Over the past several months, I’ve been absent from this blog. I’ve been busy being buried by my latest adventure–perhaps the most challenging adventure to date: grad school. How hard can school be? you might ask. Well, let me tell you.

Try harnessing the attentions and energy of 23 freshman boys and girls. We’re talking 18 year olds that may have once been taught the correct subject-verb predicate, but most likely have not. They’re fresh into college, glossy with naivety at what it means to be in the ‘real world.’ The majority are from Wyoming, a state notorious for having some of the poorest support for grade-school English in the country. Have them read dense collegiate essays on surveillance, prescription drug abuse, advertising in schools and the demise of rural America. Challenge them to write coherent five-paragraph essays that draw from each of these texts and connect them together. Try not to crush dreams as you hand back the first essay–a stack of D’s. No, it’s not your job to crush, it’s to inspire. Right?

At least that’s what I thought when I arrived and started my Graduate Assistantship, which entails teaching a composition class to freshman, in addition to taking a full course load geared toward a MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing and Environment and Natural Resources.

It’s possible that over a semester of teaching, learning, writing, speaking, grasping, gasping, drowning, thriving, I have perhaps inspired one of those students. They sure have inspired me to think about my own writing, and to not take a creative mind for granted. To look past repetitive and poor sentence construction and see the potential underneath. To think about the multitude of experiences and moments of growth we all encounter on our paths to becoming who we are.

Lately, as I spend hours sitting in front of my beaming computer screen planning lessons, writing short-form nonfiction pieces, reading pages and pages (we’re talking 100s, maybe 1000s of pages) of literature on teaching pedagogies and conservation strategies, and reading pages and pages of freshman essays that sometimes make me want bang my head against a wall ad nauseam, I wonder if I should’ve just stuck with the ski bum life. I glorify days of waking at dawn and skinning to the top of a peak. Of thinking deeply about the contours of a mountainside, not the intricacies of a freshman composition essay.

But one thought dampens the allure of those memories: change is hard and growth hurts. But it’s the growing pains that make progress most rewarding. It’s the growing pains that make the achievements worth striving for, even if those achievements come at the cost of sacrificing the things we love the most.

The mountains can wait; the snow (hopefully) will keep falling. When moments allow, my skis will keep carving. But in the interim, the in between, I’ll teach these kids. I’ll hope to inspire. I’ll be inspired. I’ll write. I’ll read. I’ll dream.

Now, that doesn’t sound so bad.

When you have no job and 20 hours of sunlight a day, time ceases to exist in any way you’ve known before. Each long-lit day bleeds into the next like water-splattered ink drops, and often the events within a 24 hour period are enough to actually make up two days, or perhaps even three. Life takes on a dream-like quality–though that could be the lack of sleep–and it becomes normal to start an adventure at 10 pm, to finish an adventure at 1 or 2 am when the sky is just a darker shade of blue.

Such was the case when we visited the hamlet of McCarthy, a village of creatives and unconventional folks nestled at the foot of the Wrangell Mountains. According to the 2010 census, only 28 people live in McCarthy year round. That number swells in summer when tourists flock to McCarthy and its sister town, Kennecott, an old mining town that is a gateway to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. When we arrived in McCarthy days before the solstice, summer season was in full swing.

In order to get to town, we first drove 60 miles to the end of unpaved McCarthy Road, which has a reputation for blowing tires and busting wheel bearings. Once a mile from town, we parked in a designated lot and walked across a series of foot bridges to get to downtown: a handful of frontier-fashioned buildings planted along the dirt main street. All electricity in town is provided by one large generator and most buildings don’t have running water. Showers are an anomaly.

The Kennecott Mine

The Kennecott Mine

We were seeking a solstice celebration but first we had a date with the Root Glacier, a mile-wide, mild-sloped ice field that crawls out of Mt. Regal’s Stairway Icefall. We hit the trail out of Kennecott at 6 pm, strapped on cramp-ons at 7, wandered off route, lost our way among compression cracks and crevasses, and finally reached camp as sunlight was softening around 11:30 pm. We were greeted by bear scat and a pair of kissing porcupines. We posted up on a lush island between the Root and Kennicott Glaciers. For two days we lingered among the moraines, watched endless sunsets crown the ice waves gold.

The Root Glacier

The Root Glacier

When we returned to McCarthy on June 21, solstice eve, the entire place was buzzing. We stopped into The Potato, home to the only espresso machine in town. “Are you going to bluegrass?” Jeff, an acquaintance we’d made a few days earlier asked. “Of course!” We chorused. We stopped into the general store for AfterBite. “You gals heading to the bar tonight?” the friendly cashier inquired. We nodded enthusiastically. “You girls know about the bluegrass band tonight?” the parking attendent asked when we dropped our backpacks at the car. “There’s a tequila party too!”

The Golden Saloon is the social epicenter of McCarthy and Kennecott. Naturally, it’s the only bar within 60 miles. When we entered its double doors around 9:30 pm, we were hit with a blast of hot, humid air and big upright base notes. The bar was two bodies deep, dining room tables full, dance floor not yet hopping but would be soon. Where did all of these people come from?! I wondered. And they kept coming.

The night raged on, so did the light. People spilled out of the Saloon’s deck, beer cans, pints, martini glasses in hand. There are no cops in McCarthy, and no open container laws. I met a collection of fascinating people–a poet from Montana, hydro engineer from Anchorage, natural resource professor from Berkeley, a native cultures anthropologist, a pilot, a glacier guide from Minnesota, a 60 year old woman from Taos who was cycling solo around Alaska. The polished wooden dance floor pulsed with writhing bodies, stomping feet.

Around 1am I stumbled outside to check the light. It was dim like that you’d find in an early dusk. The monster moon glowed ivory, hovered above the historic building fronts. Sometime around 3am I swayed my way to the parking lot. I stopped on the footbridge, watched the waters of the Kennicott River snarl and curl under my feet, gazed out to the Root Glacier still illuminated in the now early morning light.

Tomorrow was already today, the transition from one day to the next seamless, almost as though there was no transition between them at all.

It's 3am, I think it's getting lighter...

It’s 3am, I think it’s getting lighter…

I’ve gotten a nickname since arriving in Alaska. I’m the Yes Girl. Want to skiff across the bay? Yes. Want to camp on the beach even though we might get swallowed by the tide? Yes. Want to go pick mussels at midnight? Yes. Want to ski a chute that requires hours of bushwacking and post holing to get to? Yes. Want to take a sea plane to a glacier, ski for three days and raft from the glacier to the ocean?

Um, are you kidding?!

The Wosnesenski Glacier is considered small among Alaskan glaciers, but when you’re talking about glaciers, size is negligible. A glacier is a glacier: a mass of grumbling ice surrounded by rocky peaks that breathes, expands, retracts and by way of melting provides the world with water its been storing for over 3000 years.

A glacier is a glacier and glaciers are captivating.

Alayne’s friend Kenton also has a nickname: the Wizard of Woz. He has spent a lifetime exploring the nooks, snowfields, serac colonies of the glacier. He arranged the float plane and he, Alayne and I landed at the mouth of the Woz late on a Wednesday evening. We cooked a feast of mussels we’d gathered the night before. We hid from hoards of mosquitoes that bit our faces, arms and legs, even through clothing. We slept excited, fitful sleeps.

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The amount of gear required for a summer glacier expedition is staggering: skis, boots, crampons, ice axes, ropes, tents, sleeping bags, food, more food, chocolate, clothes, and even a couple of mini skirts. Braced against our overloaded packs, we picked our way up the moraine, a wide fan of lumpy cracks and fissures where glacial ice meets land. We playfully nicknamed our crampons snow leopard claws. Ice turned to snow, we traded claws for skis, skinned up a wide snowfield, admired seracs along the way. We set camp in a rock nook at 3,300 feet and hid from the relentless sun.

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And then, we skied. For two days we toured among the towering rock faces and snow fields. We left our signatures in figure eights down mountain sides. We scouted each line, first checking for cravasses, then yipping and hollering as our knees dropped telemark turns into velvet corn snow. In the afternoon we hid from the sun that burned so hot and bright I felt my brain was melting.

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On the third day we packed up camp, skied 3000 vertical feet to the glacier mouth. Skied within feet of gorgeous serac colonies. Picked across scree slopes so steep and loose I forgot to breathe while crossing them. Finally, our feet were on the ground but the next phase of the journey was yet to come: the river.

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The Wosnesenski River is a glacier-charged channel of water that snakes and winds 16 miles from the glacier mouth to the ocean. We’d packed in a raft, which we pumped up and loaded down with piles of gear. We pushed off across the lake around 5 pm after having spent the entire morning skiing and hiking. And then we floated, charged, skid, scuffed, bumped, waded but mostly cruised for five hours until our raft met the ocean.

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The journey from water to air to lake to glacier to snow to summit to snow to glacier to lake to river to ocean was complete.

With adventures like these at the ready, how could I say no?

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For the next two months, this blog will be devoted to traveling around and experiencing the great wide beauty of Alaska. 

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I’ve entered another world. It resembles worlds I’ve experienced in the past–great coffee shops, art galleries, local bands, dive bars–but it’s surrounded by glimmering water, jagged snowcapped peaks and a sun that doesn’t set until midnight. A six mile ride out on the spit–a straight six-mile finger of land that extends into Kachemak Bay–unveils a completely new landscape of harbor filled with schooners, skiffs, crab boats, all sorts of vessels designed for water exploration, and gritty bars where fisherman gather to swap tales of winter crabbing in the fierce Bering Sea.

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Water is a way of life here, but so are the mountains. If you have a friend with a boat you can access the perfect complimentary adventure of a sea to ski. On Saturday morning, we met Alayne’s friend at the harbor, loaded skis, skins, ice axes, packs into his small boat named Vamanos and motored across Kachemak Bay to the snowy peaks of the Kenai Range. Hours of uphill hiking among moose tracks and bulging piles of bear scat led us to alder bushwacking, soft snow skinning. We paused for lunch–king salmon that had been smoked by a friend, dark chocolate–and gazed at the bowls and ridges around us that bordered the sea.

“This sounds naiive to say,” I started, “but I had no idea life was so good in Alaska.” Alayne and Dan both smiled like they knew a deep secret I was just beginning to grasp.

Hours later we reached the high point of the ridge and gazed into Grewingk glacier. A haiku came to mind:

Granite icebergs burst

from a solid sea of white

ribbed with tints of blue

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We skied patches of soft corn snow and slowly picked our way back down among the alders, the moose tracks, the bear poop. We paused along the trail to collect fiddleheads and devil’s club shoots to cook later in the week with some newly acquired King Crab. By the time we reached the black sand of Hawaii Beach, it was nearly 11pm and the sun was iridescent on the water. At midnight, as we drove up Alayne’s driveway, we spotted a mama moose and her calf.

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How did I not know the wonders of this place before? It is as though I’m being let in on a great secret. Perhaps what makes it so secret is that you never really know the depth of the place until you experience it first hand. This is just the beginning.

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Once again, I’m sitting in a room I’m about to leave. My belongings are strewn every which way across the floor, bed, desk, windowsills, doorknobs. Empty tupperware sit at odd angles on top of clothes piles and to the outside eye, there’s no sense in any of this mess. To me, it’s delightful.

I’m one of those weird people that loves to pack. It’s almost as exciting as deciding to embark on a move. Typically, I get so excited about packing that I start the process a week before I go, just to ensure I am as thorough and thoughtful as possible.

It begins with my clothes: I sort and discard at least every six months, which is my approximate relocation schedule. Clothes are easy to be ruthless with. I inevitably find pieces I haven’t worn for a year or so, pieces I told my self I should get rid of last time I packed, or just really hideous numbers I picked up at a thrift store last time I attempted to update my closet. A grey and white striped boatneck sweatshirt with a bow on the back–really?! Discard.

Then comes paperwork, piles of it that surround my desk. How do they grow so quickly? I wonder as I start shredding, feeling increasingly weightless as the machine whines.

Books, magazines. I am continually torn between which pages to keep and which I’ll never peruse again. This time, my copy of Backcountry Skier with the picture of neon adorned skiers on the front that clearly dates back to my birth year gets tossed in the reject pile. Outdated copies of National Geographic, however? Timeless.

Room decorations. Do I really need the sugar pine cones from California that are as long as my forearm? I decide to gift them to the lawn. But my pony bell from Nepal? It’ll keep traveling with me till the day I die.

The process goes on, each day more of my relatively few belongings are let go. And I feel lighter, free-er, increasingly excited to trade discarded things for new experiences.

The act of simplification never fails to satisfy, especially when it opens space for the next life adventure. Soon I’ll stash my reduced belongings in the basement of a house where I once lived. In three months I’ll stuff them in my Subaru, drive to Wyoming, open them up and once more begin the process of accumulation. In the time between, I’ll board a plane with only a bag on my back and pair of ski boots as carry on. What could be more wonderfully simple than that?

Last week, on a whim, I decided I needed an adventure. And so, I applied for a Frontier Airlines credit card and used my free signup miles to book a plane ticket to Alaska, where I’ll spend two and a half months of my summer with soul sister, Alayne Tetor. I depart on June 4th, barely two weeks after I made the decision to go.

My boss was shocked at the quick decision. “You’re leaving June 4th?! Holy hell,” he exclaimed. “But I’m giving you two weeks!” I insisted.

My roommates took it a little better. “So, I’ll put that Craigslist ad up right away,” Kelly responded. Fortunately my current room-in-a-house situation is month to month, without a lease, and with a group of fun older people who believe strongly in finding, and following, your destiny. “What an adventure!” she mused.

“You know, Homer isn’t right in the mountains,” Alayne warned me as we hashed out plans. “I know it,” I replied, “but honestly, Alayne, I’m so hungry for something new I don’t even care. And besides, I’ll be able to see the mountains from Homer…”

I’ve never been to Alaska, know very little of Homer besides what Alayne and Google have told me (fishing town of 5,000, home of the Homer Spit, southwest side of the Kenai Penninsula, artist and intellectual hub, barely reaches 75 degrees all summer), and there’s something about not knowing that is incredibly exhilarating. I can honestly say I have no idea what shape the summer will take.

Of course there are practical considerations at hand: I need to find a job, for starters. I have a handful of leads at restaurants in Homer, and Alayne has a few ideas up her sleeve. Finding work isn’t my biggest concern; even if the job sucks I’m still living in Alaska and only need to hack it out for two months.

Then there are the fun considerations: glacier skiing, salmon fishing, blackberry pie baking, wilderness exploring, hopping a plane to Juneau, a ferry to Ketchikan, experiencing an entire 24 hours of sunlight, making art and inspired writing, being immersed in all of the beauty and hugeness of the Great White North.

Of course, I have asked myself  ‘why do this?’. And I tell myself, because it’s there.

And then I ask myself ‘why not?’. I can’t think of one single reason not to.

Homer, AK, curtesy of bayrealtyhomes.com

Homer, AK, courtesy of bayrealtyhomes.com

This month, thousands of trekkers and climbers flock to Everest to try to their ice picks, crampons and telephoto lenses on the world’s largest pile of snow, ice and rock. Here, a few verbal snapshots from my journey to the Mother Mountain:

Treeline broke late this morning and spit us out into scrubby alpine tundra. We stopped for an early lunch in Shomare and I scrambled up the mountainside in search of a flat spot to stretch into some yoga and meditate. The Dudh Kosi (milk river) rolling below was the loudest sound in the air as I eased my muscles out of their stiff states and into fluidity. After stretching, I sat crass-legged on a rock, knees below the hips, back and neck in line, and I slid into the wind brushing my face, the water rushing below, the bold stature of Ama Dablam directly ahead, the endless ocean of snowy ridges stretching beyond the valley. I sat within, the whole world breathing and exhaling, all of its unified parts simply being, one. 

As we drew closer to Everest, the landscape became increasingly inhospitable. This from a village we reached two days before base camp:

Nuptse is growing as I write. Seriously, every time I look away and back again, the prominent peak appears even more enormous, unreal, as though it grows before my very eyes.

We are in Loboche, a dusty, lodge-dotted wasteland situated at 16,000 feet. The landscape is comprised of rocks, dirt, dead tundra grass, scree and, higher up, snow. Long rectangular stone lodges are the only buildings here and they are bustling with trekkers, scurrying around like Gor-Tex clad ants en route to Everest, Kala Pataar, Gokyo Lakes. Ponies and yaks, both here purely for the purpose of transporting gear and cargo, are the only animals present in the lunar surroundings.

The peaks, though, are mind-blowing. Six thousand and 7000 meter summits encase us from all angles. We are dwarves in their cold shadows. With each glance around, I see a new peak pop out of a ragged ridge line. The river is ice-crusted, an indication of temperatures to come? 

At the stone table where I sit outside, I overhear two Swedes, and Aussie and an American discussing the availability of Swedish meatballs in Thailand. A German man smokes a cigarette across the table from me. His climbing partner joins us and we all rest in the glaring sun, sharing this space at 16,000 feet. Despite our different backgrounds, we speak, in one sense, the same language: mountains.

Yak baring their burdens, 17,000 feet above sea level

Yak bearing their burdens, 17,000 feet above sea level