I shifted in my seat and looked at the time, 9:30 am. Our plane should have landed five minutes ago. Just then, the airliner’s cabin speakers came to life.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we apologize for the delay. The weather isn’t cooperating right now but we’re going to take one more pass and shoot the approach. Should have you down on the ground in about fifteen minutes. Thank you for your patience,” said the captain’s voice.
We were somewhere above Juneau, Alaska but the only thing I could see outside the airliner’s window, two seats to my right, was clouds. Or, rather, I could see gray. Dense and motionless except for the vapors passing over the edge of the wings. No turbulence, just the whine of jet engines. As if we were passing through a dream.
The plane had circled the runway twice.
Later, M would tell me that Juneau can be a difficult place to land. Sometimes you can’t and you end up in Sitka for the night. Sometimes you fly all the way back to Seattle.
Tension crept into my body. I’d given up a lot to be on that plane and I knew the chance of a commercial airliner not landing successfully, or worse, was minimal but, when you have a lot riding on the line, even unthinkable disaster seems immanent.
I reminded myself that what the plane did was beyond my control. I tried to let go.
At fifteen hundred feet, we broke through the clouds. To the east was the steep lower bulge of misty green mountains and below us were the dark waters of Favorite Channel then Auke Bay, where ferries and fishing boats docked.
The landing was soft but the runway short, the airbrakes lurched my body against my seatbelt as the plane slowed and the captain welcomed us to Juneau.
Juneau International Airport is small. It has one terminal and six gates, one baggage claim conveyer, a single TSA gate, six ticket counters, and departures and arrivals are dropped off or picked up at the same automatic glass sliding doors.
M was in a meeting that morning and wouldn’t be there to pick me up for over an hour. So, after I grabbed my two checked bags and changed out of my shorts and into jeans and flannel, I found a spot in the waiting area near the glass sliding doors and tried to get comfortable.
A woman in her mid-twenties was the only other person in the vicinity. She lounged on a sofa and at her feet was a large backpack, the kind used for expeditions, skis, and a worn duffel bag. Bored and somewhat lonely, I decided to strike up a conversation with her.
She was blonde, of average height, and the fading tan lines on her face from glacier goggles gave her raccoon-ish appearance but also a hardness that contrasted her soft voice.
She told me she was fresh off the ice. Recently completing this season’s work at Juneau Icefield Research Program, JIRP. It was her second year at there; the first year as a student, the next as staff. Each season was nine weeks straight of studying glaciers and traveling from research station to research station inside the Juneau ice field, only accompanied by faculty and students. No trips to town, no weekends to see family. Just ice, mountains, like-minded people, data gathering, and solitude.
I asked her why she did it. But I could see it, before I asked.
She had the same spark in her eye that L did when he told me about the moment he saw the Grand Tetons of Wyoming and decided to start climbing mountains. It’s a hunger, an untamed curiosity. It’s the draw of the wilderness and its private beauty that few are lucky enough to witness.
It’s a passion that one can point to a specific moment and say that’s when it began but, truthfully, these things are with them since the dawn of their birth. It only took a specific key to open the door to what had been inside them all along.
“Barry Lopez,” the woman said “Arctic Dreams. That book started it all.”
An hour later, M picked me up. I was glad to see her and to be out of the airport. In the few moments it took to deposit my bags in the back of her Nissan, I inhaled greedily at the fresh, salty air. It reminded me of Seattle, of home.
M and I had talked a lot on the phone over the past three weeks and it was because of her that I had come to Juneau. Our recent history was complex. We had separated almost two months before, an abrupt end to an eight month partnership, but our separation lasted a week before we reconnected and I decided to uproot my life and join her in Alaska.
I came to Juneau because of M but there was more to my relocation than that.
It was cloudy still and light raindrops fell on the windshield. M cursed the weather as she flipped on the wipers. She had hoped for more brilliant weather for my arrival but I couldn’t complain. Voluntarily, I traded the peak of Seattle summer for Southeast Alaska’s fall. I’d left my job, sold most of my things, and broke my lease for this. A little rain was the least of my worries.
The last six months had been some of the most mentally and emotionally challenging of my life. Maybe it’s age. Maybe it’s because I’m closer to thirty than I am to twenty-nine that I felt the increasing pressure to choose and I felt myself tipping toward comfort and what I’d always known.
It’s tough growing up poor in America, as I had, because you never want to be poor again, even if it costs you your happiness. It creeps into your thoughts, it traps you. You choose safety. You choose a slow death.
I had this reoccurring daydream that I was on a train, that it had already passed my stop, and the longer I stayed on the train, the further it took me from where I was supposed to be. Where I needed to be.
There were moments where my life passed in front of my eyes and suddenly I was 85 and still sitting there on the train with my hands crossed and a frown on my face knowing the whole time that I’d missed my stop, that I’d missed the point, and now it was too late.
I’d emerge from those moments feeling as if I couldn’t breathe.
On the drive from the airport, I closed my eyes and remembered the darkness in the Talkeetna Mountains, after I fell in a boulder field and my vision went black. When, for a moment, I thought I’d died or would soon die.
There’s a lesson here. In that infinitesimal moment when I thought my life was being taken from me. It’s the cruel suddenness to an end. I didn’t get to choose when or how. That was out of my control, just like whether the airplane landed or not.
It gave me urgency. It made me realize that I had to start taking risks. Just like L does when he climbs mountains or the woman at the airport. The most devastating risk was to believe that I could put to the side what I had been born to give the world, until later.
Why then, would I choose the security of my career over the realization of a calling that has burned inside me since I was a child?
Then, would my eyes be etched with brilliant flints like L or the woman at the airport?
I had to try. I had to step off the train and get to a spot where I could find my way back to myself again. It didn’t matter much where I started but somewhere, Alaska seemed like a great place to begin.
Read about my fall in the Talkeetna Mountains here.