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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Very Long Long Post About My Pilgrimage to Alaska: Part 1

 This will be a frustratingly long post, but it has to be, since this was literally the trip of a lifetime. I was going to post pictures, but I might save that for later, since this post will already be way too long. I'll post it in two parts.

After a five hour plane ride to Portland, a forty-five minute one to Seattle, and an hour one to Juneau in which I sat next to an awesome Mormon mountain-biker and outdoor adventurer named Ethan and was hit on repeatedly by a flight attendant of advanced age, we arrived in Juneau sometime in the evening. We were all glued to the windows for the duration of the last plane ride, gaping down at the ice-capped mountains, sunset-lit ocean, and rocky terrain. It was rainy, which we all expected because in Juneau it rains literally half of the year, (although miraculously that would be the only day it rained for our entire eight-day trip.) We all packed into taxis and drove to this little hostel by downtown Juneau.

It was a very cool experience in the hostel but not the place I'd like to stay in for the entire trip, which we didn't. The rooms were stuffy, bunk beds were crammed into the rooms and left no personal space or luggage space, and the bathrooms were frightening. I almost got raped by this 300-pound half-naked guy who I could hardly understand but who claimed he was an architect, a missionary, and a businessman in the same consecutive twenty-four seconds.

But the next morning we woke up at around 7, were assigned chores (mine was scrubbing the fucking toilets because I'm that kind of lucky motherfucker). Then we ate a bagel breakfast and met Bert and Ernie, our guides for the pilgrimage. (Those weren't really their names, but that's what I called them the whole time, and in a British accent.)

We drove the half-hour trip to the Catholic shrine we would be staying at for the rest of the trip, which surprisingly had excellent lodging, was located right by a rocky beach to an inlet of the Pacific Ocean, had a FANTASTIC view from all directions of the ocean and snowy mountains across it, and was within walking distance from the shrine itself, which was in a forested area and included a chapel, memorials, and the stations of the cross. It was ideal. And both the boys and the girls had a cabin to themselves.

I'm already going into too much detail and I've barely started. I'll have to be brief from now on and just hit the highlights.

First day: hike to see a glacier. The parking lot and welcome center were actually the only view of the glacier you could get on the hike. The hike was very beautiful, considering Alaska and Canada share the world's largest rainforest, and everything was a vibrant green and it looked like an enchanted wood. It concluded at the welcome center, where we all got to touch a big hunk of glacier ice that was 200-years-old.

Second day: visited the Episcopal Church in Juneau, which had a shockingly energetic and informal priest who was quirky but very interesting (which describes like everyone we met in Alaska.) We also met two brothers named Christopher and Matthew (also the name of me and my brother.) All four of us found this to be awesome, but we didn't really hit it off since we're like the most different people in the world. We spent another hour or two poking around downtown Juneau, where we got gelato, fudge, and looked through a number of shops. At the Alaska Trading Post I got a small marble carving of a polar bear for Rachel, with a jade fish in its mouth, since I told her I would bring her back a baby polar bear after my trip.

We then drove back to the shrine in the school bus we had been renting, driven by a cool Inuit guy named Leon and his genderless son/daughter Leon, and we spent the rest of the day playing touch football, exploring the rocky shore and climbing around on the huge rocks, and the first team prepared dinner for us: spaghetti.

Third day: We returned to downtown Juneau to visit a Russian Orthodox Church, which had a drastically different feel from the Episcopal Church but was intensely interesting to hear about. We received a lesson about it from an even quirkier priest, but it was enlightening to learn about such a radically different denomination of Christianity.

Afterward we walked a mile or so to a trail head. I haven't described the layout of downtown Juneau, but basically it feels like you're at the very bottom of an enormous bowl, surrounded by these huge, majestic mountains, covered in trees and alpine meadows, with insane waterfalls cascading down the sides. And beyond those are snow-capped mountains. So even a walk down the interstate to reach this trail head was breathtaking. But then we embarked on what was soon to be the pinnacle of the pilgrimage for me.

The first part was a relatively strenuous but very beautiful two hour or so hike up through the forest on the mountain. It was all through rainforest, so we only received the occasional outlook over Juneau, but those few glimpses were still incredible. And the forest was beautiful as well. The hike was occasionally muddy but not very steep, and we just had fun talking and looking around at all the moss, which covered literally everything, and the tall tall trees. Then it opened up out of the forest, and we got to a welcome center type place, gift shop, and the tram station. The trees at this point had stopped, and all around us was a breathtaking view of surrounding mountains, the city of Juneau, and the ocean. It had transitioned to what could be defined as "alpine meadows," so instead of trees, it was lush grass, a dirt path littered with small smooth stones, beautiful wildflowers, and an increasing number of ice patches.

The tram station was the intended conclusion of our hike. We hung out for a bit there, got hot chocolate, stood on the lookout and let our jaws drop, and saw a bald eagle in captive that had been blinded in one eye. I had seen bald eagles from a distance, since there are a ton in Alaska, but definitely definitely not from this close, since it was only six or seven feet away. It was very strange and cool but also rather sad to see it kept in the cage, even though it wouldn't be fit for survival out in nature. I also dipped into the gift shop and got Rachel a pair of these really pretty sea-green ear rings. All the girls were fawning over me for being such a good boyfriend, and lent me change until I got up to the price, since I was three dollars short.

From there we pushed on higher to a tall wooden cross. By then you didn't have to go to an outlook to get a fantastic view. It was all around us. What I was feeling surpassed my ability to describe with words. It filled you up, and yet it made you feel transparent somehow. It made me feel so so alive. It was incredible. You could see everything.

At that point we had some reflection time. And after a bit we each chose a rock and on it we wrote either our greatest fear or something we needed to forgive someone about, even if that someone was ourselves. I wrote on mine a fear: "Those things which I do not understand." We put the rocks in our pockets after we were done.

When we looked up from that point, it looked as though the top of the mountain was a fifteen-minute walk or so from where we were. So all of us decided to push for the top, except one girl who had hurt her shin on the hike and another girl who was assigned to stay with her. We wouldn't be gone for long, would we? Just a wee little hike. Twenty minutes tops.

Ha.

Haha.

Little did we know the trek up to the summit was another two hours or so of hiking up ice patches, switchbacks, and a rocky trail that became almost vertical at times. We saw a marmot! But you may not know what that is. Anyway, people started peeling off the higher and higher we got. I was near the front. And the higher we got, the more it all started to seem dream-like.

Now that I recall being near the top of and on top of that mountain, it seems much more like a dream than it seemed surreal. We were surrounded by a stunning, yet quite intimidating view, of the mountains and the ocean and pretty much the whole mountain below us. I got a little Vertigo sometimes, even though there was plenty of ground around me, just from looking back or up. We were almost up in the clouds, yet we were surrounded by rolling grass meadows, sprinkled with these gorgeous wildflowers.

We climbed hill after hill after hill, until about half of our group had turned back. Then those that remained were sort of in two little groups of our own, one about five minutes ahead and the other behind. The ones behind us wouldn't make it to the very top because they ran out of time. But the climb kept getting more beautiful and surreal and even scarier. We would look out just twenty yards or so from the trail and there would be a huge rocky cliff or an icy side of the mountain which led to certain death.

But finally we climbed over one last hill and realized we were on the top of the mountain. I can't explain to you what it was like up there.

It was just like a thin strip of meadow, with miraculously unfrozen ponds, swaying wildflowers, and lush grass. We couldn't see very far around us, since we were literally inside of a cloud, but we could see the tops of even taller, enormous, terrifying icy mountains surrounding us, their tips disappearing into the clouds. It was so serene and oddly silent.

There were only about half a dozen of us up there by that time, and we were laughing in disbelief, looking all around us, taking pictures, peering over the edge, lying on the ground, jumping up and down, and just marveling at this incredible experience. There was one spot in the clouds that opened up, and golden light was pouring through. One kid shouted, "It's the entrance to heaven!!" We were all already thinking it.

My brother said that he wouldn't be disappointed if this was the most beautiful thing he will ever see in his life. I felt and feel the exact same way. It was indescribable. I picked two stones from the top of the mountain: one for me to keep and one for Rachel.

We took a group picture on the summit and then met the group at the last little hill, where they had stopped. Then we all lined up, said the Lord's Prayer, and when we got to "Forgive us our trespasses," we threw our stones off the side of the mountain. It was such a powerful experience.

We hiked back down the mountain, which was even more beautiful than the hike up, because we were looking below us the entire time. We spread out more then, so I was just in a group of four or five. We saw two more marmots and a couple of bald eagles. When we got back to the cross we also ran into two Chileans. When they mentioned they were from Chile my brother and my eyes lit up and we started talking to them in Spanish. We had an excellent conversation and at the end they said, "Do you come from America? How do you know Spanish?" And we told them we were just students and they said we spoke fantastic Spanish. I was so excited I wet my pants.

We took the tram back down the mountain, because it was like 8 pm or so, and we got into Juneau and ate at a Mexican restaurant, where I ate enchiladas and got two root beers.

It's 11:30 and I have to wake up early tomorrow and I don't have much energy left to finish this post.

This post didn't do the Alaska experience justice, especially the last day. I'll try to do better in the second part. Even though this was really long. Anyway. Thanks for reading.

And I'll mention more about this tomorrow, but I've been feeling like shit because the day after I got home from Alaska, feeling like I was on top of the world, my girlfriend broke up with me.

I love her so much. It really hurt. And everything's complicated, so I probably won't bother explaining. At least not right now. Anyway.

Night night.

4 comments:

Boyd said...

I really want to go to Alaska, now! I'd love to climb to the top of an actual mountain, because it sounds amazing.

I'm sorry to hear about your breakup. I seem to recall seeing that on FB, but for some reason it didn't sink in then. She's missing out on someone awesome, for sure.

Kassandrah said...

i'm appalled anyone would ever break up with you, because you're so amazing.

Jen said...

So we both went on amazingly spiritual adventures this summer! I should actually write what I did instead of just rambling about it like I did today.
I can't wait to hear the rest of it!
And I agree - your ex is crazy, since you are an absolute sweetheart and I love you. She's missing out.

Bookish.Spazz said...

I have no idea how I overlooked this blog post, but I guess late is better than never.

Your description of Alaska sounds so... marvelous? Is that the right word? Majestic?

I don't know. But it makes me want to visit there one day and to do cool fun stuff like hike and pet a moose.