Timeless in Alaska

Along the Mat-su Valley between Glenallen and Palmer, Alaska

Along the Mat-su Valley between Glenallen and Palmer, Alaska

The first thing that happened in Alaska was that we lost our sense of time. There were three of us at that point. George and I had picked up our friend, Guy, in Whitehorse, in the Yukon, where he’d flown up from Vancouver. We drove to Destruction Bay the same day, staying the night on a large, windswept gravel field owned by a character named Loren, who informed us, apropos of various plumbing challenges he runs into, that we were standing two feet above permafrost, which then went down another 65 feet. The next day, after driving through the sublime Yukon landscape, we entered the sublime Alaskan landscape, and drove toward Valdez, on the southern coast, staying a night in Gakana on the way.

Matsu-valley-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Lakes and bogs in the Mat-Su Valley

By the time we’d spent one of our two nights in Valdez, we all realized that we not only couldn’t figure out what day it was, but it seemed we’d been traveling for weeks. Occasionally, when I’ve driven long distances over a relatively short time, I need to get reoriented to time. And, over the course of our adventures, my relationship to time has changed. After a life governed by calendars, clocks, appointments, I stopped wearing a watch at some point. It often takes me a second to figure out what day of the week it is. But this was different, and has lasted the whole time we’ve been here, as if a spell was cast somewhere along the Yukon highway, or as we crossed the Alaskan border. If I really think about it, and check my phone for the day and date, I realize we’ve been here three weeks, but without that effort, it feels like we’ve been in Alaska for ages.

Horsetail Falls, Valdez, Alaska

Horsetail Falls, Valdez, Alaska

In stories, it’s usually the witch or the evil magus, not the good fairy, that casts the spell that makes you lose your sense of time, your memory of the past, an interesting way to look at the importance we place on both. And not just in our busy, technological present. Ageless oral traditions speak to the fear that peoples who forget their history and their stories lose their sense of who they are. But for individuals, it’s often a relief to leave the deafening clatter of the past behind, and it’s the good fairy that places us in the expansive present.

I haven’t figured out what accounts for this sense of timelessness, but it may be part of what makes people unwilling to leave Alaska once they get here. There are lots of stories that start with “I came for …. and never left.” There’s a ‘here-ness’ to Alaska, a sense of its remoteness from so much else, of its being its own place, apart from all other places, apart from other times. I can see how appealing this would be, how you would want to live with this sense of not only being far away from everything, but out of the common understanding of time, in the endless summer days, the long silver twilight of winter, in all this vastness.

Mt. Redoubt, an active volcano, seen from Kenai, Alaska

Mt. Redoubt, an active volcano, seen from Kenai, Alaska, across the Cook Inlet

And surrounded by unbelievable natural beauty, literally everywhere. The towns and cities aren’t beautiful, but they are all set in great beauty, and driving along the roads is awe inspiring, in sunshine or rain, which is good, because there’s a lot of rain. There are not, however, a lot of roads. There’s a loop of two lane highways linking Fairbanks, Denali National Park, Tok, and Anchorage. From that loop roads split off south to Valdez, Seward and Homer at different points on the coast. Two roads lead in and out of the state. There’s a rough road up to the Arctic Ocean because of the pipeline. Communities have local roads. That’s it. A total of 32,000 ‘lane miles’ in a state of 663,300 square miles. In contrast, New York has 242,400 lane miles in a state of 54,500 square miles.

Matsu-valley-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-2

Fireweed, beautiful and ubiquitous, lights up Alaska all summer

So, everywhere you look you know that the beauty you see goes on and on beyond your vision, mountain after mountain, waterfalls cascading down their sides, enormous ice shields spilling glaciers over their tops, valleys of meadows and bogs, vast stretches of green forest reaching to the next mountain, the next glacier. The constant presence of shimmering water, in bodies large and small. Vivid magenta fireweed lighting up the landscape. Yesterday is already rapidly receding. Last month is gone. Your whole history is somewhere way off in the distance.

Alaska-highway-to-Tok-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford

Along the Alaskan Highway between the border and Tok, Alaska

11 Comments

  1. Cara August 10, 2015 at 9:22 pm #

    “…out of the common understanding of time, in the endless summer days, the long silver twilight of winter, in all this vastness” Just poetry. And I can hear the sound of your voice saying the words too. Thank you for the step out of time. Makes me know I must experience it for myself one day too. XO

    • Betsey August 13, 2015 at 12:09 pm #

      Thanks so much, my dear. Yes, put it on the list. It’s utterly amazing up here!

  2. Capt George August 5, 2015 at 10:38 am #

    Dearest Friend…you have captured in time such beauty forever….more love, more time in this message drowned world.
    Peace and Love…Captain George

  3. Venus Maher August 4, 2015 at 7:30 pm #

    Oh Betsy, when I see a posting from you I feel a delight rise in my chest, even before I start to read it!
    Then I have the profound experience of seeing something wondrous through your eyes.
    Thank you for the way you tune into beauty and share it.
    I loved Alaska when I was there several years ago,
    and I love the visit I just took vicariously, though your incredible tale.
    Bless you!

    • Betsey August 5, 2015 at 9:09 am #

      What a wonderful response, Venus! Thank you so much.

  4. A Forester August 4, 2015 at 5:18 pm #

    Betsy,
    You draw me in to such a lovely expansive present. Your photos and facts contribute to to the experience.

    Love,
    Alicia

    • Betsey August 5, 2015 at 9:08 am #

      Thanks, my dear. Love to you, too.

  5. Diane August 4, 2015 at 4:05 pm #

    Beautiful photos and words, Betsey. Thanks for sharing – and I’ve shared with several others.
    Will you be back in CA a) shortly, b) in a decade or so, or c) I have no idea!
    How is George doing?
    xoxo

    • Betsey August 5, 2015 at 9:07 am #

      Thanks so much, Diane. We’re well and, so far, still planning to come back! We’re having a relaxing time near Anchorage right now. Love to everyone.

  6. Kate Mears August 4, 2015 at 3:11 pm #

    My younger daughter and I were blessed with 2 weeks in Alaska by sea, air and rail after she graduated from college – incredible memories of the immensity of usual things: skunk cabbage over a foot tall; dozens of eagles at a shallows catching salmon; mountains, water and greenery on every hand to every horizon. It is a beautiful state to get *lost* in.

    • Betsey August 5, 2015 at 9:05 am #

      I’d love to do the sea trip after this, though we’ll go to Haines and Skagway on the way south, since you can get there by road. I’ve heard about the size of the plants, but it’s still amazing to be among them.