I came across a quote today from author and conservationist, Wallace Stegner, in which he wrote in a letter, “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.” I don’t know if I ever could have appreciated those words until a made a concerted effort to visit some of the great national parks of the United States, which now I can include Denali. Although it has been limited so often to the majestic mountain we visited yesterday, there is so much more, a wild side that spans millions of acres that often times have yet to be explored.
It’s been interesting meeting some of the people along the way here and other Parks I’ve visited. When you meet those who dedicate months of their lives to educating others within the park, you often are left wondering why they got there in the first place and why they continue to do it in service to others. Maybe on some level Stegner was right that if it does anything, it has the uncanny ability to reassure us of our sanity let alone heal us on levels that we are often totally unaware of as we walk through life. So much of the time is simply trying to take it in and every now and then listen to the stories being told, of the guide but also of the vast land that advances before your very eyes, even with a glass window standing in the way from fully embracing the experience on a deeper level, on a very tactile level of touching the earth that has been home to humans and animals for years beyond counting.
One of the people we encountered today, who has served in Denali for nearly ten years now each summer was Phil. He was our bus driver but also our nature guide as we ventured through the Park today. He couldn’t have been more than his late 20’s driving this bus, majored in Marketing back in Colorado, and now spends the off-season training other bus drivers to do what he does at Denali. But it was his story that leaves you pondering the words of Stegner because it was practically just a month ago that he was attacked by a Grizzly in the Park. Now I would guess that for most of us, that would be the end of our time stepping foot in there without having some time of flashbacks or anxiety attacks, but here he was driving us through and now telling his story of his encounter with the wild. It’s probably the main reason why most of us don’t venture beyond the confines of our cars or bus, the fear of the wild is real for us because it is the one thing that still leaves us humbled that there really is something more powerful than ourselves.
Phil has the scars to prove it (although he wouldn’t allow me to take a photo to prove it!). The grizzly caught him right at his left calf, a bite mark that encompasses much of his leg. He had gone out hiking on a beautiful day in late June and was trying to avoid areas of moose scat, which, unfortunately, led him to the encounter with the mama grizzly and her two cubs. He knew what he had to do in order to protect himself but also knew what he was up against in the reality of the wild that remains untamed and ferocious, yet, continuously invites us to those very places within ourselves. At some point, if he hasn’t already, he may find himself seeking that grizzly within himself, teaching him, guiding him, and acting as wisdom to this young man, but until then it remains an external encounter, wounding the flesh but often wounding and touching something deeper within us at the same time.
I have to say, many of the people that we’ve encountered in these locations are locals. They didn’t grow up here and had no immediate connection to Alaska until they had come themselves, visiting and experiencing the land and the spirit that arises from within these lands. We mustn’t forget the countless Natives that have called this home before others ever arrived, who have called forth from the wild the spirit of these lands. As much as many of them aren’t here, they return to give back. During an initial visit to the outreaches of this country they are called, have a life-changing encounter, and then continue to yearn to return to what then becomes home. It seems, at times, hard to fathom why they would ever do it. Why would Phil keep returning to these secluded parts of not only Alaska but this country he calls home, if it hadn’t first touched him in some deeper way.
From the peaks of Denali to the depths of the countless acres of undergrowth, it remains metaphor for something bigger, beyond explanation. Maybe they haven’t all found it yet within themselves, but the voice of the great Spirit that leads them to these lands and continues to reassure them of their sanity, reminds them of the nagging within themselves for connection and encounter and they find it here. In my experience, and I’m sure they’d say the same, you can really only drive to the edge and look in for so long, in the words of Stegner. Eventually you have to allow yourself to cross that line and enter in fully, even if it means an encounter with a grizzly. Deep down, you just know, that it’s where you belong and may be the only place that leads you to saving your soul and living your life most fully.