Dispatches from the Far North: Part I
Updated: Sep 26, 2021
It didn't seem real. My dad and I were going to Alaska. It hadn't seemed remotely real when we took advantage of low airfares back in May, and it still doesn't seem real as we sit at Gate 8 of the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport on the morning of September 14, 2021.
This trip was to start differently from others, however, and not in a good way. My usual childlike excitement at traveling was tempered by a new, much less welcome emotion: guilt. The issue was that my family and I were about to move into a new house, less than two weeks after returning from Alaska. When I was reminded of how much work remained before the move, thoughts of "should I really be doing this trip right now?" not only crossed my mind, but unpacked their suitcases and sojourned there.
As we left for the airport, I confessed to dad that I'm not in a great place mentally right now due to the cognitive dissonance of the excitement and guilt becoming neighbors. I kept mulling it all over during the first flight, and during our brutal 7-hour layover in Chicago. Originally I had wanted to leave O'Hare and explore, but given the amount of work and stress for what would really amount to about 3 hours in the city, we both shrugged and said we'd deal with terminal boredom.
When it was finally time to board flight #2, the excitement was welling up a bit and giving the unease a run for its money. The second leg would take 6 hours (2,846 miles to be exact), about the same as flying from New Hampshire to Ireland (a hypothetical flight from Manchester to Dublin would be 2,986 miles, if you were wondering).
I contemplatively gaze out the tiny plastic window at Milwaukee, then the lakes of northern Minnesota and expanses of nothingness over the Canadian prairie. The same word kept coming to me: timing. Timing is so important in life, and while I am constantly in awe of how blessed I am - good health, a loving family, solid job, etc. - I've also had so many instances of painfully poor timing. I'm guessing many can relate.
The existence of Alaska as a U.S. State might be seen as such an example, as there was significant opposition to its 1867 purchase. Surely you've heard of "Seward's Folly", a term uttered by those who thought it best to leave the giant, icy landmass alone. But then Alaska's fortunes turned golden about three decades later, and it very gradually became clear that this land was one of vast natural resources, to say nothing of the tourism potential that came later.
Sometimes it takes far longer than expected to get where you want to be. When you get there, you wonder if perhaps you shouldn't have even left in the first place. The remorse of leaving my beloved wife and daughter at home for a trip that was in no way necessary kept haunting me. I then had the thought that maybe in my "middle years" it's time to finally settle down and put travel (at least temporarily) on a back burner.
Having to choose one direction from two incredibly compelling options gnawed at me. Where do I want to be? Here, or at home with my family? As we whooshed over the great emptiness, it came to me. Tough as it is to admit, the answer is both. Two disparate directions, often at odds with each other, just like so many situations in a life I wish were simpler.
According to my handheld GPS we're approaching the exquisitely isolated British Columbia-Northwest Territories-Yukon border and I notice that the light of an extremely long day simply won't die. The horizon glows a gentle orange against the soft blue heavens for hours as we fly west at roughly the same rate of the earth's rotation.
Next year I turn 40 but I don't want to enter the second half of my life without a fight, just like the sunset's final brushstrokes that paint the horizon. Even now, as I wave a reluctant goodbye to my 30s, travel remains an incredible teacher. If you haven't noticed, I'm insatiably curious about the world's people and places. How can I give this up? I console myself with the thought that it would only be a break, not a permanent divorce from my second true calling in life (family being the first). Why can't I make a decision and be happy with it? Why is everything so complicated? Definitive answers remain as elusive as ever.
Finally, we arrive. The Airbus swoops beneath a cloudy cloak to reveal the most rugged-looking mountains I've ever seen, dramatically lit with the last efforts of the tireless sun. Daylight is just about gone, but boggy ovals reflect flashes of silver against the distant sierra. It's 9:15pm but our bodies think it's 4 hours later.
It's taken an entire day - I'd been awake for 21 hours - but we're in Alaska. Exhausted, we claim our bags and our Dodge Caravan. Interestingly enough, renting a van had been about half the price of a perfectly adequate Corolla or Camry when we booked back in May. We motored east and north to our downtown Anchorage hotel, the Captain Cook. Perhaps it was sleep deprivation, but we found it difficult to find the unlabeled entrance of the 17-story building. Evidently having the skills of the 18th-century explorer would have been helpful.
The trip had begun, but we wouldn't see the real Alaska until we woke up a few short hours later...