I spent 40 days in the Alaskan wilderness. It’s the sort of statement that makes people do a double take and then step back, give you a once over and ask “You DID!?” It’s hard to imagine that I once hiked through Denali National Park with a backpack the size of another person strapped to my back and to-do lists that included stringing my food up in trees so as not to attract black bears. I was a teenager at the time and it was a group trip with about 12 other travelers from around the country who came together to spend a summer hiking, kayaking and living off the land. How very Henry David Thoreau of us. Our trip was divided into three parts: hiking through Denali National Park, ice climbing and hiking on a glacial highway and then sea kayaking in Prince William Sound. It would be 40 days in total spent in the wilderness with only occasional stops into town to pick up supplies, mail and bathe.
Recently, I watched the film Wild based off the novel by Cheryl Strayed and it brought back all the memories of my Alaskan adventure. I could relate all too well to Cheryl’s aches and pains of hiking with a monster-sized backpack, the sheer exhaustion and bliss you feel when you finally finish your 15 hour hiking day to set up camp. Long days spent simply walking as you struggle with inner demons, confront parts of your personality you may have otherwise avoided and issues you may have held at arms length.
I remember the little things about that trip the most–waking up to the morning condensation on the nylon of my tent, the inflating and deflating of my crimson air mattress and the snugness of my purple-blue sleeping bag. I remember writing in my “Oh, the Places you will Go” journal and feeling homesick and out of my element at times and inspired and grateful at others. I remember the early mornings spent breaking down camp, how there would be a race between the “girls tent” and “boys tent” to finish first or have their tent collapsed on them.
I remember the subtle taste of iodine pills in my water, how we would fill our water bottles with creek water and then eagerly wait the 30 or so minutes it took for the iodine pills to make it safe to drink. I can still taste the camp cooked meals made on burner stoves and how every dish seemed to include couscous; how even to this day I cannot stomach couscous (or chewy bars for that matter) because I had met my lifetime quota of both that summer. Much like Wild, I remember the thrill of reaching a town and the indulgence of taking a shower after 13 days in the woods. I have a vivid memory of staring in a mirror at a laundromat’s restroom in a no name town with little more than a gas station, convenience store and dirt road. Our roughed up looking group wandered into the local laundromat as though we had pulled up to a 4-star hotel–all of us eager to pay to use the shower facitilies. In the restroom, I stared at my reflection for the first time in a while and couldn’t believe how tan I had gotten. One blissful shower later, I watched as my “tan” washed away leaving my skin about 2 shades lighter than it had been!
I remember the 4th of July that summer being spent on a little strip of land in the middle of a river; how one of our own had dramtically fallen and twisted her ankle during a hike and how we had to wait two days for someone to reach us by horseback in order to evacuate her out of the woods. Then there were the blissful days where we’d swap hiking boots for flip flops and spend the day at camp, waking up late to make pancakes, playing in the open fields and not even attempting to touch our backpacks. Those few “off days” were my favorite and although they consisted of nothing more than simple pleasures of sleeping in and eating a hearty breakfast, they felt indulgent.
Finally, I remember the 12 of us at the Anchorage airport about to jet off in different directions as our 40 day trip drew to a close. We had a group song and dance that by now has become blurry with time but I can still see us singing and galloping in a circle as we sang our last song together; uncaring of the onlookers in the airport. Thanks to the wilderness and the obstacles and triumphs we faced, we had become a family of sorts and although we’d fall out of touch and life would inevitably pull us in different directions, we’d always have the memories of Alaska. Looking back now, 13 years later, perhaps Alaska is where my love of travel started. It is the first trip that I remember taking and finding true perspective and self-awareness, the first trip that would lift me out of the drama and trivialities back home and help me re-focus my life onto what’s important. Years later, I would travel alone to Argentina to ask myself some hard questions, would fly to Colombia in search of perspective, would travel to Morocco to step outside my comfort zone and perhaps that desire to find myself in the world started back then with nothing more than a pair of hiking boots and the Alaskan trail.
What trip holds a lot of meaning for you? Share your comments, stories and feedback below!