Sense of Place (Up a Mountain)

I wrote a post last winter while I was housesitting in Fairbanks, AK about the nomadic lifestyle I stumbled into. I was feeling off-kilter without a specific space to call home (read here). I’m still regularly on the move, bopping between cities as a tour director. I have little in the way of possessions or property; one repeatedly packed/unpacked suitcase, my essential backpacking gear, and half a closet’s worth of stuff in Anchorage.

Alaska has been my place of residence for almost a year and a half. I have few traditional signifiers of “home” while living on the road, but this gorgeous place is somewhere I feel at home, if nothing else.

I’m surrounded by wilderness and outdoors culture more than any other place I’ve lived. Even more than the hills and redwood forests of the East Bay Area where I first connected with hiking. Someone around me is always itching to flee into the woods. I adore it. It’s hard to imagine living someplace where the value of exploring nature isn’t woven into the fabric of daily life.

My list of Must See & Hike & Camp spots grows by the week. Alaska is huge. Like, 2.5 Texases huge. There are massive swaths of land I’ve yet to come anywhere near, countless adventures I have no idea to be excited about.  

All of my summer tour groups visit Denali National Park, a common highlight. We stay in the tiny town of Healy just outside the park boundaries (also the starting point Chris McCandless’ fateful voyage memorialized by Into the Wild). My company’s resort is sandwiched between two towering mountains: Sugar Loaf Mountain (4674 ft) and Mt. Healy (5660 ft). Both have reasonably accessible trailheads and coworkers often hike them when free afternoons pop up.

Admiring Mt. Healy from my employee housing. Couldn’t ask for a better view. The Overlook Trail crests the flat ridgeline on the right.
Sugar Loaf Mountain from ground Level, on a typically rainy late summer morning.

I’m not used to seeing a mountain and having the realistic, attainable thought “I’m going to hike up you one day.” During my last couple tours through Healy, the windows of interest, availability, and energy finally aligned. I hiked both mountains, each at the invitation of a coworker. I wish I was a better self-motivator, but I’m almost always more likely to get myself in gear if I have a social commitment (thanks Emily and Rachel!!).

With my friend Emily, midway through our 9 mile roundtrip Mt. Healy hike.

Sugar Loaf is a relatively short, relentlessly steep climb with lots of rock scrabbling and precipitous drop-offs. I’ll share more about my acrophobia (fear of heights) in my next post, suffice to say: Yowza. But I made it to the trail’s end, something I never would have done in my pre-Appalachian Trail existence. 

With my friend/roommate/co-worker Rachel on Sugar Loaf Mountain, the Nenana River winding behind us.

Mt. Healy is far more approachable, 3ish miles of winding switchbacks. People travel across the glob for scenic views like this. It gives me chills to think I can see the peak from my employee housing every day I’m in town. 

Mt. Healy Overlook Trail’s end point.
Denali National Park, as seen from the Mt. Healy Overlook Trail.

I felt a profound sense of place atop Sugar Loaf and Healy. I recognized the entrance of Denali National Park, and I knew where the park road curves its way into the mountains. I recognized some sites from my weekly train ride. I could point in the direction of Fairbanks, over 100 miles away.

An overhead view of the resort where I stay in Healy. Sugar Loaf is the mountain opposite.

I have lacked an internal compass since birth. I can barely give simple Left of Right instructions without stopping to think about it. I take wrong turns driving in cities I’ve lived for years. I’m reliant on trail maps even in well-marked areas. (The fact I only wandered off trail a couple times during my 2200 miles on the AT speaks to its fundamental do-ability.)

It’s a big deal to know where I am anywhere in the world, especially amidst a series of mountain peaks and vast glacial valleys. It was my first time standing on both summits, but I felt at home on some intrinsic level. I thought back to the events that brought me to those peaks—losing my best friend through divorce, living in the woods for half a year, evolving my career path—culminating in a sense of belonging, thousands of feet high on mountains overlooking Denali National Park.

* * . *

This week I start a new seasonal job traveling around North America promoting Alaskan tours. I will continue living in and out of my suitcase with very little sense of permanence, not even half a closet in Anchorage to call my own. But I’m not experiencing the whiplash of 2018. Some of that comes for a deeper understanding of seasonal life and more confidence in my chosen path. 

What it really means, though, is I’ve set aside the idea of establishing a traditional sense of “home”. For the time being, it’s enough to feel like I belong I stand, regardless if I’ve been there before or how long I’ll stay.

And I know that when I’m feeling lost in space, I need to get my ass up a mountain ASAP.

3 thoughts on “Sense of Place (Up a Mountain)

    1. Thank you for reading along! I only have my schedule for the next couple months, but stops include states I’ve never been like Kansas, the Dakotas, Alabama, and a week in Florida.

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