I recently returned from a quick trip to Alaska with three dear friends. We spent two nights at a remote lodge on the Denali Highway south of Fairbanks.
I used to live in Alaska, so this was a homecoming, although the interior’s black spruce forests are very different from the Juneau rainforest that sheltered me. I hadn’t driven Denali Highway since 1994: a lifetime ago. It felt wonderful to see Alaska again.
On the first morning, I walked up a hillside alone, looking for a view. A yellow warbler sang cheerfully in the willows. A flock of cliff swallows swirled overhead, cheeping and swerving acrobatically. Cresting the hill, I looked north across the Maclaren River plain to the Alaska Range: serrated peaks shining in sunlight, curving from horizon to horizon. The silty glacial river curved and banked down the valley. My binoculars revealed distant brown spots to be eight moose, placidly grazing.
As far as I could see to the north, east and west, there were no roads, no signs of human habitation. I was surprised, later, to find out this area has been home for millennia to people who follow the caribou herds. There are more than 600 documented prehistoric sites in the nearby Tangle Lakes Archaeological District.
It was all so impossibly vast. It wasn’t empty — far from it. That valley was filled with sunlight, green things, flowing waters, wild creatures, and me, one little human sitting on a hillside, smiling.
I miss Alaska. I miss its vastness and grandeur, and the constant presence of the wild. Because of my years there, it’s taken me a long time to value Arizona’s natural gifts (and they are many) or to take its outdoor threats seriously (other than the heat, which I respected from Day 1). I’m making progress as I spend more time outdoors here. I respect Arizona; I like it; I try. But I loved Alaska. Part of me is always remembering solo kayak trips graced by contact with humpbacks, and hikes in towering spruce forests in the presence of bears. That wild self never feels at ease until she’s out of cell range, up a hillside in some wild corner of the world, taking notes in a grubby field notebook.
That’s the simple truth about me: I’m happiest when I’m taking a walk on the wild side.