The first time I saw Denali up close, it snuck up on me. In 2009, I had done some fancy four-wheel maneuvering with my cousin Mike and a group of new friends to his gold-panning acreage 17 miles or so beyond the pavement. We were way out on Petersville Road, hilly, willow-covered, difficult country off the Parks Highway by the Trapper Creek turnoff. The town of Talkeetna is due east, but the Susitna River slices a dose of no-access-thataway between the two places, so the turn to Talkeetna off the Parks Highway is well to the south.
The vastness of Alaska is practically impossible to grasp, even when it’s right in front of you. One way I like to help describe it is that the drive I’ve done now a couple of times from Anchorage to Anchorage (via Denali, Fairbanks, and Tok) makes a 1,300 mile circle. Yet it looks downright insignificant when superimposed on a map of the entire state. The place is just…immense, no matter where you are: on the rivers, in the mountains, or in the interior. No wonder Alaska holds such a mystical, far-away reputation.
In June and July, I spent another month of my life in that great state, doing a reprise of earlier trips with my cousin, Mike. With a friend, we first drove those 1,300 miles, and then we spent 16 happy (if cold) days on the Alsek River, crossing in and out of Alaska and British Columbia along the way. On several occasions, I got to witness the land slipping by under the wings of an airplane. This blog is dedicated to those varied and artful aerial views. Enjoy.
The first batch of photos is from the flight between Anchorage and Juneau, along the southeastern coast overlooking the mountains, icefields and glacial rivers of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Glacier Bay National Park.
Before our group formally came together in Palau last March, I joined a pre-trip day-long visit to Palau’s southernmost island of Peleliu. My original interest in visiting the tiny Pacific nation was driven in large part by curiosity about my father’s service in WWII. He was a naval aviator in the Pacific theater, flying kingfisher float planes on reconnaissance and artillery spotting missions. Much was written about the war, and in particular Peleliu, in the history books I had been reading to prepare for the trip, but somehow it had escaped me that it was part of Palau. I was excited to see it.
While in Palau, I added to my lifetime hours of snorkeling by factors of ten. As a novice, I was in that delicious “beginner’s mind” world where everything seemed wondrous. Our guide, Ron Leidich, is a lifelong biologist/naturalist and knows every fish and coral and grass and mammal (yes, we saw one) that we saw under the surface of that azure water. Although I don’t remember most of the names, I do remember his utter enthusiasm about the underwater world of Palau, and his joy in sharing it with us as if for the first time.
Imagine visiting a completely new world, something of which you have zero experience, and add the luxury of being guided by someone who knows it inside and out. Now travel by air about 8,000 miles west and south for about 22+ hours, to a dot on the ocean a few degrees north of the equator: the Republic of Palau! This Pacific archipelago nation of 386 islands is world-famous for its underwater world of marine beauty and diversity. Those in the know will tell you: Palau has some of the best snorkeling on the planet.
It was a place that had languished on my “someday” list for decades. I finally got there last April: Yosemite! Home to that very big cliff, El Capitan, that I had stared at in photographs since my teens, and my longtime heart’s desire, the hovering, split mountain known as Half Dome.
Yosemite is so famous, I was afraid I’d be impatient with the way it has to be managed to protect it from the hordes. But my experience was impressive, overall. To be honest, I was happy just to see people getting outdoors and enjoying themselves. How forward-thinking, those early advocates were who pressed to protect this iconic place from development and commercialization. It was 1864 when citizen Galen Clark and Senator John Conness got Congress to pass the “Yosemite Grant” and President Abraham Lincoln to sign it. Then in 1903, conservationist John Muir went camping in Yosemite valley with then-president Teddy Roosevelt, and he was inspired to return the park to federal protection as a harbinger to 1916’s formation of the U.S. national park system.
During the year of focusing on writing a book, recently, I had a hiatus from wandering (ok, except for Egypt in December…). It helped me realize just how much I love being at home. I really do. It’s seductive to have your things in a semblance of order and routines well in hand. There’s something to be said for sticking around and showing up for all the stuff of daily life. You get to be with friends, of course, including the four-footed sorts. There’s time to attend to various stacks of neglected detail. I even got to chip away at that accumulated pile of good intentions.
At a certain point, however, when the intensity of the project died down and the demands on my time took a turn, I was reminded of the road…and it has been calling to me ever since.
The gods listen to your heart, not your tongue.
Of the many places I have visited, Egypt is among the most complex and sometimes overwhelming. It is unrivaled both in the astounding scope of its history and the sheer volume of its archaeological treasures. During my journey there in December, 2015, our guide was magnificent at teaching us about a culture and history that extends back to 10,000 B.C. and beyond. Indeed, he told us, fully 20 percent of the monuments in the world are there in Egypt…and we saw many of them during our ten days with him.
Five a.m. in Chicago, Saturday, December 19. It’s two p.m. in Cairo, and Luxor, and Aswan, and lunch is already finished. This morning is the one when I know I have finally returned across the time zones, when I awaken feeling refreshed and present, after three nights of trending this way. And already, Egypt feels like a dream to me. It was a more amazing journey than I ever thought it would be.
A 60 year old bull elephant lies dead in Zimbabwe this fall, one of the largest ever seen, with tusks that reached the ground. He was the “prize” of a German hunter who paid his guides about US$60,000 for what was deemed a legal hunt. That’s about one thousand dollars per year of that magnificent creature’s life. I hope that hunter knows that for every glimmer of conquest he feels, darts of disbelief at his actions throb for millions like me at his dumbfounding thickheadedness.
The hunt (such as it was, in a special game preserve) may have been legal, perhaps, but I shake my head at any pretense that what he did was right. I ache for the elephant slaughter that continues in Africa and Asia, and mourn the loss of this majestic, smart, social creature and the hundreds of thousands of smaller but no less necessary ancient creatures, such as rhinoceros and lions, who continue to be poached, and poisoned wholesale at their water holes, and gunned down. The word relentless is not too strong. The word extinct is a shivery potential whose proportions are menacing.