Was it climbing up Flattop Mountain in Alaska, what was supposed to have been our mountain to climb, that sent me over the edge? Was it leaving his ashes in a crevice at the top, as I turned around and around staring at the ocean, the valleys below? Was it too little sleep, too much expansion, too much disorientation in a land where the sun doesn’t set until midnight?
Alaska is not a place for the faint of heart, nor of body, but years ago I fell in love with the idea of it. It was a trip that was supposed to have been taken with my husband, but that was not to be. Instead I took this trip with my brave beautiful daughter by my side.
People have asked how was it, what did we do? So hard to explain. It was not the trip I had once imagined, but it was its own special kind of journey.
I went with no expectations and with a surprising amount of trust that all would be well. Somehow things fell amazingly into place. We found a lovely BnB with kitchen and two bedrooms, giving us room to be together and have space apart. My daughter’s friend loaned us his truck and his mountain bikes.
Oh, and he had a plane, a little itty-bitty prop engine plane.
Each one of us has our own limits, our own boundaries. Thanks to my daughter, I nudged and pushed mine surprisingly far, and there were truly some heart pounding moments. Though I am not terrified of heights, I am not all that comfortable either. But when her friend offered to take us flying in his little plane, I crazily agreed. This was probably a once in a lifetime experience.
I think I was numb when we took off. We lifted, almost miraculously, into the sky, heading off to the snow-covered mountains beyond, circling and flying ever higher. He was quite brilliant at calming my fears, reminding me of his years of experience. Explaining that we were simply riding the currents when the plane bumped and dipped along; he had it all under control.
Eventually, I eased my death grip and was able to sit back in the seat and appreciate a view I would never have seen otherwise. At one point, we dropped down to glide over a glacier, a river bed, and homes snuggled in green valleys of glaciers long gone. I breathed once or twice.
Safely back on the ground I wondered why I took this flight? Was it something I needed to prove to myself, my daughter? My husband? Was this my way of reminding myself I was alive, with a life of surprises and experiences yet to come? Somehow wanting to convince myself that if I could do this, I could do anything? I could survive anything?
The highlight of the visit was the boat trip, a six-hour ride into Kenai Fjords National Park. On a catamaran managed by Major Marine, we rode out into open waters, invigorated by the chill wind and that cleansing sea air. We stared in awe as we glided past weathered mountains, thin spires of stone hosting trees and puffins, and the great Holgate tidal glacier that cracked and thundered with the constant movement of ice heading towards the water.
And then there were the whales.
The captain had made no promises as to what we might encounter, but even he was surprised at what we found. On the final leg back, we spotted six whales gathered in a sheltered cove, their plumes spouting as they came up for air. Like a dance in slow motion, they’d each come up, their dorsal fins gliding over the water, arcing, and then with one final flaunt, they’d slide into the depths with a glorious showing of their tails.
For a few minutes there was nothing. The boat had stopped as we watched the waters calm and the gulls settle. Waiting.
Then all at once, they rose up together. Six enormous humpback whales rose up out of the waters, their huge mouths open to feed. They call it bubble feeding. Under the water the whales circle a school of fish, herding them into the center and then rise up to catch them in the huge nets of their mouths. Our breaths caught at the wonder of it, this great show we had been most blessed to view.
And then there were the mountains, with bike trails and beautiful hikes. We went to Eklutna to ride around a mirror lake. We traveled to Alyeska to walk in a rainforest and pull ourselves across a thundering gorge in a hand tram. I was as much enraptured by the wondrous delicacy of the fine ferns and flowers as I was by the majesty of the mountains.
The final day was the hike up to Flattop Mountain. Like its name suggests, it was a mountain with a flat top, and from there you could take in a 360 degree view of Anchorage, the ocean and mountains beyond, and the surrounding valleys.
This was when it hit me the hardest. This was the trip we were supposed to have taken together. This was a mountain we should have climbed together. We should have sat in wonder at the peak, taken a photo by the flag, and snacked on apples and peanuts, to gather our strength and begin the trek back down.
Instead, I made this climb alone. Though my daughter was with me, she is much more physically active and I encouraged her to travel at her own pace. In a blink she was up and away moving like a gazelle up the trail, every now and then pausing to make sure I was still behind her.
So there I walked, one step at a time, trudging along at my own page. Stopping to take a drink of water, catch my breath, appreciate the view. At times, I’d pause to stroke the moss, sniff the wildflowers, inhale the bitingly cool air. Looking up I could see what still awaited me; looking down I could see what I had somehow accomplished.
At last, I reached the top (daughter was already heading down). I had made it. The wind was stronger there, and I hunkered down near a cluster of boulders to eat my apple. And then it hit, like the sucker punch it still is, that I was here, on this mountain top without him.
I thought of the whales then, of their songs, so beautiful and mournful, that travel for miles and miles across open seas to be heard by others in their family. Made me wonder if my husband could hear my ‘wail’ songs.
Did he hear me where he was, across the unknown distance between us – maybe vast, maybe a just a touch away? Did he hear me when I wailed for him, called for him, longed for him? And if so, did he also hear me when I sighed in contentment, or gasped in wonder… or laughed in joy?
I don’t know. I’d like to think so. I’d like to believe that he is always there, a whisper of comfort and support. That he is cheering me on, step by step, celebrating this undertaking, this life I am coming back to.
But I also hear my daughter’s voice, her, right-here, in my ears, voice. I feel her kindness and support and love, cheering me on to the top of the mountain, to the end of the trail. She inspires me to act more bravely, to be in my body more, to challenge my physical self to a greater degree. Though now she better understands my need to stop and listen and absorb. This trip has brought us closer as we’ve come to understand and appreciate each other’s unique selves in a new way.
People ask me how it was, this trip to Alaska.
Wonder. Awe. Disbelief. Glory. Magic. Gratitude. Intense. Transformation. Timeless.
It is a place of magic, beauty, expansiveness. Indescribable mountains, oceans, lakes, valleys, wildlife. Time takes on a different meaning there. It is a place that requires great fortitude.
I am glad to be home, my home, with its warm sun, wide beaches, sage filled mountains, heart pounding waters. There is time now to catch my breath. To integrate, absorb, take in, what was experienced there. Hold it in my heart, my body, my soul. Let it transform me.
I can do this I am learning. Hard though it is, I will survive. I will thrive.