“What’s it good for?” Our pilot asked me that question as we flew deep into Alaska’s Brooks Range. A thermal rocked our Beaver bush plane and we lurched heavily. Below us, the tree line was falling away. From the rain-speckled cockpit it looked like a giant green circle where no brave spruce grew.
The pilot was referring to the Brooks Range Expedition, the course I was about to start. Through the static I replied, “I don’t know.”
I would restlessly sit in a university classroom watching squirrels run up and down trees. I would watch videos of the north woods and wonder, trying to block out ever present city sounds. So I think I knew. In the cockpit the mic was tight against my lips, irritating my two-day scruff. My hair was greasy and I may have forgotten to brush my teeth. Further and further we flew into the Arctic.
In describing the course, words often fail me. Even in my own mind I don’t think I fully understand what it was. 9 strangers, 40 days, 450 miles of river, no showers, no break, stress, smiles, emotions, failure, success! Looking back with a critical eye, I can see the poetry of the experience. Dramatic, refreshing, limit-pushing poetry. And like poetry I am left with a sense that is not understood but felt.
Voracious mosquitoes. Swarms so thick and heavy that they turn clothing brown. It is constantly raining. Feet stay wet, and after days hurt terribly. Everyone is strung out and on edge. Prone to fits of laughter. We see bears, we see caribou, we see a landscape that never ends. A green ocean with granite crests that swallows us. Exertion in every moment—even sleep is hard. Dreams more real and feverish than any previously experienced.
Moments of joy come quickly and are intense. A sweet meal, a break of sunshine in a constant gray, a funny comment. Once a rescued pika, clinging to an offered paddle quickly dipped in whitewater. These moments like commas in prose, relief from a constant grinding conversation. A dialogue between us and the Arctic.
But what is it good for? Maybe nothing. Maybe more than can be put on this page. Was it worth my dollars? Was it worth my time? Does it help me get a job? I know one thing for certain. It changed my perception of who I am, and my place in the world. For all the questions it made me ask, and the answers I wasn’t sure of, it did give me the ability to examine my world with a new eye.
We enter life full of awe and wonder. Our hands reach out to the bark on the tree only to feel. We dip our toes in the sea to feel the water. We bundle up in jackets and raincoats when it’s cold because of how we feel. We feel because we are alive and present. We feel good and we feel bad and somewhere along our life’s span we demand that all of it has to mean something. It all must be of value.
I felt the pilot’s question and it stuck with me for the whole trip. There were times on the course that I hated. And times that I was happy and at peace. But again I see it as poetry, something to be felt and experienced. Savored for the sake of itself.