the one where they camp in Denali

I think Alaska has warped me. I’m not talking about my gradual desensitization to the rain, how tired I am of salmon, how I’ve stopped allotting any time for commutes, or how I’ve lost all sense of appropriate personal boundaries after a year with these people.

I’m talking about fashion.

In case you haven’t heard, Anchorage was recently dubbed the Worst Dressed City in America. And Anchorage has a mall. With a Nordstrom. So just imagine how the rest of the state is doing. It’s not that they’re trying and failing—it’s just that nobody cares. This is Alaska! Nobody cares how anybody looks here. It’s a refreshing and dangerous reality.

We had our final retreat in the Kenai Peninsula last month, followed by three nights of camping in Denali National Park, so I packed lightly. I didn’t even pack any hair products, which is basically my definition of full-on hippie. I also didn’t pack any real pants, and while I have no qualms about wearing exercise leggings 24/7 on retreats and camping trips, I never thought I’d be walking around downtown Anchorage in leggings like it’s the most normal thing in the world. I’m concerned about my reentry into society, and maybe all of you should be too. Call me every now and then. Check in on me. Make sure I’m wearing pants.

So back to the retreat. We flew into Anchorage, where, in a lovely little flashback to October, Sposa and I went halvsies on breakfast and talked about Mod things and BC and FRIENDSHIP. The retreat itself was a few hours south of Anchorage, in a little town on the Kenai called Moose Pass, which according to Wikipedia has a population of 206 (people, not moose). YES.

I think every retreat has been better than the last. The location was perfect: isolated enough to feel like the middle of nowhere, but convenient enough for a drive to Seward. Before we’d even parked the car, I saw a guy eating gelato and couldn’t concentrate on anything else until I’d found my own. It was worth it. We also saw Exit Glacier, which I think is an unfortunate name on multiple levels. First of all, I don’t want the glacier to go anywhere. Second, road signs that say “EXIT GLACIER” just look very demanding. Calm down, road signs.

There’s a glacier behind us; can’t you tell?

The weather and the view were serviceable, I guess, if you like things that are amazing. But really, this place was all about the paddle boats. Paddle boats remind me of Disney. Then again, 97% of things in this world remind me of Disney, so that says less about paddle boats than it does about my life. It does, however, reinforce my belief that I am happiest when water and sunshine are within my reach. And good friends. Mostly good friends.

We spent a lot of nights around the campfire (is it still night if the sun barely sets? Is sleep still a thing down south? Anne and I spent most of the retreat quoting Buster Bluth—“We’re just blowing through nap time, aren’t we?”—because it NEVER GOT DARK so sleep never felt like a priority). The company more than made up for the criminal lack of s’mores. I love these Alaska JVs, and this retreat was the last chance we had to come together as a group. Pretty soon we’ll all be scattering across the country, and while I’m so glad to know I have this built-in network from coast to coast, I don’t want to lose that campfire closeness, those guitar sing-alongs, road trip ice cream cones, and secret ladies’ night adventures. Goodbyes are the worst. And Kat left last week to go be a Navy doctor and save lots of lives, so our community is already down to four. What is happening?! At least the five of us had one big last hurrah in Denali.

The day after the retreat, we did as the tourists do and boarded the Alaska Railroad for Denali National Park. A little girl in our car, who was on the phone with her grandpa, said it best: “We’re going to see grizzly bears and mountain McKinley, and I’ll get you a shirt! Would you like larger or extra larger?” Kids are great. And all of this turned out to be true for us (minus the shirt). We did see grizzly bears! We did see “mountain” McKinley! But to clear this up, I will henceforth refer to the mountain as Denali (which is Athabaskan for “the great one”), because that’s how Alaskans do it, and since when did the state of Ohio get to decide what Alaska names its mountains? That’s not what Rome is about we should totally just stab Caesar!

Anyway, we saw the whole mountain from the train, which is a big deal because it IS the tallest mountain in North America, so it’s usually shrouded in clouds. I’ve heard and googled varying stats on this. Some say the peak is visible 15% of the time, but others say 40% and everything in between. So I have absolutely no idea which elite percentage I’m in, but it’s definitely super elite and special and you should be wildly impressed with my good fortune.

That mountain looks big. Bigger than every other mountain on the continent.

Train travel is the best. This is clearly how nature is meant to be seen: from a temperature-controlled café car where you can eat muffins, play card games and blast The Head and the Heart on your iPhone. TOURISM!

And after that shameless display of modern luxury, we camped in Denali! We got down and dirty with the twigs and the mosquitos and the moose droppings. We saw caribou, bears and bear cubs, moose and moose calves. We wore mosquito head nets, and for the first time I realized that death by mosquito is an actual possibility. It’s like an Old Testament plague out there. I doused myself, my clothes, my shoes in bug spray at least three times a day and still came away looking like I’d developed a patchy new breed of chicken pox, and I was luckier than some of my roommates. Martine, possibly the itchiest of us all, was at least distracted by a love affair with her new camp stove, which we used to cook our (surprisingly delicious) dehydrated meals. We pumped our water to clear out the germs and spat into a creek when we brushed our teeth. Camping: it’s not like Tom Haverford does it.

On the first night, we decided that it made total sense to only put up one tent, since we’d just have to take it down at 6 am and bus to our final campground at Wonder Lake. Five people slept in a three-person tent, which Anne decided was the ultimate metaphor for community living: when one of us moved, we ALL had to move.

When we boarded the bus to the Wonder Lake, unshowered, caked in bug spray, our packs wider than the aisles (because you’re not hardcore unless you live hardcore), I could feel the stares of the clean, resort-going tourists and their giant camera lenses. What followed was a four-hour bus ride of breathtaking views, animal sightings, and Mike-isms. Mike was our bus driver. These are some of his gems:

  • “Those chipmunks are fat and sassy.”
  • “Look at these cars. They pay a fortune just to enter the lottery to drive around here and they’re lower than the bushes, can’t see a thing. Bet they can’t see that bear!”
  • “Look at this bus, couldn’t pay me to drive that bus.” (I don’t even remember what was wrong with it.)
  •  “Look at this guy. This guy wants to be outside.” (Mike on a passenger who kept sticking his arms outside the windows despite being told not to.)
  • “I mean, I prefer my photos to be original.” (Mike on the subject of the classic Denali-in-a-reflection-pond photo.)

I think Mike was the sassy one.

Parting with Mike was such sweet sorrow, but it meant we’d reached Wonder Lake, the only campsite with a view of the mountain. Wonder Lake also has running water in its bathrooms—potable water, even!—so helloooo civilization. My coworker had warned me that the mosquitoes were even worse in the heart of the park, which I thought was impossible because there couldn’t possibly be enough mosquitoes in the WORLD to make that true, but it’s true. Fortunately, by that point everything I owned was giving off an appetizing eau de bug spray, so it was fine. And for the last two nights, we slept here, which I really wouldn’t trade for anything.

We also hiked. Ohhh we hiked. Denali doesn’t have many trails because apparently trails aren’t hardcore enough. Hardcore people blaze their own trails. I have a love-hate relationship with this, because trailblazing on an ideal level is like being a Wilderness Explorer or going on Ferris Bueller’s day off, but in practice, it’s actually just like being Katniss Everdeen without the love story. Y’all, I would lose the Hunger Games in like a heartbeat.

We spent the longest day of the year hiking around Wonder Lake, and I mean “longest day of the year” in both the literal and emotional sense. If this day had a subtitle, it would be “Return of the Ragey Inner Monologue.” The hike started off really well—we spent the morning at lower elevations, keeping pretty close to the lake and soaking in the hot sunshine. My arms are tan now! But things kind of went downhill when we went uphill. Permafrost is really spongy, so hiking the mountains around Wonder Lake is like climbing hills of sand that are covered in bushes, and the bushes keep snagging your mosquito head net as you duck through them. Then you’re hopping over animal poop while trying to figure out which animal made it and how long ago, and is there an angry bear waiting for you on the other side of theses bushes? Better sing louder! Get your bear spray ready, because it’s about to go down.

It never went down. Spend a day with the five of us, and you’ll know it couldn’t go down even if we wanted it to. We make far too much noise. I’ve no doubt that the animals were nearby, but we didn’t see a single one. And may I say that even though I didn’t love that hike, I did love how often we sang “Call Me Maybe.”

TRAIL BLAZERS

After a meal and a way-too-quick nap, we rose at 1 a.m. to appreciate the light of the solstice on a peaceful, gradually-sloped, well-cleared path to the sandbar. Can every day of my life start with this hike?

Mike would not approve of this photo.

I just loved everything about that morning. Denali came out in full force, clear as anything, and I took so many pictures that my camera died, at which point I was forced to stop seeing everything through a lens and start using my eyes. It felt wrong to drive away from such a beautiful place, but the view from the bus was every bit as stunning. Can we talk about how amazing that morning was and how happy it made me to be alive? It was perfect in a way that very few mornings are in life, perfect in a way that makes you stop breathing because you’re too in awe of this world, in a way that makes you certain that you’re meant to be right here right now. I am just so insanely grateful for the people and places that have made this year, and for the fact that I spent that clear morning driving around Denali.

BUT. Hotel rooms and showers and not needing bug spray? Those are also nice. We boarded the train just a little dirtier than we’d left it, and we found ourselves in Fairbanks, where our motel called to tell us that they were sending a blue unmarked van to pick us up. That was our first clue. In the words of my roommate, who tweeted this at me from across the room (obviously our foray into simple living has been wildly successful), “Bates Motel? You decide.”

It’s ok though—Alaskans just prefer substance to style. The people who ran the place were so generous to us; they even let us store our bags in the office after we checked out, giving us a whole day to explore Fairbanks unencumbered. We checked out the Farmer’s Market and took a trip to Pioneer Park, where we impersonated Parks and Rec characters. The girl who took this photo was so confused.

Jerry, Leslie, Andy, Ron, and April

Did I mention that it was 85 degrees outside? Fairbanks, HOW DO YOU DO IT? How do you adjust from -60 to the 80s in one year? I think it involves a lot of ice cream. We sat in the shade with our cones and watched families playing in the park, and at this point we witnessed THE GREATEST THING TO HAPPEN ON THAT TRIP. Seriously. Two kids were at a picnic table, and one of them had an ice cream cone. She flipped it over onto the table, out of the cone, and then she and her brother started licking it. This blob of ice cream was just sliding around on the table while the kids were chasing it with their tongues. And THEN their mom ran up, clearly exasperated, and grabbed their hands and said, “That’s not even YOURS!” I’m not sure, but I think those kids might be everything that’s right with the world.

I re-acclimated to the heat fairly quickly, which is a good thing, because when I leave Alaska at the end of July, I might be going back home to Florida, where 85 degrees constitute a cold front at this time of year. AND where people CLEARLY CANNOT FOLLOW DIRECTIONS.

This was one of two maps inside the aviation museum at Pioneer Park.

Florida, step up your game.

Fairbanks actually reminded me of Florida: hot, sunny, and full of superstores. I expected Fairbanks at the solstice to be like Woodstock. I have no real basis for this; it’s just that I didn’t pack any hair products, which as I’ve said is the closest I get to having a hippie mode. I thought people would gather in the streets in dreadlocks and long skirts and sing about sunshine. This is better though. I much prefer the version where I get ice cream and laugh at kids all day.

So we headed back to Sitka, where the heat made the front page (“Sitka Gets Summer Day”!) and the high was 72, which was a record. As we flew over well-lit island homes where I’m still secretly convinced Ryan Reynolds and Betty White are settling down to dinner, we had the most amazing views of a perfect, blazing sunset.

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