1. “You’ve got this, Em! Just one step at a time.” Anna’s voice behind me was the only heartening sound in my current reality. Everything else was silenced by the inner clamor of my own struggle. I grasped for another frail bush branch to pull myself up. Will it hold my weight? My fear was nearly realized. Once again on level footing, I stopped to wipe my forehead on my jacket tied around my waist; the layer abandoned long ago which I was told would be necessary at the top of the mountain. This, I also doubted. I could not imagine ever feeling cold again. Heat poured from my body. I wondered if the plants would wilt from it. Minutes ticked by. A log-bridge was crossed over a shallow brook. The tree line faded behind me and soon became a distant memory. When I felt that I could go no further, a fellow (more seasoned) hiker jubilated that we were halfway there! Only half! My arms quivered. My legs tingled with exhaustion. But the air was (to my ignorant shock) growing colder and stinging life and determination back into my flickering flame. Out of shape was not how I ever wanted to approach hiking again, I determined as I found footing on the silt of another incline. I began planning regular workout routines that I would implement as soon as I got home, this mental work to distract my mind from the pain as I climbed. Of course, in these mental pictures, the workouts yielded much less pain than I was currently experiencing.
I reached another plateau, nearly at the top, the rocky saddle of Skyline frosted with ice visible now even without (maybe because I was without) my foggy, sweat-drenched glasses which I’d tossed in my backpack long ago. Then Anna’s voice lilted in awe through the turmoil of the ascent. “Look!” I lifted my eyes from the path immediately in front of me to the view above the low shrubs to my right. Alaska stretched its arms wide before me in shades of green and grey with lakes far below me. She held before me a display of emeralds and sapphires strewn through the rugged valleys of the Kenai where polar sun warmed the earth for only a few months every year. I didn’t realize how far I’d come. My breathing slowed to normal, but my heartbeat quickened. A fresh and yet familiar feeling wrapped itself around me. Starting with my feet and working its way to the crown of my head. Comfort. Freedom. As if I’d been here a million times, belonged here. The words were a whisper in my soul: Welcome Home. I'd traveled a lot for only being 20-years-old. I knew what it was to feel out of place. And I knew what it was to come home. This feeling was the same that I knew when I stepped over my own threshold after months away. It was the release of crashing into my own bed after the long journey. It was the first home-cooked meal after the trip. The first hug from mom after weeks of only hearing her voice over the phone. Immediately reason began dicing it into tiny shreds. You’ve never even been here. Home doesn’t apply. You’re an outsider. What are you thinking? But I couldn’t shake the hush that had fallen on me. After that pause, the top of Skyline seemed to hike to me rather than the other way around. Upon arrival, I threw myself recklessly on the highest boulder I could find and closed my eyes attempting to craft the dips and crags of the horizon into my soul. If I could etch it into my mind and make it a part of me, maybe I wouldn’t have to leave, maybe Alaska would be identity; maybe the vastness would widen me and devour me! Oh, I was meant to be here! Here on this lonely rock at the top of a mountain in the late afternoon of an arctic summer.
I shivered and dragged my weary arms into the sleeves of my jacket for which I was now extremely grateful. My body had gone from burning to freezing in a matter of moments and it wasn’t sure how to translate the change into a livable body temperature. In fact, it didn’t level out again until I was at the bottom of the mountain. I had climbed with Anna, but I descended with Janice. Janice rescued me from toppling off the path a few times as my now-destroyed sneakers had lost much of their traction. Between near-death experiences, I pried into the details of Janice’s life. It was the first time I’d actually had a conversation with her and it was the beginning of a thriving friendship. The feeling I’d had on the top of Skyline returned throughout the summer especially when I considered the largeness of my location. Intense as the emotion was on the top of the mountain, it was as yet premature. The people factor hadn’t yet been added. It was only after some times in prayer together over difficult campers, counseling after services, trips to Fred Meyer, testimonies and meals shared, and hours of work in the kitchen that I realized what it was. Saudades.