“alaska & me” – john denver (1988)

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Alaska is home to countless wilderness trails of varying difficulties.  Regardless of your physical ability, there are a number of trails available to you if you’re looking to engage with nature in a respectful way.  If you’re looking to just stroll through a forest or brush, there are easy walking trails that are safe and well-groomed.  If you’re more adventurous, you can try to something rockier and with a higher elevation.  Or, if you’re an expert or stupidly brave, you can travel in unmarked areas and test your will against whatever Mother Nature can throw at you.  While I have no desire to blaze my own trails as a relative novice in such dangerous areas, I always look for a challenge.

Of the several trails and hikes I went on last week, one stood out over the rest.  Just outside of Anchorage is the Chugach State Park; a mountainous area with lots of trails for people looking to get out into the wilderness but not travel a long way to do so.  The drive from the city is only about 15 t0 20 minutes, but the change in terrain and scenery is quite significant.

I went to this area twice during my trip.  The first time was to climb Flattop Mountain.  Flattop is the most climbed mountain in the area and is one I’ve climbed several times.  The last time I did so was in 2010, so I felt a need to go back.  Flattop was my first hike of the trip and it is a great hike.  The path is groomed and some of the steeper parts have wooden beams to help with the climb and stabilization.  Also, there is always someone close by on the trail.  It is not a difficult climb, but it isn’t easy either.

The day after climbing Flattop, I spent some time in a flatter and more forested area outside Anchorage in a town called Girdwood.  Those kinds of hikes through the woods offer a different kind of experience.  While both hiking on a mountain and through a forest can offer meditative experiences, you have a different frame of mind.  Walking through this area was a nice refresher after climbing Flattop; my first mountain in eight years.  However, the next day, I wanted to really test my limits.

I went back to the Glen Alps Trailhead of the Chugach State Park.  Instead of the path taking me to Flattop, I took a different path that took me down into the valley.  My goal was to reach the summit of O’Malley Peak.   O’Malley Peak is the tallest mountain in the area and just across the valley from Flattop.  To get there, you must walk through a brushy area, scale the slope of the first ridge, walk across a relatively flat but rocky bowl, and then start ascending the base of the peak to the summit.

I was travelling at a time where I wouldn’t see many people.  Since it was off season for tourists and during work week, I was guaranteed to be one of the few people out hiking.  Also, O’Malley Peak is harder than Flattop and, therefore, not climbed as much.  It was a guarantee that I would only see a handful of people the entire time I was out there.

The brushy area is the first part and is bear country.  Signs at the beginning of the trail warn you of this and offer guidance on what to do if you encounter a bear.  Again, I’m not an expert.  I should’ve been equipped with bear mace or a gun.  I had neither.  It was just me and some snacks (I guess you could count me as a snack too).  If I couldn’t defend myself from a bear attack, the best I could do was prevent one.

In order to prevent an attack, you warn the bears that you’re coming through.  Bears don’t like surprises, so warning them early with noise is essential.  Some people hike with dogs with jingle belles strapped to their collar.  If you’re like me and don’t have a dog, you make noises by clapping and talking loudly.  In this part of the trail, you’re walking through brush with very little visibility so bears and moose can easily blend in.  However, this part of the trail is beautiful.  It is very green with a beautiful creek running through it.

When you get to the base of the ridge, things become a little harder.  You’re official out of the brush, though there might be some patches here or there.  However, you have a lot more visibility.  The challenge now is to climb a slop that is more than a 45-degree angle and slick with mud and loose rub (known as scree).  Due to the elevation rate, it is already a strenuous activity.  But footing is really important if you don’t want to fall. One unlucky or not well-thought out step and you could fall and injure yourself.  And while there is a discernible trail from hikers before you, there aren’t any installed wooden beams to flatten the terrain or stabilize it.  It is all natural.

Once you successfully have climbed the slop over the ridge line, you have made it to the part of the trail known as the Ballfield.  The Ballfield is a relatively flat (not really flat but is compared to what you just hiked) bowl with rocks and tundra soil.  While the terrain is rocky, it is a nice break.  Also, there are no trees or brush, so your visibility is much greater.  It is also very quiet.

After hiking for about 45 minutes across the Ballfield, you make it to the base of O’Malley Peak.  This is where the rocks start rising from the land.  This is where you quit hiking and start scrambling; hiking involving a lot of use of your hands for stabilization.  This is also the most dangerous part of the hike since the peak is ridged.  Two steps in either direction and you fall to your death.  Footing, hand placement, and concentration are absolutely important.

I ascended the peak for about 30 minutes before I stopped and took a break.  I sat and leaned against a rock and just looked at the valley below me.  The expansiveness is beyond words and no pictures do it justice.  I don’t know how long I sat there, but I looked at the next mountain ridge and valley lakes for a long time.

To be clear, I was alone during these hikes.  And, as mentioned, I didn’t see many people.  In fact, I had been hiking for over two hours at this point and had only seen two people so far.  I didn’t have noise from other humans to distract me, so I was truly alone with my thoughts.

Hiking alone is not for everyone.  For starters, it isn’t the safest thing to do.  The “buddy system” saves lives.  However, hiking with friends can be distracting and I wanted to avoid distractions.  I wanted to be alone with my thoughts and focus as intently as possible at the environment around me and allow myself to be overwhelmed by the experience.  Many people are uncomfortable being alone with their thoughts.  I know I used to be.  However, I worked through those things and now I can be alone with my thoughts be OK.

Exercising your ability to be alone with your thoughts is absolutely important to personal development.  And I know it isn’t easy.  The reason why people don’t work towards that ability is that are afraid of what they will think of and I can understand the hesitation.  Bad thoughts have happened, do happen, and will continue to happen.  No matter how skilled you are in mindfulness and living in the present, bad thoughts happen.  It is an important part of self-thought and self-reflection.  The key is to develop and carry the right tools with you to handle those thoughts.  If you’re reflecting on life and something bad pops up, you can strengthen your ability to swat that bad thought away like a fly.

I won’t share everything I think about, but I will share the most important thing.  While I was sitting on that ridge, I felt insignificant and small.  And I don’t consider that bad all.  I hate it when I hear Mother Nature described as cruel or any other descriptor that suggests the concept of nature has an investment in your well-being.  Guess what.  It doesn’t.  Mother Nature is indifferent to your success, failures, happiness, and problems.  No matter what you say, think, or do, Mother Nature will continue.  They key to surviving it is to respect it.  If you walk into a situation thinking you’re better than Mother Nature and can overcome it, you will die.  You will die, be forgotten, and decay back into the Earth like every living being that came before you and will arrive after you.

I was not troubled by these thoughts.  In the grand scheme of things, I am insignificant.  That is not to say I am void of meaning.  I have meaning to myself and to the people who love and care about me.  But those worlds are much smaller than the one I was sitting in at that moment.  Where I was at that time sitting in the shadow of a mountain over a steep valley, I had no value there.  I was a visitor; neither welcomed or unwelcomed.  I was allowed to be there on the condition I respect the land.  If I didn’t, I would die.

To be in a situation like that and feel so very small, it is a humbling feeling.  It puts your life into perspective.  Every problem or issue you think you have suddenly doesn’t matter.  It is a strong mental refresh that reframes your thinking.  The key is to remember that lesson.  You may not always consciously act on it or apply its value, but that is fine.  Things do happen and you cannot help how you feel.  However, you can help how you react.  This is what I mean about having the right tools to deal with unfortunate situations.

Being in that frame of mind is not easy.  It takes hard work, but the effort is worth it.  If you’re the kind of person who always needs people or other things to distract you from diving into your own mind and confronting your thoughts, this is something you need to do develop if you want to become a stronger and more well-rounded person.  Though I’ve made a lot of progress over the years, I still have work to do.  Even the most mindful and enlightened of us still have work to do.  It is a journey that doesn’t end until death.  You will never stop facing problems in your life, but you can stop being overpowered by them.

While I scaled Flattop, I didn’t reach the summit of O’Malley Peak.  I had probably another 30 to 45 minutes of scrambling and I had the physical ability to do it.  However, reality set it.  I was hiking alone and I hadn’t seen anyone for almost two hours.  While I’m confident that I could’ve scaled O’Malley, I still had to respect Mother Nature.  It didn’t feel right to continue, so I turned backed.  I have no issue with not reaching the summit.  I made it further than most people could’ve on what was a rather difficult hike.  However, the trip wasn’t without purpose.  I was shown something I was meant to see; both with my eyes and with my mind.  And that something extremely valuable.

Thirty years ago this month, John Denver released his 20th studio album Higher Ground.  Closing the album is the song “Alaska & Me.”  In the song, Denver dreams of Alaska and flying over mountains and glaciers.  He toasts the people who are wild and free and wishes that his children can gaze at the northern lights.  It is his chosen country.

I struggled to find the right song to fit this narrative.  I thought of perhaps two dozen songs to highlight, but none seemed to fit the way I want them to.  Perhaps I could’ve gone with a different narrative.  However, I didn’t want to.   I wanted to talk about this experience I had hiking a mountain.  And with this being a weekly blog, not every post is going to be a winner.  Just like how I cannot climb every mountain, not every song will be perfect.  And that is fine.

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