“With beat of systole and diastole
One grand great life throbs through earth’s giant heart,
And mighty waves of single Being roll
From nerveless germ to man, for we are part
Of every rock and bird and beast and hill,
One with the things that prey on us, and one with what we kill…”
(From Panthea, Oscar Wilde)
The 2016 great meandering brought me to Unalaska, Alaska. Known as Dutch Harbor, the place is one amongst the small islands dotting the ocean between Alaska and Russia, the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. In my bygone days of Risk playing, I would, strangely enough, imagine myself hopscotching the islands in search of total world domination. Fun times! So, when the opportunity presented itself, courtesy of my husband’s work, I jumped at it. (I flew in a tiny, scary plane from Anchorage, 3 hours into the ocean, feverishly holding on for dear life, and then I jumped at it).
My husband had this planned weekend, involving multiple bike rides around the area. His enthusiasm was as contagious as it was exhausting, and his planning is always, ahem, meticulous. But the project seemed wise. We were to meet good friends, procure rental bikes and set on our adventures. Simple enough. Best friends, arriving earlier, picked us up at the airport and drove us around for a while. It was gray, drizzly and foggy – we felt right at home!
Next morning, my friend and I launched out on a scouting mission, which took us first to Amelia’s for breakfast. Amelia’s is a Mexican restaurant in Dutch Harbor. The day was young, so I failed to understand that Amelia’s implausible existence captured the actual essence of the island. A fine establishment by all measure.
We ordered our food and chatted away the “long time no see” of each other. Suddenly, this fella, now in his 4th, um, breakfast beer, interjected in on our conversation. Clad entirely in black – cap, large earrings, navy sack and all – he fired up, “You some kinda doctor? What kind?” The uniqueness of our situation had not escaped us. The question, thus, cut the air and lingered a bit in the salon where we were the only trendy outdoor gear wearing, coffee drinking, casual chatting women. As composed as she could, my friend answered “chest,” hoping, as I was, this was it. It wasn’t. “ ‘Cause, I gotta a little girl, and you said chest, my little girl, in the jungle, in the Philippines and she cant breath, she is so little, I say is the pollution, too many trucks or allergies from all those mango trees. I moved her, she is better now but still breathing bad.” Hmmm. Not what I expected. (I was actually picturing the poignant memorial for our untimely death. And where is Dickens when you most need him, so y’all can really have a taste? ) Dutch Harbor dissonance: folks risking or numbing their lives, according to the movement of the ground beneath their feet – do they dance on water or stumble on land?
We left, strolling past a bay full of darling creatures: sea otters swimming in that adorable belly up fashion, sea lions frolocking with each other and eating salmons galore, seagulls in profusion, eagles sitting right next to us, idly watching the day. We also walked by empty beer bottles, discarded tires, trash and trash and trash by the bay. Grandeur and decay. The morning rolled by, unhurried and pleasant, but no bicycle was to be found. We searched, asked and nothing. Change of plans in order.
Desolated – mostly my enthusiastic husband, the rest of the group was not as invested – we settled on a hike. The Peace of Mind Trail became the destination of choice. The 6 mile or so hike through undulating terrain seemed achievable in good time and promised to lead us to the ocean. The weather was on our side and the sun started to shine a bit. Dutch harbor is covered on a luscious, tundra like, green carpet. Someone must have unfurled a velvety cover on the islands’ gentle hills, looks like. The ground is soft! Just when we firmly and intentionally set our foot down, it returns a lovingly spring, a small “sprinting us forward” favor. The ground hugs you. I once had this yoga teacher constantly chanting, “feel the ground beneath your feet.” For the first time, I carefully did. It kissed me. Thus, bouncing our way forward, we set on the journey.
Soon enough, we were surrounded by hills on every side, a vast landscape of green extending ahead all the way to the ocean. We followed some kind of a path, moving along streams. The trail goes back thousands of years, to when these islands were a thriving fishing community, whole with the raw elements that engulf it. Before conquest and disease and war torn it apart. Before its status as fishing industry capital and the celebrity of reality TV shows. We moved in that timeless, undisturbed, sphere of communion. Certainly, others have walked it with a lot more grace than I could muster, considering I moved with the constant anxiety of snakes and strange creatures popping up at any minute. Oh, the terrible places my mind inhabits before it loosens its grip…
Waterfalls! Waterfalls appeared from the hill folds: white foam spraying freshness in the air; life springing from mountains and rocks. We could also hear the wind. We heard animals, some bird I promptly identified as a lost dog. Apparently, according to my ornithology, there were multiple lost dogs accompanying us. The ocean ahead invited, ”hurry, come rest,” it murmured. We walked happily, to the tune of good friendship. Despite the dashing of his carefully made cycling plans, my husband was giddy as a little boy – leading the way, assessing dangers, skipping streams, listening in awe to the world around him. Watching that boy, who hasn’t really hiked as a kid, brought me back too, to places I visited before, in wonder.
We got to the edge of the ocean, but a lake prevented us from reaching it. I stand corrected: prevented me! Some of us (you know who you are) are truly unstoppable, the very presence of a daunting obstacle inviting decisive action. I was good though, having come far enough for my abilities and aspirations. We turned around and true to universal law seemed to hasten on the way back, arriving at the trailhead in no time. Returning – past eagles, so many we lost count, and streams salmon filled meandering in a life-sustaining system – we could not avoid the other side. With the sun dropping behind the trail we had just left, multiple shacks emerged. Poor, poor housing conditions, brutal poverty and alienation. Rock excavations too – massive environmental scarring. And the ever present empty beer bottles and cans and trash. Sunset’s light and darkness dancing on water, stumbling on land.
We came back to the hotel and headed out towards the Norwegian Rat Salon – Dutch Harbor’s premier happy hour establishment. There, the sheer dimension of our uniqueness, partially exposed at Amelia’s, became even more striking. I lack talents and English to describe how. So, let ‘s simply step outside, to the beachfront, where the music of the bay will do the talking.
That bay, the same one I walked with my friend in the morning, turned gold and pink and purple – a perfect virtuoso of colors changing with every moment. A few porpoises and otters swam by, wishing us good night. We sat. Tired of the day. It could have been the Peace of Mind effect, or else the fellowship of eagles or the companionship of the way. But I believe it was salt from the ocean. The same salt that regulated my life growing up in Rio – the salt of summer vacationing, of ocean swimming, and sunset watching, the salt of love, beauty, rest, friendship and awe. Salt awaken visceral togetherness – “one grand great life throb[ing] through earth’s giant heart.”
Just like back then, at the edge of adulthood, when there was Risk, this pulsating closeness was bestowed on me, sitting with friends, complete. Glowing mystery salt enkindled. Even as the scars are visible and the earth scorched. We sat. Grounded. Making room, here and there as may be necessary, for the pain that is a sure part of the picture: timeless darkness enveloping a world confident of yet another sunrise. And hikes.