A little over a year ago I headed off to Alaska to visit my son, Josh, who was working near Denali National Park for the second summer in a row. It was late in the season, he wasn’t sure if he’d return the following year, and I didn’t want to miss the chance to see what he was up to out there. I bought the airline ticket, told my boss I’d be back in a week, and took off.
Josh had a tough go of life that year. For privacy, I must refrain from telling the story here. My belief is that he went back to Alaska for a second time, not so much for himself, but to prove to the spirit of a lost loved one that he could go on. He has never been one to let life’s setbacks keep him from exploring and learning. In fact, for Josh, life’s setbacks only seem to encourage the expansion of his dreams and goals.
As is the case for many fathers, I had felt that my parenting skills had been inadequate for the first 22 years of Josh’s life. Maybe I could use this time to bond with my son in his world and not mine for once.
A Goal Realized
My son greeted me in the airport terminal with a smile
and a hug. He gestured that we should get outdoors as quickly as possible
knowing that I was anxious to do so. Alaska was the last state of the US that I
had not visited, and I was eager to complete my long-standing goal. Josh seemed
almost as excited as I was to step outside into the
warm, lovely, August
sunshine miserable, rainy, cloudy, cold, and windy mess that is Alaska in
I’m sure it’s not always like that, but for the duration of my only visit there, that was, pretty much, all that I experienced.
We drove for the next few hours, catching up on current life events and making plans for the week. By the time we arrived at his apartment, we had made more plans than we could execute.
We started off the week with a road trip to Talkeetna. The weather was no better than the day before, but we made the most of it. Josh stopped several times along the way to point out and show me many of the little things he had discovered over the past two years. I was fascinated.
He left the paved road at one point for a dirt path that was barely wide enough for the car. He continued until the path crossed a dry riverbed. Then he drove through it!
Josh knows me very well. He was taking me to a rocky beach just beyond, where we would be skipping rocks. I love skipping rocks into water. I don’t know why. I just do.
We spent the next hour competing with one another in various rock-skipping contests until our arms were completely useless.
In Talkeetna, we learned that the town mayor, Stubbs, had died for the last time. He had been a cat and had used up his allotment of lives well before we had arrived. A new one had not yet been elected.
After a bit of hiking on the riverbanks outside of town and a bite to eat, we headed back to Josh’s place.
The rest of the week went by in a flash. The day after our road trip we stayed close to Denali. We drove up the park road as far as they let cars go and did some scrambling on an outcropping of rock in the rain. It was always raining.
I’m told that Denali, the mountain, is only seen by 1/3 of the visitors that come to this area with hopes of seeing it. Typically, it is shrouded in cloud cover, making seeing it from a distance a rare treat. Josh and I were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one slope of the mountain. Hardly satisfying. I still count myself among the many who have not seen it. I never did get another chance that week.
We spent the following day hiking a trail through the wilderness… In the rain.
The rain let up the next morning and we had a reservation to go whitewater rafting on the Nenana River. After we suited up in dry suits and started paddling, it rained.
Despite the crappy weather, I was simply having a wonderful time. Josh seemed at home in this little roadside encampment of a town. Before I knew it, our time together this week was almost up. Josh needed to get back to work the next day so I would have one day to explore on my own before heading back home.
I would head to Mount Healy and climb the Castle Rock side of the peak.
I woke up just before 6 am, well before Josh had to get ready for work. I quietly gathered my gear and snuck out without waking him.
According to the locals that I had spoken with, the round trip to the summit and back should take 5-6 hours. I wondered if I still had it in me to accomplish it in that time frame.
The first hour was torture. Slogging up the muddy slope to reach the rocky mountainside was a lesson in frustration management. Clearly, I was not the mountain climber that I once was. So far, though, no rain yet today.
My pace picked up though, after finally reaching the more easily navigable, rocky ridgeline. The rain clouds loomed in the distance and were approaching fast. I set my sights on the nearest prominent feature and refused to stop for a rest until I had achieved the miniature goal. Next feature, next goal, and so on. I tried to fill my mind with the memories that I had made this week with my son.
The rock was very loose below the ridge that I was following. At one point I watched a small landslide occur as the rocks shifted 100 feet away from me. I’m sure this is a daily occurrence judging from the evidence around me. I’ll stay on the ridge to be safe.
After a few hours, the summit was partially visible. The recently nearby clouds were now upon me obscuring my view. A light snow began to fall but would amount to nothing. At least it wasn’t raining! Not being able to see the next features, I trudged on blindly and rested often. Another hour and I was on top…. Almost.
In front of me was a 30-foot-tall wall of rock. I would have to revert to my meager rock-climbing skills and scale it to reach the true summit. I had no ropes or anchors with me. Could I live with myself knowing that I came so close to the goal and turned around? Would anyone know if I fudged the truth? Would anyone really care?
I looked around for an easy route up. Someone had done this before. I found a wooden white stake planted in the rocks nearby, apparently marking a weakness in the wall that I could exploit.
Success! I sat on top for 20 minutes. The clouds let up for a time, granting me a grand view of the valley below. Fear cost me another 10 minutes before I could commit to down-climbing the wall that had nearly protected the summit from me.
Two hours back to the car. Six hours almost to the minute! I was elated!
My little tales don’t always go as well.
Josh drove me back to Fairbanks to catch my plane the next day. He had been a gracious host to say the least. My time in Alaska had been filled with wonder and exploration, but also with admiration for my son, who, for a brief time called it home. I am jealous and probably always will be.