In the morning, we’re loading the SUVs for our long journey back to Anchorage. It’s raining like it will never stop. We’re leaving one of our companions, Wai, here in Fairbanks. She will continue on a journey of her own, catch a ride back into the wilderness, and make camp in the mountains beyond this town. She will do geology field work in a part of the world so beautiful that I envy her new office at the top of the world from the top of my heart. I hope she finds good rocks. And so we smile, say our goodbyes, send up wishes that the rain will stop before she has to set up her tent, and then we are off.
and holding back
Hours later, we are back in Anchorage, back at the beginning of the road we started down when we were born with this blood and first heard this song, as if awaking from a dream. We’re saying more goodbyes, as our party disperses back to homes hundreds of thousands of miles away.
in the sun-stained sky—
* * *
They say home is where the heart is. And my heart, too, lies back there. It is beating
under the red soil in the American southwest, where the first mountains rise that begin the march of the Rocky Mountain range across this continent, finally ending here on the other end of the world, where I watch them sink back into the earth as the Brooks Range in the distant north, only to be erased by Alaska Range closer on the horizon. But I feel I am leaving a part of myself behind here: a shard of my heart that will keep dreaming of Alaska long after I have departed.
I fall asleep in the dark, late night of an Anchorage hotel. I know in the morning, when I wake, I will board a plane, and the geology of south-central Alaska — the Chugach Mountains, Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, and the Kenai Peninsula — will fall away under the clouds, and I will be gone. But the rhythm of the dream will remain.
yonder clouds and snow. . .
the vanishing mountains
We leave Denali early in the morning and push further north to Fairbanks, our northernmost destination. In one big rush, we arrive by noon to speak to the rural native high school students here too. We eat lunch with them and learn their names and histories, growing up out here in the bush at the top of the world. Their past and present, and the here-now — seeing their bright minds and their glowing faces and imagining their shining futures is so invigorating. Soon, they go back to class; we say goodbye and wish them well on their journeys. And then finally, in the early afternoon, our messages delivered, we finally catch our breaths, our intentions fulfilled.
We check into our hotel, and at long last have a time to rest. Several of us drive up to Chena to warm and restore ourselves. At the hot springs there, we finally have a chance to soak our aching bodies in its smoky waters. Nearing the end of our long journey, it is so good to soothe our stretched-out souls in the healing pools, and as the steam washes over us, our troubles melt away into the heat, the long miles wash into the clear, cleansing water, and evaporate into the mountain air. I sit on a big rock under the northern Alaska sky, my feet and ankles soaking in the spring, and a misty breeze in my hair. I lie back, close my eyes, and become a whale for a while.
kissing the warm rocks:
Chena hot springs!
* * *
On the drive back to Fairbanks, two moose cross our path, appearing suddenly on the road in front of our car. One strolls casually across the road as we roll past and keeps going, back into the woods. The other glides around our SUV and waits, watching the driver’s side windows, peering at us, peering into us. Further along, a fox steals road kill and nibbles at it by the roadside as we watch. Other cars stop and stare with us. Despite the paved highway and the new flourishes of the twenty-first century, the street signs and the cement, this is still a wide, wild country, and nature is pushing back against the brunt of modernity. Truly, this is still their land.
a river in the path
of a traveling moose
Back at the hotel, we shut the blinds on the unsetting sun. How bright it stays this far in the deep north! But we sleep in darkness for what feels like the first time in a long while.
We enter the interior by bus. At the edge of the wild, a bridge spans the Savage River – the same river we crossed on foot last night – and on the far side of the gully sits a ranger station guarding six million acres of Alaskan wilderness. Our bus leaves contrails of dust as we go off the paved highway and begin our rumble up the gravel road through the mountains.
caught in streams of stone:
In the Denali wilderness, we slip into a new universe: a northern world built in a different scale. This is where the wild things are: a moose crosses our path, and we stop as it lumbers into the trees; caribou roam the vast expanse of hills, while a grizzly bear and cub wait in the brush higher up; and Dall sheep watch us from the steep cliffs above. Then we come upon a true wonder: a young grizzly is wandering right by the side of the road, and we hush as we pass it by. It ignores our intrusion and goes on eating, pausing only to scratch behind its ears.
The young bear:
his monastic vows –
a diet of grass
All robed in brown,
a young ascetic by the roadside:
the grizzly bear
piles of clouds collapsing
float into the azure sky. . .
with the sun – with us
* * *
During our drive through Denali, our guide tells us how this land is protected. The wildlife are protected. This is their land – not ours. And I can’t help but wonder about the Athabascans and the other peoples who were here long before this country even existed, who shared this land with each other, and with all of the other creatures here. What kind of animal has humankind become that so much of the world must be protected from us? What kind of violent King Midas curse has been cast upon our touch?
I am beginning to think that the only true morality is balance; the only ethics is equilibrium. I am reminded of a haiku by the master Bashō:
there also lives
the cherry blossom
We live in a vast universe ruled by entropy, and why should matters of philosophy be any different? How can any ethical code be complete if it considers only humans? Our ancestors once lived in harmony with the environment and other natural beings. We, too, are a part of nature, no less than the earth and the rocks and the trees. Have we forgotten how to talk to the wind and the river? How can we reclaim that part of ourselves that remembers the land as our mother?
Beneath the brush,
soft moss on the tundra:
And yet we only build walls and more walls, and enshrine that to which we are too terrified to return. But if that is our path, then truly, this beauty must be protected from us. But I don’t think that is the only way, and I will continue to dream.
there also lives
the grizzly bear
The undying sky
at night is also the sea –
when we become fish
When we return to camp, we have dinner: Ken’s famous pasta and campfire marinara sauce. This is our last night camping, and our last home cooked meal. After filling our stomachs, Bill sets the declination on his compass and we walk south again. This time we just look at the distant peaks, and try to name them. This land is so big.
* * *
I can’t sleep yet. An hour before midnight, I walk down to the river again, and sit down to read in the twilight. In 1689, the great haikai poet Matsuo Bashōset out by foot on a 2,450-kilometer journey through Japan to visit the places described by the poet masters of old. He wrote a book of prose and haiku poetry documenting his travels, titled “The Narrow Road to the Interior,” or, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North,” which would quickly become one of the seminal pieces of classic Japanese literature. It is from this famous collection that this travelogue also takes its title. Its first hokku is about change:
Even a thatched hut
may change with a new owner
into a doll’s house
Before leaving on his journey, Bashō – who never had any children and was unsure whether he would return – sold his thatched house by the sea to a young family with small daughters. Children’s dolls had never lived in that house before, but they would be displayed in the coming weeks for the Peach Blossom festival. And so little by little, the world changes.
Russians come and go,
Americans come and stay. . .
Grain by grain
mountain ranges are grown
in the blink of a star
As it nears midnight, the sky is clear and blue-gold. The sun is still shining bright behind the mountains, and I can see for miles and miles in every direction. Beside our campsite above me, five glistering new SUVs are parked. Our tents are made of space-age synthetic polyfibers, and I’m typing this on a touchscreen tablet with more computing power than the guidance systems that landed the Apollo astronauts on the moon nearly five decades ago.
The mountains crumbling
back into fragments of stardust
just like us
What would this journey have been like five hundred years ago? What will this land look like in five hundred years? In fifty years? How far will the glaciers retreat, and what will happen to the valleys and rivers they feed? What will happen to the bears and the moose and the eagles and all of the native peoples? For how long will our bones remember?
* * *
At midnight, the only sound left is the river flowing. It whispers a lullaby to me, but I don’t follow it. The sound of water flows from another time. I remember the whales and the porpoises dashing alongside our boat and the family of orcas we saw riding the distant waves. And I remember that other river the Zunis crossed at the beginning of the world, back when the earth was still soft. I remember the water creatures that are our lost children.
rushing with my siblings –
In this world, the horizon is still brushed gold with strained sunlight. The only clouds remaining have moved behind the mountain ridges, and are painted pink and purple like flowers in an ebbing tide. It is still too much daylight to see any stars shining in the dim bright of night. The zenith is pale blue. The mountains to the west are drowning in the shadow of the sun. The mountains to the east are awash with what’s left of the day. Their brown-green slopes and their sparse trees and their veins of unmelting ice look the same as they did during the long morning. Soon, my fingers are freezing and my feet are cold. So with a last deep breath of Denali’s nighttime air, I walk back to camp to sleep.
A fire marble
rounding the horizon –
Denali’s night light
From Anchorage, we disembark again and begin the long journey up to Denali. At a stop by the side of the road, we catch our first view of its looming visage and the march of the Alaskan range across a sky obscured by clouds. Directly above us, a wide nimbus and the filigree of a rainbow surround the sun. They’re ice crystals, Ken tells us: a sign of high winds come to blow the clouds away. We wait and hold our breath.
a halo for the high one:
Indeed, within a few minutes of our stopping, the horizon begins to clear, and we can see its white, snow-capped peaks beyond the cloud cover. Refreshed, we eat our lunch to this majestic view before continuing northward
* * *
At Denali, we set up camp in a clearing between the evergreens. Our tents in place, we start walking south. The wilderness is vast here, and there is no trail where we’re going. The midnight sun and the twilight leave little sense of time, and no night will come to extinguish the sky. How easy it would be to lose oneself out here! The trees give way to a river below, and beyond that, vast rolling hills of green that run into mountains. We follow the river for a while, and then take off our shoes and roll up our pants and cross at a shallow spot. The cold water washes over our feet and rushes against our ankles up to our knees. The river stones are wet and smooth and slick. Moose tracks litter the mud. Back on dry land, we trek across overgrown hills, and the bush reaches higher and higher until it covers our heads and we’re forced to turn back. For dinner back at camp, we have Kim’s and Wai’s stir fry vegetables and reindeer sausage. We dry wood for fire. Finally, around midnight, we put the fire out and climb into our tents to sleep. The sun is still crawling across the world behind the mountains.
this deep wilderness—
a red heartbeat
from glacial waters warmed
by the summer sun
Last night, it thunderstormed. It’s still raining when we set out in the morning to the college under dark and screaming skies. Today, we ferry nearly seventy native high school students to the Castle Mountain fault we visited yesterday, to set their fingers on this wide jutting teeth of rocks where the earth has cracked apart. This is where the earth has moved, swallowing itself like an ouroboros, and lain bare the parts of its body that didn’t want to go under.
The members of our party who can speak geology bring them out here to the fault and translate the land. They point at the granite boulders in the river below us and they point at the conglomerate of rocks in the fault, and they show us how this terrain has evolved since the raven delivered light to the people long ago, and how it will continue to change.
whose hot knives in the earth
cut out the continents?
Other members of our party stay at the buses and talk to the students about everything they can be and everything they can do if they only imagine it. We are here to share dreams, after all, and while theirs spill out before us in every part of the landscape and the living memory of this part of the world, we can only try to convey ours in the spoken tales we tell of science and technology and engineering and mathematics and that convoluted world of academics. It takes a strong heart to walk in two worlds, but I know, someday, it will put a smile on our faces to see them engineer an even better dream than what little glimpses we can show them.
The Castle Mountain air is clear. We left Seward in the morning, and arrived in the Chugach mountains toward noon. We washed our fingers and faces in the river at Hatcher Pass, and then drove up the mountain. Now we stretch our legs and inhale deeply.
The breeze is fresh and cool. These mountainsides are deep green with foliage amidst the black rock peaks and the brown loamy soil. These are the colors of Alaska, and from this pallette is painted one of its masterpieces. Across the hazy horizon, more mountains reach up toward the sky, and glaciers creep between their snow-strewn slopes.
I remember the last time I was here, we’d come earlier in the year, and these mountainsides were still completely covered in snow and ice. Now the trees and bushes have sprouted, the grass has grown, and the bears are awake and moving. Up higher, the remaining snow is melting away, transmuting into streams to breathe more life into the valley below.
On green slopes,
a cozy summer home:
mother bear’s den
We drive back down the mountain into the valley, and hike along the river.
The calm stream:
a beaver swims across
The night raven
eclipsing the twilight sun
steals our food
We sleep and wake to the cry of ravens and magpies in the twilight. When the sun climbs again over the mountains, it glitters radiant on the water. Blue waves scatter into daylight. So we fill our bodies with coffee and good spirits. We stretch our legs and prepare them for the sea.
* * *
At Seward, we take a boat through Kenai fjords. We stand on the bow and face the sea spray as our captain drives us through the chop up to Northwestern fjord, where the tidewater turns to ice. He navigates us through the frozen waters toward the glacial wall that extends before us. Even this has receded against the relentless onslaught of the world changing. It no longer stretches so far into the fjord as it did only a few years ago, Ken tells us. This is a member of an endangered species. Perhaps Edward Curtis was photographing the wrong vanishing race.
The captain shuts off our engine and we are adrift in the ice water. The passengers hush, and the glacier comes to life. The only sound is the creek of ice. It splinters, cracks, shakes, and shudders in the deep rumbling voice of a timeless giant. Now a thick sheet breaks off and crumbles and tumbles into the sea with a great crash of water smashing against itself in different forms. The wave spreads out. This is the sleep talk of a frozen titan raging against the dying of the light.
Icy war cry:
“No, I will not go extinct”—
the ancient glacier
No, no, Alaska will not go gentle into that good night. The captain restarts the engine.
* * *
And on the way back, as if to cheer our hearts, a humpback whale finds us and plays with us. It lies on its thick back in the ocean, waving its pectoral fins, and slapping them against the water, making a ruckus. I’m smiling. Twice, it breaches, emerging spectacularly from the water, before diving back down again. We have entered upon its road, and the unspoken question is “How do you pass your days, humpback whale, our daughter, our mother?” “Happily, my parents, my children,” the whale answers. It slaps the water again, and waves goodbye.
A humpback whale
playing hide and seek:
the world rebalanced
So today is a happy day. These whales, too, once slaughtered to near extinction, shall continue. Their children, too, will learn to sing the old songs. And as we return to shore, porpoises join our boat, and dart along the bow. A family of orcas swim in the distance. Their dorsal fins stand tall. The sunlight stays strong, and the rain passes swiftly. We sleep well in our tents tonight.
We head to Seward. On the road, we stop at Exit glacier. The hike to the base of the glacier is less than a mile, but along the way, we walk through time. We pass where it used to be centuries ago. Signs mark the path with dates from years long past, from when ice still covered the land here, and rinsed it fresh with water. But as the forest path gives way to a younger trail of rock and stone, the dates become too recent. Ken remembers when you could walk right up to the glacier hundreds of feet beneath the gray precipice on which we arrive and look down. Far below us, the glacial ice is melting, dripping, retreating little by little. What will happen to the rivers below when it disappears? This is a living behemoth of pleistocene memory, and like the memories of our human elders, it is slowly fading away. What happens to the memory of ice when it turns into water, I wonder? Does it remember, like blood and bones?
The old ice
reawakens and starts
We walk back, and continue on the road to Seward. When we arrive, we set up camp, and after a dinner of Wai’s campfire fajitas and beans, we fall asleep under the night sunlight. In our dreams, the gray dusk finally fades to black, and the sun falls behind the mountains.
The midnight sun is a companion to the people. It rises and sets to the heartbeat of a different kind of time: one set by the creep of ice and the break of earth. The black mountains that rise from the roiling seas and turn green with grass and forests and white with snow caps before they etch themselves across the sky: these are the rhythms of a dream. Long have we sought to share this world dreamt and lived by our brothers and sisters in the deep north where all of us once tread, long ago, on our many long journeys home. Even for us, this sojourn is a kind of homecoming. Because this is their home: the Athabascans and the Yup’ik and the Tlingit and the Unangan and the Haida, and so many others. We are here to hear their stories and their readings of the land they’ve known since the beginning, in this time as the earth is changing, and its shape is still a vision waiting to be imagined.
Summer mountains breathe
time streams of ancient water—
We step into Alaska from the airport in Anchorage, and the road into that world stretches so deep and wide before us. We sleep in the city tonight, before heading into the wild.