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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Just One Summer

by Adrienne Lindholm


I was 26 when I came to Alaska. For just one summer I wanted to be part of something noble that would help preserve one of the wildest places on earth. Though I carried only a backpack and a duffle bag, my confidence was buoyed by a set of life skills I’d acquired in suburban Philadelphia, the academic skills I’d honed at an upscale university in Virginia, and my shiny new graduate degree in Environmental Studies. A couple years dabbling in environmental non-profit organizations fueled the fire in me to crusade for a better world.

As the plane to Fairbanks, Alaska, took off, I rifled through my spiral bound notebook to review the page where I’d scribbled my approach to living:

  • Follow your dreams.
  • Don’t let society tell you what to do.
  • Be skeptical of technology. It creates more stress than it relieves. 
  • Television: evil, obviously. 
  • Dresses and high heels are dumb (you can’t hike in them).
  • Big houses in suburbia:  bad.
  • Living in a cabin:  good.

I wasn’t shy about espousing these tenets to my friends and family. They either agreed with me or tolerated me, and every one of them, bless their kind souls, supported my quest to find my own true north. They bid me farewell as I headed to Alaska, where I didn’t know a single person.

The run-down hostel where I spent my first night fit perfectly into the way I thought my world should be ordered. If only my friends could see me now, I thought. This was a real cabin in Alaska, with log construction, creaky wooden floorboards, and old metal traps and mining equipment tacked to the walls. I was assigned to a room and found my way to an empty bunk. The room was cluttered with backpacks, shower sandals, and drying laundry. They must be true travelers, I thought.

I told the other travelers I was on my way to Denali, which got a nod of approval, but I had nothing else to contribute, so I sat quietly on my bed and listened to tales of where they’d been and where they were headed. They spoke of towns and mountains and rivers I’d never heard of.

As I climbed into bed, I wrapped myself in my sleeping bag to stay warm. I waited for darkness to set in but it never did, so I put a shirt over my eyes to block the midnight sun.  The shirt helped, but my mind raced with thoughts about what the summer would be like.

The next day I took the shuttle down the Parks Highway to Denali National Park, where I’d gotten a non-paying job as a backcountry ranger through the Student Conservation Association. After spending six months thru-hiking the 2,159-mile Appalachian Trail and spending the majority of my post-college free time exploring the Rocky Mountains, I thought I had a fair amount of backcountry experience. So did the rest of the 20-somethings who had come from around the country to spend a summer in Alaska’s premier national park, where Denali, the tallest mountain in North America, rises ghostly white to over 20,000 feet and enchants the sea of green tundra that surrounds it.

Most visitors to Denali National Park ride the bus into the park in hopes of glimpsing the great mountain and seeing grizzly bears, wolves, caribou, Dall’s sheep, and moose. There is only one road in six million acres and virtually nothing else to interrupt the vast expanse of wilderness: no settlements, developments, or infrastructure that make it easy for people to get there and be there. One of the things I hadn’t considered when I applied for the backcountry ranger position was the fact that I’d never traveled through country with no trails, no bridges, no signs, no campgrounds. I’d also never traveled through country with grizzly bears and wolves.

When my supervisor paired us up and assigned us our first backcountry patrol, I found myself matched with the only member of the backcountry ranger staff who actually lived permanently in the area. The other rangers sat with their partners and excitedly pulled out maps, speculating what they might encounter. They decided what gear they would share and how many days of food to plan for. Hoping to make eye contact, I glanced across the room at Jeff, but he seemed to roll his eyes as he looked over the group of rangers that were about half his age. As I walked toward him, he turned his back to put on his jacket. I paused beside the large wall-map of the park and searched for the drainage we’d been assigned to. When Jeff scooped up his belongings and headed for the door, I sheepishly intercepted him. “So, you know where we’re going?”

“Been going there for decades,” he said with a look that added “how about you?”

“Anything in particular I should bring?” I asked.

“Standard stuff.” he said. “We’ll take the camper bus tomorrow 10am, see you there.”

Part of me could understand his resentment at being an equal member on a team of overly excited kids from the Lower 48, but still, he had no right to treat me like that. How could my supervisor have paired me with him?  I returned to my cabin wondering if I’d made the right decision to come here. I threw my bag across the bed and sat down with a sick feeling in my stomach.

Our patrol began on a trail that went for only ¼ mile before fading into alders and willows along the river bar. Feeling like I needed to prove my strength, I hiked faster than he could on the trail section, but as soon as we hit the brush, I came to a near halt. I’d never hiked off trail before. Jeff sensed this and blazed ahead, thrashing through the alders and willows, wisely choosing a route through the thinnest branches and keeping us on course. I could barely keep up and had no idea how he knew where to go. I tried to look up out of the brush to get my bearings, but when I looked up, I stumbled over branches and rocks. I powered through as fast as I could and tried not to lose sight of Jeff’s back.

When we got to a point where we had to cross the river, Jeff simply trudged through it. Accustomed to dry Rocky Mountain hiking with few creek crossings, my instinct told me to sit down and take off my boots before wading across in order to keep my feet dry. But after seeing Jeff cross, I wasn’t sure if this was a test to see if I was dumb enough to get my feet wet, or if it was a test to see how well I could ford a river. Jeff looked at me and then looked impatiently at his feet and sighed. Forget wet feet, I thought, I can’t let him leave me. I stepped into the coldest water I’d ever felt, restrained a grimace as the icy water seeped through my hiking boots and socks, and felt my way across. I pretended it didn’t hurt that much as I stepped out of the river with feet that were burning from cold.

Fortunately, I had enough sense after the first day to realize that I didn’t know much about this country and that Jeff did. As much as I didn’t want to admit it (I’d worked hard to cultivate my confidence and independence), I could probably learn something from him. So I began asking questions. And he began, slowly, in his characteristically gruff style, to let me in. By the last day of our patrol we sat side by side on a grassy hillside above a wide river bar.

“You need to pay attention,” he said.

He noticed my confusion. I knew I had to look out for wildlife and make sure no animal surprised me and got any of my food.  Our week-long training had established this as the Golden Rule of Denali. It was the only way wild animals will stay wild and safe. I knew this already. I told him I was scanning the river bar for bears.

“You might be looking at the river,” he said, “but you gotta look behind you, too, so you can see the wolf coming down the hill. You gotta be alert and look in all directions. All the time.”

He wouldn’t let me lounge back and take a nap in the sun. “This isn’t the Rockies,” he sniggered. “There are animals all over the place that want your lunch. And I have to shoot ‘em when some goddamn hiker lets ‘em get food,” he said shaking his head.

“And besides,” Jeff told me, “these here are critters people come from all over the world to see. Why you’d want to waste a nap over that…”

“Is that why all these people come then? To see the animals?” I asked.

“No…” he started, “I mean, yeah they do, but…. Look, you could go to a zoo and see every animal out here, right?”

I nodded.

“There are big mountains that are a lot easier to get to. These people are paying huge bucks, spending 15 hours on an airplane, and then cram into a shitty school bus for eight hours into the park.” He paused, and said, “No, it ain’t just the animals.” 

I returned from that patrol hungry for more, hungry to understand exactly what Jeff was talking about, and I anxiously awaited my next assignment. It would be a little while. We earned our patrols only after a week or two working in the visitor center, talking to tourists and helping them plan their trips. It didn’t take long to confirm my suspicion:  people came long distances at great expense because they believed it was unlike any other place on earth.

One evening an elderly couple with a southern accent returned from a trip into the park. The woman smiled at me and said, “It wasn’t just seeing the bear. It was seeing that bear leading her cubs through the tussocks, rooting up ground squirrels, and those snowy mountains behind her. The light, it was early in the morning and the sun was low so her fur was glowing and the yellow light reflected off the side of the mountain.” She turned to her husband, “Was that something or what?”

Her husband leaned in and said thoughtfully, “You can imagine that bear doing that for the last thousand years. It’s like getting to see where life came from, where we all came from.”

“Where are you all from?” I asked.

“North Carolina.”

“You came a long way,” I said.

“There’s not much left in the world like this,” she said, contemplating. “We wanted to come for a long time.”


We backcountry rangers were proud of our jobs as protectors of one of America’s largest, wildest, most special places. We were thrilled to work there and contribute to something we saw as good and noble. We worked hard. We worked long hours. We were polite to every visitor, even when they were impolite to us. We answered all their questions the best we could. We lived together in small, cold cabins with no running water. After dinner, we drank cheap, cold beer and played cards. During the night we peed in milk jugs. Over the course of that summer, those big wild spaces did something to my psyche that I hadn’t expected. I had planned to stay just four months. Twelve years later I’m still here.

I now manage the wilderness program for all the national parks in Alaska, and it’s still an honor, though I spend more time behind a desk than I’d prefer.  Every time I leave the state, I meet people who tell me that Alaska is on their bucket list. They light up and I wonder what images are filtering through their brains. Perhaps an igloo, a wolf, or snowy mountains. Maybe they’re thinking of the American frontier, of independence and freedom, of bigness and greatness, of the world before we messed it up.

Sometimes I think of the wilderness as being comprised of two different things. There’s an outward appearance that we can point to and quantify (wildlife, clean air, clean water, rivers and coastlines, cliffs and canyons). These are the things on the glossy brochures and television ads. Secondly, there is what all those things add up to. It’s what the tangible things collectively represent. The way a place makes us feel, the mystery, the connection to something larger than ourselves, the inspiration, peace and awe – this is the soul of the wilderness. Like the human soul, it is hard to define and impossible to quantify; and also like the human soul, perhaps what is most compelling is that it has the power to shape a person.

Over the course of a dozen years, just as the rain and wind and ice have continued to shape topography and sustain dynamic ecological systems, this place has filtered into my psyche and sculpted my inner landscape. I get it now, and I believe it is these things, not just the big mountains and bears, that made Ranger Jeff speak with passion. And it is because of these things that places like Denali continue to appear on bucket lists the world over.
Adrienne Lindholm lives in Alaska where she works in public lands conservation. She's the author of A Journey North: One Woman's Story of Hiking the Appalachian Trail and is at work on a collection of essays about life in the Alaskan wilderness.

Sunday, April 7, 2013


by Louis Gallo                                

Grandma told us that it officially began when he said he wanted a little boy sailor suit for his birthday. He said he always got new clothes on his birthday and holidays, like the crinkly seersucker on Easter when he made his communion or the striped flannel pajamas for Christmas. She had noticed signs all along but kept them to herself: he dropped things, forgot what day it was, couldn’t find his way to the bank or Southern Radio, where he practically lived. “Not all the time,” she said, blowing out some extra air so that her lips buzzed like a small motor, “just every now and then. But enough to worry me. I didn’t say anything because it would make him mad. He said he had too much to remember and the days were shorter.  ‘They’re stealing a little more time each day,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘Who’s they?’ I asked. He just sighed and told me I knew what he was talking about.”

I remember the day of her announcement. We had finished Sunday lunch and were loitering at the table, picking at a little more crumb cake, a little more pecan pie, just sort of making pigs of ourselves. Grandpa left the room suddenly—he looked sort of dazed—and went for his nap. He didn’t tell the usual World War I stories or even excuse himself; he stood up, gazed at us as if he had never seen us before, and started out.  He looked skinny and fragile and his fingers trembled a little. We all knew something was wrong, except maybe my sister Ruthie, who was still too young.  Mom and Dad looked at each other with raised eyebrows. I had seen a few old people get skinny all of a sudden, like Uncle Ambrose, and they didn’t last long after that. Grandma came in from the kitchen, where she had taken some dishes, wiped her hands, and sat down in her husband’s chair. She had never done that before. Grandpa’s chair at the head of the table was sacred. 

“I have something to say,” she began, “and you’re not going to like it.”

“I think we know already, Ma,” Dad said. He looked sad as an old rag. Dad was devoted to his father.

She ignored him. “Grandpa is sick. His mind’s going. It’s like he’s daft. Yesterday he went out the door in his underwear.  He said he was driving up see Alphonse at Southern.  When I told him he needed to put on some clothes, he blew up, told me to mind my own business.  But he walked back into the bedroom and put on some clothes anyway. He stormed out of the house and slammed the door like I was his worst enemy.  Not ten minutes later he came back.

“‘Can’t find my keys’ is all he said and then sank into this very chair and stared at the wall. I don’t think he knew where he was. ‘Maybe we ought to see a doctor,’ I said.  Well, he understood that all right and exploded again. ‘I’m all right!’ he shouted and pounded the table. Then he belched—you know those big cochons he makes—and smiled and everything seemed normal again. Except his shirt was buttoned up wrong and he wore two different shoes on his feet. ‘Jake,’ I said, ‘I know you’re all right, but it wouldn’t hurt to see Dr. Mosby. You need to see him about your heart anyway.’  Well, he started to rant and rave about how I wanted to get rid of him and how I fed him the wrong food and it wasn’t him but the blood pressure medicine. Then he put his head down on the table and went to sleep. Just like that. So what I’m telling you all is that Grandpa is ill, and he needs to see Dr. Mosby, and I can’t do it all myself. I’m so stiff as it is.”

And then, for the first time in my life, I saw my grandmother cry. She twiddled with a linen napkin and wept softly. “He’s getting so old right before my eyes.”

“What’s the matter, Grandma?” Ruthie asked.

Grandma reached over with her gnarled fingers and patted Ruthie’s hand. “It’s ok, sweetheart,” she said, “your grandpa just needs to go to the doctor.”

“Is Grandpa ok?” Ruthie asked. She had not digested a bit of what her grandmother had said.

“I’ll make the appointment,” Dad said. “He’s not going to like it.”

“He’ll fight you and make you feel like scum,” Grandma said.

“Can I come too?” I asked.

Dad smiled. He looked older and seemed beaten down.  “No, Jakie,” he said, “it’s not a fun place to go.”

“But I don’t want Grandpa to be sick.”

“None of us do, Jakie,” Grandma said. “He’s an old man though. Old people are always sick.”

“Are you sick, Grandma?” Ruthie asked, as if suddenly she too knew the family had changed. 

“Oh, just my usual rheumatism. You know me. My feet hurt so much.”

And that’s the first time we heard that too. Grandma came from a long line of stalwart forebears who refused to complain about anything.  Their hands might be burned to char and they would remain dignified and poised and go on chatting as if valentines throbbed above their heads. If Grandma admitted that her feet hurt, they must have ached in a way none of the rest of us could stand for one minute, much less year after year.

I remember looking at the screen door. One edge of the mesh had come loose and had curled up at the joint. The metal latch hung down like a tiny anchor. Sunlight eased through lace curtains that had begun to dry rot. I felt massive forces at work, forces over which none of us had any control, and I stormed out of the room, out the door and plopped down on the concrete steps of the small porch. I tried to think about everything Grandma had said, but I couldn’t.  My mind had gone blank, maybe like my grandfather’s. I heard the bells gong over at St. Rosa de Lima. Honeysuckle and sweet olive wafted in the breezes. The tall wooden fence that separated Grandma’s house and the one next door looked soggy, gray and soft. Only a few years before I had climbed that fence with abandon. It dawned on me that I would never climb it again, nor did I want to climb it. Something new had begun, something I didn’t like and wanted to brush aside as if it didn’t count. But whatever was going on seemed inexorable. We had to live with it. And it would hurt and diminish us all.

Louis Gallo’s work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Missouri Review, Southern Review, New Orleans Review, Baltimore Review, Portland Review, storySouth, and Sojourn, among many other journals and anthologies. He teaches at Radford University.