Before I left for Alaska my mom repeatedly told me, “I just know your going to meet someone up there, I just know it--and next thing I know, I’ll be planning a wedding in Alaska.”
She told her friends, “I just know Christy’s going to meet some guy in Alaska who’s never left the state.”
I’d laugh and tell her not to worry. I wasn’t going north to find a man. I was twenty-seven and steadily single for the first time since I was twelve. I liked my independence. I planned on dating men in Alaska—where the odds are good but the goods are odd-- but I did not want a relationship.
This was my time.
My friend Kim and I, two free women, no jobs, no bills, no men, traveled to Alaska via Texas, taking our time, sightseeing, camping, drinking with the boys, then pulling out of town and laughing our way west.
We rode the ferry from Bellingham to Skagway than drove the rest of the way to Anchorage. Two hours east of the city we passed through Majestic Valley with views of Matanuska Glacier, the jagged Talkeetna mountains, and lush green hills covered with hot pink Fireweed.
I couldn’t stop saying, “Oh my god…oh my god…oh my god…”, and I thought: Why would I want to move back to Maine when I could live here?
When we drove into Anchorage that afternoon, I had the opposite reaction: Why would anyone want to live here? To truly understand this reaction to the place I've called home for the last eight years, you have to know what it’s like to drive hundreds of miles without a stoplight, billboard, or box store. With endless “Oh my god” beauty around every bend.
And then pull into an endless zone of strip malls and sprawl:
Wal-Mart, McDonalds, Barnes and Nobles, Fred Myers, Best Buy, Wells Fargo, Chevron, Chili’s, Subway, Sears, Best Western, Starbucks, Burger King, Remax, Costco, Old Navy, Pizza Hut, car dealerships, beauty salons, smoke shops, liquor stores, gas stations, storage units, coffee caches, dentist offices, Laundromats…
And so many freakin’ cars.
By the time we found Alaska Pacific University-- a small campus with a couple of rundown modern-ish buildings, nestled in the woods by a lake in the center of town--and were greeted by a group of 19 to 20 year-old hall monitors, I cried and thought, “I made a mistake.”
Kim and I lived in what we thought was “graduate housing” and yet the same old rules from the schools Methodist beginnings applied: no alcohol on campus, no candles, and no over-nights with members of the opposite sex.
You gotta be kidding me? I’m twenty-seven years old, I’ve been a dorm parent and now I have a twenty-year old RA who’s going to bust me if I choose to have a candlelight dinner with wine. Not to mention a sleepover.
My first few days in Anchorage were a bit unsettling to say the least.
APU begins the semester with a September block course where you take one intensive class for a month. I signed up for Intro to Wilderness Skills but when I met my advisor he convinced me (and Kim) to take his more advanced class called Expedition Leadership. The course involved planning and executing a 21-day hiking trip on terrain without trails with the students responsible for the route, equipment, food, and logistics. Logistics which included organizing food drops with a pilot and developing plan B if we couldn’t cross the Delta River.
Looking back, I think my advisor wanted us on this course for the social experiment of adding two older feminist women to his class of ten cocky young men, all juniors and seniors in the undergraduate Outdoor Studies program.
Whatever the reason, we bit the hook and walked into our first meeting, unsure of what to expect.
The first person I saw when I entered the classroom on the third floor of Grant Hall was a handsome young man whose blue eyes made my breath catch… before he returned to the newspaper at his desk.
Too young, Christy, I thought, too young. He would have been a junior in high school, one of my students, the first year I taught.
But I couldn’t stop glancing in his direction as our professor introduced the course. He dove right into the dangers: bears, avalanches, hypothermia, injuries, careless mistakes, death… He told the story of another group, at another Alaskan school, where the leaders didn’t listen to the fears of the more cautious members and chose the more difficult route to descend, only for someone to slip, and a whole rope team to fall. He told us his worst fear as a professor was to lose someone in the field. I glanced at the boy with the paper on his desk, and for a heartbeat, our eyes locked.
The professor moved on to the subject of food.
“Do we have any vegetarians in the group?” he asked. I put my head down and hand up as I braced to be the only complicating eater in the group. “Two, ok…”
The boy with the blue eyes had his hand up too.
During our week of prep time, I got placed in the equipment group with a nice but odd young man who’d been home-schooled, with little social interaction, before attending APU. Kim was in the food prep group with the blue-eyed boy named Nick and another handsome young man who made her heart skip. So I volunteered to help them too.
We all drove to Costco to buy five pound blocks of cheese, packs of tortillas, bags of noodles, peanut butter, pancake mix, hot cocoa and a whole host of other packable food items. As we walked the massive aisles with our giant carts, and later as we weighed, sorted and packed the food in Ziploc bags, I learned that Nick may have been five years my junior in biological age but when it can to maturity we stood on the same patch of semi-worn ground. He was different than the other guys in our class, not out to conquer peaks and impress the girls with his prowess, but seeking silence and beauty in the Alaska Range. He was a fly-fishing, white-water rafting guide, the quintessential outdoorsman, who also happened to listen to Ani Difranco and Utah Phillips. He respected women not as an act of chivalry but as a man who spent countless afternoons baking cookies with his mom in the kitchen, listening to her thoughts and dreams. After mountain biking with his friends or helping his Dad work on the family raft. Comfortable with power tools and ice axes, mixing bowls and whisks, he was the most complex unassuming man I’d ever met.
And he had a girlfriend.
All this I learned during our week of packing food, checking gear, and going to REI yet again, because though I had all the camping equipment needed for New England it turned out I had none of the right gear for Alaska-- where it can snow in September, where the trails aren’t marked, and a grizzly bear can kill you with one swipe.
When we started the hike, fighting through alders with our seventy-pound packs, I followed Nick and watched the way he moved. I tried not to like another woman’s boyfriend. I didn’t want to be the other woman-- an older one at that. But I also knew he was eager to spend three weeks in the wilderness away from a relationship with more arguments than laughter.
And besides, I couldn’t stop looking.
When we reached the first river bed with its wide open stretch of gravel bars criss-crossed by smaller channels, Nick and I walked next to each other and fell into a rhythm of similar strides. We passed the miles by asking each other questions: What do you want to do when you graduate?... Do you like creamy or chunky peanut butter? What’s your family like?... Do you like to dance?... What’s your favorite vegetable to plant?...What do you want to cook for dinner tonight?...
When four group members left the course due to sickness and injuries—two hiked out and two flew out from the only wilderness lodge we passed—and our tent groups needed to be reorganized, I jumped at the chance to join Nick’s.
We shared our Mega Mid (a tepee shaped tent without a floor) with another young man, all of us zipped in our respective down bags, with me in the middle, lying on my side, facing Nick. We’d keep talking as our tent-mate softly snored, staring into each other’s eyes, silently saying what we couldn’t yet verbalize:
Crazy as it sounds, I think I might be falling in love with you…
Our first kiss involved sun-cracked lips on fingertips as we said goodnight.
As the days passed and the snow fell-- and fell and fell and fell--and avalanches forced us to turn back, cutting our trip short by six days, I found myself not wanting to leave the tundra. I didn’t want to return to the generic city, to the uncertainty of graduate school, and to a young woman with the power to break this spell, to call Nick’s name and bring him home.
I cried when the van picked us up and we drove towards Anchorage, even the comfort of flush toilets and a convenience store stocked with chocolate ice cream and bananas didn’t bolster my spirits.
Not till later that night, after much needed showers, when the door bell rang, and there stood Nick, leaning against the door frame, a six pack of beer in one hand, car keys in the other: “I told her,” he said with a tired smile, “And I can’t go back home.”
He looked at me with those glacier blue eyes and said, “Do you want to go for a ride?’
So the hard thing about summing up my life in three unedited blog posts is that after I publish them, I realize how much I left out, and that if I were to write about the same period of my life on a different day in a different mood it would be a different story. I could have written a whole post about growing up with an older bother who excelled at everything, and how much of my character was formed by trying to be as good, or at least equal, even if I was competing at something that maybe we shouldn’t be quite so good at like quarters or caps.... And I left out a six-year relationship--ten if you count our friendship--with a young man who taught me it was ok to be myself with a boyfriend… I didn’t tell you that Nick and I were engaged by the following summer, after taking time apart, but kept it secret until we could meet each other’s families…. I left out grandparents, best friends, and childhood summers in a small cabin without TV in the woods of Cape Cod…
But I think you get that this is an incomplete story--and now, enough about me, back to The Boy That Could.
--Excerpted from Following Elias, originally published on Parents.com. Copyright 2009 by Meredith Corporation. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.