Yukon – Part 1

It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out; it’s the grain of sand in your shoe. Robert William Service, poet and writer, ‘the Bard of the Yukon’.

“Why don’t you go to Rome or Paris or one of the world’s ancient cities where you can learn about history and culture, see beautiful art and design, explore something new?” These were my father’s words when I told him we were off to the Yukon. I laughed at the time, told him that I loved those cities, but this year I wanted to try a new sort of vacation, something outside my ‘city-girl’ comfort zone.

 We were talking on the phone at the time, but I could see my dad shaking his head the way he used to do when I was a kid and he scolded me for scrapping my knees again, breaking my arm, hurting myself for the umpteenth time. Back in the day I was a tomboy. I was always on one wild escapade or another. You probably can’t tell by looking at me now. The thing that remains is my uncanny ability to fall down and bump into things. I’m pretty clumsy.

“Where do you get these crazy ideas?” He said what I knew he was thinking. “What can you learn in the mountains?”

I run into any trip with enthusiasm and heavy-handed romantic notions. I’m a naturally positive (some would say, naïve) person. I expect the best; don’t really consider things could turn out differently.

The 53 km Chilkoot Trail starts in Dyea, Alaska and finishes in Bennett, Canada. It’s a four-night, five-day backpacking trip. You have to register and get your park pass at the Park Ranger’s office in Skagway, Alaska.

Rain slammed against the window of the Ranger’s office, flowing down in waves. At that moment, I thought about a trattoria in Rome I could be sitting in. But I had good rain gear. This rain couldn’t last forever. And besides this trip was my idea. I dragged three other people along. There was no backing out now.

The Park Ranger said something about the Chilkoot Trail being flooded in spots. What does that mean? I didn’t ask. Too busy thinking about wandering the Acropolis in the Athenian sunshine, finding shade and history in the newly built Acropolis Museum. What was I doing in the Yukon? I’m a proud city girl. I fall down a lot. I’m clumsy. What was I thinking coming here? And shouldn’t vacations be to warm places? We have plenty of cold at home.

Okay, so I’m not the most rationale of individuals.

You’ll be walking in the footsteps of the Klondike gold rush, I told myself. I’m sure I shook my head at the time, trying to squash any further images of beautiful cities, hot showers, and flushies (a great invention) out of my brain.

You have Gortex, rain gear, hiking boots and walking sticks. It will be fine, I assured myself. The ones who went before you had nothing. You are reliving history. 

Still my father’s words lingered and soon I put my own spin on them. What the hell was I doing here? The question repeated itself through every flooded trail section. By flooded, I mean cold, above the knee muddy water with no way around. So I did the only thing I could. I walked gingerly through, hoping I wouldn’t fall and sink.

The exertion of boulder hopping up and over the Chilkoot Pass, the gale force winds striking my face, and the sleet and torrential downpour soaking through my rain gear finally quieted my brain. I had to focus if I was going to get through this.

On the last day of the hike, the wind hushed. The clouds lifted and the mountains rose around us. They’d been there all along, guarding my way. I felt small−not frightened or worn out−in the arms of this wild, expansive land. I’d done it. Not by thinking about where I’d rather be, but instead, by focusing on putting one foot in front of the other. At that moment I realized that I’d stopped tormenting myself with messages of my own ineptness. That grain of sand I’d had in my shoe since I was a little girl, chaffing and limiting me, was gone for now.  

I wouldn’t have learned that in Rome or Paris or Athens. I had to learn it from the mountains, the challenging weather, and the boulders of the Chilkoot Trail.

 

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