[dropcap size=small]M[/dropcap]y smile spreads. I pause to laugh before chewing the slightly soggy, roadside graham cracker. The gravel grit of the road mixes with the cracker and I am reminded of the sprawling scene behind me. The Toklat River’s braided ribbons underline the mountains, still nameless. Francesca continues reading in her contrived Irish accent; she enunciates “’Arry Pott’r” with a grin, and prompts the giggles of my friends around me. We are sprawled out along the lifeline of Denali National Park, the single road that delves into its center. My shirt is stained with sweat from the day’s hike, and dirt from the past month of trail construction. Francesca’s narration continues but my mind floats from the story. My memory traces our trail. My steps crunch through the first stretch of gravel before I gain traction in the spongy tundra dirt. My eyes graze the green gleam of the fern meadow as the sun filters through the Aspens overhead. I imagine my heartbeat matching my labored breath as I reach the new switchbacks I carved with my own hands. I know each curve, and how to place my feet, bracing myself on the berm before scurrying past the boggy sections.
A breeze pushes across the road as a Park bus passes, and I am struck by the distance we have covered in a month. We hiked the five mile trail daily, but what I’ve gained is not measured by mileage.Robert Service’s words echo: “Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it was and somehow the gold isn’t all.” I have repeated those words again and again, a meditative memorization. Here at the close of our final backpacking trip, with graham cracker dust clinging to my sunburnt lips, Service’s meaning finally resounds. As the moments begin their glistening transition to memories, I realize that life is not about the soccer championships, the acceptance letters, or even the pride of building an entire mile of new trail. Instead, it is the life I find along the unpaved road. The life Service writes about is the life I have found in waking up in a tent warmed by the Alaskan sun, choosing between only two pairs of pants, and forging relationships through outdoor communion.
I return to yesterday’s scene on the east side of the Toklat River. My crew stripped off our socks, linked our selves into a human train, and plunged into the chest-deep, shocking, glacial waters. Muttered curses escaped as we braved the icy waters. In a sort of protection mechanism of memory, my mind has already forgotten the excruciating feeling. The pride of accomplishment was eclipsed by my friends’ chorus of euphoric yawps as we planted our soles on the far bank. While we met our goal, it is the process, the warmth of Francesca’s shoulder as I followed her across, that remains at the forefront of my mind.
I sit dirty and disheveled, but stripped of all the glittering excess of life back home in Raleigh. The tempting, achievement-oriented gold rushes of my life cannot reach me here. Weathered by the persistent Alaskan rain and the challenge of physical labor, our crew has become family. We have found life in each other through rejoicing in the wilds of adventure, resting in the comfort of cooking together and depending on each other when we are not strong enough ourselves.Service’s final lines arrive, a crescendo of my thoughts. “Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting, so much as just finding the gold.” Somehow it isn’t yesterday’s accomplishments of crossing a glacier-fed river or even summiting Divide Mountain. It is the process of finding the gold–and reveling in how eight individuals with different origins create a home out of doors.
I seal my reflection and allow myself to reenter the building action of Harry Potter. Francesca has handed the book to Ben and he stumbles valiantly through an attempted Scottish rendition. I reach for another graham cracker, turn to feel the sun’s embrace, and chew on my newfound gold.
Sarah, a sophomore at Wake Forest University, thirsts for Emerson’s “wild air” of life in the backcountry of Alaska, the vegetable patches of western NC, and the magic of storytelling. When she isn’t bread-baking (and occasionally forgetting the salt), she works as a trip leader for Wake Forest’s outdoor program and plans to take the fall semester off from her anthropology studies to work on a sheep ranch down in Argentine Patagonia.