I'm just back from an 8-day trip to Alaska; weary, jetlagged and disintegrating with this ache to go back; not to mention insanely jealous of the people who are yet to experience it for the first time. Because Alaska, the Native "Aly-eska"..."the great land" is not only the Last Frontier as car license plates proclaim; it is a place where all things begin and end, and begin all over again in a timeless cycle. It is a place where the SCALE of things exceeds all imagination, uplifting and humbling us at the same time. Picture the biggest thing you have ever seen..waterfall, mountain, sea. Picture it 100 times bigger. Not enough. Now think about the oldest thing you have seen. The oldest thing I just saw? ICE. More ancient than Egyptian mummies, the Ramayana, that dinosaur skeleton in the Chicago museum. Ice...gleaming a hypnotic, unearthly blue from deep within a 600-foot glacier. A boatload of people riveted to the deck by its slow passage into the freezing ocean where its life began as water vapor, eons ago. Open mouths as the ranger explains its source...the Harding Icefield, tucked out of sight in the mountains, tantalizingly, an ancient blue mantle dating back to the last ice age.
Alaska at once makes you proud and frankly disgusted at being a member of the human race. Proud because never before was I struck full force with the odds our distant ancestors conquered to survive as a species. Disgusted, saddened, frightened, and outraged at the way our modern way of life is poised to destroy this world. Sure, the Natives hunted, fished, chopped trees, wore fur, took from Nature...but no more than what they NEEDED. And they found a use for everything. Seal bladder water carriers. Salmon skin rain gear. They considered themselves a part of the ecosystem, not something above and beyond. Circle of life.
Us? We guzzle gas, breeze through mountains of paper, don't care if that plastic bottle we just tossed into the garbage will stay forever in a landfill. Today's "its all about ME" culture fed by media, insipid reality shows, even the Internet..instant gratification in a bottle of pills.
And out there...all this timeless magnificence, all this generosity. The quintessential shiver of joy and purpose in Alaskan huskies...born to run, pulling a sled mile after treacherous mile through a minus-40 degree winter blizzard, narrow mountain trails, carrying vaccines to a remote town quarantined by diptheria. Not having the FAINTEST idea of their heroism, the lives they save, the sheer GOOD that they do. Here we have housewives washing their dirty linen on Youtube, scandal-seeking paparazzi, "super-sizing" nations accusing struggling populations of eating all the world's food, debates over a star's "wardrobe malfunction" outlasting even California wildfires. Pride in being half a pound lighter than friends, a fast car, designer handbag or shoes. We live our lives teetering on the knife edge of the hands of a clock, running harder, faster even to stay in the same spot.
But the wilderness carries life, death, courage, humor, freedom, LOVE in a beautiful, fluid cycle. The thrill in watching moose shield their young from predators, a mama grizzly bear grazing with her cubs on a hillside, one eye on the sheep...a red Arctic fox suddenly bursting into view out of the bushes, wolves crossing a braided river, a bird of prey scanning, in great arcs, the sweeping landscape of mountains and valleys. Unexpected echoes sound in some primordial, buried part of my core. Unearthing a deeper memory of once being part of this world, not a spectator. What is wrong with this picture? Why did we ever leave?