Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Hello Denali!

Every year in the days running up to the Academy Awards, Mrs. Word Player and I scramble to watch the nominated films in order to better fill out our Oscar picks. In an oddly timed juxtaposition, we watched Sean Penn's INTO THE WILD, an adaptation of Jon Krakauer's 1996 non-fiction bestseller of the same name, the day after I wrote about Huysman's Against Nature.

"For Nature" vs. Against Nature, I thought as I watched the film, with both lives-as-arguments taken to unhealthy extremes.

"Happiness is only real when shared"

I'd read Krakauer's Into Thin Air (1997) and the revelatory Under the Banner of Heaven (2003), but somehow missed Into the Wild. I enjoyed the evocative movie version, especially Penn's direction and Emile Hirsch's vital portrayal of Krakauer's doomed subject Christopher McCandless, and seeing all the beautiful Alaska locations really sent me back in time to my trip to Alaska.

It was only during the final scenes of the film that I put 2 and 2 together and realized that I had been in Alaska at exactly the same time McCandless was, the Summer of 1992, and had come within a few dozen miles of his "Magic Bus" on the Stampede Trail near Denali (aka Mt. McKinley).

I took this pic of Denali moments before being swarmed by millions of mosquitos

It was an unexpectedly eerie realization, not that I might have met him, but that I certainly ran into quite a few people like him during that summer. In fact, the wispy beard and unkempt curls I came home with looked quite a bit like Hirsch/McCandless's.

The trip began in North Carolina, and had an auspicious first stop in Memphis, TN where we heard then-Senator Al Gore speak about the environment and his newly published book Earth in the Balance. Because Gore was a family friend of our close friend and host for the night Mr. JG, we also came away with the inscription below (which instantly became much cooler a month later when Gore was named Bill Clinton's running mate).

My traveling companion Mr. MW and I weren't quite as hardcore (or anti-capitalist) as McCandless, and decided to target work in the salmon canneries of Kenai after hearing one too many horror story of people losing fingers (or worse) working the more lucrative fishing boats in Bristol Bay or the Gulf of Alaska. We wanted to return to UNC with cash in pocket, stories to tell, and all twenty fingers and toes.

I've always considered myself a city boy, and very much needed MW's nose for the outdoors to survive and thrive that summer, but I'll never forget the sensation of sleeping in a tent every night, hitchhiking across Alaska carrying all my possessions on my back, cooking salmon on an open campfire, and smelling really really bad after coming home from an eighteen hour shift on the "slime line".

The ability to read by the midnight sun was a huge perk

Alaska is just so enormous, so unspoiled, so beautiful, so awe-inspiring, so natural, that it's easy for me to understand how McCandless became so intoxicated by it that he thought he could harness its power all by himself.

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