A Reflection from Six Months of our Travels

STATING THE OBVIOUS

During the last week in August, camping about six miles outside of Crested Butte, Colorado we chose to spend the day hiking the popular “Oh Be Joyful Trail”.  This trail is an eleven mile out and back hike crossing meadows, passing through small forest groves of spruce or aspen, and tracing gentle streams. The trail meanders between two mountain ridges through the beautiful “Oh Be Joyful” valley until it reaches the valley head framed by impressive twelve-thousand foot peaks.  The sky shed its early morning clouds and a serendipitous sun broke through at mid morning when we began. “Oh be Joyful” seemed more and more the fitting epithet for the trail as we hiked… and even now in the late summer, the streams persisted, gently flowing with the occasional stair step falls, small cool pools and end of the summer wild flower bouquets enhancing the familiar aromatic balm of the backcountry. A transcendental trek on a perfect day - clear, crisp, and cool as we began and just beginning to approach a subtle early afternoon warm when we arrived at the turn around point.

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Reaching the turnabout we came upon a couple, a man and a woman, rising from their shaded rest at the trail intersect. His Don Quixote like silhouette faded when the man stepped out of the shade revealing his flushed pale skin, roughly hewn chiseled features and silver hair. As he busied himself adjusting his “armor”… the full backpack he was returning to his wiry frame following their rest.  The woman, no squire or foil to this Quixote, instead seemed perhaps more his muse or his inspiration. A knowing wise face, she exuded a much larger presence than her small frame. Her hair haphazardly shoved up under a hat and pack already in place, she stood inhaling to our amusement a couple of short breaths from a small pipe that it was pungently clear had been filled with cannabis. We exchanged with them the amiable greetings in camaraderie that most hikers meeting on a common trail will share.  Yet from this first greeting they talked to us as if they knew us or at the very least were expecting us! As they spoke they were at once both interesting and endearing with the demeanor of a couple that could without pause easily finish one another’s sentences. They radiated a connectedness that made them appear as complimentary to one another as the streams running in sinuous ribbon-like lines across the valley floor are connected to the mountains from where they emanate.  

We assumed at first they had traveled the same route by which we had just come and were, like us, about to turn around to make the trek back… except for the full packs. They explained that they were continuing on the intersecting trail toward the north looking for a place to camp for the night and hoping they would not get rained on…much!  Then very excitedly he began telling us that we should hike on up the trail further as it would lead us to a beautiful, blue alpine lake!  And while he continued to relay excitedly the virtues and wonder of their adventures there, she (agreeing with his descriptions but in her more calm and circumspect manor) described the details of the trail in order for us to find this treasure. They spoke to us with the certainty that it should be our natural inclination to follow their advice. His frantic and comical excitement and her beguiling descriptions clearly had their intended enticing effect as both of us immediately said, “Lets go!” We wished each other well and headed off in different directions…they toward wherever they went next!…and us toward where they had already been!

With an unexpectedly inspired vision of an alpine lake fed to us by these etherial strangers, we continued on the new addition to our hike and our new goal. In jest, we began to question whether or not our guides were in fact real or some strange alpine aberration…mountain ghosts…sent to inspire us to hike toward something special! Passing over meadow, hurdling boulder, wandering through wood, and fording stream, we marked our progress by their foreshadowed trail descriptions and landmarks. When reaching that part of the trail of which we had been warned…the part where the trail grew steeper and more difficult…without pause we just kept hiking!  While we are not novices at hiking and backpacking, for someone of more experience (and a clearly sturdier physique), this would perhaps only be seen as “that steeper section”…but for us hiking at near eleven-thousand feet and perhaps still needing to acclimatize a bit more to the altitude, it felt pretty damn steep!  The trail followed a series of steep switchbacks followed by long straight steep sections…steep sections that as we climbed began to look like a dolly zoom effect in the movies…with each step forward the trail tunneled and pulled away looking longer and longer! We would at last crest a hill or round a curve only to find it was a false peak or there was still another high altitude hairpin to go around…and we were not yet seeing any sign of the lake! But…we kept hiking. To add to the mystery of the now illusive alpine Arcadia was the appearance of a series of different trails disappearing in diverse directions off across the distant tundra. Given the lay of the landscape and our views obscured by rock or hill, we had no way of determining which one of these was the trail we were on and therefore, had much more mountain to traverse!…or had we made a mistake, missed a turn, overlooked a landmark …so…a bit worried… we kept hiking. 

Now the bane to a good trek is doubt. It can at the very least distract you and at worse compromise your decision. I suppose in some circumstances it could even put you in harms way.  It is with good reason hikers are constantly cautioned to trust their instincts as much as they are advised to always be prepared. So while doubt as to whether or not we would find the lake perhaps should have seeped in through our weary steps; and while perhaps concern should have surfaced that if we went too far to reach our goal, we would not be able to make the return trip before nightfall. In our occasional exasperated, expletive filled exclamations of “Where the hell is this lake?”… we had no real desire to stop.  So we simply did what you do in these circumstances…put one foot in front of the other and continue to hike!

“None of your knowledge, your reading, your connections will be of any use here: two legs suffice, and big eyes to see with. Walk alone, across mountains or through forests. You are nobody to the hills or the thick boughs heavy with greenery. You are no longer a role, or a status, not even an individual, but a body, a body that feels sharp stones on the paths, the caress of long grass and the freshness of the wind. When you walk, the world has neither present nor future: nothing but the cycle of mornings and evenings. Always the same thing to do all day: walk. But the walker who marvels while walking (the blue of the rocks in a July evening light, the silvery green of olive leaves at noon, the violet morning hills) has no past, no plans, no experience. He has within him the eternal child. While walking I am but a simple gaze.” 

― Frédéric Gros, A Philosophy of Walking

When you hike…when you are really out in nature, especially the backcountry, and you allow yourself to be immersed in it, you have the opportunity to transcend boundaries.  When we finally paused and let our eyes be drawn away from the steep trail of rocks and roots to take in the broader view of the landscape around us, the view that greeted us was the lifting of a veil. What we became immediately aware of… the epiphany… was the awareness of and connection with…where we were! Where we were was amazing! What we were seeing was grand, majestic and magical. And what we were doing was truly… really, really FUN!

There is always some sort of magic to be seen on a good hike…as when we crested the ridge where our view to the the lake began to unfold like a bloom…expanding and spreading open with each step revealing the mirror blue-green skin of the lake below held in embrace by the twelve-thousand foot Afley Peak and Purple Mountain on its far shore. We were speechless! But not speechless in the sense that we could not talk…in fact we were dizzy with joy and could not stop talking and shouting. What we were saying was a sort of giddy gibberish that has become a common occurrence for us in our travels the last six months…something that we have come to describe as the “stating the obvious speechlessness”. We find ourselves shouting such clever descriptions as….”Look at this!..Look at this!…This is beautiful!” or “This is amazing!” or  “This amazingly beautiful!”… or “This is incredible” or“This is awesome!” or “This is amazingly, awesomely, incredibly beautiful!”, or Holy Fuck!…all we could utter in our ridiculous rambling rants were hackneyed expressions to describe something that was clearly beyond words and so we are left “speechless” to do nothing more than… state the obvious!

Finally we grew quiet…

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Sometimes the sublime beauty of a place is such that any personification in words simply cannot get at the roots of the experience.  It is then when the silence often comes…it is then when you become quiet…and you look, and you listen and you can hear and feel a place talk to you… you begin to feel more deeply than one is typically aware of - or just what it is to be alive in a place like this. It is the sort of feeling that germinates and burgeons beyond our practical perception to a level of awareness awakening a symbiotic union. In those moments you are no longer a bystander, a visitor or an observer…you are drawn in… and given a seat at a commensal banquet along side, and holding no less or no greater importance, than the birds, the creatures, the flowers, the trees, the rocks, the stream, the lake, the clouds and the sky. You are nothing more than a piece of the panorama, a part of the landscape. There is no worry, no desire, no fear…instead there is exaltation… and the one taste left on your pallet from this pastoral feast is devotion. 


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Time Traveling

“The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.

Any fool can do it, there ain’t nothing to it.

Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill.But since we’re on our way down,

we might as well enjoy the ride.” ~James Taylor


We meant to post much sooner…but…

We planned a short stop “off the road” to take care of some unfinished business for a few days…it took longer!

We had planned to visit friends and family but forgot to consider that when you have more free time…it doesn’t always coincide with those who have less…it got complicated!

We  thought we avoided the heat and humidity of the southeast…when we returned it was hot as hell!

We headed toward the east coast of North Carolina…a hurricane came!

We were going to the mountains…we ended up in Florida!…there are no mountains in Florida!

We planned to head northeast…we ended up going south!

We planned to camp and hike in the Pisgah National forest…the hurricane…again (closed campgrounds and hiking trails)!

And finally as we headed in the “right direction” toward  the “right place” driving along pleased with how we had out smarted another storm, we discovered that the storm had already passed!..Somehow in our enlightened road wisdom we apparently had no idea what freaking day it was!!!

One of the things you can always predict in traveling is that the unpredictable will most certainly always have a role to play. 

And so when the phrase “It is what it is” seems at times like nothing more than a dismissive expression too often used to avoid or ignore and too closely related to apathy or simple laziness…we have come to recognize that in travel- it can be a well deserved description and even a “starting point” as to how to begin to deal with an unexpected situation.  It can be a sort of acceptance. Rather than being overwhelmed by frustration or drowning in disappointment, we can perhaps push ourselves to pursue a new course.  Wasting time obsessing over how our time traveling has been unexpectedly altered and our path unpredictably changed is some times a bigger waste of time than the detours, obstacles, impediments, interruptions, and setbacks.

Unpredictability has been that aspect of travel reminding us that travel is not about timetables, schedules, reservations, or itineraries, BUT more about how travel and traveling is a great teacher of how to live in the moment.

For every unexpected turn in the road we have encountered that could be seen as a setback, there have been opportunities created as well.  An unexpected stop introduces us to someone who recommends a memorable place that we otherwise would not have known about. Delays have given us the opportunity to spend more time with family and friends or introduce us to new friends. A flat tire or mechanical issue reminds us of the kindness of strangers. Detours make us slow down, observe more, and take a path less traveled.  And lest we forget…this entire journey of ours grew out of an unexpected change in plans!  We originally planned to attempt a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail this year, but after a formidable back-country hike in Colorado last year that shall I say, kicked our butt! …we decided a year on the road traveling and hiking might help us prepare more for that adventure further down the road. Perhaps, most importantly, these situations remind us to be patient, and encourage us to intentionally alter our path from time to time to experience something new. 

So in many respects, travel is as much about time as it is about place.  It is after all about how one spends their time.  If the expression “the journey is the destination” is to have any genuine meaning then it seems only prudent to understand it’s connection to time. We are learning in our travel that it has much less to do with how time passes and more to do with how we pass through time. This is how our travel turns us into time travelers!

“To finish the moment, to find the journey's end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson


Jim & Anne

We're on a Road to Somewhere

Dirty dusty if it is dry, and messy muddy if wet, the road to McCarthy is hard. It is 60 miles of rocks, gravel, dirt, broken pavement, pot holes, landslides, frost heaves, and the occasional railroad spike. The repetitive washboard ridges in the road left by the tracks of the bulldozers and road graders are the worse. They create a chattering  that builds and builds. But rather than reaching a spine jarring crescendo (like the myriad of potholes you dodge and weave to avoid, but sooner or later hit), they just continue in a seemingly endless teeth chattering, jackhammer shake that won’t stop…until it’s ready!…and it is always too long! 

After 3 hours of traversing mountain passes, crossing over streams, and rivers, circumnavigating lakes, and wetlands, and passing through meadows with most of the journey enveloped in a maze of boreal forest, you reach the end of the road.  Here you will find a small host of cabin rentals, and primitive campgrounds where you can set up camp before crossing the bridge over the Kennicott river and walking the last half mile into the town of McCarthy.  Another  4 1/2 miles further will bring you to the abandoned mining town of Kennicott.  These unique places lie just below the Kennicott and Root Glaciers and are surrounded by the Wrangell mountains…a mountain range that holds some of the highest peaks in North America.  McCarthy lies on the edge of…while Kennicott is within the borders of and is managed by… the Wrangle-St. Elias National Park.  This lesser known park is actually the largest National Park in the United States encompassing over 20,000 square miles!  Of course there is an easier way!… you can opt to fly into McCarthy on a chartered bush pilot flight and have you and your luggage ferried by van shuttle to a small hotel in McCarthy or to a lodge in Kennicott…but where’s the fun and adventure in that?!  

While it has grown in tourist popularity, McCarthy remains small and relatively unchanged. Perhaps because it is so remote. Boasting a couple of restaurants, a handful of other shops, and adventure sports guides, its population of about 80 in the summer shrinks to less than 30 the remainder of the year with temperatures occasionally reaching lower than 30 below zero! By Alaska’s standards perhaps McCarthy isn’t that remote!…after all there is a road to it!

 But Alaska is a state that is mostly inaccessible except by bush plane or boat and only has a dozen “highways”!  It is ridiculously big!   As Mark Adams describes in his book Tip of the Iceberg - “Alaska is essentially a small continent: big enough to hold Texas, California, and Montana (the second- third- and fourth largest states) and still have room left over for New England, Hawaii, and a couple of metropolises.  It contains seven mountain ranges and ten peaks taller than any in the Lower 48.  Its waterfront accounts for half of all the coast in the United States. Louisiana has four times as many miles of paved roads.”  Alaska is crazy!  

So then, what is the point in traveling over 8,000 miles to end up sitting at an old abandoned copper mine on the edge of a glacier’s terminus with a special gifted bottle of wine, a loaf of bread, some cheese, and some dark chocolate, and to stare out at the permafrost, wild flowers, the glacial fed river, and the snow capped mountains?

Because it is sublime.  Because it is still a place that holds some purity. Because if not completely uncorrupted it is at least less corrupted. Because it troubles me that as William Cronon said in his essay The Trouble with Wilderness, we find ourselves in the position that “we have little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like”. Because it was real.  And because the journey had meaning….it required effort to come to this place. 

We are learning that while it is increasingly difficult to find places that create an awe because of their wild not their wilderness,  that they exist. To experience them is attainable, but it requires effort. It is sitting quietly in the sublime that one begins to see the depth of what we are overlooking out of our simple lack of effort.

In Thoreau’s essay Walking, he forewarned much of where we are in our relationship with nature and our access to it. Thoreau said “Possibly the day will come, when land will be partitioned off…in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive leisure only.  When fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road…Let us improve our opportunities, then, before the evil days come.”

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THE TURNAGAIN ARM

“We desire not merely to know the sorts of things that are revealed in scientific papers but to know what is beautiful and edifying in a faraway place….

The land retains an identity of its own, still deeper and more subtle than we can know.  Our obligation toward it then becomes simple: to approach it with an uncalculating mind, with an attitude of regard.”

~Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

 

Today the clouds and the rain have created a filtered light that moves the rich summer greens here to become intensely deep… lush, opulent, succulent greens that look as if the source of the color is not the cones in our eyes reflecting waves of white light but rather the hues  revealing themselves as separate living things inside the plants.

We are camped at the edge of an expanse of grasses in Hope, Alaska on the Turnagain Arm - a large inlet of the Gulf of Alaska in the north of the Kenai peninsula.  If we are fortunate, we may have the opportunity to witness a tidal bore…the rushing of a true tidal wave as it pushes opposite against the flow of a river emptying into the sea. This is one of the few places in the world where this phenomenon occurs.  Our desire to witness this unique, natural event pales in comparison to the level of anticipation and drinking at the nearby SeaView bar by locals and the countless fisherman anxiously waiting for the rush of the salmon-run up the nearby Resurrection Creek…which we are told, could happen any day now! 

 

The image of the mountain in the golden hour light of an afternoon is awe inspiring, but it rarely captures the sense of presence the mountain imbues you with when breathing in its humbling sense of scale and listening to its song. 

While a photograph perhaps can capture a moment, inspire awe, motivate, evoke, inform, and enlighten… striking images of exquisite panoramas are a plagiarized perspective of travel….they borrow the beauty, steal the setting, and pirate the place, but they cannot take the place of the experience. They cannot capture what Barry Lopez (Arctic Dreams) refers  to as the invisible landscape - the stories, the myths, the people, the vision…that make up the real landscape…the cultural landscape.

We have been traveling for over a month and have driven over eight thousand miles.  There is a distinct difference between those two facets.  The eight thousand miles driving is often on some level simply a meditative way of moving from place to place. It is filled with anticipation, surprising turns, long conversations, silly songs, quiet reflection, occasional frustrations and more scenery than we can begin to explain!  The travel is the countless stories that unfold as we move or depending on perspective - a story.  It is the experiences, serendipitous encounters, revealing of nature, and the overwhelming sense of humility that begins to seep its way into all the cracks often created in all of us over the years by expectations of what we think we are supposed to think, do, and be.  Travel is our new school and our new studio. We are just getting started.  We sincerely appreciate the well wishes while we are on our “trip”… and we are grateful for the hopes and prayers that our journey will return us “home” safely…but… this is not just a trip, and we are home!

~ Jim and Anne