This morning I found Jean on a bench engrossed with pencil watercolors, finishing a detailed close-up of a bright red fireweed leaf. After a while I joined her, and sketched some colorful birch trees. It was natural to sit and sketch; calming and heart-opening. What was required was specific and detailed looking, and it invoked in both of us a slowness that fed the rest of the day.
Later I was taken in utterly by the land. I’d heard about a hike at the end of the shuttle bus route, fifteen miles into the park, by the Savage River. It was 3:30 pm, and the sun was warm and high in the sky. Serious hikers with boots and walking sticks got out with me, and I realized I hadn’t gotten a trail map–just taken the Ranger’s word that it was an easy hike. All around, in every direction, tall mountain peaks, a reddish afternoon glow filling the rocky ridges and foothills. Walking down towards the river, I could hear its flow. A warm breeze quickened the air. Gray-silver arctic waters rushed by, full of minerals and silt, burbling and tumbling. The path was open and easy and full of color: gold, yellow, orange, burnished brown, rust, mountain blue and ochre. There were a few hikers visible on the other side of the river, and the serious hikers, three men and a woman in their forties, made their way ahead of me and out of sight quickly. Behind me, a older Japanese couple from L.A. began the hike. She had a cane, though was spry and cheerful when we’d chatted getting off the shuttle. They strolled quietly, stopping frequently to gaze at the colorful brush, he taking pictures, she pointing.
Walking at my own pace, I was alone. Alone inside the land. It was so large, so mighty and massive, one could only call it that. I was alone inside the land. The mountains flew above me; the breeze flew around me; the river flew beside me; my heart flew within me; my spirit joined it all. Something came off at the top of my head, and everything in me lightened. I took out my camera and lazily clicked pictures; they were, it turned out, all gorgeous. I walked in the sunny afternoon of my last day in Denali, listening to the river, my eyes looking up at the great mountains. As Rangers had warned, there was a chance that I might come upon a grizzly bear or moose; but I didn’t think it likely. I was in an open river valley that was once the belly of a glacier. I was visible, and several humans were around. I could walk and feel the sun, and be there. I could be.
The trail was a loop, but because I didn’t know its length, I planned to walk for an hour and then turn around, and enjoy another equally stunning walk from the opposite perspective. I needed to return in time to catch the last shuttle bus back into the park. It was the last day it would run, and I would be catching one of the very last shuttles of the day. The path led along the river; I was alone in wild, big country. Although I have an innate and old fear of getting lost, it was impossible to feel concern. Follow the river. Notice the infrequent but clear presence of other humans. Feel the breeze. Just walk. The winds picked up, I pulled up the hood of my jacket, pulled on gloves. Things calmed, the sun warmed, I unzipped my jacket and unsheathed my skin. Just walk. Easy, flat, no great climb, nothing to scale or achieve. The valley was everything I could need. The river sang.
The Japanese couple was a bit behind me now, out of sight. There was only the wide open sky, the snowy mountains, the burnt orange brush along the path, the river. And something in me that could only be called glad. It was quiet; pervasive; unworldly; simple. I walked and I knew. There are no words for what I knew. Most people who find themselves for some stretch of time in the wild experience this. Something that settles and does not rush forward. Just keep walking. It is the simple movement of non-effort. The river moves; so do I. The wind moves, so do I. This is what legs evolved for. Just walk.
And breathe. Here, inside the land, I was inside glacier, which is sky which is cosmos which is color which is me. I was inside myself, though I would not have called it that as I walked. I was inside something impossibly large, that continued far beyond me and lived on despite my human flaws and the smallness of my senses. And with whatever quietly came off at the top of my head as I walked, I was of it. Thus I was within myself.
Climb down a few stones, around an easy ledge. Across the river, a woman walked, wind-blown, her dark frizzy hair wildly akimbo in the breeze. She wore a light jacket and walked with the easy gate of the happy. I glanced at my watch. Ah… fifteen more minutes, and then another hour after I turned around. Then up ahead, I saw it: the bridge over the river I’d been told about. The loop trail led back along the other side.
Up ahead a young man led a group of children along the path, stopping occasionally, kneeling down, touching the leaves, pointing to the sky. I’d seen them across the river earlier; they’d crossed the bridge and were on their way back. Now the serious hikers were across the river, also heading back. I learned later that they’d climbed up to a mountain peak for mind-altering views of the whole Alaska range. The wind picked up, I wrapped my scarf around my neck. The woman I’d seen walking alone across the river now appeared before me. We nodded and grinned, no words needed. We were inside heaven, weren’t we? But then I did need words, and yes, of course, she would take my camera and snap a picture of me with the river.
Walk on, walk on. I came to the small wooden bridge and walked over now, the river continuing on around a bend of color and light. I clicked a photo of where the river was going, and the familiar outline of my shadow hung in that picture. Then to the other side. I walked along in happy silence. I walked. Now there were only river sounds and the sounds of breeze and wind. My hair was wild on the windy part of the path. I raised my face to the sun.
At a place where the sun warmed and the breeze quieted, I walked down the bank and sat with the river. Behind me a man and a woman walked the path towards the bridge. I turned and smiled. “Just watching the world go by?” the man called out. What I was doing seemed precisely the opposite of that. “Being in the world, hopefully,” I called back with a grin.
Denali had offered itself to me at its most sublime. Like all places and things, this was not its only face. This was not even a frequent face. This was a rare and colorful face; this place that spends so many months in frozen, silent white. But without plan or wish, I’d landed here in this moment. And I breathed. Sometimes, luck does come. Everything else does too, difficulty, anguish, heartbreak, torment, as I certainly knew. But now was only now. I walked along the river, I sat by the waters. The sounds here were earth, water, wind. It was its own song. A magpie landed nearby, and stayed. It loudly chirped and snapped small creatures with its beak. I listened as its song blended with the song of the river and the wind.
This was earth. This was itself. I gently blended for a moment, and the sounds came into me. It was a completion, the joining that made it possible to actually come into presence in this place. This land called Denali, named after the “Great One”, the large, often unseen presence who holds this land. It anchors us. Sets our eyes soaring up to its peaks. I walked in its valley, the peaks of the Alaska mountain range all around me, the sky the blue sky of home, the river running.
A bit later, I walked back up to the shuttle stop. When I got on, the serious hikers and the Japanese couple got on as well. A few other people. We all quietly glowed. I looked at the older woman who’d completed the walk with her cane. Then our words came out, we grinned and held hands and said we’d hardly seen such a beautiful hike and her husband nodded and we three, too, were joined in that large sky that can only be called Denali. The Great One. Yes.