About three dozen summers ago, in search of a small adventure before starting college, I splurged on a flight to Alaska and visited a former classmate who had moved there for good.
We like to tell high school graduates of a limitless world, but with adulthood, life necessarily narrows. Making choices about a college or career closes other choices, a natural part of growing up.
The American West, though, has always offered an alternative reality, abiding as an open place where possibilities seem infinite. Our frontier pretty much closed generations ago, but the idea of the West as a clean slate is still powerful — especially in Alaska, where so much of the state remains wild. Seeing Alaska back then helped remind me that not all the chapters of my life had been written.
That long-ago trip to Alaska led to others. The old classmate and I remain close. When my son graduated from high school last spring, an offer came from that friend in Anchorage. Would our youngest like to celebrate his commencement by making his own trip up north?
We put him on a plane last month, our son taking the same journey at the same age as his father did. Seeing him off, I thought about E.B. White, who once wrote about watching his son visit the same Maine lake that White had enjoyed as a boy.
The past and the present rhyme so neatly that White tricks himself into believing he, not his son, is the young person on pilgrimage to a beautiful landmark. But White eventually remembers that the journey really belongs to his son.
I’ve kept that in mind, though it’s been nice to see our son discover many of the things that first charmed me about Alaska.
He arrived in Anchorage around dinnertime, but in a place where the summer sun can stay up until midnight, the day was still young. He had plenty of time for a hike before the evening dark, the first of many long walks he and his hosts have taken through the trails that thread around Anchorage.
Through snapshots texted home, we’ve followed him past Anchorage’s McHugh Creek, its silver surface catching the clouds as if serving the sky on a platter. Another day trip yielded photos of nearby Girdwood, where glaciers whiten Mount Alyeska as brilliantly as a bride.
“I might as well as be on Mars,” our son told us.
For all its otherworldly allure, though, Alaska can feel familiar to Louisianans. It’s an oil state, too, and one with coastal communities in peril. An Alaskan heat wave this summer renewed concerns about climate change.
Luckily, the days have been cool for my son’s visit, with lows in the 50s. If he has children of his own, I hope they’ll be able to enjoy Alaskan summers as we have — with glaciers still intact and minus the tropical temps.