Emily Articulated: Alaska

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

I spent the past two weeks touring Alaska — chasing clear, sunny days and plotting map points in coastal fishing towns, quirky backpacking communities, state parks, national parks, reserves and small urban centers. 

Borrowing a friend’s converted camper truck (a custom platform built into the bed of an old pickup), sleeping anywhere we could squeeze four wheels, my partner and I were granted long adventure days, made even longer by the gift of the midnight sun.

Emily Erickson.

We crossed boulder fields in pursuit of incandescent turquoise alpine lakes, strung climbing ropes from broad mountain faces, shimmied through slot canyons ending in gushing waterfalls, strapped crampons to our feet and — ice tools in hand — scaled glacier walls, topping off our evenings with steep hikes to vast mountain views.

More than pursuing recreation, the two weeks out of regular routines and rhythms of daily life — gazing into the swirl and of campfire flames or meandering along slow, curving roads — afforded space for contemplation, perspective and gentle curiosity. The thoughts bred from our wide-open days are just as much etched into the memories of our trip as the mountainscapes and coastal vistas.

Travel can bring out the worst in people, like the guy who dismissed the unwritten rules of deplaning, shouldering his way up the airplane’s aisle well before the people in the rows in front of him had a chance to stand up. I also noticed how travel can bring out the best in people, like the lady in the seat next to me, who chatted in excited, nervous wonder about places she’d never been, but soon would see.

I wondered what it was about being surrounded by untouched land and rugged beauty that fills people with that specific cocktail of awe and humility. As a mama grizzly padded the dirt next to our transit bus, a fierce protectiveness in her eyes for her shaggy blonde cub waddling at her side, I thought it had to do something with not being at the top of the food chain. As the waves crashed against the sides of our water taxi, I thought it also had something to do with being at the mercy of a world so much bigger and more powerful than ourselves.

I thought about the lack of development in the area, begetting heartier humans; how the further from amenities we are, the more self-sufficient we must be. Watching a toddler embrace the chill of a glacier-fed river — with a beaming, shivering, smile on her face — I realized heartiness wasn’t always as obvious as being skilled with a fishing pole or knowing the correct way to interact with wildlife. 

I was reminded that generosity breeds generosity and stillness is required for rest. In the gifts of a bed for a night, directions to a local’s-only trailhead or a picked-up beer tab, I was filled with the warm desire to repay people for gifts that aren’t easily repaid. By slowing down to watch the boats coming into the harbor, their steady cadence only disrupted by the playful paths of sea otters, I felt the rare clarity and ease of an empty, contented mind.

Finally, our time spent, the open schedules and an untethered compass made me appreciate the comforts of home. 

Driving over the Long Bridge, with the mountain backdrop looking smaller but somehow mine, I felt the familiar framework of my regular life falling back into place. As we pulled into our driveway, our little black cat greeted us with anticipatory meows and our dog’s head poked into our bedside window. In a final moment of vacation, I thought about all the beauty wrapped inside travel and adventure, and the easy bliss of returning home.

It feels good to come home.

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