Supposing it doesn't?

Post #3. In which I worry about everything that could possibly go wrong and experience something incredible when something goes right.

Kristin Prugh

5/1/202410 min read

Driving in Alaska is its own kind of adventure not unlike sailing on the ocean. There were things we had heard about but didn’t really know about before we left: potholes best measured in square meters; rock slides; avalanches; roads with pavement that looks like sine waves that will launch your vehicle into the air if you happen to be driving at the posted speed limit; roads where the pavement disappears into a wash of gravel and then reappears without warning. (The kids call this “not-roading,” when you’re not exactly “off-roading,” but you are definitely not doing what we would have ordinarily thought of as highway driving before moving up here.) There were moose that stand in the street and stare pointedly at you, happy to remind you that quadrupeds always have the right of way in Alaska; reindeer that don’t fly but do dash across the road at remarkable speeds; mountains so big they make snow at the top that drifts down to the bottom in giant cloud-blankets which cover the road like a comforter someone has lifted and dropped onto a bed; and motels that close for the winter and may or may not open in early spring with frozen pipes and no running water.

Having missed a right turn at Tok that cost us an hour and a half, and after pushing to try to arrive in Haines Junction before dark only to find ourselves navigating through heavy snow as the sun was setting, driving a narrow road between steep mountains and something that the map called “Destruction Bay,” we pulled into a dark parking lot in Haines Junction with a flashing red vacancy sign and crashed in the only open motel we had seen in hundreds of miles. Six hours later we got up, started the car, loaded up the tired children as the silver dawn began to illuminate the sky, and headed for Haines, where the car was waiting for us, innocently parked in the ferry terminal parking lot. We turned left out of the motel parking lot and drove the three blocks of town on plowed roads, then came to a slow stop and looked ahead wide-eyed at a crisp white line in the landscape. The Haines Highway was covered with snow, and there were no car tracks on it.

We started to drive slowly out of town, unsure at times where the road even was for all of the snow stretching out in all directions completely covering and obscuring the lane. Before long, I was too nervous to keep going. We pulled off to the side and began to fret.

Before we reached the point on this part of the journey that drew a line in my life between the time that came before and the time after, I had begun to catalog in my mom brain the number of things that could go wrong if we kept going, things that existed in my mind as vague possibilities when we began the trip, but which were growing more and more distinct every mile that we traveled. Supposing we ran into a snowstorm and got stuck for days hundreds of miles from the nearest outpost of civilization? Supposing we slid off of the road into a ditch or off of a cliff? Supposing an avalanche fell onto the road and buried our car? We had a Garmin inReach with us and were updating extended family members as to our location, but still—even if they knew we needed help, how long would it take help to get there, and could it even?

Supposing help couldn’t get there? Supposing we ran into a moose or a reindeer? Supposing a tree fell on us in the high winds? This went on and on in my mind until my brave teenage son turned and said, as Pooh says to Piglet when Piglet is fretting about similar dangers walking through the woods on a blusterous day: Supposing it doesn’t? Because that is really the only source of comfort we can find when we begin to fret about all the terrible things that could happen: the realization that they could also not happen. That the chances of their happening is pretty evenly balanced with the chances of their not happening, and that, beyond the reasonable preparations we had already made, there was really nothing to be done about it either way.

I think everyone who risks adventure reaches a point where they don’t want to keep going, where they would take any way out if there was one to be had. I think this is one of the defining features of true adventure, in fact, that there is a point at which you think you can’t keep going and you know you don’t want to keep going but you can’t, anymore, turn back, either because there’s no other option or because you know that you have to finish the journey to respond to a call, or—as sixteen-year-old solo-circumnavigator Robin Lee Graham put it—to fulfill a destiny. Even if it’s a small destiny, like being destined to go pick up our car at the ferry terminal (in a way, isn’t this moment, wherever I am and whatever I’m doing, a kind of destiny?). But knowing that you have to respond to this call to do this thing, whatever it is, in order to fulfill your destiny doesn’t stop the litany of doubt that besets anyone who undertakes such things. You doubt and you question, question and doubt, try to make prudent decisions, get tired of having to make decisions upon which your life depends, eventually feel caught in the vice-grip of the adventure and just want to get out of it.

I remember experiencing a moment like this during my first pregnancy, when it first really hit me that at some point this baby growing in my belly was going to have to come out, one way or another. There was no turning back on the adventure of giving birth, on the adventure of motherhood.

We were already beyond that point of no return on this particular adventure, parked off of the side of the road at first light on a snowy morning in the Yukon in April. I wished, in that moment, that we hadn’t come, that we had decided to stay at home. But the way forward was still beckoning, and everyone but me wanted to keep going. And anyway, for all of my worrying and wanting to turn back, somewhere in me I knew I needed to keep going. I knew that there was something around the bend, something calling me into the distance beyond myself, beyond the point at which I felt I couldn’t go on and knew I needed more faith than I had in something beyond myself in order to go on.

So we pulled back onto the white road and began a slow, careful ascent into the staggering larger-than-life wilderness of the Yukon on a road with only one set of tracks on it. We were alone. Alone with our thoughts, alone with our fears, alone with the snow and the mountains and the moose and the reindeer in one of the wildest places on earth. We didn’t know it yet, but we were headed to the moon, a moon that wasn’t 238,900 miles away but just ahead around a corner I almost didn’t turn.


Being out in the arctic wilderness defies description: to say that it is vast, that it is larger-than-life, doesn’t begin to touch the feeling one gets standing in it, looking out with one’s own two eyes into the vastness of that largeness, into space which opens onto space which opens onto something more than space—onto eternity, I would say. It reverberates like sound. It expands like a ripple from a stone cast in an infinitely still pond. It can only be experienced, not described—like love. Which however many poets have tried to reach into its depths, nevertheless its reality goes so much deeper and means so much more to one in love than any words could ever hope to communicate.

Something of that feeling lives out there in the wilderness of the arctic mountains, the feeling of a love pulsing through the veins of creation which is so powerful that it beats like a heart giving life to everything that is. And that heartbeat beats in the chest of the mountain, silent in the body of the mountain from the outside but audible to one with ears to hear in the intimacy of nearness. The intimacy of one who comes to be with the mountain, to be in the presence of the mountain.

We filmed and took photos throughout the trip in preparation for making a YouTube video about the journey, trying to create visual narratives that tell something of the story of our search after poetic dwelling. But every time I looked through the camera, I couldn’t believe the disparity between what I was seeing in the world and what I was seeing on the screen. It’s like this on the ocean, too, the way even the best cameras flatten waves and make even the biggest waves look uneventful. Still, knowing the way the camera flattens things didn’t prepare me for the way it flattened a world in utter, perfect, incomprehensible contrast and relief, a world wholly itself and me in it—really in it, really out there, really having gone out there to meet it.

It changed me. Some small piece of that incomprehensibly large exterior space became part of my interior space, so that it is bigger than it was before we left on that journey. It had to expand to make room for the largeness of that experience, for the space of those infinite mountains and the infinite whiteness of the ground and the infinite blueness of the sky above.

As we drove on and the sun emerged from between the clouds and the sky began to blue, we found ourselves climbing into the mountain pass between Haines Junction and Haines, the only car on a white road above the tree line passing through a place I would never have believed a car could reach. It was so remote, so large and pristine, so pure in its whiteness and blueness that I couldn’t believe we were there, that it was possible for human beings to be in such a place as this.

Our eight-year-old daughter, Sophia, came home and began to make digital drawings of the mountains in white and blue. Stark white and blue. White and blue wholeness. The feeling of being utterly surrounded by white and blue. Lovely blueness and lovely whiteness and nothing but blueness and whiteness as far as the eye could see for hundreds upon hundreds of miles. Nothing but the utter, full, complete presence of mountain and snow and sky. It felt like driving on the moon, like we had suddenly departed earth and were approaching Mount Olympus.

We sat, stunned and speechless, moved to a kind of joy- and wonder-filled laughter as we looked out the windows at the sun shining on fields of white crystals with pure white peaks ascending into a crystalline blue sky. It felt as though we had left earth, because there were no signs of earth as we know it: no trees, no people, no buildings, no signs, no billboards, no advertisements, no houses or mailboxes, no other cars, and even the road was snowed over so that we seemed to be driving through whiteness suspended in blueness, nothing but pure color in this wild world so completely removed from the everyday world of city living.

They are a part of me now, that blueness, that whiteness, those mountains and that sky—so that when I returned to this table in this kitchen in Anchorage, it was not the same table as the table I sat writing at before we left. When we opened the door to the apartment upon our return, I felt as I had once felt returning to land after our first real sailing journey: when I entered a familiar house, I ducked, because the ceiling seemed to have lowered and the whole house to have grown smaller since I left. So, too, this place felt smaller and disorienting, as though my memories of it were from childhood, when I was smaller—and returning to it later, having grown, it felt smaller as I had grown bigger. The table didn’t belong anymore, and the words I had been writing at it were no longer fit for the world after that journey, a world that now had to find words to make room for the arctic wilderness. We dropped our bags and stood in the space looking at each other, still welling up with a kind of laughter and disbelief. Brian looked at me across the kitchen, his eyes wide and his face still flushed with the freshness and vitality of that wild place, and said, almost breathless, “What just happened?

There is a kind of spiritual vertigo to experiences like this in time, when you feel the smallness of your humanity set against the largeness of the cosmos, and it seems you have wandered into the land of the gods, into a place you don’t belong, a place too pure and too full of divinity for your weak human presence to survive. It does something that I would struggle to put into words, has an almost visceral effect on your breathing, as though your lungs have breathed in the wrong kind of atmosphere, but an atmosphere that makes them more—not less—open. It’s as if the lungs are now able to receive an air so far beyond the air of our ordinary days that they almost want to stop breathing, having taken in an air which completes the life they are perpetually seeking.

I know this kind of encounter can happen anywhere at any moment. One can find it, with Pascal, sitting quietly in a room alone. I encountered it once praying the rosary while walking my infant son in a stroller around an ordinary suburban neighborhood. But lurking around every corner of our ordinary days is the danger of losing our feel for the poetry of being, of losing our receptivity to the transcendent reality beneath the surface of the ordinary, a reality we seem so determined to obscure and deny. In our days in the house working jobs and doing school work and finishing chores and running errands and participating in activities, absolutely everything takes priority over—and actively resists—our attention to this real world which goes so much deeper than the so-called “real world” of bills and obligations and offices and forms and bureaucrats and to-do lists and shopping lists and the rest.

Out there, in the wilderness, it is really, truly possible to forget all of this, for it to be forgotten. To stand in the starkness of the landscape and be stripped of all the trappings and baggage and clutter of civilization, to feel the vulnerability and the thrill of nakedness before the gaze of the lover.

I’m often made to feel like I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing, as though the whole, or at least the most important part, of my life as a mother and as a human being is supposed to be about ticking boxes and making money and fulfilling obligations and paying bills and keeping appointments. But I don’t think that’s what real life is about at all, and I have remained and will remain resolutely committed to that deeper reality I feel undulating beneath the surface disturbance of daily life. Going out into the wilderness is one of the best ways I know to come face to face with that deeper reality, with ourselves, and with the Creator of this vast, mysterious, infinite gift that is life on a planet so wild and free.