Whenever the subject of winter riding comes up, and specifically riding in Alaska, often very shortly thereafter comes The Question: Why? As many times as I've been asked that question, it's very, very rare for me to get any sort of clarification on the question itself. I guess I've always assumed it to be some amalgam of Why go there when it's cold or Why go there alone or Why the Iditarod or Why on a bike? In truth I must confess that I don't understand the question. To me, the question is more aptly phrased as Why not?
Still, many people do not or cannot understand the draw, and despite my feeble oral gropings through the years I've never come up with a very good answer. After all that, the answer seems to be more elusive than the question.
Flipping through the online news this AM I came across an article in the Anchorage Daily News, and it's a rare article in that it does a half-decent job of answering the question. Craig Medred has been the staff ADN Outdoors editor for as long as I can remember and from what I can tell he spends oodles more time outdoors than any other 10 editors (at any newspaper, anywhere) combined. So when he writes something I usually pay attention and think about what he has to say.
Direct link here.
Alaska's wilderness confounds self-importance
Published: December 7th, 2008 12:00 AM
Until you have known the northland night in the cold, white silence of winter, it is hard to imagine a landscape lit only by the dim light of the stars, yet this is the way it can be.
Then comes the moonrise and you realize the night can be startlingly bright with the spindly black spruce trees casting long shadows across the frozen muskegs.
To be on the trail on a night like this with a dog or dogs who are among your best friends might be the greatest experience you will ever know if your heart runs toward the wild places.
Even along the edges of Alaska's largest city, this otherworld of winter comprises a special place if for no other reason than that the wilderness of our times, especially now just past the dawn of the 21st century, is not so much in the landscape as in the climate and the weather.
The weather is the last great wild thing uncontrolled and unchanged by the hand of man. We have gained dominion over almost everything else. We manipulate the populations of the animals to our liking. We tunnel the mountains for our roads, and fill the swamps to build our parking lots, and send our steel-glass monuments to modernity into the sky almost anywhere we want.
On a daily basis, we revel in man-made comforts as we move from warm centrally heated dwellings to warm steel steeds that transport us to the warm hum of offices and businesses. That anything lives on the planet other than people and their machines is sometimes almost easy to forget in this work-a-day world, save for those occasions when Mother Nature summons her last wild forces to rain devastation, or at least inconvenience, down upon us.
It is a reminder we might now own the planet, but we don't really control it. We only think we do. We are, if nothing else, the most self-important, self-involved species that ever thrived.
For someone on the trail in Alaska in the dark of night with the headlights off and the world brought back into the natural dimness and the elemental silence of the nothingness which was all our ancestors ever knew, the feebleness of what sometimes passes for significance in the modern world is laughingly evident.
Does it really matter if the screen on your TV measures 22 inches or 60 inches, or whether the TV itself is thick and sits on a table or thin and hanging on a wall? Is it really worth trampling to death some poor Wal-Mart employee to get a bargain on either? Is the size of a TV or the money saved over "list price" on its purchase really the measure of a man or woman today?
Most important, will it matter at the end if you have collected more toys than anyone else?
"For dust you are and to dust you will return," Moses wrote in the book of Genesis, if you fancy the Judeo-Christian version of the history of the Bible. And no matter your personal take on the authorship of that book or of religion, the ancient observation stands as valid.
Our bodies are passing coalitions of atoms that will eventually and inevitably split again into tiny particles only to rejoin in other forms someday. So, too, for our vast piles of consumer goods. Wonderful though they might be in the short term, they do not age well, and you cannot begin to carry them all with you.
All we can really carry in quantity are memories, and those are written not in possessions but in the richness of the people and the places we know.
The latter is the real gold mine of Alaska.
In a world overrun with scurry and noise, the elemental Alaska -- as opposed to the tiny slice of the state that has fallen to the onslaught of urbanization -- remains a place that can inspire awe and inspiration as to our own frailties. Detached from all that protective technology, we become once again the vulnerable animals humans so long were.
Out on the trail in the Alaska winter, nothing about you really changes, but everything does. You discover silence has its own sound and a whole other reality.
The snow collapsing with a noisy "whomp" beneath a ski seems somehow almost alive. The airborne crystals of ice that twinkle in the moonlight become an echo of the stars above, a miniature universe within the bigger universe. The crack of sap freezing in a tree makes you wonder what life is like in that whole other community of green things.
Though we might each think ourself important, we are no more important than grass, except to those we touch along our journey.
In the end, that's what matters. The only really important things we leave behind are what we also take along -- the memories.
And there are few better than those of a night on the trail in Alaska with the winds calm and the snows fast and a whole universe above seemingly looking in at the same time you are looking out wondering in the quiet what exists beyond.