Five Things I Learned on a Three-Night, Solo Birthday Trip in Denali’s Backcountry
I’m not sure what happened. The last thing I remember was goofing off in my twenties and giggling at people who feared their thirties. I was minding my own business when thirty-two began cruelly mocking me and my lack of direction. I wondered, what am I doing with my life? I had a midlife crisis at 27, so I wasn’t inclined to repeat that struggle, but I needed an adventure that would straighten out my thoughts.
Anderson Pass in Denali National Park has beckoned me for years. This pass is nestled in one of the most dramatic sections of the Alaska Range and is one of few nontechnical passes concealed in these mountains. On my first attempt backpacking in that area I hiked into a ping pong ball of fog and the second time I was stymied by snowfall. For my birthday, I would be happy just to see what that backcountry unit looked like, let alone summit the pass. Halfway through the rainiest summer on record, though, it seemed unlikely I would catch a weather break to attempt the trip. Furthermore, on my departure day a 16 year-old tried to thwart my plans by hitting my car at the DMV (he didn’t pass his driving test that day), but miraculously I caught my bus, the skies parted, and the wilderness invited me to explore. This is what I learned.
1. Maps seem quite straightforward, but real life isn’t so obvious. In reality, maps are merely guidelines and as such they may lie to you once in a while, or at least trick you into misinterpretation. If you allow yourself forgiveness for straying from the map, meaningful adventures can follow. During a moment of uncertainty, I hiked up a drainage to assess my situation and soon realized my error. By then I was too mesmerized to quit, and consequently on my birthday I scrutinized the subtleties of a soaring golden eagle, listened to marmots whistle (an animal I think I love because they’re basically wild, overgrown hamsters—the only pet I was allowed to have as a kid) and stood on a glacier. How cool is that?
2. Although the backcountry isn’t exactly trail-less, it does offer the chance to select your own adventure. There is no signage declaring your destination, illuminating your path, or forbidding you from walking on sketchy glacial moraine and ice. If there was a sign, it would simply read, “Caution: Real life ahead.” In this country, no one wants to be safely escorted to a summit. The reward lies in enduring the hardships and misadventures it takes to navigate by your own volition. Whichever route you forge, the backcountry implores authority over each choice. Few decisions in life are more empowering.
Decisions, decisions, decisions
3. If you neglect to interact with nature you don’t simply begin to take it for granted, you build antibodies that reject its luster. Upon first sight, it’s impossible to be insensitive to Denali National Park’s beauty. If nothing else, Mt. McKinley—a massive piece of granite standing amidst six million acres of wilderness—sucker punches even the biggest hard-asses into appreciation. Additionally, giant animals roam freely and because most of them can beat the shit out of you, you observe them with awe. Yet every year local employees forget how beautiful their home is because they don’t engage the landscape. Some will experience less wilderness in four months than tourists who in one day merely observe it through bus windows and video monitors. Indifference is corrosive. If you work in a national park you must get out there, scab your knees, get your feet wet, and poop in the woods. Anything less and you may as well save the hassle and work a year-round, sedentary desk job. Our national parks belong to us as a nation; we deserve people in charge who care enough to experience the hell out of them.
4. It’s easy to overlook how delicate the ground you stand on is until you face a giant crevasse. Conversely, nature’s fortitude is dismissible until you witness flowers growing amidst a desolate scree slope.
5. When you don’t have an adventure buddy available you must still embark. The nuances of a landscape come alive to the solo traveler. Few people spend enough time looking inward anyway, and on a solo trip, you can face your demons and make peace with them. Every action has purpose—from filtering water to setting up shelter—and therefore the simplest things take on more meaning and renews the soul’s sense of effectualness. Ultimately, though, birthdays are still best shared when possible.