I have traveled extensively in the US and Europe and my most profound moments are all connected to a US National Park. Big Bend, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Olympic and Denali are expansive places in nature that fundamentally changed my approach to how I interact in the world. How could one look across the depths of the Grand Canyon and not feel insignificant against its beauty? In Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows.” Denali National Park was that “wild delight” after my husband and I experienced our first miscarriage. The trip to Alaska was a chance to get away from the daily reminder and gain new perspective on the notion of life.
The ride on the slow-moving Alaskan Railroad train from Fairbanks to Denali gave me a true sense of getting away from reality and seeing beyond the emotional pain that had been a constant over the previous weeks. With each mile of track lumbering on, I was sinking deeper and deeper into the first hints of fall foliage and simply, away. I pointed and sighed with joy and grief, capturing the detail of each individual leaf on each individual tree as it took us to our final destination.
We arrived at the Denali Train Depot to the buzz of late-season tourists. That isolation I was seeking and the fantasy of how I would meet Denali was met with the reality of people trying to get one last glimpse of the park before the fall cold settled in. I had taken this long trip to nowhere only to be surrounded by the outside world. We set up camp at the edge of the Riley campground. I was cold and numb. I wanted answers that Denali couldn’t give me, yet. We built a fire and added a few more layers of clothing, trying to stay warm.
The next day we ventured into the park on one of Denali’s trademark green buses. Park access by the general public can only be made by foot or by green bus. It was our first venture into the park so we got off at the Savage River stop (mile 15) and walked down river away from the parking area. As I walked along the shallow water, the tourists and the green busses drifted out of site. The world was behind me, away from me, and I wanted to take off on foot and explore every inch of the park’s 6 million square miles. Step by step, taking it in as I did on the train. This reality for these few moments filled my senses and I felt physically bound to the land. I took my first un-labored breath since the miscarriage and wept at the beauty of this world. Denali had begun to fully lift my “sorrows.”
The Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66 is an 8-hour round trip bus ride that takes you further into the park and provides a closer view of the Denali peak. Along the way we stopped for a moose and a grizzly. Wildlife was all around. At Eielson, my sorrows had set in over the bumpy bus ride so I stayed at the base of the trail while my husband ventured uphill. As I watched him hike, two black bears were making their way up the side of the hill, unbeknownst to the tourists on the trail and my husband. Other people gathered around me and we watched, helpless, as the bears moved closer to the trail. The steepness of the hill and the angle of the bears made it impossible for the people to see what lay ahead. We waved our hands and pointed to the bears but the tourists were too far away. I still couldn’t see my husband and I had two conflicting thoughts in my head – he is in danger from a bear attack and I was sad that he was missing the bears. When we learned about wildlife sightings, all he wanted to see was a bear. And now he would either see one tragically up close or not at all. Then I spotted his green jacket and short gray hair at the base of the trail. I started pointing frantically and he looked up in time to see the bears walking away from the crowd of hikers mid-way down the hill. I threw my arms around him with my joke about seeing a bear lost in the lump in my throat. I wrapped my scarf around my neck and suggested we take the next bus back. Nature had been a little too close.
Green park buses run every hour to half hour along the road to Eielson and they drop you off and pick you up anywhere along that route. A few miles into the trip back, we got off the bus and hiked the main road. We were literally dropped off in the middle of nowhere. I wanted to recapture the wild delight of Savage River so I fought off the fears and faced the lonely road ahead. The sun was shining as we started our hike along the park road; my lingering fear struggled against the quiet of Denali. I took my husband’s hand and we walked quietly. We were the only two people for miles and miles and I started to let my mind and heart open up. We could try again.
On our final morning in Denali, we built a campfire to boil water. When my husband I first moved in together, we would heat our water in a 2-quart saucepan on the stove. It seemed to take forever to heat up so I bought an electric kettle. Truly instant coffee and tea! But on this cold morning camping in Denali, as we sat by the campfire waiting for the water to boil for tea, we talked briefly of throwing out the electric kettle back home. There was something meaningful in waiting for the water to boil over a campfire we’d built. Something in the process that forced us to slow down and connect to the nature surrounding us. It’s why we go to these parks. It’s why they were preserved – to remind us of that connection to nature and how it can invigorate us and help us preserve ourselves. It was that “wild delight” that could truly lift us from our sorrows.