In 1998, my good friend O and I went on a 10-day adventure to Alaska. We'd planned and purchased and organized and we'd traveled together before, and we thought we had the whole thing down to a science. But we hadn't counted on Alaska. We hadn't counted on a land so big that it threw off our very ability to judge how small we were in the world. On our first day, our shuttle driver pointed across a bit of water and asked, "How far do you think it is across?" We consulted and decided it was about three miles. He laughed and said, "No, twenty." You're smaller than that, little girl.
After a typhoon in the Pacific trapped us on an Alaskan beach in frightening winds, we made our way to Anchorage and decided we'd take on Denali National Park, something we hadn't planned before. We rented a car, drove in, and patted ourselves on the backs for being so flexible, so able to change with the weather. We arrived at the welcome center to get our backpacking permits. And were asked to take a test on how to deal with bears. Then we were pointed to an enormous topographical map and told to pick our section of the park. "Can you give us any suggestions?" we asked. No, we were told. No, for liability's sake, they don't make suggestions to backpackers in Denali.
By the time we'd gotten our permits and gotten on the bus, we were a bit nervous. But nevermind. We were in Alaska! We were adventurous! We were free!
Or something. The bus driver couldn't tell us where to get off (liability again), so we guessed by map as best we could, and he dropped us by the side of the road and zoomed off into the distance. And there we were. We had hours and hours to just explore. The only rule was that we could not make camp within a mile of the road. No problem! We were experienced backpackers! Alaska would finally, finally be ours.
Denali is a trail-less park. There are no signs or footpaths. There are bear and moose and any number of wild things, not least the humans who try to conquer it with tents from REI and ramen noodles. But there's nothing to tell you where to go. When you spend a lot of time hiking and camping, this seems beyond ideal. It's as if you're the first ones to ever travel there. (Except, of course, those nice people who built the roads and made the maps and such. But mostly the first ones ever.) So O and I put our heads together and decide on a route and off we go.
But we're smaller than that, even. We're so small you can't possibly imagine. It turns out that you can't just go off because, well, there's things growing
there. It turns out you have to bushwhack. Seriously. The stuff that looked like scrub from above on the road is as high as our heads. It's thick. It's in our way. It's really not fun at all. Nature is inconvenient.
We figure out, quickly, that the yellow stuff is impossibly tall. It takes forever to get through. But the red is a little smaller and we can see over it and so if we try to look for the next red bush (no idea, still, what the red stuff is. Or the yellow.) then we only have to whack the bush half as hard. And so hours upon hours we whack. We've learned, during our testing on bear safety, to talk constantly in order to warn them of our approach. But bushwhacking actually requires some concentration and so we're not really immersed in conversation. Instead we're singing back and forth, "Hello, BEAR! Just passing through, BEAR! We won't hurt you, BEAR!" It's all a sort of Alaskan whistling in the dark.
Finally, hours and hours and hours later, easily six hours of exhausting bushwhacking later, we come to a spot on a side of a hill that looks like it will make for a perfect camp spot. We set up tent. We smile at each other. We feel small in the Alaskan wilderness, but we feel real and good. And we pull out the map in order to see if we can calculate just how far we've come. And collapse in giggles. It's maybe two miles. Maybe two. We've worked so hard. It's been all day. We're so pleased with ourselves. And we've only come two miles. Alaska has a sense of humor, as well.
The day was not without rewards. It's so beautiful there that it exposes all of my shortcomings as a writer. I can't tell you what it looks like. I can tell you that at one point during the day I was up to my eyebrows in a stunning autumn yellow, yellow branches the only thing I could see, sweat in my eyes and crisp air in my lungs, when the branches moved and I was face to face with a baby moose, not at all surprised to see me there, watching my quizzically, as if it was waiting for me to say something. It chewed its lunch and I backed away, worried his mama might show up, yellow swallowing him and me both.
But my god. I was so tired. I was tired in exactly the way I'm tired right now. I'm drafting my first chapter, see. I'm trying to get from point A to point B, write my way through the first 50 pages, arrive at the other end and make camp and claim territory and feel pleased with myself. But I have to bushwhack to get where I need to be, and I'm hacking at sentences, stomping on commas, pushing my way, clumsy and frustrated, through paragraphs. I've got all this lovely research all around me, towering like mountains, and it wants to be seen in the best possible light. But I spend all day, all day long, and all I get to show for it is the tiniest progress, the smallest distances, the least possible ground covered. Every once in a while there is a moose. But mostly, I'm sweating and standing on tippy toes to peer over the yellow grass and wave at you all.