July 14, 04:00
I am writing this from the lobby of a small hotel in downtown Fairbanks. It’s just after 4 am, but I’m awake from jet-lag and the tireless Alaskan sunshine. Sunset last night was sometime after midnight, and the sun rose about an hour ago.
It wasn’t easy to get here. But we’ve arrived. Shlomo and I got in yesterday afternoon, after getting stuck in Seattle for a night. We were only supposed to be in Seattle for an hour, but due to technical issues with our flight from NY, we missed our connection and had to spend the night.
To be fair, the whole idea of visiting Alaska in the first place only came up several days ago, and we booked our flight a day after that, giving our entire trip an aura of spontaneity.
Shlomo has a couple weeks off from medical school, and I’m… well I’m always up for a trip.
In a way, though, this last minute trip to Alaska serves as a sort of capstone to my time here in the US. Ever since Trump was elected back in 2016, I’ve known that I needed to reconnect with my country. Trump’s election forced me to recognize that I barely knew my own country, and that I was out of touch with the people, places, and things that fill it.
But, rather than spending the last 5 years growing more acquainted with America, I’ve spent 90% of my time abroad. So, when I completed my master’s thesis last summer, I decided to return to NYC and begin to examine this vast, strange country. I arrived not only in person, but also in spirit; with a promise to reconnect with my home country and re-learn what I had never really known.
But then, life happened, and I didn’t travel nearly as much as I’d hoped. Luckily, I did get to spend some time in Atlanta (where my father’s family is from), rural California, and upstate New York. But as my time here begins to wind down (I have a one-way ticket to Amsterdam in three weeks), I was searching for a final American adventure. This arrived with the discovery of $200 flights to northern Alaska! Easiest decision I’ve ever made.
Once the flights were booked, we found a hotel in Fairbanks, a lodge in Denali, and a train to take us to and fro.
After our surprise visit to Seattle (where we spent most of the morning delving into IHOP’s menu and lounging along a nearby lake), we finally made it to Fairbanks yesterday afternoon. Since the sun doesn’t really set here, the afternoons seem to stretch on endlessly. We took full advantage of this by first visiting a weed dispensary (these are not yet available in NY), buying a box of pre-rolls, and then relaxed on the ‘fair banks’ of the Chena River, where we got as high as Jesus on a kite.
It was here, as I watched the dark grey current, rich with glacial sediment, come around the bend, ripple past, and disappear once again; as we lazily puffed on some locally-grown cannabis, letting the sun beat down on our bared chests, that it finally dawned on me just how secluded we truly were. Out beyond the city lights and the paved roads, there were thousands of miles of pure, unapologetic, pristine wilderness. Even if we were to push past the Alaskan borders, we’d only find ourselves in the frozen tundra of eastern Russia or the vast forests of western Canada.
For dinner, we stepped into a local pub called Salty’s on 2nd, where we were welcomed by what must have been 80% of the local night life. Our waitress, Megan, even took the time to share some of her experiences growing up in Fairbanks. The long frozen winters, when darkness reigns for months at a time, to the bright airy summers, where nature stages a coup, and welcomes you with a warm embrace.
Oh, and everyone is high.
I really liked Megan, and if I had been traveling solo, I would have liked to spend more time with her. But I wasn’t and I won’t.
And so, it’s nearly time to leave Megan, Salty’s, and the city of Fairbanks behind. Our train leaves to Denali in a few hours. I better go wake Shlomo up.
July 14, 20:00
After breakfast we headed to the station, which turned out to be more of a museum about the Alaskan Railroad and their trains. Even the train ride down to Denali was turned into a kind of exhibit, with a guide on the PA system blurting out random facts every few minutes.
Our guide, Ian, had a funny speech impediment which would make his voice crack at random moments. This had a way of turning otherwise inconsequential statements into deeply moving poetry. Instead of a boring description of the passing trees, we now had an inspiring elegy to the ancient foliage, with Ian’s voice dripping in emotion and sentiment.
It was a four hour ride, so we divided the time between gazing out onto the dazzling landscapes — filled with sweeping hills and dashing gorges, carved out during the last ice age — and watching Alice in Wonderland.
Perhaps we, too, felt a bit like Alice, slipping deeper into a foreign wonderland.
When we arrived at Denali, we checked into our room at the Rainbow Village, popped into yet another dispensary, and got some dinner (I ordered a sandwich, while Shlomo bought some chocolate covered popcorn. Ew.) Then, we finally finally finally headed into the park for our first hike.
The first 30 minutes or so had the feel of a normal hike. Except for the exceptionally clean and thin air, we could have been in any of a hundred differences parks. But as we rose higher, and still higher, the trees began to thin out, allowing us glimpses of the views that they jealously hid. Eventually, about an hour in, as we left even the clouds far below us, we emerged above the trees, and were met with the full drama and sheer expanse of the Alaskan wilderness.
“There is much to offer those who understand the language of the Great Silent Places.”
This is what is engraved on the entrance sign, at the foot of the park, beckoning the millions of visitors into one of the largest silent places left on the planet.
But, as we tread the forest paths, deeper and higher, Shlomo and I filled the air with our incessant chatter.
I was so lost in our discussions that I almost forgot where I was; quite suddenly emerging from my thoughts and finding myself perched on the peak of one of the most beautiful places on earth.
I stepped away from Shlomo, and sat alone. Just me and Alaska. What does it feel like? What exactly is it like to be here, at this moment? I don’t know when I’ll ever be back, and it would be a shame to miss out on experiencing this fully.
As my thoughts subside, my consciousness begins to fill itself with the almost mystical presence of the mountains, restless clouds lurking far below, and the soft sounds of life reverberating across this ancient landscape.
NYC was established a few hundred years ago, and was built almost entirely by men. Alaska was formed a few hundred million years ago, and it took mountains of ice to carve these valleys.
I felt as though I was transplanted to an ancient land, like something you’d read about in Lord of the Rings or the Iliad, inhabited with demi-gods and mythical beings. Surely, this was not human land. We cannot claim any hold on it. It captures us, we belong to it.
I am obliterated by its presence; by the simple knowledge that such grandeur exists, my own life dissolves into the dust out of which it has only just emerged. Gazing out upon Denali’s drama, my own life reveals itself as it has always truly been: a comedy.
In any case, our hike was filled with bubbling curiosity, overwhelming beauty, and the chatter of two friends trying to soak it all in.
We arrived back at the village around 7:30, ate some pizza, and then passed out.
Woke up around 6.
On the way to the grocery store, it started to rain and we got stuck under an awning. At first, this was frustrating, but it’s hard to stay frustrated when you’re looking out onto a beautiful landscape, enveloped in the calming sound of rain. So, we sat down on a bench, and (you guessed it) lit up a joint.
Instead of going to the grocery store and back, we ended up having a wonderful experience, just sitting and admiring the surrounding beauty and enjoying each other’s company.
I remarked to Shlomo that so much of traveling is being able to enjoy what you are given, and letting go of the ‘plans’ that cannot be. He responded that it’s the same thing with life. A good life is one in which you are able to enjoy what you have, when you have it, rather than always racing to find something else or hold onto what no longer is.
When we finally arrived at the park, we followed a trail down to the dog kennel, where they keep their sled dogs, Alaskan Huskies. Far from being pets, or even zoo animals, these dogs still worked in the winter to help transport materials and assist with infrastructure repairs. The kennel was largely staffed with young girls, seemingly locals.
The difference between teenagers in NYC and those in Denali was striking.
Shlomo and I repeatedly remarked on how we’d prefer to raise our (non-existent) families in the ‘great outdoors’, rather than within an artificial enclave like NYC. (Of course, I’d like to balance both nature and nurture; chaos and order; individual and civilization; organic and fabricated. But if I had to choose just one, I’d go with the former.)
At one point, we ended up at a lovely stream filled with ice cold glacial waters. On a whim, I bet Shlomo $100 that he wouldn’t strip naked and take a bath in the river. Of course, I assumed that he’d never back down from a challenge, and I was right. So now I’m out $100, but Shlomo got to have a pretty strange and invigorating experience! (It turns out that, since we left directly from the park back to Fairbanks and our flight, he couldn’t shower until we got back to NY. So maybe I got someeee revenge after all.)
We got to the train station a couple hours before our departure, so we picked up some playing cards from the gift shop, sat down in the sun, and enjoyed our last hours in Denali Park — 6 million acres of preserved interior wilderness — before heading back toward the streets and clamor of NYC.
We arrived at the airport around 10 pm, and since our flight wasn’t until 1 am, we got to admire the alaskan sunset before boarding our flight. This was the first and only time I’d see Alaska shrouded in darkness. After 20 hours of continuous sunlight, Alaska was taking a well-deserved nap.
From the city that never sleeps to the land that only naps.
In a funny way, this trip has been more ‘travel’ than arrival. From Monday night through Friday morning, we boarded 4 flights, two trains, and slept in three hotels. We never slept in the same city twice (one night each in Seattle, Fairbanks, and Denali) and each day carried its own unique flavors, sights, and stories.
A trip without a destination…
I’ve been back in New York for a day now, and thought that I’d sit for a moment to reflect back on what I’ve experienced in Alaska, and what I’ve learned from the time she spent with me.
I could write about the magnificence of nature and its need for protection. And how protecting nature is our greatest honor and responsibility. And how nature reminds us what it means to be human, and what it means to be alive.
But all of this is obvious and cliche.
I’m more interested in what Alaska, specifically, taught me.
I got to learn more about America. A new kind of America. Or maybe it’s an old kind. The kind of America that lives at the frontier and pursues the mystery and adventure that lives outside of civilization. The great unknown. The great beyond.
The kind of America that has always known that the good life can never be found in the city, but rather in communion with nature, without ourselves, and with the long uninterrupted quiet that allows us to hear the ‘voice of thin silence’. The voice of god. Or consciousness. Or existence. Or maybe they’re all one and the same.
The Alaskans struggle with nature. They have not reigned it in. They aren’t even close. They aren’t even trying.
“He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And Jacob wrestled with it until the breaking of the day.”
For the Alaskans, the day has not yet broken. They live in anticipation. Nature is not the enemy, something to be conquered or destroyed; better to live in the grips of an unknown and unknowable power, rather than to live with the false belief that “my power and the strength of my hands” can provide me with independence.
Alaskans will always play second fiddle to Alaska. They will always be the supporting actors in their own stories.
In Alaska, everyone we met — from the waitress at Sandy’s to the cashier at the grocery store — implicitly understood that life isn’t a competition, it’s an art. As one of our cab driver’s pointed out, “Alaska is drawing younger people who are beginning to realize that a comfortable cabin on the edge of a river, with enough land to grow your own food, is just about all you need in life.”
So why not just sit back, light up, and enjoy the show?