Two weeks ago, I saw the most gorgeous square I had seen in all my travels combined. That square was an airplane window, with an unwatched movie to the side and a baby crying behind, framing an ice field that hung still and silent behind the rounded glass. Ice ran like water, stony and still. Mountains cupped motion. In the twist of frozen movement the ice splintered into blue, pooling into the darker blue of a glacial lake, so true that I could name each thing nothing but itself. Mountain. Snow. Ice. My words fell short of pure reality.
I stared into the window, completely undone by the fact that the most beautiful thing I had seen on my life had come, not on a hike or a backcountry road, but on a standard flight into Anchorage, with a Twix wrapper on my lap and a neighbor napping beside. Such, I was to learn, is Alaska.
I have lived in Seward, Alaska, where I will spend the summer working on a whale watch boat, for nearly two weeks now, and every series of steps sets a new record of beauty. I came to Seward to capture beauty in words, but the mountains pierce so high that I fall silent beneath their shadow. How can my words possibly touch the perfect sheen of slopes shouldering off winter snow, or the layered shades of islands above water splintered by the otters at my feet?
The answer is that they cannot. Instead I will treat each moment like an island, and use these words as the boat.
One such moment: On the bow of the Glacier Express, arms wrapped into the wind chill, the blow of a bull orca hanging high above glassy water. He slides down into water like a window, and I lose all thought as I stare into the perfect solidity of the white oval on his face, the tall angle of his black fin, his body narrowing towards the perfect shape of his fluke as it disappears under the boat. I am dissuaded from the axis of my world. Sight turns upside down, swiping through the deck of the bow until the orca appears to port, his breath a bridge to a world cold with mystery. And I cannot stop smiling, because this is a world that I share.
And then my mind moves up the slopes of the mountain that is always to my back, Mount Marathon, where I hiked last week with my coworkers Sarah, Megan, and Brandon on an afternoon of rare sun. Brandon knew both the trail and Alaska, so Megan and Sarah and I followed as he walked with (very) quick steps toward the trailhead. At the bottom of the trail I stopped to look up, vastly intimidated. The trail gutted the hillside, steep and pebbled, shale crunching beneath Brandon’s boots as he sprinted up the path.
Keep up, I thought sternly to myself. Be strong and be capable. I flung myself into motion behind Sarah and Megan, forcing each step into speed. Breath tore as my boots plunged. I am not ready for this, I thought. I should retire to the city and satisfy my mind with squares of trimmed geraniums. I should stay in the low places where my muscles belong. I cannot match his pace.
And then, as my steps continued to fall short and my head warped and my breath caught on the edges of my lingering cold, a thought spun me to my senses. I could never catch up to Brandon’s pace. I had no choice to walk within my own feet.
Pressed by that thought, the print of my boots became my own space. The air in my lungs fed my own muscles. I was myself, extending outside the name “capable” just as the mountains rose above the words with which I shaped them. The mountain and I were real and true and intimate, alone among company, sharing each other through each step. Now I looked around me and I saw, saw the ribbon of trail, saw the blue sky, saw the mountains that glowed through the trees with such intensity that they hurt my eyes.
This place is real, I thought, and it is beautiful.
What came next was pure joy. Crossing old avalanches. Following Brandon’s pointing finger to a ptarmigan far up on the mountain. Lifting our hands up into the first line of golden sunlight. The point above a white bowl filled with sunlight, where we stood in the snow and looked over the smallness of Seward laid out like a toy. Forest. Lake. Ocean. Mountains. Icy peaks. Their truth eclipsed their names.
On the walk down, a moose blocked our path and we walked carefully behind the trees as Brandon talked it away, speaking moose. At the bottom of the hill we walked past sea otters and over streams that would soon hold salmon, our path swept above by the wings of bald eagles.
Alaska remains the most beautiful place I have seen. I don’t understand it at all. And these months remain for us to name each other true.
Have your own stories of Alaska outpacing language? Comment below!