Beyond My Dreams, Within Your Reach

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-3gJCWvlnf0&feature=share

You have big dreams and strong passions! Think of them…

When you have the opportunity to live them, do you take it?

You should — even if the opportunity isn’t perfect. This is my story.

Background:

I love to travel. When I looked myself in the mirror I knew I’d never have two months off again. But I had a legitimate reason not to travel. Nobody could make travel plans with me! I didn’t want to travel alone! It’d be boring and lonely! I thought about postponing any travel for another year. My sister could go then…

Although I was hesitant and unsure what my experience would be, I decided I had to do something. I didn’t want to look back on this summer with regret. I chose Alaska as my destination. The result was one the best travel experiences of my life.

July 10 — Travel & First Thoughts:

When I stepped onto the plane destined for Anchorage, I was nervous and full of doubting thoughts:

· I had never vacationed alone. Would I end up bored and lonely?

· I had never hitchhiked before. Could I really expect myself to get into a car with a stranger?

· I had never camped alone. Would I encounter a grizzly bear? A male grizzly can weigh up to 600 pounds whereas I ran cross country in college — minor discrepancies in weight class.

I generally view structure quite favorably. After the first three days in Alaska, I had no scheduled plans. I’ll be okay, I had to remind myself. I’m smart, I’ll figure it out. If bloggers on the Internet can do it, so can I.

July 11 — Arrival & Excitement:

I arrived! Excitement filled me! The doubting comments of those who advised against my adventure repeated in my head as I walked out of the hostel and down the street.

I smiled so big!

Am I an idiot? Probably. A happy idiot? Absolutely!

I spent the drive to Seward, my first destination, enjoying the coastal highway and various inland trails while searching for a radio station with decent music. Seward is a coastal town surrounded by mountains and glaciers. It quickly became one of my favorite locations because of its incredible beauty.

July 12 — Kayaking:

The theme of the day was perfection. The sky was blue, sun shining, and waters calm. During our three hour water taxi we saw humpback whales, puffins, sea otters, and a bald eagle. Once to the landing beach, we got the kayaks ready and started to paddle towards Aialik Glacier.

As we neared the glacier, we watched ice break off and crash into the ocean, called calving. Calving occurs randomly and some days no calving takes place at all. We were fortunate to see one of the biggest calves our guide had ever seen! When we got as close as we could we ate lunch from the comfort of our kayaks overlooking the glacier. The view was spectacular!

Aialik Glacier — Kenai Fjords National Park

The icing on the cake was applied during our water taxi back to port when a humpback whale breached the water. I knew this was a big deal because the guides were marveling more than some guests. To make the day even better, the family in my kayaking group took me out to dinner!

July 13 — Fishing & Harding Icefield:

When I arrived at the marina, the sun was just peaking over the mountains and reflected off the bay. Another impressive sight! Shortly after I arrived, our boat set off to fish for silver salmon. Unfortunately, today was not as perfect as yesterday. The fish weren’t biting. Despite my inexperience, I was the only one in our group to catch a salmon. Although it was a slow day, I took home 4.5 pounds of salmon!

After fishing, I ate lunch and hurried to Exit Glacier to hike the Harding Icefield trail. This would be a nine mile round trip with a 1000’ elevation change each mile. It took me over two hours to hike to the top of the trail. Despite my aching legs and sweaty clothes, the view was well worth the effort! I rewarded my hard work with plenty of time to enjoy the view (and to let my legs catch a break).

Harding Icefield in Seward, Alaska

July 14 — Anchorage:

Today was a rest day. I casually explored downtown Anchorage and biked around the city. Multiple times throughout the day I caught a clear view of Mount Denali — the highest mountain in North America, towering an impressive 20,308’. Although it was over 200 miles away, the mountain was still easy to spot.

I also spent part of the day watching seaplanes at Lake Hood come and go. In the evening, I spent time talking with employees and guests at my hostel. I asked many of them about their hitchhiking experience, since I was planning to hitch for the first time ever in the morning.

July 15 — Hitchhiking:

I’ve heard hitchhiking is safe. Seriously. In some areas, especially Alaska, hitchhiking is relatively common and considered safe by most. I decided it was my best financial option — and thumbing it is pretty badass.

After reading and talking with people who had previously hitched, I felt as prepared as I could be. My sign read “Denali” on one side and “Anch.” on the other. I had my most valuable items in my pockets so I could open the door and roll out in case of emergency. I also had a big pocketknife, which would provide some protection, if necessary.

I got a ride to the highway from Emily, a girl around my age who was staying in the hostel. She leads backpacking trips for kids and had hitched before with friends. As soon as we got to the main highway I told her she could drop me off. She asked if I was sure to which I confidently replied that it would be fine. I didn’t want to inconvenience her more than I already had by asking for a ride (though she graciously agreed) and to be honest I wasn’t sure where else she would’ve dropped me off.

After 30 minutes, I realized my first mistake. Never try to hitchhike from the opposite side of a city. I was south of downtown Anchorage and needed to get 4 hours north. I should’ve picked up on her hesitation about my location and asked her to drive me 5 minutes north. Oh well. I started walking north to another intersection. I’d have better luck there.

Thankfully, Ryan picked me up 45 minutes into my wait. Although he lived just north of Anchorage, it was better than nothing. I figured I would have much better luck catching a longer ride from there. Ryan was relatively young, somewhere in his 30s. He was married with kids — at least one girl who is 6 years old. He loves Alaska, especially fishing.

I didn’t bother to tell him this was my first time hitchhiking. It seemed too revealing. I figured if this guy kills hitchhikers for fun it wouldn’t be a good idea to reveal my inexperience. When I asked him why he picked me up, he said “I figure you gotta do good things for people sometimes.” Good answer. He’s not going to kill me, I thought.

From Eagle River, I waited about 20 minutes before Gary stopped to pick me up. He didn’t have much of a reason to pick me up, other than he was heading in the same direction. Alright, he might want to kill me, I thought. But probably not. Gary was retired and had been in the Coast Guard. He said he was married with older kids, but wasn’t wearing a ring. I didn’t ride with him long and we soon parted ways.

Next was Erik. He was in his 20s and a teacher of life skills to troubled youth in California. He showed me his Facebook page and some cool pictures of Denali in winter. He grew up in Wasilla and offered to take me across town — to a better spot. Our time together was short and although I was thankful I had made it this far, I was beginning to wish for a longer ride.

I didn’t have to wait long for my next ride from Jenna, TJ, and Malcolm. This was my first ride with multiple people. As Jenna called me over I realized: I’m going to have to sit in the back seat. It’s a two-door car. Crap. They’re going to be able to kill me pretty easily. I hope they’re nice. They’re probably nice.

After basic introductions, they turned on screamo music. Although I prepared myself for bumps in my figurative hitchhiking road, I was not prepared to deal with screamo for an extended period of time. Thankfully the genre quickly switched to country and then to “In The Jungle” from The Lion King. By this point I was having a great time! I started to focus on our similarities rather than the obvious differences in our immediate appearance.

I actually really liked these people. Although I probably wouldn’t have gotten to know them based on appearance alone in a different setting, they were really kind and we had a similar goofy sense of humor.

The trio was headed to Spectrum Music & Arts Festival in Willow. They even gave me a flier as a souvenir for my trip (but it got ruined by the rain in Denali). We exchanged phone numbers to grab drinks when I returned to Anchorage. Alright, this is pretty great, I thought to myself. I wanted to meet up with them again.

While hitching to Denali

Larry called me over to his truck about 10 minutes into my next wait. Larry was a retired pipe fitter turned big game hunting guide for bear and moose.

His craziest experience occurred during a typhoon in 2014. My new friend Larry was trapped with two clients when the weather got too crazy to handle. They had to find shelter and couldn’t see anything due to the dark. Fortunately, they found a ditch and huddled together in it. Larry had to use something like a smoke grenade to scare off the bears because they wanted to take the ditch for themselves. Although this worked temporarily, the two bears ended up charging them. He casually concluded the story by telling me, “Those two bears are no longer with us.”

During the ride, we drove past a huge area destroyed by a forest fire last summer. Larry also knew the guys who started the fire while shooting off fireworks. To no surprise, those guys weren’t around much anymore. Since Larry was going to Talkeetna, we parted ways at my halfway point.

After a short wait, I continued my journey with Sean, a miner from eastern Colorado and his dog Sparkles. Immediately I noticed Sparkles was very timid. I quickly rationalized the only reason Sparkles could be timid was because Sean was abusive. As a result I kept my guard up for a little longer than usual. While this may have been a fair assumption in the moment, Sean turned out to be a genuinely good person with some hilarious stories. Because Sean was a gold miner in the backcountry of Alaska, he didn’t have the opportunity to interact with people much. This was his first day he had cell phone service in 3 weeks! In addition, his truck was awfully dusty inside, which I assumed was from the mines. Sean picked up people when he could. He always surveyed someone before letting them in his truck. He decided I was clean cut enough.

Eventually he started telling me about his friends experience picking up a sketchy guy. Since it was raining, his friend felt bad for the guy who’s appearance was borderline acceptable and let him in. The hitchhiker started acting weird so his friend decided to act even crazier as a psychological deterrent. His buddy started to grip the steering wheel really tight, grunted and stared at the hitchhiker. His friend pulled out his pocketknife and started to look at it angrily and then back at the hitchhiker. Apparently, he even licked the pocketknife. This freaked the hitchhiker out so much he asked to be let out even though they weren’t near his destination in the pouring rain.

When I heard this I couldn’t stop laughing. It was one of the funniest stories I’d ever heard (if you didn’t think it was funny, you had to be there — trust me). I was laughing about it for hours.

Did he embellish? Probably, but still a hilarious story.

Eventually Sean dropped me off at Denali National Park and I set up camp. Tomorrow I would be going into the backcountry to camp in the wilderness. There would only be three other people camping within my designated unit which spanned a few thousand acres.

July 16 — Denali Backcountry, Unit 12:

In the morning I packed up and went to the backcountry office to get a permit and go over the basic orientation for hiking and camping in the backcountry. I hoped I wouldn’t see any bears and paid extra close attention to the portions about bears and bear safety. After the orientation I took the camper bus into the park. While on the 4 hour bus ride to my destination, we saw a moose on the side of the road and two grizzly bears a mile away. On multiple occasions we saw small herds of caribou.

66 miles west on the only road into the park is the Eielson Visitor Center. My permit allowed me to camp in the territories directly south of the visitor center. I needed to hike out of sight of both the road and the visitor center before setting up camp. I had the bus driver drop me off one mile before the visitor center so I could avoid two additional river crossings.

Since there are no designated trails in this juncture of the park I walked my own path. Generally speaking, I followed bear trails. This made my trek easier because I wasn’t fighting against as much brush but increased my chances of running into a bear. I made sure to keep my focus at all times and kept bear spray easily accessible.

The view from my camp in Unit 12

By the time I reached a flat area out of view I was starving! I quickly set up my tent and cooked pasta with pepperoni slices as a side. Given my exhaustion, it was delicious! By the time I was finished I realized I needed more water and only had two options.

Option 1: Retrace my steps to a waterfall I saw earlier. I would have to hike another mile.

Option 2: Descend a steep 400’ bluff to the riverbed below where I could quickly get the water I needed (don’t believe it’s actually 400’? I’ll show you the map). I would either have to go around (another mile of hiking) or climb back up the steep slope to get back to camp.

I obviously chose Option 2. On the way down I realized this way not going to be as easy as I thought. There were plenty of rocks skidding down the cliff. Since I didn’t want to share their fate, I carefully descended and filled my water bottle with muddy water from the creek. I purified it, but still didn’t want to drink it because it was so dirty.

I had no intention of hiking the extra mile around the bluff to avoid the steep ascent. By carefully navigating the terrain, I was able to reach the top safely, although it was really difficult. I decided not to return without sufficient water again.

July 17 — Denali Backcountry, Unit 12:

In the morning I took a light pack and set out towards Sunrise Glacier. Along the way I stopped to get clean water and hiked to the top of random ridges for gnarly views.

Twice I came across a herd of 6 caribou approximately 100 yards from me. The 3 males formed a semi-circle facing me and stared me down. I didn’t think they would bother me, but it seemed pretty obvious they weren’t looking to mess around. When I returned to camp they left the vicinity as I hiked around them.

July 18 — Return to Civilization:

I woke up throughout the night to massive gusts of wind. I expected my tent to collapse on me and I was debating whether or not I would care enough to get out and fix it because of all the rain. Thankfully, I didn’t need to decide — my tent stayed upright.

When I woke up for good it was still pouring. I ate breakfast and assembled everything to hike back to the road. Since the rain didn’t show any signs of letting up, I broke down my tent and was on my way back.

The hike was strenuous. Despite my efforts to be efficient, I had to hike up and down steep, rocky ridges. I was trying to move quickly since it was only 50 degrees Fahrenheit and still steadily raining leaving me hungry, thirsty, tired, cold, and very very wet. It took me just over two hours to hike back to the visitor center where I changed my clothes, drank lots of water, ate food, and enjoyed the luxuries of a heated building.

July 19 — Hitchhiking back to Anchorage:

I had much better luck catching long rides on my return trip to Anchorage. Ben and Steven were the first to pick me up. They’re best friends. They had two trucks and were on their way to pilot an oversized load from Palmer to Prudhoe Bay.

I rode with Ben. During the ride, Ben mentioned that he met Steven when a friend in the community reached out to him. Steven came from a broken home and needed some new friends. Ben agreed to hang out with him and the two became close friends over time! They spend most of their time playing video games and working together.

Although Ben was kind, we didn’t have much in common except the direction we were headed and our love of pugs. Pugs are so ugly it’s adorable. Ben ended up buying me lunch and I was really thankful.

My second ride was from Otis, a 23 year old construction worker. Like most people I met in Alaska, Otis likes to fish and hunt — a lot. He openly expressed his love for Alaska and the outdoors. Otis ended up dropping me off right in front of my hostel which was awesome! We exchanged numbers and I suggested he contact me if he ever found himself in Michigan.

In the evening, I soberly stumbled upon a pub run. Since I was wearing a running shirt and it was an Irish pub I figured I had to go in for a drink and dinner. I ended up talking to a few people and met an older gentlemen named Edmond who worked for the railroad. He was a regular and gave me good suggestions for food.

July 20 — Relax & Celebrate:

On my last day, I explored more of downtown Anchorage, stopped by the University of Alaska, and packed up my belongings.

In the evening, I met up with Jenna and Malcolm for drinks at Buckaroo, a local bar. We mostly talked about random stuff and listened to Malcolm tell horribly punny jokes. I loved it! It was a great ending to a great trip.

Conclusion:

Despite my initial hesitation, I had an amazing experience. Traveling alone isn’t nearly as terrible as it sounds — in many ways it is better! It forced me to meet new people I otherwise wouldn’t have met. I marched to the beat of my own drum and didn’t have to consider the wants of others. This trip challenged me and reminded me I am more capable than I often give myself credit for.

The beach we kayaked from in Kenai Fjords National Park

Whatever you want to do, please do it. You don’t need someone else to affirm your dreams or passions. You just need a little belief in yourself and the commitment to be true to yourself. You will always be able to think of an excuse and most people will accept your excuse. I’m here to say throw away the excuses. If you care enough then figure out a way to make it happen. You won’t regret it!