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Sort of alone in Alaska

When I placed Robert in a care home and retired, I found myself unmoored. I wondered what I was supposed to do next and more fundamentally, I wondered who I was. My responsibilities no longer included daily caregiving or work. I didn’t need to be anywhere. So who was I?

Robert’s illness forced me to reckon with the structure of my life. Slavishly dedicating myself to the world of work had not saved Robert nor brought me joy or balance. I had squandered my last chance to be with him wholly. 

Hoping for some clarity

It is in my nature to strive for clarity through action. I may even seem cold-hearted or aloof in my approach at times, but I figure without at least entertaining new information, there is no path to problem resolution. And I don’t do standing still very well.

Alaska was on my bucket list. I decided to go there. To be clear, I wasn’t trying to check destinations off the menu. I was trying to learn what being alone with my experiences might be like. Would I find things to do when it didn’t matter what I did? Could I find me?

Alaska in the summer of 2021 was still inaccessible via cruise line. Canada hadn’t yet opened its waters to ships that might bring COVID-19 to its shores. My son-in-law’s aunt, Vanessa, had lived in Alaska for over 30 years. She’d offered a place to stay if we were ever in Juneau. I decided to take her up on her offer. I’d fly into the city in late July and stay for a week. 

Looking for some quiet

I flew out of San Francisco. The weather changes very little in the Bay Area. The climate is forgiving and there is rarely an external impetus to slow down. As long as we have access to the Internet the entrepreneurial pursuits that drive this place continue. No downtime. This is what I was leaving behind. I hoped the energy in Juneau would be different.

When I thought of Alaska it was all glaciers, bears, moose, short winter days, long summer nights, and fishing boats captained by rugged, sun-wizened, old men. But Juneau is a tiny corner in the southeast of the state, a temperate rainforest. 

The energy was different in Juneau. Without the hubbub of the cruise ships at port and the cacophony of barkers hustling tourists, Juneau was downright peaceful. I had nothing to compare it to, of course, but Vanessa gave me the lowdown. Over the week, she toured me around the city and its environs, sharing her insights and hopes refined over decades of living in this often inhospitable, always beautiful place. 

An upended life

Glacier Gardens is a botanical labor of love wrought by a husband and wife team over many decades in the Mendenhall Valley, at the foot of the glacier by the same name. Through torrential rains and snowfall, they have fashioned a hillside wonderland of area flora. Mini-tour buses take visitors to the garden peaks for a view of the winding Gastineau Channel and the city below.

The views are extraordinary, but what fascinated me most on our climb up the hill was the hallmark upside-down trees, mighty stumps upended in mudflows (and fits of landscaping frustration), and resurrected as hanging planters in the summer months. My life had been upended. Could I also plant something new? 

A great boom

The mountain near Vanessa’s home was named Thunder Mountain because of the avalanches that periodically crash down along its steep slopes in the winter and spring. An uneasy truce existed between the mountain and the people living in its shadow, like the uneasy quietude I felt in my life as Robert’s keeper. I feared the next boom would catch me off guard. Would Robert experience a new health crisis? Would my money run out? 

Nature rules

Alaskans live a life dictated by the natural elements of this wild place. When the sun shines after too many days of dreary overcast, people take the day off. Shops close, schools close. The earth is their guide. 

When winter hits, Alaskans roll up the sidewalks and step into a state of quasi-hibernation. The industries that drive the summer months shut down and workers are furloughed. The earth’s particular cadence dictates how people spend their time. Residents exist with nature, not apart from it. For good or bad, they are left with their own thoughts, not driven to act by a fabricated sense of urgency. In contrast, I was trapped in a constant state of anxiety, afraid that if I relaxed my vigilance for a millisecond a new crisis would thrust itself upon me. I feared I would never lay down the burdens I carried. 

Massive loads of snow

I took a helicopter ride out to a glacier while in Juneau. I expected the ice field to be a great white expanse of uninterrupted snow. But glaciers are messy. The ice flows and crunches along churning up wide tracks of dirt and debris. Along these expanses, great crevasses open up. A person can get swallowed up by a thoughtless misstep. But with a cautious look below you can see crystal-clear water running for the first time in hundreds of years. Water released from its hard rock existence to a new life. Will I also be released one day?

What did Juneau teach me about living? In truth, my trip to Alaska raised more questions than it answered, but it did help me shape my stagnate despair into fears I could articulate. We can’t fight it, if we can’t name it, right? In the end, I walked away with confirmation of the one insight I feared the most.

You are out of step with yourself. And only you can fix this.

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