I spent this past week in Alaska with my family, during what was the entirety of my summer vacation this year (thank you medical school). We flew into Seattle early last Saturday and boarded a cruise liner from that beautiful pine and spruce-lined coast.
After only two relaxing days at sea, which involved a lot of sleeping and quiet reading, we reached the Alaskan coastline. I still remember waking up for breakfast on Monday and being struck by the slow passage of a most magnificent landscape through the cabin windows. The sky was overcast and the higher altitudes continued to bear traces of suspended dew. I saw hills upon rolling hills, covered with dark green firs, spruces and pines, quiet, dark waters, modest, wooden dwellings nestled among hilly nooks, and not a soul in sight. Juneau, Alaska. I peeled my eyes away to grab a scone and fruit, and was quickly back, deckside, studying the sight with worshipful sincerity. My sister was hanging on as well; in fact my entire family was uncharacteristically silent. The ship continued to roll in, moving along, and yet all the while suspended at what felt like the same image, the same hills, the same waters, the same serenity.
I can give you lists of all the things that we did. I can tell you about taking a tram up one of these hills and hiking miles into woods to stand in amazement at the foot of a glacier and its waterfall, about rafting down an eagle preserve, about our whale watching expedition during which we came within fifty yards of two dozen humpback whales, coming to surface with light spouts of steam before quietly, happily, gracefully diving back in. I can talk about the totem poles. I can talk about the hours where I cozied up at a little table on the lowest passenger level and just stared at the slate grey expanse of the never ending Pacific ocean.
We resisted using the internet café. We had no phone signal on the ship, save for brief connections on the mainland. I left so many things behind. I left behind my textbooks and iPad. I left behind the long work hours. I left behind my hopes and disappointments, the library, the confusing milieu of relationships and friendships, and the constant noise and hum of the hospital. I’ve never done yoga, never consistently done meditation, much as I’ve always wanted. I didn’t envision Alaska as some sort of spiritual retreat, but that is what it turned out to be, and exactly what I needed. That’s not to say that I didn’t think about that stuff; I sure did; the ocean is a basin for thought. But I still slept so well.
The two things I took to heart in Alaska are both about time. Surprised? You can take a girl out of a liberal arts university, but you can’t take the twenty-page English literature papers on motifs and metaphors out of her.
Alaska is a synonym for nature is a synonym for time. Every particle, every droplet comes from a different age. The mountains are carved out of the painstakingly slow procession of glaciers, and tree stumps are sometimes over a thousand years old. The salmon swim upstream to spawn and die, a time-honored tradition tracing back to their very genesis. And the waters. To raft down a canal, run your fingers through the cool waters and remember that it was all borne of glacier-melt… to recall the Ice Age in everyday conversation, squint your eyes under a spray of glacier fan, to touch earrings carved out of wooly mammoth tusks in gift shops – Alaska gave me a sense of wonder and respect for nature and time that I’ll always appreciate. I’ve never felt like such a speck in the world – not at the Grand Canyon, not in the plush cushions of an airplane as it crossed over oceans, not in New York City. It was strangely comforting.
The second thought arose in conversation with the man who rafted my sister and I down the Chilkat river. He was a drifter. A nomad who grew up in Texas, he found his way rafting people down the Colorado river in the Grand Canyon valleys, and then onto an organic farm as a farmhand in Hawaii, finally ending up in Haines, Alaska, population 1800 humans and 4000 bald eagles, where he rafted during the summers and did ‘whatever he could to get by’ in the winters. He fished enough of his own salmon to feed him and his girl for a year, storing the harvest in deep freezers, and tended to an extensive vegetable garden that nourished them. He could see marriage in his distant future, yes. He’d figure out if he’d want to raise a family in Haines when the time came. When asked if he’d like to stay in Alaska forever, he said that he didn’t believe in thinking about forever. He was happy in the present moment, and that was good enough for him.
I leaned back and let myself run fingers through the cool, clear waters, and watched him point out scores of bald eagles, a family of black wolves, numerous sea otters, and the salmon. He talked about how the salmon are born in freshwater, and eventually make their way out into the sea, when at age 5, something clicks in their heads and compels them to swim back to the rivers and lakes where they were born, to spawn and subsequently die. The masses of dead floating salmon in the fall made for an excellent feast for the eagles, which flocked here in great numbers from all around the continent for it.
Did the salmon know what was in store for them? Did they know that their rewards for making this long arduous journey, upstream all the way, were a few eggs they’d never see hatch and a conversion of their bodies into a carrion meal for their predators? Did they never question the state of things when their friends and neighbors made this pilgrimage year after year and never returned? It seemed mindless to me. How could the salmon not think about the future?
Alaska gave me many things. Beautiful memories, time with family, and opportunities to rest and relax. But something else that I’ll value forever is this deeper understanding of time. Alaska taught me the value of patience, and peaceful living. Where I may buzz and flap over my million tasks, the fjords weren’t carved in a single day. And where I took my cues from The Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland who famously says that it often takes all the running one can do to stay in the same place, Alaska nudged me to accept the inevitability of change, of fate and such – that it was okay to drift and be moved to a different place than what one originally imagined or was used to. I saw it everywhere in the land and seas. I saw it reflected in the hearts and minds of its people.
I’m back in Boston now, looking out the window at the multitudes of people and buildings, and trying to hold on to this sentiment, willing it to stay.
Previously: Step One: A Medical School Pivot Point