In Alaska you can go off-trail, and that takes some getting used to. In most national parks, the idea is to be an observer. You respect the world around you by staying in the area provided for you, allowing the wildlife to stay uninterrupted. In places like the Great Smoky Mountains, the mountains I grew up going to, the adherence to these rules creates a loving reverence of the world around you; you feel unnecessary in the wild, making your time there feel almost sacred. Your footprints become softer, your voice quieter. You take nothing, and you leave nothing; anything veering from the path feels intrusive.
But Alaska’s different. The mountain ranges of southern Alaska lie in the Ring of Fire, and, like the Alpide’s Himalayas, they are geographically young. You can tell they’re new the moment you get there, because nothing feels like it’s quite in place yet. The landscape is massive and stunning and dominant, but the millions of years it took to calm the Appalachians is missing. My first night there in August 2016, I sent a text describing the landscape to my mom: “It’s a lovely new house, and I can’t wait to see what they do with it.”
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The newness leaves you in an interesting spot. You’re no longer an awe-struck guest, tip-toeing through the trees so as not to wake whatever ancient mysteries are swirling around you. In the jagged burst of a mountain next to a lake next to a glacier, you’re almost an equal, figuring out this nonsensical terrain alongside it. You start to feel the lonely determination that you and Alaska share now: if no one else is going to come up here and make a trail for you, you’ll have to do it yourself. The tundra understands because it’s been on its own for even longer, forced to crouch down from winds when no trees would bother growing, ignored by hikers entirely when the seasons change.