It’s the wildness I’m drawn to. You can take the rest.
And not just the wildness of this place. But the people, too. June and I'm camped on the banks of the Susitna River outside Talkeetna. A sunny day and I have a perfect view of Denali. Talkeetna, where I used to live--my home base now when I come back to Alaska--has grown a lot but it's still an end-of-the-road town. Back in the day it was common to see grizzlies strolling down Main Street. And, even now, I don’t know many other places where I could pitch a tent in such a beautiful spot. Have this whole beach to myself. And still be walking distance from the Fairview, a bar and roadhouse that stays open past 4:00am and is filled most nights with some of the best music I’ve ever heard. The Denali Cooks, Jack Fickel, Rodney Ennis.
We’re only two weeks away from the solstice. Since I got here I’ve hardly seen any darkness. Just a few hours of twilight a night. You could drive without headlights at 2:00am. Or hike all night without a flashlight. And when I head north—above the Arctic Circle—it will always be light. No twilight or dusk. All the plants and trees on this beach have already kicked into high gear and are growing at phenomenal rates. Photosynthetic overdrive. That’s how homesteaders up here raise cabbage the size of basketballs. Twenty pound heads of broccoli.
Outside of Anchorage, Wasilla, or Fairbanks there are virtually no fences in Alaska. Only one percent of the state is privately owned. The rest is all open country. Frontier. Wilderness. There are few laws, fewer law enforcers, and no one to tell you what to do.
I’d been aimed at Alaska my whole life. Or at least as long as I can remember. Some of the first books I ever read? White Fang. Call of the Wild. And Jack London’s prose only stoked a fire that was already raging inside me. To strike out into the unknown. Seek out the maps’ dwindling blank spots. Maybe it’s my Viking blood. Something hardwired or genetic. I’m not sure, but for whatever reason there are those of us who feel a craving to explore.
Not a craving. A need.
After school in Montana I went back to Dakota for a year to work the family farm and whatever other ranch-hand jobs I could find. I was helping out my family. But I was also saving for Alaska. When I had the money, I bought a pickup with a topper. Threw a mattress and all my belongings in the back. Camped out in it all the way up through British Columbia and the Yukon. When I got to Alaska I drove all over the state. Backpacking and fishing. But, more importantly, looking for a place to live. A town with a pulse. But off the beaten path. And I knew it when I found it.
Being back here again and sitting along the banks of the Su with this particular view of Denali, memories start flowing. But I don’t let them wash over me like a flood. I take them in one at a time.
Walking to town before dawn. Red and green ribbons dancing above the Alaska Range. And, out of nowhere, a meteor shower. White-hot signatures of fire ripping across the sky. Lighting up Denali with their fireworks.
Tim and me up Clear Creek. Snagging Reds to fill his boat. Floating back to town to fry them up at the Fairview with Rodney.
Twenty below the night me and Dancing Bear find the moose in a stand of spruce. Kneel around the bull as he teaches me how to butcher. Together we dismantle the limbs by headlamp as our fire reflects crystals in the snow, like distant fallen stars, sunken around us in all that whiteness.
Way up on the North Slope. Thousands of caribou dotting the tundra. North America’s last great herd.
Kathleen’s cabin. A group of us on the middle of her frozen pond. Huddled around telescopes mounted into the ice. Amazing. The moons of Jupiter. Rings of Saturn. And beyond it all, the Milky Way. Ancient purple gases flowing overhead, somewhere centuries away.
That summer I lived in the Bush. On Lake Iksgiza. Building cabins for Phil. Catching grayling every night. Growing tomatoes the size of soft balls.
My first caribou. Near Toolik Lake. Scanning the tundra for bears as I slice the shoulder away from the rest of the carcass. How that pool of blood reflects crimson in the midnight sun.
Ryan and me. Kayaking across Blackstone Bay. Our paddles cutting glassy, turquoise water as we weave between icebergs. Then, in the distance, an ice sheet the size of a house. Calving from the glacier with a roar. Sending foam fifty feet high.
In the Brooks Range. That grizzly crossing the river in front of me. Three feet of white water slamming against her body and she doesn’t even flinch. Hardly seems to notice.
And that chorus of wolves. Outside my tent up Riley Creek. How those soulful howls echo across the Alaska Range.
But not just the experiences. The people. Some have moved on. Montana Annie. Ace. Cliff Hudson. Some, like me, come and go. Deb Wolfe. Karon Jahn. Both world travelers who always circle back to the Last Frontier.
There are those who have stayed. Nancy and Mac down at the Latitude. My first and best employers here. Richard and Linda out on Birch Creek. In their sixties they're still living off the grid on a diet of mostly salmon, moose, and other wild game. Tim and Sharla, who raise their daughter in a yurt outside of town. Later this month they’re throwing a huge birthday bash for Tim's fortieth. It's going to be a highlight of my summer. Friends of all ages dancing in the grass. Winterland rocking out on a home-made wooden stage.
But until then I need to get back to the mountains.
Tomorrow morning I’ll break camp to stick my thumb out on the Parks Highway. And head north to the Brooks Range. Through Fairbanks and Coldfoot. Over Atigun Pass and into the Arctic. Time to unplug and re-boot. Soak up the beauty of some of the last true wilderness in North America. To gain the perspective only that level of solitude can offer. No need for clocks or cell phones where I’m going. No need for time. Take it.
Take my youth. Take my money, what little there is. Take all of my belongings. Take everything.
But leave the wildness.