Six summers ago, a guy named Fred sat down across from me at a picnic table near Wonder Lake in Denali National Park, the end point on the bumpy 5 ½ -hour bus ride on the park’s only road.
We ate lunch and talked about our respective trips to Alaska, where we were from, the stuff you talk about when all you know about someone is that they’re a tourist too, which is obvious there, 85 miles down a private dirt road in one of the wildest parks in North America.
Fred was in his 60s, a retired firefighter from Lincoln, Nebraska. He traveled by himself, and I assumed his wife had died. He had driven all of 3,400 miles, including the entire Alaska-Canadian Highway, to get to Denali, a minimum seven-day drive from the Midwest, an adventure any of us would be lucky to ever have the time to attempt in our lives. He camped every other night, he said, stopping at a hotel on alternate nights for a shower and a warm bed.
I loved it, what Fred was doing, and I told him. A lot of people never have the courage to do something like that. I knew people in their 30s who said they were “too old” to camp, to sleep on the ground. Fred said he had a lot of friends who were retired, too, but it seemed like all they wanted to do was sit around and watch golf.
“I told them, you can play golf, that’s fine, but you can’t sit there and watch golf,” he said.
Right on, I said, get out there and live, right, don’t be a spectator. This retired firefighter, sitting in front of me, in front of the highest mountain in North America, towering 18,000 feet above this picnic table, had driven 3,400 miles up there all by himself to see it, 1,400 miles of the trip on one of the wildest roads you can get to from America, and he was definitely not watching golf.
We get used to limiting ourselves sometimes, making the secure choice, or finding a way to rationalize not doing something. I’m too old for that shit, I’m scared of heights, I don’t want to be out there by myself, it’s not in my budget, et cetera. We talk ourselves out of things, instead of talking ourselves into things.
Sometimes I imagine Fred, having Wednesday morning coffee with a bunch of other retirees in a diner in Lincoln, and he asks the whole group, “Which one of you guys is going to drive to Alaska with me?” And all of them come up with reasons they can’t go, and a couple of them crack jokes about Fred, and how he’s quote, unquote crazy for wanting to do that, Fred, you’re too old for that shit, and Fred goes home by himself. And he sits down at his kitchen table and gets out an atlas like the one I have at home, and he traces the ALCAN with his finger all the way to Fairbanks and imagines Alaska and sitting there and looking up at all 20,320 feet of Denali and he just goes
Screw you guys, I’m going for it.
And then he goes down to the basement to see if that old sleeping bag of his is good enough to make the trip, and rubs his chin thinking about what else he’ll need to bring along. He gets his mail stopped at the post office, cleans out his refrigerator, and one day in August, locks the front door and starts driving north.