My Spirit is Strong.
And I can’t imagine it diminishing much till the day I die. But my body will. And that thought is hard to swallow. Terrifying, really. Like a runaway train I might be able to slow down but can’t turn around or grind to a halt. It’s April 1st and I’ve hiked to one of the highest points of Silverton Mountain. Snow fell heavily for the last few days and I’m getting ready to descend down chutes, bowls, eventually glades and thicker stands of spruce, carving turns into fresh, untouched powder. I’ve got my avalanche gear in my pack: beacon, probe, and shovel.
But, first I’m going to enjoy the view.
From this 13,000 foot pinnacle, on a cloudless bluebird day, I see the craggy peaks of the San Juan Mountains shooting toward the sky in all directions. Even for Colorado these jagged summits are impressive and look more like the Alps or Himalayas than the Rocky Mountains I’m used to.
Soon enough I’ll be in Alaska again, God willing. If I don’t injure myself today or in the coming weeks, I’ll be packed and ready to head north by mid-May. This is no doubt one of my last days chasing powder for now, and though there’s nothing I like better, I’m also thrilled to swap snowboard and skis for backpack and boots and stick my thumb out on the Haul Road, headed toward the Brooks Range. Or the Chugach. Or maybe south, to the towering glaciers and salmon-choked streams of the Kenai Peninsula.
When I returned from the Middle East in 2010, I headed back to Alaska, where I used to live for many years. Talkeetna, Esther, the Goldstream Valley. Some of the only places that ever felt like home. Rundown cabins across the state. Off the grid and pretty much off the map. Since then I’ve spent every summer back up there. Hitching around the Last Frontier. Looking up old friends. Backpacking across the largest remaining tracts of wilderness in North America.
This summer, like any, could easily be my last.
Not that it’s that dangerous, although I’m mostly alone and, because of the improvisational way I travel, friends and family often don’t know where I am. I sometimes don’t know where I am until I get there. And even then, not always. I could be headed to the Arctic and see a drainage along the way that I never noticed before. It may call to me for whatever reason. And I’ll tell the trucker, fisherman, hunter, whoever picked me up hitch-hiking, to stop and let me out. Without cell reception there’ll be no way to call in my coordinates. It’s a risk I have to take to travel without itinerary or structure. To let my adventure evolve naturally.
There are other risks, like Grizzlies. But in all my time in Alaska I’ve only seen a handful up close. And none of those bears seemed all that interested in me.
No, it could be my last summer of this kind because there are so many other places I want to see. And well, I’m halfway through my life and not sure I need to be doing this forever. I turned forty in January and, if I keep taking care of my body, it could hold out another four decades, but there are other reasons. As much as I’ve always been independent, loved my freedom, and sought out periods of solitude, there are other ways to charge my life with meaning. In the last few years, more than ever, I’ve craved a family of my own. Whatever that might look like. Wife and kids? Maybe. Living closer to good friends? Sure. Moving back to Alaska? I think about it every day. Or maybe just being a part of some kind of community again. Who knows where. And maybe it’s a kind of community I can’t even imagine yet.
If none of that happens, I could see myself continuing to ski, snowboard, paddle, hike, hunt, fish, and explore the West—from New Mexico to Alaska—for another forty years. There are certainly worse things. If I don’t find someone, make a family or community for myself, that sort of thing seems to be the projection. And I would be the first to count myself lucky if I continued such a life.
But. If I begin sharing this amazing journey in a more serious, committed way—the way I want to—then I have to be prepared to make some changes. And one of the most significant changes would be not bumming around Alaska all summer. Not bumming around at all. Anywhere. And maybe less time in the wild. Maybe not. But definitely less time calling my own shots.
So, more than ever, I’ll be treating this summer up north as if it’s my last.
And with that thought I stare down at the pristine snow fields below me. I’m still in Colorado for now and want to enjoy every second of this mountain, this unbelievable beauty. To taste the unparalleled sensation of rising above powder, like surfing on clouds. A floating, flying, weightless kind of feeling. Carving the most fluid, buttery turns. Each one transcendental, sublime.
A grin forms inside my beard as I strap into my board and push up onto my feet. Waiting for that simple thrill of speed. Velocity. Gravity’s inescapable pull. And the rush of that sharp mountain air around my face. With that, I inch forward, the tip of my board sliding out beyond the edge of the ridge, where it hangs, momentarily. Suspended a thousand feet above the lower slopes of Silverton.
Then I push off. And drop in.