There and Back Again: My Trip to Alaska
As I fly out of Anchorage, Alaska, I look down at the snowy land with mixed emotions. Awe, happiness and fear, all bundled into one, consume me. In a space of just 10 days, this crazy land has considerably altered my notion of what it means to be a living, abled human.
Before we get too far ahead, a few notes about me. I am more likely to greet the phrase “life changing experience” with scepticism rather than careful consideration. With fair reason too, I suppose – I have travelled somewhat extensively and tried my hand at a handful of activities, but never have any of these experiences transcended sensory stimulation. Yet, I sit here in my chair trying to come to terms with all that I’ve gleaned in the days just gone by.
The human body is fragile.
Food, water, sleep and excretion – these are the four fundamental physiological needs that we consciously seek to fulfil. Everything else, including love, wealth, respect and intellectual stimulation lie at a higher level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Alaska in the winter is quite unsettling because it adds a fifth conscious physiological need – homeostasis. When the temperature is down to -40 degrees Celsius (which by the way, is also -40 degree Fahrenheit), you become very aware of the need to keep yourself warm just to get through the next few minutes pain free. During our treks through Denali National Park, if at any time we took off our gloves to draw on the dexterity of our fingers, we would be served with a chilling and numbing pain. Even a minute’s exposure would ensue in pain that would require more than 15 minutes of shelter to recede. Since we were, at times, two hours away from the closest shelter, I became very conscious of the inadequacy of the human body to sustain itself. This feeling of vulnerability was further strengthened when a friend of mine stepped in water and sprinted to safety to prevent the pain from consuming him. It was quite humbling to contemplate that at the heart of the walls of success, relationships, intellect and confidence that we build to make ourselves formidable lies such a perishable core.
Human endeavour is cumulative and inter-dependent.
While on the one hand I was aware of my fragility, on the other, I developed an appreciation for the collective efforts of humanity that were helping keep me safe and alive. I was being kept warm by 21 pieces of clothing manufactured by 15 different companies, some possible due to the ingenuity of scientists, and some due to the hard work of farmers. The path between the trees that kept me oriented in this expansive wilderness was a result of careful planning by assiduous park rangers. The bridges that helped me trudge across thin ice without falling in had been well thought out and built to last by park keepers. The promise of a shelter just hours away with thorough heating and drinking water was the doing of ingenious engineers. The fact that I was even in this part of the world in the first place was a tribute to hundreds of daring explorers, many of who navigated these treacherous conditions without a map in hand. Each one of these contributions was critical for my comfort and survival, and yet no single contribution was more important than the rest. To me, this was a viewing glass into our roles in the grand scheme of humanity (I guess such insights are easier to crystallise while out in the silent wilderness). With endeavour and ingenuity, we can use our abilities to make incisive and critical contributions to the human race. However, nothing we do can hold any utility without the thousands of contributions that help the ecosystem come together. This realisation in turn made me reflect – if we truly understand this, how can we ever submit ourselves to arrogance or to a sense of superiority? How can we not permanently remain humble and in awe of the body of human achievement on which our own endeavours rest?
Any breath can be your last.
“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose” – Steve Jobs.
I’ve heard Steve Jobs’ Stanford Commencement speech a dozen times, but never have those words hit home as hard as they did during this trip. Have you ever witnessed a serious car crash? Have you ever seen or been in a car that skid and disappeared off the highway? Let’s just say that on the icy roads between Denali and Fairbanks, I had a glimpse at how feather thin the gap between life and death is. I have seen people on their deathbeds before, I have had loved ones pass away and I have watched videos of fatal car crashes. Experiencing a serious car crash unfold in front of my own eyes took things to an altogether different plane though. There is something very unsettling about sitting through a sequence of events that can push life to give way to death. It makes you realise that not everyone has the chance to finish their stories, contemplate their ends and bid their goodbyes – in a flash of light, it could all be over. You may have planned out a long and eventful life, but you may not be given the chance to stay the course. A full stop can cut you off mid-sentence, no matter how young or promising your story.
Before I went to Alaska, the idea of death was, to me, a useful intellectual tool representing a finish line in the distance. In fact, I recall quipping when I turned 25 that I have 75 left to go. Following the trip, death seems like a very real physical phenomenon that could rear its head at any time. At first, I found this to be quite overwhelming. My goals in life are based on the premise that I will live for another 40 years at the very least. I have often thought through how I want to live life in my 30s, my 40s, my 50s and onwards, never once questioning the assumption that I would live that long. In light of this, it’s no surprise that this new found awareness of death made me very uneasy.
Now that I’ve had a little while to think things through though, I find that this unease has given way to a strange sense of calm. The little things don’t seem to bother me as much anymore. I also find myself smiling more often than usual. The best part is that I’m not even trying all that hard; yet, I’m doing a better job at staying sunny than when I was making a conscious attempt to be happy. I guess on a subconscious level, I’ve realised that I might as well enjoy every moment while I still have the chance. Since there isn’t much to lose in the larger scheme of things, why worry about the consequences of worldly affairs; why not just opt for peace of mind? My hope now is that this new found calm doesn’t fade away with time.
All in all, suffice to say that Alaska has left me with a range of thoughts and a mixture of emotions. As my plane disappears over the clouds, I am not sure when I will return, or for that matter, if I even wish to return. What I do know, though, is that the experiences and insights that this land has granted me will not leave me anytime soon.