Seven years ago this weekend, Scott and I were sitting in my basement apartment, buried under feet of snow and countless projects and papers for school. Frustrated with academia, Scott turned to me and said, “Want to go to Alaska?" "Sure," I replied, "I'll go." Scott was stunned, partly because I don't think he entirely meant it, and partly because I didn't balk at the idea of driving for a week to a place we had never been, with someone I had only known for five months.
In the middle of May, just eight months after we met, we would pile all of our belongings into my Ford Focus sedan. Its trunk didn't lock, which seems like a fitting way to say: we had little of value. A couple of tents, some rain gear, a few Tupperware boxes of clothes, and my step dad's 10 year old camp stove, and we were off.
Seven days and 3500 miles later, we arrived in Seward, on the Kenai Peninsula, south of Anchorage. We had secured jobs as kayak guides, and figured we would make enough money to drive back to Boulder at the end of the summer and pay first, last and deposit on our first apartment (though technically, our first home together would be my orange two-man tent). We were amazed by the cold, the mountains, and the animals. Whales jumped, bears prowled, eagles swooped out of the sky. We had never seen anything like it.
Alaska, in spite of its unparalleled beauty, was hard. We learned quickly that we should've been skeptical of a company that would hire one guide who had kayaked a fair bit, but never in cold water (me), and one who had never sat in a kayak (Scott). In our first week of guiding, I would experience a tsunami from a calving glacier, the group surviving out of sheer luck and my foresight to bring some extra fleece clothing. Scott would have two clients tip in thirty-five degree water, and tow them hundreds of yards to shore. The company’s response was “This is Alaska. You’ve gotta be tough up here.” We quit.
We repacked our belongings (which now included rubber boots and several tarps: rain survival) and drove some more. We got lost in Denali national park, where the grizzly tracks were far bigger than our own footprints, and the mosquitoes formed a thick film on our tent at night. Denali towered above us as we realized we had hiked off of our map within ten minutes of being dropped off. We hiked back to the road and regrouped. We saw the summer solstice baseball game in Fairbanks, where the sun dipped below the horizon and rose again. Scott got a little sick, but we didn’t think much of it.
We returned to Seward, got jobs washing dishes and working retail, and found a new campsite, albeit next to what we were fairly certain was a mobile meth lab. In our free time, we backpacked, moving our tent and sleeping bags to new spots. We ate a little bit of salmon, and we ate a lot of macaroni and cheese. August came, and we drove home for Scott’s last semester of school and my semester of student teaching. As we traveled through the Yukon, and then into Alberta, Scott became sicker and sicker. Outside of Calgary, on his birthday, Scott was diagnosed with mono. He barely remembers our trip through Glacier and later Yosemite National Parks as we made the journey back to Boulder. Our friends were stunned that we spent three months in a two-person tent. It seemed fine—normal, even. In our transience, our relationship had solidified.
And then we were home. In the year that followed, we finished school, got a puppy (Kenai, after our summer home), got engaged. The next year, we got married, and a couple of years later, our daughter, Julia, was born. The challenges of skipped naps and home ownership are a far cry from those of camping next to a meth lab, or wondering whether we stashed the bear canister far enough away from our tent. We didn’t know then that our experiences in Alaska, so early in our relationship, would be so applicable to our current, more settled life. I like to think, though, that all of the times we have “hiked off of the map,” so to speak, have taught us the best thing to do when we get stuck: sit down, have a beer, laugh, and figure out our next move.