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The Lovely Cold MAG
“I came here to escape. To find peace and clarity. I came to sort things out, to question, to understand myself and this world a little better. I came to live.” – Journal Entry, Day 4
There was a moment amidst the chaos when rain fell in icy sheets and wind rattled my bones, I felt something. It settled within me, swelling, dispelling fear and doubt. It wasn't the cold or the pain. It was peace. Inexplicable calm, a sense of freedom, exultation, and acceptance. The weight of the world lifted, as I realized any suffering wasn't directed at me; I was just a part of this universe – an element among elements.
Four weeks earlier. It was six in the morning when we boarded the four-seater float plane. The sun had dipped beneath the mountains, and the horizon was a serrated edge slicing into the sky. The plane engine roared as I buckled my seat belt. The plane lurched forward then rose into the lavender dawn. Next to me sat Matt and Carl. Behind me was the world I was leaving. Beneath me, the wild I would soon join.
This summer I backpacked in Alaska through the Neacola Mountains for 43 days. I fell in love. I haven't been the same since.
It took me two weeks before I could truly enjoy where I was. I had never before taken such a brutal beating. Every day we hiked six to eight hours, through the paradise and hell of the Alaskan bush. Often we found ourselves waist-deep in mud, fending off bees, mosquitoes, and horseflies, clinging to the side of a mountain besieged by scree, jagged and precarious, slickened by sleet and moss‚ caught in miles of brush so dense the branches entwined to make an almost impenetrable wall, constant, relentless, forcing us to wrestle our way through. Knees, ribs, hands, face, arms cut, stung, and bruised so many times we had raw meat for appendages.
“The pain reminds me of my existence, proves to me I haven't yet vanished.” – Day 13
One cannot suffer if one accepts the way things are. That was the first lesson I learned. With time, the cuts healed and our skin turned to canvas, the bites didn't sting so menacingly, and the bruising – well, that would come and go. Soon my life in the city faded and all that was real was the effort to stay dry, the placement of each step, and the journey with my fellows. The only thing that mattered was what I could feel, the sensations of my body and the emotions of the weather.
“Shirtless with the sun on our backs we scramble up steep slopes chasing wild sheep and ptarmigan. Liberated by space and time, nothing can hold us back. I feel we are not so unlike the legitimate beasts that roam this land.” – Day 22
I awake to rain ceaselessly tapping on the tent; it's been raining for the last two weeks almost nonstop. Yesterday Max nearly collapsed from hypothermia, and today all my gear is dripping. Wind nags at my frail shelter as I crawl out. The rain pauses for a moment. Amidst the fog, Kelly sits in silence beneath a tarp writing. He, like me, needs little sleep. So every morning we share tea and flatbread.
With stiff muscles I walk down to the river to gather water. The morning air is frigid and everything seems frozen in the icy stillness. Silence resonates through the mist. I carry the water back to camp in my dromedary and start the stove. In a small, deformed pot, water begins to boil. I add two large pinches of the precious tea leaves.
Kelly looks but doesn't speak; he beckons me to sit. Cross-legged with perfect posture I mimic him. We sip hot tea and gaze out at empty space. Far off, a lonely coyote lingers. I hear the trickle of a creek giggling through rocks. Is it the joke or the sorrow of the universe that makes the mountains weep?
“This place is paralyzed in solitude” – Day 31
Staring into the mountains, into the rivers and forests, was like staring at the features of the glorious deity I've heard about in so many Sunday masses. Truth, wisdom, and faith sprawled out in front of me. If I would offer myself to something that could claim true divinity, I would substitute mountains for the crucifix, streams for wine, and trees for bread. If there is a god, I was surely in its temple.
“I am constantly awed by the bare beauty. Never have I been enveloped by such exquisiteness, my soul seems awakened, exuberant and throbbing beneath my flesh.” – Day 37
After a long day of hiking we drop our packs and set up the tents. From burlap cloth I unravel dry sticks that we've saved; the gasoline for our stove is almost gone. The constant rain makes any heat source invaluable. It isn't dark; it never gets dark. Instead the sun sways from one edge of the earth to the other, tempting night, occasionally setting the clouds ablaze.
With numb fingers I start the fire. I set two rocks to hold the large pot in place over tangerine embers. I change into dry clothes, quickly, so as not to let the cold seep to my core. We have rice for dinner. We are exhausted; no one speaks. To one side lies a turquoise pond cradled by mountains; to the other is a cliff. Beyond that, nothing. The world is lost beneath clouds.
“I am not ready to return. I still have so much to learn, so much to experience. This land has become a part of me, I cannot leave.” – Day 42
I am home now. When the longing becomes too great I put pen to paper, hoping that the ink can speak the words my mouth cannot shape. But I am frustrated by the paltriness of words. The only worthy depiction of my experience would perhaps be my tattered pack, my worn boots, my scarred and leathered hands. For now I try to sleep, but it is 4:30, and when I close my eyes my heart begins to race, because all I see are mountains. Mountains, rivers, sky. I can almost feel the wind. The lovely cold.