Saturday, April 23, 2011

Denali: Day Three...Part Deux

Edith Wharton said that one of the most unknown traits of 1920's New Yorkers is that they like to get away from amusement faster than they liked to get there. Same is true of Denali tourists. After hiking along the mountains and around the picturesque valleys of the Eielson Visitor Center, Kari and Howie and I were ready to go back. No such luck.

It was around 5pm. Apparently, fatigue struck at universal times, as every tour bus that passed through was already packed with exhausted adventurers from the previous stop. We waited for nearly two hours before Aramark sent an additional bus out to pick us up. I realized that it was far better to be at the first or at the very last stop; those in the middle were merely neglected. Interesting commentary; this was also the plight of the American middle class.

Sweaty and tired, I slumped down on the bench, waiting for the hostel's shuttle. It was a humid day, and the air was teeming with mosquitoes. To protect my fair complexion, I wore the headnet, which covered my face entirely. The fibrous material was so opaque that I could barely see through. I grew hot after a while and endeavored to take it off.

Uh oh. It was stuck. It was essentially a netted bag over the head, with a drawstring at the neck and the string was knotted fast. There I sat, struggling to get the net off and failing miserably. Worse yet, I could not see where I was going. Let's not even get into how ridiculous I felt. Thank God no one else was there.

Then Joan sat beside me, uncharacteristically silent. I never thought I would be glad to see her.

"How was your day?"

"Great and exhausting. I went all the way out to Kantishna." Kantishna was an old gold mining town, located at the very end of the route at mile 92 and surrounded by private property.

"Umm...can you help me with something? Could you help me take this off?"

I cringed in anticipation. I braced myself for the giggles, the snickers, at the very least a joke or two about the foolishness of finding myself stuck with a mosquito net over my head.

Joan did not react the way I expected. She simply looked at me, said sure, and promptly untied the mosquito net.

I was humbled. Here was a woman whose gauche disposition and inappropriately young mannerisms had caused me to avoid her. Yet despite her idiosyncracies, she was far more generous-hearted than me. She did not judge.

I came to see her differently. Sure, she was still annoying, but she possessed a childlike wonder, appreciating everything. A pureness of joy that most people would find disorienting because she was so insistent on sharing.

And I needed her.

I thanked her heartily.

When I returned to the hostel, everyone was having dinner together, sort of a spontaneous farewell ritual. Since it was the end of a weekend, everyone would set off to a different city tomorrow. I sat down with a group of Australians (those ubiquitous Australians!), conversing freely and without inhibition. It was only here in Alaska that people were willing to accept who I am at the moment, who I am evolving into, and who I would ultimately become. Back at home, I was stifled by expectations of who I was. Trapped into stagnancy.

I related what the mountains taught me, that my true identity was being the daughter of this great interconnected world, this divine spirit that binds us all.

They nodded in agreement. Then I noticed Rick looking at me shyly and moving slowly to sit next to me. We ended up talking all night, long after the others had left the common room.

He had joined the navy after finishing college, and found it difficult to obey the orders of superiors who were not educated. He was on active duty, but unhappily so. He elaborated on the cramped quarters of the ship, the few precious weeks of leave, and his fears about Afghanistan. He didn't want to go home to Virginia because his wife left him months before and being a good Catholic Filipino boy, his parents would not accept a divorce.

I listened. Then he told me he noticed me that first day, and singled me out each time our buses crossed paths, but I seemed so presumptuous that he didn't want to talk to me.

So why talk to me now?

"Now I think I know you better."

The sky finally darkened, and he gave me a massage, his fingers lingering along my shoulder as if was the most delicate porcelain. He was a gentleman and I was glad, as I did not want to cheapen a human connection by turning it into a one night stand. He asked if he could hold me, to bring the memory of a warm woman with him back to the ship. He held me until the sun rose.

I stumbled into my (shared) room at daybreak, but I didn't sleep the hour and a half before my scheduled departure. I kept turning the idea over and over in my head, but I couldn't definitely decide what to do. When it was time, I packed my bags and ran out to the shuttle.

On impulse, I ran back and banged the door of Rick's cabin. I woke him up as well as his baffled neighbors, and kissed him. It was a long, passionate kiss, with morning breath and all. Then I went on my way.

You see, we all need each other.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Denali: Day Three...Part 1

It must have been the alcohol that kept me warm. Squirming in my sleep, I became aware of the frost in sunless hours of the night, which was between 3 to 5am. I watched the sun rise from my tent, a permanent structure that was quite sturdy and roomy and somewhat drafty. The Denali Mountain Morning Hostel was situated on the edge of the woods, and I was sure I was going to get eaten by bears before morning.

The first person I encountered was Joan, a fifty-something woman with a bulbous nose, unflinching eyes, and a bob hairstyle that seemed too young for her face. She proceeded to tell me she had stopped at Talkeetna (quaint tourist town in Alaska) and she loudly enunciated the KEET part of it. I thought of her as a parakeet, KEET, chirpy and over-eager. I made a mental note stay away from her.

Rick was on the shuttle at the same time, but he didn't say a word to me. Not even "hi" or "good morning." Instead I talked to the shuttle driver, a redheaded girl with dreadlocks, who was actually from Minnesota and came to work here for the summer. Actually, a lot of strapping young folks take summer jobs in Alaska for the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors in their downtime.

Joan, Rick,and I got off the shuttle and waited for our buses in the Denali Visitor Center. Depending on your destination and the distance from the entrance, there were a plethora of different buses on different schedules. I was headed to Wonder Lake at mile 85, a gorgeous reflective surface where the majesty of McKinley would be doubled. Mosquitoes were also abundant in that moist wetland, so I came prepared with a mosquito net.

I took the 7:55 am bus, accounting for the 11 hours roundtrip. Now these buses also provided a rare glimpse into this untamed land and all associated wildlife. Every time an animal was spotted, we were to yell "Stop!" and the bus would halt for a closer look. I saw a fox, caribou, coyote, and an eagle. But mostly, I saw rocks. My companions on the bus were a bunch of over-excited, happy-to-be-there Asians, and they yelled "Stop!" at everything. Usually, it was a rock or a lone ranger walking along the road. I began to worry that I would arrive at Wonder Lake too late to see McKinley, since clouds of condensation typically formed at the peak at around 11am. Worse, the 8:25 am bus passed us, even though it was scheduled to run 30 minutes later. Joan saw me from the window of the other bus and waved voraciously. I turned in the other direction.

After a 4 hour ride, the bus took a lengthened stop at the Eielson Visitor Center, 19miles from my destination. Disheartened, I took out my lunch and sat at the picnic tables, which coincidentally offered lovely views of McKinley. I began to dread going back to the bus. Out of the corner of my eye, someone was waving at me. I hoped it wasn't Joan.

It turned out to be Kari. She was waiting for Howie and jumped up to talk to me.

"I was hoping we'd see you." We forgot to exchange phone numbers the day before.

She pointed to a small, surmountable mountain, or so it seemed to me.

"There's a ranger hike up that mountain at one o'clock. You have to reserve your spot and it's all filled up now."

I must have looked crestfallen.

"Don't worry, we got you in. Howie put your name on the list, just in case."

I don't remember when the bus left, but I wasn't on it. Kari, Howie, and I shared our life stories. We explored the Eielson Center together, a de facto museum with historical artifacts, complete with the skulls of mammals. On display outside, there were two skulls of mountain goats, interlocked by their white horns. Apparently, they had gotten tangled and perished, unable to pry themselves from the other.

Time for the hike. We climbed up the mountain along the rocky path, and it was strewn with flowers, weeds, and green vegetation. Strolling behind me was an eight year old boy who somehow wound up in front of me. Nonetheless, I wasn't as tired as yesterday. As I climbed higher and higher, I marveled at the beauty before me. McKinley loomed over us like a great creator, an immortal pillar before us puny humans. Its ridges were the deepest cobalt and the snow was a crowning glory of unadulterated white.

I realized I had been blind. Since yesterday, I had been so busy surviving, catching my breath, that I didn't see the awe-striking wonders of this place, even though it was right before my eyes. We are so busy, so consumed with ourselves, trying to live. We are so concerned with moving and going somewhere. And our blindness is self-inflicted. When we stop struggling, the simplest truths reveal themselves. The earth is beautiful. Life is exquisite. We are.

Then I reached the summit. It was a familiar feeling. That sense of exultation, of victory, of overcoming not only external obstacles, but overcoming myself. My own fears and doubts. My own demons. Liberation. To be freed from the self. How funny that sounds, to be free we must forget ourselves. To understand that there is something so immense, so much greater than ourselves. To know that we matter so little in ourselves, but it is in the connectedness, the unity of man and nature that keeps us eternal, because we were here and we were part of this. This was where I found God again.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Denali: Day Two

So began my trek into the wilderness. I got up early for my appointed hike with a Denali ranger, since it is recommended for single stragglers and no, I did not buy the suggested bell to stave off bears. Later I learned that the sound of human voices was just as repulsive to them.

Sitting on the hostel's shuttle, I spoke to a charming Scottish guy who kept talking about the black bears of Kodiak Island, the southernmost tip of Alaska. He also asked me where I was the night before. Asleep, I admitted. Apparently, all the young'uns of the hostel went to a bar last night and there was one particular Navy guy who was quite amusing when utterly intoxicated.

"Maybe you should meet him." Hmm...

As I waited for the ranger, I surveyed the hardy types who had signed up for the hike and realized I was a fish out of water. They were lean, well-muscled gals and guys who stretched for the ordeal, and handled their raingear, backpacks, and other paraphernalia with such ease that it seemed almost second nature to them. Only one other woman was of my petite stature, but she dressed like a professional climber.

The bus took us to Mile 47. Now Denali National Park is such a vast expanse of land, over 9,400 square miles or 6 million acres, that each stop was denoted by the number of miles from the front entrance. The major scenic stops were at least 50 miles inland, and that distance alone was approximately 6 hours roundtrip. On clear days, there is an imposing view of the grandiose Mt. McKinley, snowcapped and silver-blue in all its glory.

So, introductions. One couple was in the army, inadvertently flaunting bulging biceps and mentioned their three kids at home. Another group of friends identified themselves as adventurers and seasoned campers. There was a very attractive, older couple who lived in Colorado Springs and expressed their love for skiing, hiking, and climbing. They came complete with hiking sticks.

Oh boy. "Uhh...I grew up in New York City and I'm an indoors kind of girl."

Perplexing stares.

"I'm here because I find nature very beautiful and I need to be shocked out of my comfort zone." Literally. A sympathetic smile or two in reply, but most rolled their eyes dramatically, what is she doing here? Interesting, I was wondering that myself.

We hadn't gone very far before I was at least five yards behind the pack. It seemed like overcoming a mountain (truthfully, a tall hill) and an eternity before I could reach them. Out of politeness or perhaps pity or even liability concerns, they stopped every 15 minutes for me to catch up.

Then we had to cross a stream. Rushing water is a sound I associate with Alaska, as the mountains boasted myriad tributaries of thriving, gushing H2O. Water is the life force of the land, pulsing through bitter rock and harsh tundra. I was reminded of the water transportation system of the ancient Incas, how a path was carved through a network of filters. The purest rainwater would travel from the summit of Macchu Picchu to the very bottom of villages. Straight from a pagan god.

Back to reality. Remember the slightly too large hiking boots I purchased because of the colors? Well, the living, breathing waters of the stream conveniently spirited my left boot away as I was navigating across. I wound up chasing it downstream with the other boot wobbling at my ankle.

I jumped over logs, tripped over moss, and scrambled along prickly brambles after my shoe. I ended up on my derriere quite a few times. The dainty gold bracelet I always wore? Muddied beyond recognition. No doubt, I made an extraordinary spectacle of myself to the casual observer. Let's not even get into what the meticulous observer would see.

When I finally retrieved it, rather fished it out with a crooked branch, my pants and feet were soaked. Of course I did not bring a change of socks. Thankfully, Kari, the pretty climber from Colorado, gave me a fresh pair of socks. I befriended Kari and her husband Howie; they gave me excellent hiking tips and even loaned me their sticks. So now I was only two yards behind everyone else.

"Look! Bear!" Wildlife sighting? I had no clue. Everyone was tangibly excited, binoculars, cameras, photos with video. I didn't have the wherewithall to even see what they were talking about. When my eyes finally adjusted to the barely visible furry creature dashing across land, it was gone. But then, it wasn't all that impressive to begin with. The only time I will be close enough to admire a bear, it would probably eat me. Did I mention I was nearsighted?

Kari and Howie drove me back to the hostel and treated me to a lovely dinner of pizza. It was particularly lovely because I had not carried adequate food for lunch. (I just didn't think I'd be that hungry.)

Afterwards, I joined the Scottish guy and the others for a beer. Rick, a cute Hispanic newcomer, mentioned that he just got off his ship (Navy) and would be deploying to Afghanistan upon his return. Buzzed, I asked him if he recovered from last night's good time and received a dirty look in reply. He stalked off without any further conversation. Slightly inebriated, I didn't notice it was becoming icy cold.

As I walked into my room, I was notified that the bed was no longer mine.

"Don't you remember? Because you booked late, there are no beds available tonight. You'll have to sleep outside in Tent # 2."