I was recently given the opportunity to travel to Anchorage Alaska for a business project. Having already learned to suspend expectations when faced with the unfamiliar, I put aside all that I had heard and assumed about this great northern land. The day I departed, I left Houston, TX where the temperature was a seemingly pleasant eighty-five degrees. Much less cooler than the one-hundred plus degree weather that lingered after summer had long passed. My flight was just long enough to drift off to sleep while listening to some pod casts over Socratic philosophy that I had been saving for a rainy day.
I arrived in Alaska and I immediately realized I forgot what cold weather felt like. There was six inches of snow on the ground and the temperature was well below freezing. When I walked outside, I reassured myself that a taxi would be along soon, and there was no need to dive into my luggage looking for warmth. Five minutes later I was still the 5th person in the taxi line. I unzipped my bag and frantically searched for a hat, gloves and my wool parka.
The ride to my hotel was rather interesting. It was the first snow of fall (yes, a fall snow) so there were a few accidents on the roads. According to my cabbie, the people of Alaska forget how to drive on snow and ice over the course of spring and summer and are suddenly reminded how much caution should be exercised once the temps get around freezing. I took in the sights of snow laden trees and a night time sky so clear, it felt as if the stars were closer to me than ever.
When I awoke the next morning, the sight of snowfall and a completely dark sky at 9am felt rather novel. I had been warned to dress in layers since my first day there, being a Sunday, was a freebie. It was adventure time. My co-worker had agreed to take me glacier climbing, and I figured it’s probably on someone’s bucket-list somewhere, so I may as well take the opportunity.
After stopping by and grabbing a few snacks and some ammunition for “bear protection” we headed towards our trailhead. The drive out to the mountain range started with a drive along Cook Inlet at low tide. We stopped to take a stroll to the waters edge to witness the tumultuous waters leaving the bay. What was currently 10ft or more of ice cold deadly currents whisking out to sea would later be nothing more than a massive mud hole, who’s silt deposits have taken the life of many. The first warning I received when I arrived in Anchorage was “don’t go in the mud.” Apparently it’s common for people to wade out in low tide to dig clams and get stuck in the mud, and drown when the high tide comes back in.
The rest of our drive was a winding, scenic, snow-capped mountain trip. As we ascended higher, the road conditions got worse, and the temperature plummeted. We meandered through roads surrounded by snow banks and thick alder growth and made our way to our hiking trail. As we geared up for the two mile hike to the base of the mountain, I was reminded once again at how cruel nature could be as my co-worker strapped on a 44.
Once we met the end of the trail, we were once again warned about the unforgiving nature of the Alaska wilderness. A sign, expressed in a most accurate statement, how dangerous things were beyond the end of the trail. Though I was with excellent company, a state of overwhelming loneliness overcame my being when I realized that what stood between us and our destination was a field of boulders encrusted with ice and snow which the mountain had released from years prior as the landscaped changed and the glacier had receded. Stones ranging from the size of small cars to fist sized pieces of jagged marble lay as seemingly insurmountable obstacles. As long as I focused on where each foot step was to land and did not look too far ahead, the feat seemed manageable. But when my gaze drifted to the towering peaks ahead, I began to fear my attempts were in vain. We trudged forward ensuring each step grounded firmly on unwavering, unfrozen steady rock, taking one articulated movement at a time.
Once we were on the backside of the boulder field, the temperature had plummeted even more and was hovering above zero. Ahead of us, was the peak we were ready to challenge, and behind that, the Cook Inlet. Warmer, humid air from the waters on the other side of the peak would cool as they came across the snowcapped mountain range and settle heavily as an eerie fog and gracefully slide down the face of the cliffs in front of us. Once, so much fog settled in the valley around us we could not see far enough to make out which direction we were traveling. I recalled once again how it would be easy for someone like me to mistake this place to have a forgiving nature. We could not see far enough ahead to not only navigate, and as though this was not bad enough, the feeling of the possibility of being eyed as a meal in this hazey frozen mist really sent shivers down my spine. We did not even have a safe range of sight to be prepared for the charge or a grizzly or black bear.
In a moment when I needed comfort, I began to recall the words of one of my teachers on the subject of knowledge and grace. Knowledge knows the sun is shining behind the clouds. Grace is when the clouds part and allows the sunlight to shine through. I took a moment for a brief pause to savor the reciprocity of the moment and within minutes the fog cleared and we were able to find our waypoint.
When we arrived at the foot of the glacier, we were encountered with an interesting situation. The ground that we were walking on was gravel and stone and though it felt very solid, only an inch below was the brilliant blue hue of glacial ice. The problem was not being able to gauge the thickness of the ice beneath the gravel. In some spots, there were mere inches of ice, with voids of unfathomable depths waiting below. We altered our course to a less dangerous route and made our climb. Once we reached the summit, we paused and took in the scenery and took the time to rest for our descent.
We were in the middle of the fringes of the Alaska interior, miles from civilization, perched upon a vantage surrounded by mountain ranges to the north, east, west and south. I was completely humbled when another looming fog enveloped us in an eerie damp white out. I began to draw parallels with my own yoga practice to stave off the thought of the freezing cold while we waited out the fog. I began to see how my own personal journey was very similar to this adventure.
Just like the surface of the glacier was shrouded in loose gravel, many of the philosophies I have studied along the way have been shrouded as well. So many teachings have been conveyed behind the guise of solidarity while their supporting principles rested on thin ice. I began to think of effort and energy wasted on theistic teachings and outdated cultural practices. I began to think of time lost that I will never regain. Time I could have allotted more consciously or time that I could have spent with friends and loved ones. Sometimes it’s imperative to look below the surface to see what really is holding you up. Are you on solid footing? Or are you on the verge of plummeting into a dark chasm?
Like the unforgiving nature of this majestic land, my own practice had been unforgiving at times. There have been physical postures in my hatha practice that seemed to lead to nowhere but injury. Like the treacherous boulder field, there have been seemingly insurmountable obstacles in my path. And like the illusive wildlife, ever-roaming their environment in search of their next meal, the demands of life have sought to devour my dedication to self-discipline, sattvic living and the quest for Samadhi. Doubt and ceaseless questioning of nature has hidden the path before me Just as the chilling fog from the oceans rolled in to obscure the terrain of my mountainous hike.
As I held a small pebble in my hand and gazed at it with a childlike curiosity, I began to have a feeling that all of this. All these feelings. The extreme bitter cold. The mountains surrounding me. The Sky above. The realization at how cruel nature can be. All these things were no different than the pebble I held in my hand. As I gazed up at the faint sunlight making its way through the clouds, I could not help but feel humbled. Eons of metamorphosis, evolution, adaptation and struggle all led up to this very moment. For the first time, I truly experienced the universe staring back at itself. Reveling in it’s own glory and experiencing itself through the five senses. There was nowhere to go, nowhere to be, nothing to do. I simply existed with the wind in my face, the ice cold air in my nostrils staring across a frozen inhospitable landscape. I began to remember the words of Siddhartha.
“When all the Self was conquered and dead, when all passions and desires were silent, then the last must awaken, the innermost of Being that is no longer Self – the great secret!”
Once we were able to depart, our journey back to the trails, the terrain was just as daunting as before, but this time I smiled with a sense of indifference. The pervious realizations that had swept over me were still reverberating with a menacing feeling of irrelevance. I felt as if the chances of slipping and falling to my death, or being eaten alive really did not seem so important. I was able to momentarily feel that all is as it should be in the universe and that we only have the perception to add or detract importance to the facets of existence. I played with the idea long enough to wade through a glacial stream for one last photo-op. I only entertained these thoughts momentarily, though. I did, after all, have a whole week’s worth of work ahead of me.