Oh, The Places You’ll Go

I have returned from Alaska, a place so wild and wondrous that I am forever changed by its spirit.

It was not my choice to go there.  My parents wanted to celebrate their 75thbirthdays by taking our family on the adventure of a lifetime.  They chose Alaska.  How is it parents know best?

Given the itinerary of long days in planes, aboard trains, ships, and motor coaches with lots of other people, I almost opted out.   Being the solitary sort, I imagined my limits would be stretched in more ways than I could possibly manage, no matter how many hours of preventative meditation I engaged in.

But I quickly came to my senses and realized how fortunate I am to still have healthy, generous, adventurous parents who want to spend time with me and my siblings, despite our varying degrees of dysfunction.

I also recognized this as the ultimate spiritual adventure.  Surely I would have a chance to practice all those things I like to preach like being present, being compassionate, and being open to what life offers up.  Like any good grasshopper, seizing the challenge would make me stronger, wiser, or at the very least, quirkier.

With this in mind I surrendered to the idea and embraced the adventure.  I would live at the edge of my comfort zone and go with the flow.  I would pack my bags, get on the bus, and go wherever the ship sailed.

My sister suggested I might do better if I reviewed the itinerary.  “It’s all about managing expectations,” she warned.  The first day was brutal because I had not managed mine. 

Departures tend to be the most difficult because they involve an incredible amount of sustained effort to overcome the inertia of a body at rest.  Customs can be especially unnerving with all that declaring of concealed nuts, fruits, and pillow pets.

I agree that it’s the journey that counts, but on actual travel days, it’s all about the destination.  Bienvenue au Canada!  Welcome to Alaska! And back and forth we went.

While I was thrilled to be wherever I was, lugging around the equivalent of a Winnebago on my back reminded me of the cardinal rule of traveling:  Less is more. 

I could be the world’s worst packer.  I like to plan for every contingency regardless of the fact that I end up with a whole season’s worth of what not to wear.  I now know I was subliminally influenced by those who came before me in search of gold.  They were required to carry 2000 lbs (that’s one ton!) of supplies with them so they could survive for one year in the wilderness. My reason for taking the equivalent remains unclear.

It’s not your average bear who is called to these untamed lands.  We learned of the plight of those who came in search of gold, those who came to build the ALCAN highway, those who came to climb Mt. McKinley, and those who came to heed the call of the wild. 

It takes a certain type of individual to withstand extremes in temperatures, sunlight, solitude, mosquitoes, wildlife, and outhouses. These are hearty, adventurous, if not downright delusional characters who tend to dream in Technicolor.  Clearly, I had found my tribe.

In the land of the midnight sun, sleep can be a bit of a problem.  The locals seem to adjust, but I was up all night most nights just trying to settle down and soak it all in.  We celebrated the summer solstice by watching the sun set over the river in Dawson City at 12:50am. 

Sleep deprivation combined with a trip of this magnitude can do funny things to a person.  For some reason known only to travel agents and tour guides, we had a long way to go and a short time to get there.  Some people got sick.  Some got crabby.  Some got constipated, which probably explains the crabbiness.  Some went silent.  Some got loud.  Some simply wore out.

In any case, we metabolized the experience in a myriad of ways.  I attempted to keep my meltdowns to a minimum and my awe at a maximum.  The spectacular scenery and superb cast of characters supported this effort and continually cracked my heart wide open. 

I fell totally and completely in love every day with someone or something I had never seen before or experienced yet.  Unlike my usual days of routine tasks with familiar folks, I found myself mining the gold in every conversation or interaction with beautiful strangers who  had made their way to Alaska from all ends of the earth.

Whether it be the way the Indonesian chef made each pasta dish with precision, Ingrid the massage therapist from South Africa gave her fourteenth massage of the day with as much caring attention as her first, Gary the guitar man from Scotland  soulfully serenaded us, John from Edmonton let his dog Jackson walk beside me so I could pretend I was walking my dog, Chris from Skagway safely drove his motor coach with an eye for wildlife, Lulu from Dawson City shared  stories of her experience as a writer and film producer, Sean from New England shared the details of Denali National Park with as much respect for the land as if he’d lived there his whole life, Jenny from Utah joyfully mixed drinks for weary travelers on the train, or Aaron from Sioux City cracked the whip and kept us on task, I was aware of their gifts and my cup runneth over.

I’m no longer sure how to return to a life where if I yell,“Moose!” I will most likely be directed to the hair product or dessert aisle. My wilderness experiences are out of context here.

Re-entry is never as easy as it appears.  According to Newton, once a body is in motion it tends to stay in motion, unless the body is compelled to change its state. When the sun finally went down in the Midwest, I was compelled to close my eyes.   Even then, my body believed it was on the road again. 

When I think I am not equal to the task of traveling great distances for long periods of time, I will remember the reward for having a curious heart. This exquisite angst is uncomfortable, it’s unpredictable, and it will most likely incite a host of internal revolutions. 

But oh, the places the heart will go if you allow it.

Happy travels.

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