As the last of the blazing purple streams of fireweed lining Alaska’s Denali National Park turn to cotton, the first white powder falls on each surrounding mountain peak. Seasonal employees here refer to the snow as “termination dust,” referring to the end of summer jobs as the tourists that fuel the economy here for four months every year are already starting to thin in their crowds.
The raspberries and blueberries are dripping from the hillsides and, for the first time in months, the inky blackness of true night has returned, along with the long lost familiar face of the moon. It’s mid-August, and my boyfriend and I are nearing the end of our first season working in Alaska.
To describe a summer as “intense” seems a bit pedantic, especially for a 33-year-old journalism major. But the highs this summer were rollercoaster high, and at least one low was pretty staggering. Dave and I moved here from our home on the beautiful Garden Island of Kaua’i, fueled by the energy that inspires most of our life decisions: one part whim, one part boredom, and two parts adventure. We sold (or gave away) almost all of our belongings for the third or fourth time in our almost seven year relationship and downsized to backpacks once again before flying into Alaska in early May with borrowed down jackets and stocking up on more “real world” clothing at a second hand store in Homer. We’d been in the Hawaiian islands so long we owned little clothing other than bikinis, board shorts, and flip flops.
My first impression of Alaska was simple: no place could look more different from Hawaii and still be part of the same planet. Alaska was striking starkness where Hawaii was swaying softness; Alaska’s knife-edged granite peaks were the antithesis of the undulating green lushness of Hawaii’s slopes; Alaska’s slate-gray coastline along the Seward Highway met the road’s edge like an icy mirror, shockingly beautiful yet austere, while the turquoise waters of the Nepali coast of Kaua’i beckoned so enticingly against the volcanic sea cliffs they surround. These were two of the loveliest places on the planet, and they reminded me nothing whatsoever of one another. It made me wonder, and not for the first time, what the Hawaii-Alaska connection really encompasses — is it merely a concentrated longing for far-flung locales, or is there a particular type of human drawn to these two places, so arresting in their dichotomy?
We rented a car in Anchorage and took a ten-day road trip around a small portion of the state, starting in Seward and working our way down to Homer. We stayed in a tiny cabin on Kachemak Bay on an organic farm owned by Mossy Kilcher, folk singer Jewel Kilcher’s aunt. We spent a few days in the ski resort town of Girdwood, which reminded me of a cross between Vail and Austria, before returning to Anchorage for a few nights. We would soon be picked up and shuttled to our new jobs and our new address at Milepost 229 of the Parks Highway, Denali National Park and Preserve. Even the postal address conjured an image of true wilderness, one of the harshest, vastest, and wildest ecosystems on the planet.
The environmentalist John Muir once said,“I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.” I think it is this train of thought that draws a lot of us to a place like Denali, a certain conceptualized longing for closeness to the pulse of the world.
Denali is filled with tourists in the summer season, and yet it is alluringly easy to slip into the woods, away from the crowds, and not see another human for hours. There is a 9.5 mile hike called the Triple Lakes Trail a couple of miles from where we live on the Parks Highway. I have completed this hike over twenty times this summer, and I often traverse about eight miles of the trail without running into another hiker. My favorite hike on Kaua’i to Hanakapiai Falls, in contrast, would literally have hiking traffic jams.
I’ve come to savor how tiny Alaska makes me feel, how insignificant and yet how integral a part of the universe’s folds. I nearly ran into a grazing moose on this same trail just this afternoon whilst I was distracted looking in the bushes for raspberries. She seemed a little spooked as she flattened her ears and snorted, so I backed off quickly and hid behind a tree. I eventually skirted far around her through the woods, then back onto the path once I was a safe distance ahead. There is something about this kind of encounter, humorous or not, that truly makes me feel more alive, closer still to that throbbing pulse of the world.
Almost exactly one month after arriving in Alaska, Dave and I took a road trip 92 miles into the park to our company’s sister lodge in Kantishna, the Denali Backcountry Lodge. Along with a group of our new friends, we rode bikes five miles out to Wonder Lake. On the return trip I was going fast downhill while riding a bike with sensitive disc brakes. I got nervous about how quickly I was speeding downhill, overcompensated, and went flying over the handlebars. I remember very little for the next six or seven days, but I ended up with a hemorrhaging fracture in my skull, a broken right collarbone, and a broken rib. I was airlifted from Kantishna to Fairbanks, and then from Fairbanks to Anchorage when they realized the extent of my head injury.
As I recovered, I considered my options carefully. Despite the painful and depressing severity of my condition, I decided to stay in Alaska and get back to work when my body allowed it. As a sort of fitness fanatic, it was difficult for me to stay in bed all day — as soon as I was well enough to walk, I was back on the trails with my sling holding my collarbone in place. Hiking the Triple Lakes Trail — and reading a book a day — are what kept me sane during my recovery.
We’re in the home stretch of the summer now. One month from today will be our last day of work, and I’ve spent a lot of time this week booking flights for the winter of travel we have ahead. Anchorage to Juneau, Juneau to Seattle, Seattle to Portland by bus, Portland to San Francisco, San Francisco to Boston, road trip to New York, New York to Honolulu, Honolulu to Cairns, Australia where we will pick up our RV rental and begin our travels through the South Pacific. I consider this summer in Alaska the first leg of our big trip, a four-month working holiday.
The worst day of my summer was, rather obviously, that day I cracked my skull open in Kantishna — followed closely by the day I received the $50,000 bill for it, a month later. The best day? Dave surprised me on my birthday at the end of July with a helicopter ride to a glacier landing. We saw shades of blue I didn’t know existed in nature. It was some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever experienced.
Traveling is an incredibly subjective pursuit. My favorite places in the world are the ones for which I find myself physically longing—their smells, their tastes, their colors, their essence. I associate the years I spent in living in the Greek islands with an image of octopi drying on a line against a sky so blue it hurts to look at, and the aquamarine Aegean Sea, the taste of grilled feta, the sound of worry beads clicking. Hawaii is often olfactory to me; I can’t daydream of the islands without smelling that nowhere-else-in-the-world-can-compare combination of plumeria, orange blossom, and jasmine wafting in on a gentle, warm sea breeze. Even if I never return to Alaska, I will recall its essence as the taste of sun-ripened raspberries, the purple of the fireweed that colors the tundra, the foreignness of the endless daylight of July nights, the awe-inspiring landscapes of mountain and water when seen from above.
When people find out I moved from Hawaii to Alaska they are often surprised, and yet I’ve met quite a few others who love both places and have lived or spent a significant amount of time in each. I tend to think it has something to do with getting closer to nature, something to do with getting really far from everywhere else, and climbing into one of the most inaccessible, remote, and rewarding niches of the universe.
Spending a winter in Kaua’i, followed by a summer in Alaska, has been a study in contrasts. It reminds me of another quote by another great wordsmith, Thoreau, which hung on the wall of the bathroom in the house in which I spent my childhood:
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured and far away.”
These simple words of have comforted me my entire life. The music I hear is the pulse of the world, and in these distant, magical, raw, exhilarating places, it beats loudly enough that I can hear it thrumming in my own insignificant veins.
Julia Reynolds is a writer and bartender living on the North Shore of Kaua’i. When she’s not making mai tais she enjoys searching for empty beaches, hiking, and diving. She never gets “island fever” and feels happiest when surrounded by the ocean.