A Look Back: Alone With My Thoughts in Denali

Sunset on the Healy Range, Denali National Park, 2006.
This post in the "A Look Back" series takes me back to one of my most vivid memories of the two years I lived in Alaska - the day before what I planned to be an epic-at-the-time adventure. 

I was an outdoor n00b living in an outdoor adventurer's paradise, Denali National Park, and planned to take full advantage. But I didn't know what I didn't know. We've all been there.

This is an excerpt from the journal I kept there detailing one of my most memorable misadventures.

this place. this wonderful place. this wide expanse of enthralling beauty, so much beauty i could cry, so much beauty i can hardly believe it truly exists. i'd seen the pictures just like everyone else, but i never anticipated this feeling of wonder and excitement just from gazing out my window as the slightly setting sun hits distant ridges i might be lucky enough to stand on. despite the sun that never sets, snow stays unmelted on the highest peaks and in rock crevices that never feel its warmth. i want to see it all. and it's all mine. it's my own giant playground.

i'm waking up, stretching my legs, and realizing the world as i knew it has changed. it's surreal. this place is altering my consciousness every minute of every day. i'm going out into the wilderness alone tomorrow for the first time, my first solo camping trip, and i'm so scared-excited. i'm going out on my own because i can. because it's there. because i want to experience silence.

the sun's turned Mount Healy an impossibly fluorescent shade of pink. an Alaskan sunset - the absence of the actual disappearance of the sun over the horizon, but rather defined by the vibrant colors and shadows it brings while the larger inhabited part of this hemisphere is dark. it's almost midnight and i can still see every tree, clear as day, clear as i will seven hours from now when i pull myself out of bed for my little adventure. Sanctuary Creek, where i'm headed, we'll see if it's actually a sanctuary. it sure looks like one. and sounds like one.

a self portrait on the Denali Park Road at Sactuary Creek, 2006.
i fit a tent, sleeping bag, food, a map, two nalgenes and other mini-essentials into the North Face Slingshot backpack i used to take to class every day. tent pegs and extra clothes are tied to my unbelievably heavy mountain bike frame. i'm hoping i'll actually be able to pedal. i'll catch a camper bus to mile 22 on the park road, set up my little tent, and just be. for a day, a night, and another day.

tomorrow, i'll leave it all behind. i will just be. i will exist, Denali will exist, and that will be enough.

Embarrassing as this is to admit, my not-so-badass self and I didn't spend the night out in Denali National Park. I set up the tent as planned, went on a hike and came back to make dinner. At that point, I realized I was alone, and lonely. At 22, being alone with my thoughts was a little much. I wasn't scared, just lonely. Time passed so slowly, and I realize now I just wasn't ready to be completely alone with myself, yet. I packed up my 30 pounds of gear after seven or eight hours out there, saddled up and biked the 22 miles back to the park entrance. I'd never biked that far in my life. The park road is hilly, long, and mostly gravel. I made it back in the middle of the night, sore and slightly defeated, but optimistic. I look back at this and smile because that trip seems so small and silly now, but it was such a big deal then!

Comments

Bill said…
I dunno Katie, sounds kinda badass to me. At 22, I never would have dreamed of going out alone 20+ miles into the wilderness that is Denali NP with a plan to camp. Thanks for sharing.
Katie said…
Thanks Bill! I was pretty close to the park road when I got off the bus and set up the tent, so I wasn't quite in the wilderness, just a short walk from the road!

I think one of the biggest mistakes we make when we're outdoor n00bs is not fully understanding what we're getting into! And I've realized that as important as solo trips are, I so much more enjoy sharing what I see and experience with other people. That's half the fun!
I felt the same way many times at that age. Most of my friends were still in college so I'd go out when I could by myself. It always seemed like a good idea at home, but sometimes out on the trail it can grow a bit more lonesome than you'd like.
Kinda like putting your toe in a hottub to check the water.
Ha, to me it seems pretty badass to cancel your vacation just so you could share your time with other people! I would have just stayed there by myself and did what I wanted, who cares about anyone else.

Haha, that's probably why I end up without anyone to do stuff with :)
Katie said…
Peter - it can definitely be more lonesome than you'd like! Though I chalk it up to being young, I think it's just the fact that us humans aren't solitary beings. We care, we love, we do all of these things with other people. Either that, or the book I brought was boring :)
SuzRocks said…
I think I could've dealt with the being alone part. What I would've been afraid of is, the NOT being alone part. ie. if big Mr. Grizzly came to visit me.

It's so beautiful up there. Sometimes we talk about moving there. Who knows?
Tiffany said…
Ballsy! Agree with SuzRocks and the apt chance of meeting Mr. Grizzly ... :)
Katie said…
It's weird, I wasn't worried about the bears at all! I was (relatively) close to the road, and food storage was a piece of cake. Wonder why that didn't cross my mind :)
I felt the same way many times at that age. Most of my friends were still in college so I'd go out when I could by myself. It always seemed like a good idea at home, but sometimes out on the trail it can grow a bit more lonesome than you'd like.
Kinda like putting your toe in a hottub to check the water.
Bill said…
I dunno Katie, sounds kinda badass to me. At 22, I never would have dreamed of going out alone 20+ miles into the wilderness that is Denali NP with a plan to camp. Thanks for sharing.
Heather Balogh said…
This story is awesome :)
Katie said…
Thanks, Heather! It's so funny how prepared I felt and was, gear-wise, but how unprepared I was mentally. It was a great learning experience :)
Meghan J. Ward said…
I really enjoyed this article, Katie. I loved how you just 'escaped' from the confines of writing a polished piece and just went with the more 'raw' portrayal of your experience back then.


I can definitely relate and I love how you pretty much summarized it with, "i'm so scared-excited." Ah yes, the 'scared-excited' feeling. I'm pretty sure it's what has driven most of my adventures. I'd add in there, "scared-excited-but-unavoidably-curious," because it's usually my curiosity that actually gets me to go and DO things. It's a humbling experience looking back on our past selves and recognizing the various stages of growth. I thought you'd be scared of wildlife, not your own thoughts!


Your post also brings to mind the importance of documenting these things. Sometimes I question why I journal or blog and then I'm reminded of how special it will be to read this stuff years down the road. Imagine how much your kids could learn about you from all this, as well!


Thanks for sharing, as always.