First Night in Denali
Updated: Jun 22, 2020
My first night in Denali, and I had a strange dream. It was as if the mountain was speaking, carrying me into my own depths. Strange attempts to call home, trying to remember my first telephone number, my dead brother Danny trying to help me. Fearing that I’ve had a stroke. Strange decisions on my part which I re-think again and again, and still cannot fathom. Going to find a manuscript of a book I'm working on and finding that I've transported to the east coast to a friend's bedroom, her bedposts now the trunks of living trees, flowers and vines everywhere. But no one back home knows where I am, and I think that I better call. Thus the attempts to remember my phone number–-but it is the one I had as a child. Where has my mind gone? I wonder in the dream. Still, I wake with an expansive feeling of mystery and wonder.
I sit at a table in the lobby at the Grande Denali Lodge. A mountain peak of the Alaska Range is covered with recent snow, called “termination dust” because the first snow means that summer is ending. The full moon glows this morning above the mountains. The hills are spectacular, also due to the season in which we have come. Just this last week the birch and aspen trees turned a luminous golden yellow. They dot the foothills; cover entire patches of the mountain; and catch the light like the gold they are named after. The evergreen pines are tall and thin (we’re told the trees don’t get massive because they have a short season of light, and are growing on permafrost, with a mile or so of ice a few feet beneath them). They rise and breathe, bright flashes of green in the golden fluff of birch, cottonwood and aspen.
The only word I could think of last night for these hills was “painterly.” The colors and textures feel like watercolor etches of green, lime, orange, yellow, gold. One could paint this picture again and again, and be pleased with the results-and still never get close. Same with photographs. We must have taken many dozen of Mount Denali, the tallest mountain in North America, on the train ride from Anchorage yesterday. We had the great luck of viewing the “Great One” (the meaning of Denali in the native Athabaskan language) many times. Apparently only a third of the people who travel here have the good luck to see the mountaintop itself–as it is usually covered with clouds and mists. Yesterday, the day became clearer and the sky more blue as we went north. It was the loveliest weekend of the entire summer, we were told. We clicked and clicked. Beautiful pictures, some perhaps worth framing. And we never got close.
Finally after several hours, most of us had put the cameras down. There was astonishing beauty everywhere, constantly. And it only increased. We were in a dome train, with windows wrapping all up above. One had a constant, wide view of the landscape. I remembered being told that one can become overwhelmed in Italy with all of the art and beauty. I felt that way towards the end of the day, coming into Denali. I sat back rather drunkenly, my head leaning against the seat, gazing as a four-year-old might lay in the grass and gaze at the sky. Drinking, drinking, giving up the forsaken hope of finding words to capture it, or that a click of a camera might do it. Just drink it all in.
Sitting at this table in the lobby with overarching windows covering the expanse of the snow-covered mountains, far below the Nenana River flows past. It is fed by the Nenana Glacier and flows from Fairbanks into Denali. Here, high above at this lodge, there is a sense of sitting on a ledge or a precipice. Not frightening, just utter clarity that one is at one edge of the world. The air is crisp and fine. I know the rain will begin and perhaps even persist for part of our journey. But for now… open sky. Out the window, a man stands with his iPhone, holding it up in one direction, then the next, clicking photos. It doesn’t matter where one points one’s lens. Beauty everywhere.
The Nenana River, I read in a guidebook, means “stopping-while-migrating stream” in the native Athabaskan language. It is famous for salmon, trout and other migrating fish who do well with bends and turns and pools in a river, where they can rest and feed. People come from all over the world to fish in Alaskan rivers. It is fed from a glacier: frozen waters dripping into the earth.
Glaciers and arctic ice--how long they will last-–is one of the central themes of this place. It is so large here, so vast; it is hard to imagine that it will not last forever. Still, the valley that I gaze at now was once filled with glacier ice. Our earth is a shifting creature–as are we all. We humans are small beings walking the body of a great, watery, blue-green planet. Perhaps it is not so terrible that in all of the earth’s ice ages and epochal shifts, superb and beautiful earth creatures have arisen and gone extinct. It is the way of our organic earth that humans could simply be one of those creatures. That we will have brought about our own demise–as opposed to a falling comet or a melting ice age–is profoundly tragic, as is any suicide. That we have brought about the demise and permanent extinction forever of countless other creatures and animals–that is something else; it brings one into despair, something bleak and dark. No wonder so few of us can truly contemplate it.
I find myself resisting giving a meaning or interpretation to the dream. I’ve been trained in dream work, and seen it done well. Working with dreams has been a passion of mine for most of my adult life. I can think of several ways to provide a mythic story or interpretation for this dream. But each one, it seems to me now, would reflect the wishes, interests and urges I might have at at one time or another. Ever since my long journey in the underworld, I have found myself drawn away from overlaying broad or heroic meaning to events. This may seem akin to removing something fundamental from my very being, for if I am anything I am someone who wishes to make meaning. But perhaps something has happened; perhaps I’ve found that meaning exists, it pervades, it does not have to be made.
Every time I find myself weaving an explanation about an event, something in me gently draws back. It feels like it might be beautiful, even brilliant, and still, it could only be a reduction. Anything I might add feels like a reduction of the grand and layered mystery of the dream itself. It is too beautiful and mysterious to be anything but itself.
Perhaps this is not unlike making a photograph or painting of nature. The result could be beautiful, edifying, a real work of art, something to be cherished and studied. But we don’t want to mistake it for the actual thing: the dream, the earth, this moment, which is alive, fecund, full of layers, and ever-changing.
It seems the trees are turning yellow before my eyes. Could it be true there are more golden birch and aspen leaves than there were yesterday? How time shifts, and in doing is always shaping us. At this high precipice, it’s clear that I am but a bit of clay in the hands of the Great One. I look up and Jean comes out to the lobby with a sweet grin.
Photographs by the author, September 2014, Denali National Park.