Waiting for Denali

In early May, I felt the itch for a long backcountry trip far away from cell reception and computers. My slowly-healing broken ankle had kept me out of the mountains for any sustained period of time, and I needed the simplicity of slow coffee mornings, trails, and long sunsets. I wanted to wake up with no one around for miles.

So I bought tickets to visit a friend in Alaska. We had loose plans to backpack in Denali, and it felt like a vision coming to life. I’d had Alaska on my mind for years, a place that’s mythological in mountain culture for the depth of the wild, the scale of the peaks, the unending daylight.

But my adventure buddy was called to work for ptarmigan trapping at the last minute. Which is how, instead of watching alpine glow on giant peaks from the solitude of the backcountry, I found myself sitting in a rental car on the paved park road waiting for clouds to lift from Denali from behind my windshield.

And I was angry with myself. (I know, how annoyed are you with me? I was looking at Denali, for God’s sake. I’m privileged as hell, and I should have been ecstatic.)

We are the stories we tell ourselves. I tell myself that I am strong, capable, and independent. But sitting in that car, I wasn’t living up to my story. Because I couldn’t bring myself to stick to the backpacking plan alone. I was scared of being solo in the Alaskan wild.

I kept thinking that I should be more badass. I should be confident enough in my skills and knowledge to trek through trail-less country surrounded by grizzlies, moose, and wolves. I should be tough enough to brave the forecasted snow and cold temps. Other fearless people were out there. Why couldn’t I get my shit together?

Instead, I pitched my tent at the well-populated campsite at the park entry for two nights, and backslid further by booking a room at a hostel the following two nights for the worst of the weather. I turned my phone on airplane mode and pretended I was out of range.

The next day I hopped on the shuttle bus with the other tourists, the only mode of transport on the single road through the park after mile 13. I didn’t last long. I got off the claustrophobic bus at the east fork of the Toklat in the driving snow, dying to escape the screaming two-year-olds, loud talkers, and fogged windows. I was determined to be brave enough to at least hike alone in that big wild.

I walked up the wide riverbed and immediately stumbled on the biggest grizzly tracks I’ve ever seen. My heart dropped and I pulled out my bear spray (which, when you see tracks like that, seems like the stupidest defense ever). I forced myself on, singing my favorite songs at the top of my lungs. I saw more bear tracks, moose tracks, and scores of wolf tracks in the four miles before I allowed myself to head back to the road. Perhaps in a nod to how bad my singing is, I didn’t see a single animal.

Honestly, it wasn’t really all that enjoyable hiking in the wind and snow with zero views and my ankle throbbing. But I felt the need to prove something to myself.

In the hostel that night, I met an old man from Anchorage, a teacher who travels all over the world on his summer vacations. I found myself divulging all my insecurities to him, every one of my shoulds.

He laughed. “Of course you should take chances in life. But the decision to take that chance has to be weighted toward a positive outcome. You think about the fact that when you step off that bus, you are alone in a vast wilderness. No one knows where you are.”

Then he looked at me and said: “And you’re here, now, and it’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?”

I grabbed my map to plan tomorrow’s hike and snuggled under the blankets while the snow came down outside the window. He was right. It was pretty amazing.

In the end, we are the stories we tell ourselves. And I decided I don’t always have to be so damn strong in mine.








One thought on “Waiting for Denali

  1. Cass,

    You are one of the strongest women I know, perhaps only beat out by your sister! Sleeping alone in the wilds of Alaska or snuggled up tight in a hostel doesn’t prove a damn thing. You have nothing to prove to anyone but yourself (and she’s too tough of a critic to satisfy all the time)! Enjoy those majestic mountains, the raw beauty of Alaska and go hug a griz for me. 🙂 Love ya!



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