Scale and Space

by justine

Something that I didn’t consider when dreaming about Alaska was scale.

This shouldn’t be a surprise since I have no spacial relation sense – no idea how big or how far away something is, if this piece of furniture in the store will fit on the wall we plan to set it against, or how much smaller I am than the average woman.

But the vastness of Alaska – the height of the mountains, breadth of the rivers, massive muscle of moose, and gleaming stark white blaze that is Mount McKinley – all took my breath away.

As we traveled, listening to endless tour guide commentary, I couldn’t translate numbers into forms.

I couldn’t comprehend how the peak of Mount McKinley was actually 20,320 ft above sea level. Or how the bear we saw was probably 250 lbs. Or how Denali National Park is 6 million acres (I just Googled it again to be sure because that number seems unbelievable to me). Or that the whale tails we saw slinking into the ocean’s smooth surface, going for a deep dive, were as large as a truck. From the cruise ship balcony they looked like a pleated party favor fan, something to wave and cool you off in the mid-day sun.

Bald eagles looked like giant kites. Otters looked like fish. Helicopters looked like horseflies.

Many of our tour guides hoped for a Texan in the group so they could make the joke that everything actually *is* bigger in Alaska.

Just because I was thrown off continuously by scale and distance, doesn’t mean I didn’t love it. No. If anything, I wanted to sink into it, or I guess, more appropriately, be absorbed by it.

I wanted to dissolve into the space that is the Alaskan wilderness.

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Since returning, life is LA feels more bleached and burnt out than tropical and lovely. The sun is too strong, the plants all bone dry and dying from the drought, the line of traffic on our street ridiculous. I can’t shake the smell of engine exhaust and fertilizer.

I didn’t notice at the time if Alaska smelled sweet or fresh in the way you’d imagine all that open space would, all of the trees and rain rinsing and washing the air. But I can say now that it was fresh enough to not have a scent, some kind of pureness I accepted immediately, absorbing the oxygen like a plant inhales the sun.

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We traveled from windy, chilly Anchorage up through temperate Denali, and back down through the Inside Passage, where the cold from the Hubbard Glacier swept across our cruise balcony like a chill from ghosts. I only felt freezing on two days, and those involved glaciers and rain. I drank tea, hot chocolate, lattes. One morning I had a “molten glacier”, some concoction involving hot chocolate, chocolate liqueur and Brogans Irish Cream.

I lived in my SmartWool socks. I wore the hat my colleague knitted for me.

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Some areas are only accessible by sea plane, some only by train. Other areas people use snow mobiles, sled dogs or ATVs to get around. There is a gravel trail that runs parallel to the Parks Highway (Alaska Route 3) specifically for people to ride ATVs and snow mobiles. Boats get locked in frozen in overnight frosts in early September. Trucks fall into ice where a lake thawed out. Moose use the plowed highway as a more accessible path during winter months when the snow is too deep for them to walk comfortably in the woods. The moose-to-car ratio is not in anyone’s favor.

It was a trip of planes, trains, automobiles, boats, helicopters and buses. We had three bus rides over 2hrs, a 9hr train ride, and we cruised a total of 1,500 nautical miles. All of that and we didn’t cover even a quarter of the state.

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The Hubbard Glacier is 350 feet tall above the Yakutat Bay. It calves (breaks off) 10-story-building sized ice bergs. The blue is the most intense blue-sky-blue you will ever see. It seems so crystal clear you can hear it ringing.

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Somehow all of this has me craving more space, less city. I mean, I knew I wasn’t cut out for the walking-hawking-chaos that is New York City, but I thought I’d found a groove here in LA. Now it seems I’ve had a taste of wide open spaces (insert Dixie Chicks song here) and I want more.

More of less.

More space, less people. More quiet, less noise. More color, less concrete.

Vast and wild, scale and space

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