Before last summer, I never imagined that a person could love a “place.” People, surely, but places, no. It’s odd how the most significant experiences of your life sneak up on you, because I wasn’t trembling with excitement, per se.
I was more concerned with the looming solo flight to California, a personal first. A Midwestern boy with a week on the West Coast, you say? I can’t wait! Even as we reviewed itinerary—a week at the Denali Princess Lodge, flying the Misty Fjords of Ketchikan in a seaplane, landing on Mendenhall glacier in a helicopter, spectacular Prince William Sound, an open-domed train ride from Denali to Whittier, and a combination bus/train tour of Alaska and the Klondikes—I still had no idea how Alaska was going to change my life.
The first morning after school let out, I—along with my mom, great aunt, and two younger siblings—rubbed the sleep from my eyes and made tracks to the airport. My mom and her aunt have taken us many places, and allowed us to see much of the world, but I had never been west of the Mississippi. Our flight took us over the Rockies and the deserts below, a sight I’ll never forget. That stunningly empty desert, redder than a sunset, made me feel so small. Those images still hold a special place inside my soul.
We spent the first few days of our two-week adventure in the area around Mt. McKinley, packing in everything we possibly could: rafting, tours, hikes, the great outdoors. The stress from school began to ease, and I found myself very animated, smiling almost all the time. The setting was truly inspirational, and, if my own work is anything to judge by, highly conductive to good writing.
Four days later, we took a train from Denali to Whittier, where we would board our boat, the Island Princess. The tracks took us around the Turnagain Arm, which was the most incredible panorama of the entire trip. Rippling dunes of sand and miniature water-filled valleys left by the departing tide stretched out for miles as the morning sun reflected off of the cold ocean water. The sun rose to midday, and the scene began to transform. My face, like a child’s, remained glued to the glass windows for the duration. Under the influence of great music (read: U2), I started to fall in love.
The best part about travel is sharing it with somebody, I think. It brings an ordinary trip to that perfect line between escapism and real life. About a day into the cruise, I met the person I would associate with that trip forever. Her name was Austin, and I have never connected with another human being so deeply. Everything about us dovetailed: music, writing, humor, and most importantly, our worldviews. We stayed out on the deck until two almost every morning, talking about nature, travel, life, love, and Alaska. At the week’s end, we exchanged phone numbers and said a reluctant goodbye. We kept in touch, and I’m honored to regard her among my closest friends to this day.
I still dream about Alaska and the experience I had there. It is forever romanticized in my mind: images of pine-dotted mountainsides, pure air, majestic glaciers, fog-laden bays, and empty skies. The beauty made me an environmentalist, I saw the world in a romantic light, and I met friend I will keep for a lifetime. Mostly importantly, I found something I never would have found in California: my favorite place on earth.
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