Before the park became part of everyday life, living there felt like stepping into a postcard. Not with any grace or majesty, but a haphazard entry: eyes on the ground or on my shoes, wondering if they would be adequate for the situation; old battered headphones and an anachronistic ballad in my ears; and a dazed awe when I looked up, as if the postcard had painted itself around me.
In the center of the postcards I sold, or sometimes slightly to the left or right, depending on the creativity of the photographer, loomed a four-mile tall mound of snow-covered granite. Again and again, I sketched the mountain’s well-documented contours from 33 miles away, until I could draft a recognizable ridgeline with my eyes closed, the same ridgeline thousands had come to know the same way, from the same location. Part of the daily duties in the visitor center included drawing the view of the mountain in a poster-sized calendar on the wall, so visitors could see how many rainy or clear days preceded them. This task rotated between Park Service naturalists, maintenance staff, and me. Often, the day’s calendar square was left white, meaning low fog and rain obscured the postcard view. On days like that, some visitors photographed the postcards themselves, or equally picturesque book covers, to prove they’d been there. There were plenty of duplicate photos to choose from; visitors started flocking to this spot in 1939, and the aesthetic of how to frame the mountain doesn’t seem to have evolved much.
In the foreground of these images a wide gray-brown plain, shaped by the Thorofare River, is broken in places into sparkling strands and shards by light on water—when the sun shines. To feel like a postcard, the sun has to at least partially shine. Out of the photo’s frame a patch of green tundra slopes up to where I sat most Sunday evenings on a splintery picnic table, waiting for a bus and the man driving it.
The bus I waited for took people deep into the Park, dropping campers off along the way, and stopping for the night at Wonder Lake, another postcard spot 20 miles northwest along the celebrated—by some—Denali Park Road. The bus was driven on Sundays by a man who told me later that his early interest in me was sparked by the fact that I was so damn easy to please: “You wanted to see Alaska, and I could drive you into a gravel pit and tell a good story and you’d be satisfied. It took almost no effort.”
He was right. I was 20, and had not yet developed desires beyond weekend road trips to obscure gravel pits just outside the frames of the postcards I bought and sold for 25 cents. I played Joan Baez’s “Greatest Hits” on repeat that summer, and the line “I’ve got no expectation to pass through here again” loops through all these memories. I’d just finished my second year of college in southern Arizona, and most of that endeavor had consisted of writing bad poetry and participating in exhausting and ineffective student activism. The trip to Alaska had been something of a whim. There’d been no investment, nothing in particular I sought, just something that had nothing to do with what I had been doing. Mark a dot on a map, take a picture, thank the man who brought you there: “Never in my sweet short life have I felt like this before.” Easy.
Sometimes visiting hikers waited with me for the bus. Sometimes I talked to them. Sometimes I tried to imagine us into vastly different worlds, mine defined by a perceived intimate acquaintance with the shadows on Denali as seen from this picnic table and the front seat of the bus, where I would firmly plant myself behind Jeff as soon as he pulled in.
My first night in the sixteen-foot trailer where camper bus drivers spent the night, I brought a sleeping bag, but didn’t use it. Easy to impress. It was early August, just dark enough to see the hints of stars. I insisted on leaving the curtains open in case the northern lights came out. Then, I imagined them bright enough to wake me through the small, screened window.
Mornings came early in those trailers; the driver’s shift started with an 8 a.m. departure from the Wonder Lake campground for a pickup at the end of the road in Kantishna, and an immediate turnaround back east down the entire 92-mile length of the Park Road to the entrance. Jeff suggested I stay near the lake and pick blueberries, and he’d pick me up on the return trip. “I’ll go with you,” I said. “I haven’t been to Kantishna yet.”
“I’d kind of rather you didn’t,” he stuttered. “Strange things happen to me in Kantishna.”
“What kinds of things?” I asked. I still sat in bed, impressed by Jeff’s idiosyncrasies, by the already-bright sun streaming through the window at 6 a.m., by my own ability to pretend this was something I did all the time.
He spread food out on the cramped table, unfolded from the wall across the trailer. “Um. Aliens. Breakfast?” he said, proffering instant oatmeal, a nectarine, a handful of blueberries, and a glance at his watch.
I did what I was told: went out to the road and picked berries till Jeff and his dusty green school bus rolled back over the hills from Kantishna. The berries were bounced into mush in the half-full Tupperware for the next four and a half hours as we drove east, and we ate them the next morning at his cabin in Healy, the tiny town on the northern boundary of the park.
As memories gather in a place, they start to interact, to complicate each other. But in the postcard days, I had very few, and those few carried a disproportionate weight, and sometimes kept me from seeing what was in front of me. The first time I really looked into a clear channel of the Toklat River, the image of water flowing over glacial sediment became firmly intertwined with the Joan Baez in my Discman, tucked into the pocket of my rain jacket, and the throbbing headache of an underage hangover, which was why I was kneeling by the river in the first place. The rocks ranged from fingernail-sized pebbles to freshly broken sandstone, cleaved evenly like sliced strips of steak, and boulders large enough to use as stepping stones, which formed bridges at intervals along the creek. “Pick up your money and pack your tent,” Joan crooned to the generation before mine. “You ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
I didn’t hear Jeff’s bus pull in, and he’d crouched next to me before I saw him. These meetings along the park road were routine by now. I picked up stones and put them down again, and still not knowing how to talk to men, I informed him that as a kid, I’d named rocks, invented complicated societies and biographies for them. It had seemed as plausible as giving life to a doll, and more readily available. My problem, then, was that I became attached to rocks collected in campsites on family trips to national parks, and my father, a career park ranger, reminded me that I had to leave them where I found them. And thus families of rocks were separated, social conflicts left unresolved…
In one of her children’s books, Byrd Baylor gives instructions on finding your own special rock. “If somebody says ‘What’s so special about that rock?’ don’t even tell them,” she writes. “Nobody is supposed to know what’s special about another person’s rock.”
As for finding your special rock, there are rules. The first rule: “If you can, go to a mountain made out of nothing but a hundred million small shiny beautiful roundish rocks. But if you can’t, anyplace will do. Even an alley. Even a sandy road.”
Jeff eventually told me about the Kantishna aliens. Once, in dense fog and presumed solitude, he found himself separated from his girlfriend by a herd of migrating caribou, bloody velvet hanging from their antlers, the bones in their hooves clicking against each other. He said that as they moved past him, they looked like human skeletons dripping blood. Though he and his girlfriend knew that they were only fall caribou en route to the rutting grounds, they were both shaken by the grotesque image when they found each other again in the fog.
On another day, cloudless and radiant, trying to decide whether he and his partner would continue their relationship or part ways, a man known locally as “the Cosmic Commander” fell into step with them across the tundra, wearing a tin foil hat and carrying a handgun. The three of them sat down, cross-legged, knee-to-knee, eyes on the mountain. The Cosmic Commander, a holdout from the pre-National Park mining days who claimed to communicate with celestial beings from the park road, balanced the gun on his knee and rocked it back and forth. He said he was communicating with the beings now, and they were on their way.
“What a weird fucking day,” Jeff said, as four aircraft swept in from the north, the roar of their engines blocking all conversation.
The relationship had ended, and by the time I showed up he was reluctant to bring dates to Kantishna again. And so, for years, the place held a supernatural edge for me too, even after Jeff and his aliens shifted away from the center of my world. Slowly filling the map with stories, other people’s ghosts, complicated messes that couldn’t fit in a postcard no matter how it was framed. By the end of my first summer, I was sketching flying saucers on the visitor center weather calendar.
It didn’t take me long to find a rock, and give it a story. After my first or second day of work selling postcards and drawing the weather, I walked alone for hours on the Toklat River bar, giddy at my surroundings: the Alaska Range, the muddy torrents of the Toklat, stillness, and a boundless energy that I haven’t felt since, something unique to being 20 and hiking alone in the midnight sun for the first time. I had only to show up at a mindless job the next morning. I had no sense that the summer would determine the course of my life.
I walked north toward the sun, bending to touch an occasional rock or flower, scanning the horizon for movement: bears, or unexpected humans. (Another night, I hid behind a granite boulder, squinting at the far bank of the river bar, trying to identify the strange shapes I saw moving there. I jumped with embarrassment when I realized it was a low tan tent, and a person crouching to pee. I had to remind myself that my evening walks were other people’s wilderness escape, and I resolved to get new glasses.) At my feet, the wet rocks sparkled, and one caught my eye. About the width of two fingers, slightly flattened with an indentation on one side, it looked vaguely like a misshapen heart. Black, with white striations, the side facing upwards bore a mark like a miniature human footprint.
I picked it up and held it a while, intending to eventually throw it in the river. Instead, it spent the night on the bookshelf next to my bed at the road camp, footprint facing upward. The rock ended up coming with me to Arizona that fall, though not casually, as I was still wracked with Park Service guilt. I built a mythology around it: the rock would go back to the Toklat, and as long as I had it with me, I’d be responsible for its eventual return. Until that happened, no departure from Denali would be permanent. When it was back in the river, I could leave for good if I wanted to.
I surprised myself by accepting my job back the following summer, and then other jobs in other summers. I started leaving boxes in friends’ sheds in the communities surrounding the park, even as I insisted that my “real life” would start elsewhere, someday soon.
Other federally protected rocks came into my possession, as they are bound to do when so much time is spent within park boundaries. As an act of courtship and apparently unaware of the psychic burden it would represent, a man once sent me a piece of petrified wood he’d found the previous summer on Polychrome Mountain, a roadside ridge in the park. It was mid-winter, and Denali seasonals were scattered across the globe, thinking fondly of Alaskan summer. The petrified wood sat on display on my desk in Tucson, until the winter and the long-distance romance wore thin, and then it was tossed in a box, and lost in the shuffle somewhere along the way. I didn’t feel bound by it, not like the black and white footprint rock.
For years, the little rock lived in my purse or backpack, and without thinking about the meaning of the ritual, I started dipping it in various waters around the world. It traveled the length of the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River, bathed in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, two Patagonian rivers, the Ganges, and a tributary of the Indus. Standing in long lines, I’d sometimes take it in my hand, move it between my fingers. And every summer I returned to Denali, it didn’t seem right to leave it just yet.
Over time, the center of my reality shifted again. The park road no longer felt like a magical place full of beautiful people and coincidences, and my ability to navigate it freely changed with policy and age: I was less easily impressed, and flirting my way onto buses and government vehicles was a less dignified and plausible travel strategy. I lived on the highway, and travel to Kantishna felt daunting not because of aliens or men in tin foil hats, but because of the hours of driving it required. I no longer looked around and saw postcard images, but simply life, often muddy and dusty and tedious, and also radiantly beautiful. I acquired furniture, emotional baggage, a small town reputation based first on years of chasing men along the park road and then later as a civic-minded flake with a knack for cooking Mexican (by rural Alaskan standards). I became harder to impress. Some say I became less fun, others that I became less exhausting to talk to. In the background I still heard Joan Baez, singing someone else’s song until it became her own: get your mind off winter time, you ain’t goin’ nowhere. It turns out, I wasn’t. I was staying right here.
The night before I lost my footprint rock, I’d pulled it out of one bag to put it in another, and told my travel companion about its history. It was our first trip together. We were in Costa Rica.
He and I had met at the Toklat River too, the same summer I’d picked up the rock. I told him that I wanted to remember to wash it in some Costa Rican rivers while we were there, and dutifully placed it in the hip strap pocket of the daypack I was sure I’d have with me for the remainder of the trip.
And I would have, if not for a series of dumb mistakes: the next day, forgetting for a moment that we weren’t in Alaska, we saw an inviting waterfall just off the road, and pulled over the rental car to dash to it for a quick swim. After days of what I felt was excessive caution, we left our two day packs visible on the seat, against the wisdom of Lonely Planet and every American tourist before us. We returned to the car to find the driver’s side window smashed with grapefruit-sized rock, which sat on the car’s console surrounded by broken glass, and both packs gone.
The material loss was manageable. The contents of my pack were, for the most part, replaceable or unimportant. My partner’s passport was in his bag, which necessitated what was for both of us a first visit to an American Embassy, but within a day and a half we were back on the road. But more than the binoculars and the sweater, I’m haunted by the loss of the rock for the mythology I’d built around it. It won’t ever make it back to the Toklat now. Of course, the rock isn’t the only thing that kept me at Denali, but its symbolism allowed me the illusion that I was interrogating the choice to stay and that the choice was a conscious one. I hope that, after realizing its lack of worth, the thieves threw the pack’s contents into the river, where the rock would erode into sediment and drain into the Pacific as it would have done in the Toklat.
I came home without the footprint rock. I wanted to believe that was a choice, and not just habit, but at some point the line blurs. Home this time meant forcing my painfully sunburnt legs into bunny boots and shoveling the snow that had fallen in our absence. It meant a window large enough to see the northern lights from bed, and sticking around in the winter to see them. It meant dealing with bills left unpaid after the stolen credit card was canceled from Costa Rica. Now, looking up from my clumsy feet, shuffling around the porch in clunky white boots, what painted itself around me was not a scene from a postcard, but a scene from a life, shifting with every breath.