking up here, out in the open, where we would be able to see one another from way far away, with a minimum of surprise. But what about at night, when I’m asleep and unawares, zipped up tight in my sleeping bag? How quickly would I be able to get to my bear spray, should a bear come thrashing at my tent? Is that situation even reasonable? Plausible? The bright arctic sun bears down and I lie there, only a thin layer of fabric between myself and the unknown, tense as a wire. I read on my kindle for a while in an attempt to relax but every time the wind rustles the fabric of my shelter, every time the shadows around me shift imperceptibly, I practically jump out of my skin. The bright sun continues its slow arc across the sky, heightening my sense of alertness. In more southern parts of the state, like in south central Alaska where I grew up, the summer nights are long- but there is always at least the pretense of a sunset, a nod to that moment of quiet rest between the days. Not up here in the Brooks Range, though. There will be neither sunrise nor sunset for the entirety of my time in the arctic. No golden horizon, no gentle dusk. Just the bright white sun, illuminating all. I roll onto my back, and put my long-sleeve shirt over my face. Fuck, I need to sleep. And around one a.m., I finally do.
I wake to the hot overhead sun of late morning and tear my sleeping bag off, and then my clothes. It’s fucking hot! I was expecting rain in the Brooks range, clouds at the very least. Not this week, though. Not for me. It’s late, 9:30 a.m., and at first I feel guilty about this- but then I realize that it does not matter, up here, which eight hours of the day that I sleep.
I’ve caught nothing with my bearcan trap, thank goodness. I poop in a hole, make some tea and eat my breakfast. I look at my maps. Yesterday I averaged 1 mph, climbing this mountain. Today I’m hoping for 1.5 mph. My goal for this trip is the remote subsistence village of Anaktuvuk, seven days distant. This village is only reachable by plane, and once I’m there I can catch a flight back to Coldfoot. There are lots of unknowns in my route, though- will the rivers be fordable? Will I be able to get over all the passes? Will I be able to cover enough miles each day? I’m 100% mentally prepared to turn around, should I need to. I’m out here to learn, to see what the Brooks Range is really about. To discover what it means to walk here, and how one might go about doing that.
I descend the other side of the mountain, butt-scooting on some scree and finally attain a gentle pass, where a little lake sits peaceful in the stillness, ringed in caribou sheds, and wolf tracks are everywhere in the mud.
At the pass is a small stream, and according to my maps I’ll follow this stream down, down, down, until it becomes a river. I walk in the rocks of the stream or on the steep, squishy tundra slopes alongside it. There are slabs of blue aufeis, the thick ice that forms on the rivers and stays forever, and the burbling conversation of the water as it bounces off the hills around me. I realize that between the streams and the wet tundra of these waterways that I’m following, my feet will be pretty much wet all day, every day. The cool water feels good, though.
I round a bend in the afternoon and find myself looking down at the most gorgeous, green, sweeping land-before-time river valley- I can see forever, mountains on mountains on mountains, and a glittering river winds its way through all of it. Unnamed peaks are cut with drainages. I know that the drainages hold hidden lakes, glaciers, waterfalls, and other secrets. Oh, that I could explore them all! The mosquitoes bump companionably against me in the still air, reminding me to get a move on. They’ve already made short work of my arms, as has the sun- I should’ve worn a long-sleeve shirt. I don’t carry any DEET, as the stuff makes me ill, and is poison besides, and my tolerance for mosquitoes is pretty high. Still, why didn’t I think to wear a long-sleeve shirt?!
The stream I’m following grows larger as it gathers tributaries, and I cross it again and again. Soon I won’t be able to cross it at all, and I check my maps to make sure I’ll be on the correct side of the water before that happens. I walk for a while on the tundra, my feet sinking into the moss. It’s slow going, but I don’t mind. It reminds me of walking in deep sand, on the Hayduke. Every few minutes I spin around, looking for grizzlies. I make my way through some brush, and turn on an audiobook in an attempt not to surprise anyone. I wonder if I’m going to be mauled by a grizzly while listening to Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. We live in a poetic universe; anything is possible. I feel secure with my bearspray, though. I’m no longer a defenseless mammal; I am now a mammal that stings! I am capable of shooting burning liquid at any other animal that would make me its prey! This levels the playing field a bit, and I stride through the nature with confidence. I live here too, motherfuckers!
I become completely immersed in The Argonauts, and the next thing I know it’s the following afternoon, and the book is ending- in between I slept, fitfully, on another open slope of tundra, my bearcan perched nearby, in the absolute silence. The Argonauts is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read, and now that it’s over, I cry. I also cry because it’s so glorious here, so sunny and wild and soft around the edges, and I’m filled with infinite peace, but also a sort of sadness. I’m thinking about the meaning of love. Am I really, truly, worthy of love? Are any of us really, truly, worthy of love? I think about this as I wend my way down the river valley, into and out of the water, up and down the tundra slopes, picking the least swampy parts, feeling the mosquitoes consume my flesh. I stop at a stream to fill my water bottles and eat a snack. Unconditional love doesn’t ask about worthiness, I say aloud.
I miss Dan. I wish he were here, to joke about the mosquitoes. They grow so thick that I put on my rain jacket, even though it’s hot. Now I’m sweating in my rain jacket, huffing and puffing. Then I see, ahead of me, a jolly round object frolicking on the tundra, its fur glowing golden in the sunshine. Grizzly! Grizleeeeee! Griz griz griz! My brain has tourettes. What do I do? What do I do do do do do. The bear pauses its happy bouncing, looks my way. We eye each other for a moment, and then the bear continues to prance. I climb down from the steep bluff, kicking up dirt, fight my way across the river, which is a bit too high here for my comfort, ascend the bluff opposite, edge my way as far up the slope as I can, and continue my traverse of the valley. When I look back, the bear is nowhere to be seen.
Later I see a porcupine, weird looking creature, five feet away alongside a stream, standing on its hind legs, acting oddly. A smaller porcupine is standing in front of it, doing something to its chest. I realize that the smaller porcupine is a baby, and that the baby is nursing. I’m seeing a freaking porcupine boob! The mama porcupine does not seem to care that I watch them, and take photos. Porcupine doesn’t give a fuck! Porcupine has spines!!!
In the morning I wake late to a hot tent again and walk naked and barefoot across the tundra to gather my bearcan. The long warm sun feels good on my skin, on the dried sweat and mosquito bites. The soft trampoline of lichen and moss feels good beneath my feet. I eat dark chocolate for breakfast and drink black tea. What even is life.
The going is slower today- the tundra is extra spongy and deep, the brush more frequent and thick, there are acres of toaster-sized boulders. Arctic terns dive-bomb my head, angry that I’m making my way through what must be their nesting area. Something- the movements of glaciers? Have deposited tall rocks mounds all around me, and the mounds make deep, glacial-green pools out of the stream, and in the pools I can see fish. I pick my way from mound to mound, as the birds yell at me. What is this lonely, enchanted place? Not lonely, though. Full of animals! Someday I will come back and spend enough time in the Brooks Range to see a musk ox, which is my favorite animal that most people don’t actually know exists.
The mosquitoes grow thicker, as though some omniscient being is turning them up in increments, to see just when I’ll crack. One incredible valley opens into another. How beautiful this place. How sheer these mountains, with their impossible scree tops. The river carves a sort of gorge, rushing and heavy, and I walk above the chasm on a bluff. I am suffused with a feeling of ease, and peace. The sun continues to be bright, which is almost, but not quite, no longer fun.
Before camp I take off all my clothes and rinse myself in the icy river, which now braids itself, shallow and wide, across the valley. I sit naked on a rock to dry. The neat thing about mosquitoes is that they’re attracted to heat, so if I jump in very cold water I buy myself a few moments wherein I can sit naked, invisible and unmolested, before the sun warms me and the mosquitoes can “see” me again. For the time being they swarm around my legs, but they do not land. I look at my feet, which have been rotting inside my shoes. If I do a longer trip in the Brooks Range one day I’ll have to take a break each day to dry them, lest they disintegrate.
Camp is on another broad, open hillside- I could’ve camped down by the river but I saw too many animal tracks there, so I picked my way up the slope to this flattish spot with an open view all around. The mosquitoes are bad enough that the inside of my tent feels like a place of inexplicable peace, at least once I’ve killed the several dozen that found their way inside, leaving disgusting carnage on the floor. I eat handfuls of unappealing trailfood and watch the insects bump uselessly against the mesh. I’m starting to dread these long nights, the three hours it takes me to wind down enough to fall asleep. I wonder, if I was out here longer, how long it would take before I was too tired to be scared anymore.
I’m going to have to turn around. I’m sitting on a large boulder in the afternoon, looking at a glacier, my shelter draped over my head to keep out the bloodthirsty hordes. I’ve been climbing all morning- up a green valley, alongside a stream, and then a thousand feet (or more? I don’t know) up loose, shifting talus and scree. The mosquitoes are the worst they’ve been and so I hiked fast, feeling harried, sweating in my rain jacket and my headnet, thinking that once I reached the talus and left the water behind, I’d leave them behind as well. Now I eat banana chips with my tent draped over me, and look at the glacier. It sits in a bowl, surrounded in a ring of impossibly steep ridges, which are sided in scree and topped in spires of rock.
The continental divide, which I’ve had to cross a couple of times- but nowhere as high as this, as steep as this. I look at my map again- the divide in this spot is a fence, a tall boundary between the drainage I’m in and the one that my route traverses next. I’d picked this spot to cross somewhat arbitrarily, as all the drainages on the map looked equally as steep, with no idea if I’d be able to make it across or not. And I can’t. Not here. I’m not even going to try. Maybe, if I was with a friend, I’d give it a go- but even if I could get up all that scree and sheer rock to the ridge on this side, the other side, according to my map, is even steeper. So, no.
I pick my way back down the shifting talus, slowly, feeling bummed. I’m halfway to Anaktuvuk, and I have to turn around. It’s all part of this learning experience, I know (and later, after the hike, a ranger friend will show me on the map which pass actually goes through, for future reference), but I still feel sad about it. I also feel really, really tired. This neverending sun has me worn out, the wet tundra and water crossings, the constantly being on edge about bears. Newness is hard, the unfamiliar is hard. Growth is hard.
At 9:30 p.m. I am too tired to walk anymore. For the last hour I’ve been seeing bear signs everywhere- overturned rocks, roots ripped from the ground, scattered bones with bits of ligament still attached. Expanses of brush punctuate the hillside, places for animals to lurk. But I am exhausted, and I need to camp. It’s brutally hot in my tent, the sun shining down on the fabric, and I eat bars for dinner, naked and sweating. At last, around eleven, the sun drops behind the ridge, draping my campsite in sweet, cool shadow. I’m reading Finding Everett Ruess on my kindle. The book makes me sad. He was so lonely! I’m lonely today! Oh, life!
Two days later I stumble out of the spruce forest and am back on the Dalton Highway. I stick out my thumb when a semi-truck rumbles by and am surprised when the truck grinds to a halt, spitting up dust.
“Sarah!” says the driver, when I heave myself onto the running board and pull open the passenger side door.
“No,” I say. “Who’s Sarah?” I startle at the sound of my own voice. Is this what my voice sounds like?
“You look just like her,” says the man. He introduces himself as Peter. He’s been driving his truck up and down the haul road for twenty-five years. “Sarah’s a great lady,” he says, as we rumble down the rutted highway. He looks at me, wishes I was her. “You want some salmon?”
“Sure,” I say.
“Smoked or canned?” says Peter. “I made it myself. I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you both.”
Peter drops me at Coldfoot camp and I wave goodbye, my hands full of salmon.
“I’m going to start pretending I’m Sarah,” I say to Will/Teatime, when I see him in the restaurant. “And take over her life.”
“You really do look like her,” says Will.
I’m starving, and the restaurant is having a buffet for dinner- an elaborate salad bar, roast beef, potatoes, shrimp. OMG! I fill up two giant plates, find my own little table in the corner, and eavesdrop on the other people in the dining room while I happily munch away. There are two crews here, apparently, working on something or other to do with the highway. Rough men wearing orange vests and steel-toe boots, smelling of diesel fuel. I feel vulnerable and raw after speaking to no-one for a week, and I don’t make eye contact with anyone. I like hearing their conversations, though. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to talk to anyone, and that I could just listen to people talk to each other. Specifically, I love the way people in rural areas use american english when they’re speaking- the sentence fragments, the economy of words, the way that so much is implied or assumed. I also love it when straight macho heteronormative dudes open up to each other in unexpected moments, in awkward ways- suddenly admitting feeling or vulnerability or pain, and the way the other dudes pretend not to hear.
Franny, incredibly, has hooked me up with another flight back to Fairbanks, at 10pm, and I spend the evening in the cool dim sanctuary of her and Mudd’s living room, sunk into the couch, watching their cat stalk around the room. Franny’s been working here long enough that she has quite a bit of responsibility- “I work eighty hours a week,” she says. “And I’m on call 24 hours a day.”
“Oh my gosh,” I say. It must be a good place to be, though, because people keep coming back.
“It’s super chill in the winter,” says Mudd. “It’s peaceful. There’s more down time, and people all hang out together.”
I imagine Coldfoot in the winter- dark, snowy. Cold. The staff gathered around a card game, maybe, in one of the bunker-like dwellings, sharing a bottle of whiskey. I wish I had found this place when I was twenty-five. I would’ve loved it here.
There’s a fire to the south, and it’s a relief when the plane carries us up, up, out of the smoke, until we’re looking down at it, as though on clouds. In Fairbanks, at midnight, I am ecstatic to see the flame-orange colors of a sunset, and at Allison’s house it’s almost dark enough to need a light. I drop my things in the guest room, and curl into the bed there. I’m indoors now, no grizzlies can get me. And in the morning there’ll be a three-year-old to hang out with, which is pretty cool.
THANK YOU to Elizabeth, Julia, Tone and Sebastian, Andy, Allison, AK and Juno, Franny, Mud, Will, Fiona, Peter the truck driver, Ranger Bob, Laura, Scott and JP, Crystal, Lena, Tara, Buck, Suzy and Luce, and anyone else who housed me/gave me a ride/helped me with the logistics of this trip! My god I am grateful to have friends, especially of the Alaskan variety! Thank you!!