It’s like a dream.
It is a dream, actually. A dream realized. I’ve been dreaming of a day like this for a long time. Clear sky, calm winds, mild temperature, and that grand mountain. The bus pulls away and we are left standing on the gravel road, happy to walk from here.
The chances of a day like this are very much unfavorable. It’s often said that you have a one in three chance of seeing Denali at all on a given summer day. Seeing it completely unmasked by clouds is more like one in ten. Luck like this is disconcerting because it makes you wonder when the odds will turn against you. But that’s not what I’m thinking about now. All I’m thinking about is that mountain, this tundra, today.
Arctic ground squirrels pop up along the roadside, making sure we’re fully appreciating the grandeur of their home. Don’t worry, friends, I am sufficiently jealous. Wildflowers are in bloom, adding pinks and purples to the blue, green, brown, and white that comprise much of the day’s color palette. Golden crowned sparrows sing down near the springs, mixing their melodies with the rustle of the breeze through the ground cover.
Just before we left the bus behind, we spotted three brown bears foraging 150 yards south of the road, a sow and her second-year cubs. They are not visible from here, though. We occupy opposite sides of Thorofare Pass, each group able to carry on in peace without worry of contact with the other. Visibility is limited only by the peaks around us, movement is unimpaired by forest or river. We, the bears and the humans, have all the space we need. The century-old wisdom of those who first protected this land has endured and today we are reaping the benefits. I wish Muir could have come to Denali. If ever there was a place to “play in and pray in,” this is it.
I cannot stay on the road. Alone, I step out into the tundra. We’ll reconvene at the visitor center, but first I will wander.
Now the dream is truly fulfilled. No signs of human intervention are evident here. Were I to wake in this location without a clock, camera, phone, or other technology that binds me to the 21st century, there would be nothing to indicate when I was. Only where. No trails switchback up that ridge. No pipes run from this spring. No streets line the valley below. No motors fill the air with sound and fume. With every step I walk deeper in to wilderness, my feet and eyes drawn ever forward to Denali. Let me walk down the pass, over the river, beyond the foothills, to some nameless and humble peak nestled there at the base of the mountain. That’s all I want right now. To keep walking, wandering, wondering.
I understand that this desire that I and others have, this drive towards the wild, may seem counterintuitive to some. Our species has worked diligently to make things easier for ourselves, using our intellect to improve technologies for travel, medicine, productivity, nutrition, and all other aspects of our fragile lives. We have removed countless dangers and threats that were fatal to our ancestors. We have created new habitats for ourselves that sustain us in comfort. Who would want to leave that behind? Who would voluntarily seek out an escape from that?
I would. I must, because I am of the mind that we have lost touch with the nature that still provides for our every need, even if we don’t realize it. We have partitioned ourselves off from the creation that we are intrinsically part of, that we were born of, that we have foolishly supposed we could tame and conquer. I seek the wild because it can restore balance. It grounds me, clears my mind, renews my spirit. Any walk in nature has this restorative property, but the wilder the better.
So here I am, alone on the tundra. This day, this moment, will linger in my memory forever. I’ll linger in the present as long as I can, taking my time as I walk towards Denali.
Naturalist, Photographer, Cartographer