It feels like the road to nowhere.
We’re around mile 30 of the McCarthy Road- 60 miles of unpaved, pot hole laden dirt taking us into the heart of Mt. Wrangell St. Elias National Preserve- and we’ve been traveling for about 6 ½ hours already. 180 miles from Anchorage to Glenallen; 30+ miles from Glenallen to the Edgerton Highway turnoff; 33 miles along the highway, the last 15 taking you up and around a twisty pass that overlooks the Copper River Valley; and then 60 slow and bumpy miles until the end of the road.
The dogs look incredibly tired of being stuck in a car. My brilliant, impatient, ADHD husband who came out of the womb asking “are we there yet?” is drumming his fingers on the window sill talking about how nice it would be to be home with Netflix and pizza. And I am uttering overly enthusiastic “Wow! Isn’t this beautiful(s)!” at the brilliant vistas of the park, as I try to overcompensate for the tedium of sitting in a car all day and boost team morale seeing as how I am the one who pushed us to go on this trip.
We are all wearing paper thin.
At 30 mph, with few signs of civilization or life and no cell service for over 45 miles, it takes a little over 2 hours to get to the end of the road, which literally stops and spills over into a gravel parking lot with a sign that says “Base Camp.” Starving, with no food in sight, I bravely look at my husband and tell him we have to go on foot from here.
The guidebook says the town of McCarthy is a ¾ mile walk from the end of the road, though we can’t see any signs that an actual town exists. At this point, we are trudging across a footbridge and up a gravel path surrounded by painted mountains and expanses of creek, trees, and silt. It’s a bizarre rite of passage that I am taking on faith, believing that this place is as cool as everyone says it is, even as I wonder how far that bag of almonds will stretch and contemplate the potential misery of a car ride back if this place doesn’t have hot food.
A corner is turned and then there it is- this off beat little town filled with old houses, mining equipment and upgraded store fronts to match the vintage appeal and a sign that tells us food is in one direction, the Kennicott mines are 4 ½ miles in the other.
Over hot sandwiches and salty fries the waiter tells us shuttles take you up to the mines running back and forth daily; that the population booms in the summer, but is reduced to about 40 people in the winter; and that there actually is a road in- it’s just that a local resident had a bridge built to it, since the state wouldn’t build one, and only a select few can buy a pass for $300 to get across. So the rest of us are stuck trudging. Or biking. Or hitching a ride with the shuttles.
A hot meal will do wonders and spirits heartened, we camp at Base Camp, which has a spectacular glacier river running through and find a quiet spot backed up to the banks where there is just us and water and sky. As we sit there and watch the sun set, there is nothing but the pristine feel of this space.
The morning brings chilly air, which makes us all the more grateful to be cozied up in our down sleeping bags, and a sun that is slow and steady to rise with bluebird skies that say it’s going to be a good day. We go for a long run up to the mines and discover cheerful red buildings in various states of repair that tell a story of days gone by. We keep on going and find a trail that takes us to Root Glacier where the ice stretches on for miles, and we daydream about having more time for more adventures.
In the afternoon the sunshine is high and hot for this time of year, and we pop the trunk, stretch out on top of our sleeping bags, and languish. The rays are shining, the river rushing, the dogs napping, I’m holding my husband’s hand as the Grateful Dead play Ramble on Rose, and I forget where I end and everything else begins- so absolutely present am I. And in this moment I know it is just an illusion that we are somehow separate in this place, as I let myself rush against the rocks and heat the land and be in this space of love and connection.
We hitch a ride back up to the mines for the evening. It’s the end of the season, and it’s the last night the lodge is open. The locals tell us working here for the summer is like going to summer camp for adults, and they are gathering on top of an overlook that hangs over a valley of sloping glacier moraine, for music and food and celebration to close it out.
We listen to the music, letting our feet dangle over the side of the valley, then have dinner at the lodge where we sit family style. We talk to the couple next to us who is chasing the northern lights across the state, and laugh with the woman from Switzerland who tells us she loves pastries, takes a holiday to a new country every 2 years, and describes her cold, rainy experience in Denali National Park as “It was- I don’t know the English word for how bad it was- it was, it was just terrible.”
I know how she feels. Despite the exquisite grace of this place and the gift of a brilliant blue day in mid-September, winter is soon coming. We are told those who stay in the town do so by trapping and generators and all that other hard core living in the wilderness stuff most people don’t want to do. With the rusty bronze bushes and the fluorescent gold trees, many whose leaves have already dropped, this is a time for leave-takings as the change will be soon.
Nighttime brings a half moon, a little on the full side; dropping temperatures; and star upon star upon star that cluster on up in the sky reminding me just how big the universe is and just how small I am. I reach up as if to touch them, as though I am one of them, pretending I’m a star in some other sky- lighting the dark, bringing hope, guiding the path so someone else can find their way home.
Dawn brings a thicker chill with gray skies that turn into liquid cranberry when the sun starts rising over the mountains. Blink and you’ll miss it, the color changes so fast, and we get all philosophical that such is the nature of life. That kind of talk continues as we pull out around 7:30am, fresh cups of coffee in hand made by a local who tells us about life in this small town, and prepare to make the long way back home.
We drive slowly, retracing our steps, but it all feels different. Like we found something magic in this place where life slowed down and we disconnected and we were allowed to be absolutely present in each moment, to completely immerse ourselves in the absolute and abundant gifts of day.
The leaves, golden when we first arrived, copper as we leave, seemed to have turned in the span of two days. We see a coyote cross the road, a couple of swans in the lake, too many peregrines to count. We stop and take pictures of the exquisite Copper Valley. We find the 60 miles out goes faster and freer than when we came in.
Once more I forget where I end and where everything else begins, and I find myself all that much more found for my losing. The Stones are singing “Shine A Light On Me,” the rain begins to pour across the rolling tundra, and there we are finite and infinite in the space of this day. Rambling on.