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A Return to Sun
Driving from the Arctic to the desert
There’s one thing they don’t tell you about Alaska.
They tell you about the bears—black bears, brown bears, polar bears. They tell you about the frost heaves, the potholes, the washboard. They tell you about the mosquitoes and the construction. They tell you about the midnight sun and the northern lights. They tell you about the mountains and rivers; the glaciers and the salmon runs. They even tell you about the earthquakes and the wildfires.
But they don’t tell you about the rain.
I arrived in Alaska at the end of the second week of August, not long after a rare summer heat wave brought 80-degree weather to Fairbanks. I had driven through the heat and smoke of southern Canada and was ready for cooler days and nights. I traded shorts for pants and bought myself a Yukon sweatshirt at a gas station along the Alcan highway.
After driving 5,000 miles solo from New Hampshire to Alaska, I picked up my husband Seth at the airport in Fairbanks and we drove to the Arctic Circle and back under mostly sunny skies. A few dramatic clouds blew across the rolling hills of the tundra and dumped dark sheets of rain miles away, but we settled into our campsite under a brilliant midnight sun.
By the time we made our way south toward Denali National Park two days later, thick gray clouds shrouded the mountains and a relentless drizzle fell. We never got to see North America's tallest peak. At the scenic overlook, we had a guy take our picture in front of a gray sky and a sign showing the 20,000-foot mountain that should have been there.
The rain followed me a thousand miles around the state. I didn’t have to clean bugs off my windshield for a month. Seth and I had a couple of sunny days as we made our way south to the Kenai Peninsula, but each day the overcast encroached more. The clouds lifted just enough for us to hike to the Harding Icefield one afternoon, but we gave up on trying to schedule a boat trip or kayak tour. Fog draped the slopes of the 5,000-foot peaks that rise dramatically from Resurrection Bay, offering only occasional glimpses of their glaciated summits. We watched sea lions swim circles in glass tanks at the aquarium instead of watching glaciers calve into the sea from the deck of a catamaran.
The day after Seth flew home, the rain arrived in earnest. I spent an entire day holed up in the van, only letting the dogs out if it was an emergency. Every trip out meant muddy shoes and muddy paws and wet dogs and wet dog-towels that never dried. The next day I drove to the other side of the Kenai Peninsula hoping to escape the rain, but it followed me.
The rain played tricks. Every day’s forecast had three blue drops in my weather app, but when those drops would arrive was anyone’s guess. I’d given up on planning tours or hikes or anything fun. But on the days I expected to awaken to raindrops on the roof, I’d instead be greeted by a sunrise. If I got excited and planned a walk on the beach, those raindrops would start falling as soon as I set foot on the sand.
I started to realize that you could tell the locals from the tourists based on who was wearing brown rubber boots. These old-school galoshes are the mainstay of the Alaska wardrobe, more ubiquitous than flannel shirts. They are worn to the grocery store, the movie theater, and the beach as well as on those fishing boats from The Deadliest Catch. When it’s actually raining, they are accompanied by a full rubber rain slicker and rain pants, or Gore-Tex for the younger crowd. The locals carry out their day-to-day activities oblivious to the weather. One morning as I lay cocooned in bed listening to rain on the van roof, a woman walked by in a full rain suit pushing a baby stroller and walking a dog. Perhaps the mud room was invented in Alaska?
As the weeks rolled on and I migrated from Seward to Homer to Whittier, then camped for a week in a friend’s front yard in Anchorage, the clouds followed me. If I timed it right, I could squeeze in a walk or a run in between rain showers. When I finally saw a round yellow sun in the forecast for Labor Day weekend, I scheduled my glacier boat tour, and I stood on the deck of the catamaran watching chunks of ice splash into the ocean. The rain returned that night and then cleared two days later in time for an epic hike and swim in a glacial lake, because sixty-five degrees and sunny felt like a heat wave. It was the only time I had the urge to swim in Alaska.
As rainy days turned into rainy weeks and the long-term forecast showed no hint of sun, I gave up on my dream of seeing Denali or the northern lights. I hunkered down. I visited museums and movie theaters. I even saw Hamilton on Alaska Broadway!
But my mood mirrored the gray of the sky. I wanted to hike the alpine meadows of the Chugach range thousands of feet above the shimmering blue of Cook Inlet. I squeezed in a trail run at Little O’Malley peak when it cleared one afternoon, but I could have spent days meandering the dirt paths of entire mountains that rise above treeline. Instead I sat in the van scrolling the screen on my phone, wondering when the rain would let up.
It turns out that coastal Alaska is part of the largest temperate rainforest in the world. This little-advertised fact makes Alaska technically part of the Pacific Northwest, where the coastal mountains wring so much moisture from the air that the landscape east of them is a desert. This rain-shadow effect means that towering Sitka spruce and western hemlock grow in dense forests on Alaska’s Pacific coast, draped in gauzy green lichen and moss so thick it breaks branches off. Meanwhile, parts of the Yukon on the other side of the Wrangell and Coast mountains are as dry as the deserts of Utah.
I know this because I left Alaska a month ago and traversed the Yukon and western British Columbia on my drive south, and I am now sitting in the high desert of northern Utah under the clearest sky I’ve seen in months, years, perhaps my whole life. Five weeks of rain chased me out of Alaska, and when I reached the drier interior I found myself racing south from the freezing cold nights. My 30-degree sleeping bag came out my first night back in the Yukon, and it’s been tucked under my sheets ever since.
The rain returned when I dipped back down to the Alaska panhandle in Haines and Skagway, and when I arced south a week later down the Cassiar highway into the town of Hyder, Alaska, which is landlocked at the head of the world’s longest fjord by its border with Stewart, British Columbia. The rain broke just long enough for me to spend a moonlit night overlooking the serpentine Salmon Glacier, then I hunkered down in the aptly-named Rainey Creek Campground and watched the fog roll in and out of the Portland Canal.
The seventy-degree sunshine was such a shock when I rolled into Prince George in north-central British Columbia a few days later that I still dressed for my run in black tights and a hoodie, realizing too late that I was roasting. Fresh clothes smelled like armpits by the end of the day as I raced to complete the chores that awaited my return to civilization, like washing, drying, and folding eight loads at the laundromat, replacing my RV battery, getting my tires rotated, and diagnosing a propane malfunction that left me with no fridge, stove, heat, or hot water. The issue could not be addressed on the Saturday of Canada’s Thanksgiving weekend, so they shooed me south and told me to figure it out when I got back to the lower 48.
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The rain, the gray, the cold—coupled with the failure all the appliances that could make my van warm and dry—drained my spirits. Even as I migrated south and the sun returned, the stress of finding someone to fix everything that was wrong with the van as I passed from town to town made my days heavy. I cruised back through Jasper and Banff National Parks by way of the Icefields Parkway, a blur of angular peaks now striated in fresh snow. I skipped soaking in Radium Hot Springs and instead sat in the van calling RV dealerships across the border in Montana, trying to find someone who would squeeze me in even though they were booked out three weeks winterizing the locals’ rigs. Montana came and went in a blur of multiple RV mechanics, multiple vaccine boosters, and multiple hours on the phone with Walgreens and my doctor’s office trying to refill some psychiatric medications I hadn’t used in years. I was back on the edge of sanity, walking a thin line between functional and fuck-everything. The clouds rolled in shortly after my arrival and parted just long enough to watch the moon cover 75% of the sun on the morning of the annular eclipse.
The Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park transported me back into the clouds. A gray fog spilled like a waterfall from the lip of Logan Pass, and I jogged out of it and then back into it as I ran along the precipitous edge of the Highline Trail. Clouds dulled the clear waters of Flathead Lake, and I missed seeing its colorful stones illuminated the way I remembered them from my first visit two decades ago. The sun returned when I passed through Roosevelt Arch at the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park, but by the time it set over Old Faithful it lit a layer of clouds pink. Only when I reached the Grand Tetons did I feel the warmth of a seventy-degree day, amplified by the shock of waking to frost on the grass.
I drove relentlessly southward, pushed by the cold and the closing of campgrounds and pulled by the promise of desert days. Back in Prince George, I had faced the decision to continue down the west coast, through Vancouver and Washington to Oregon and California on my way to Baja for the winter, or to follow the the Continental Divide toward a conference in Denver that I’d volunteered for. It seemed too late to bail on my commitment, and the Olympic Peninsula in October looked every bit as rainy as the Kenai had been in September, so I reluctantly angled the blue ribbon of my GPS south and east along the spine of the Rockies. As much as I longed to stand under a redwood tree, I was going to lose it if I spent another month in the rain.
I left Jackson, Wyoming as the sun set on the Tetons and drove through the dark to sleep outside a Walmart just north of the Utah border. I decided to detour to a place called Flaming Gorge en route to Denver, dipping me into northeast Utah’s red rock country. It was cold enough to see my breath when I awoke in the Walmart parking lot, but when I left the city limits of Rock Springs and turned onto the Flaming Gorge Scenic Byway, the sun warmed the inside of the van like a greenhouse. When brown grass and sagebrush gave way to red rock canyons dotted in juniper, I pulled over to take in the view. The most striking feature of the Utah desert was its lack of clouds. I stepped out of the van in my sunglasses and surveyed the horizon in every direction. Below me, the world was red with iron-oxidized dirt, but above me, it was the color of a robin’s egg, as if standing under a vaulted blue ceiling. The pants and long-sleeved shirt that had warmed me an hour earlier in the parking lot felt hot, and I knew I would be smelling armpits before the day was through.
It was glorious. As I climbed back into the van and kept driving, I fantasized about stripping off all my clothes and lying my bare body across the red rocks for an hour or two, sunning myself like a reptile. My hairy legs hadn’t seen the light of day since July. Driving to Alaska abruptly ended my summer and thrust me into a cool, rainy fall for three months. My southerly migration offered a second chance at sunny days.
Red ridges rose from the landscape in every direction, glowing golden in the afternoon sun. I had been driving nonstop for five days and was aching to stretch my legs, so when I saw a sign pointing to trails, I hit the breaks and turned on instinct, not knowing where I was or where I was going. Singletrack mountain bike trails crisscrossed the red dirt through a vast network of public lands. The sign said these were BLM lands—the Bureau of Land Management—which, unlike national parks, are open to dogs. I pulled off in the first turnout when I saw a Jeep track angling toward the red cliffs a mile away. I changed into spandex shorts and a t-shirt, noticing just how hairy my legs were. I laced up my running shoes, harnessed the dogs, and clipped them each to a bungee leash on my waist belt. Joined at my hip, we spilled out the side door of the van onto the fine desert dirt. I locked the door, clicked my stopwatch, and shuffled my stiff body down the dusty double-track, stopping and starting as the dogs sniffed.
The rutted four-wheel-drive track ended on a bluff and I dipped down to join the singletrack of a bike trail in the direction of the red rock cliffs on the horizon. It had been decades since I’d set foot in the desert, and I’d never done it with dogs. The wild freedom of a new trail elated me. For the first time since leaving home, I didn’t have to worry about spooking a grizzly bear around the bend. Maybe there were mountain lions in the canyons, but I’ve read about a lot more grizzly attacks this year than cougar encounters, so I’d take my chances. Passing a pair of female bikers on my ascent assuaged my fears, until I came across a hoof, skull, and vertebrae in the middle of the trail. I pulled the dogs away from it and kept moving.
The trail climbed through the juniper up a series of rock outcroppings. At a junction a small sign with a map showed me where I was, and I realized I could turn right and climb switchbacks to the base of the red rock cliff. When I reached the wall of rock, I lay my hands on its smooth sandstone, warmed by the sun. I craned my neck upward at the rounded rocks topped with hoodoos, the strange eroded spires characteristic of the Southwest. The cognitive dissonance of three weeks ago hiking to the toe of a glacier and now two-thousand miles away pounding my sneakers through the red desert dirt made me shake my head in disbelief.
I skirted the sandstone cliff until I discovered that I could scramble up the angled backside to the top, thanks to some ancient feat of geologic uplift. I tied Baxter and Laney to a juniper branch and used my hands to pull myself to the summit of the cliff I’d marveled at from a mile away. From here, the van was a tiny speck across the valley, perched on the side of the road. Behind me, the red ridge dropped into a basin of water shaped like a reservoir, its banks reaching up old stream beds like tree roots. Across the horizon the landscape folded into shades of red, orange, and yellow, the compressed and uplifted remains of Triassic beaches and Jurassic dunes. One of the mountain bike trails was named Dino Trax, and on my way out I met a family with young boys who said they’d seen actual dinosaur tracks on their hike.
The sun, the trail, the warmth, the endorphins, and the endless horizon brought me back from the brink. I wanted to howl at the sky like a wolf, but stopped myself for fear of attracting actual wolves. I looped back to my van on the Donkey Flat Road and saw some people camping down a dirt road. They informed me that there were several pullouts further down where I could park for the night. I stretched my sore limbs while the sun set behind distant mountains, then pulled my rig into my own private campsite tucked into the side of a hill overlooking the backside of the cliffs I’d climbed. I sat outside as the cloudless sky filled with stars in every direction, and I watched the crescent moon descend and disappear behind the silhouette of red sandstone peaks. Then I spotted Cassiopeia, my favorite constellation, the tiny question mark in the sky only visible on the darkest nights.
From the Arctic to the desert, I point my compass ever southward, angling next for the Baja peninsula in Mexico. This trip has taught me that I’m more solar-powered than I realized, and my physical and mental health depend not only on the warmth of the sun but on the outdoor adventures it makes possible. In coastal Alaska I met a woman walking in her rain slicker and rubbber boots, carrying a can of bear spray, who wouldn’t want to live anywhere but the temperate rainforest. As much as I enjoy moss-draped trees, I can’t endure the endlessly gray skies. When the sun refused to shine, I drove until I found it.
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