I watch a bear from the window, gracefully and powerfully descending the hill and later another sauntering serenely up the slopes of tundra. There is such peace in those movements that they make the chaos inside the bus all but disappear. The bear moving into the distance, beautiful and oblivious to the French tourist shoving the American elitist’s head down, all fighting for the best view. I think to myself, every bear I see is graceful, powerful and beautiful. How many people do I describe with those words? It only takes a short time in Denali, or any National Park to discern that humans are the dumbest, most dangerous and destructive animals around.
Of course I want to be empathetic and acknowledge the beauty and potential that people possess, but it’s damn hard to see sometimes. I want to get away from this bus and saunter in the wild. I want to abandon what Walter Bonatti called the “absurdity of everyday day life.” I feel the pull of the open landscape, the alpine scenes and glaciers beyond. I want a pure and unhindered existence. My heart drifts.
The bus driver speaks contemplatively about the park. Should it all be privatized and profitable? Inundated with trails and development? What’s the importance of conservation and preservation? Will our children and grandchildren see this and experience this beauty? I can tell he deeply values and knows this place, but waxes too diplomatic. My heart screams. We’re at the edge of a precipice, man! Privatization and profitability destroy. Conservation does not go nearly far enough. We are losing ground. Has anyone learned anything here?
We leave Denali but the mountain feels magnetic and makes it hard to. Days later we head into Kenai Fjords National Park. The toe of the glacier hangs a great distance removed from where it was only a couple decades ago and the thoughtful and thoughtless alike chase its ever receding edge. Hiking around I look high on the mountainous terrain above and see a mother bear and her cub. I watch them ascending steeply and safely, and again I am struck by the absolute beauty of these creatures. The quiet evening makes me forget briefly their vulnerability. I’m humbled by the realization that my life is no more valuable than theirs. As I watch the mama bear and her cub, I think of my nieces and my siblings. Grace, power and beauty—simultaneously rare and abundant depending on where you look and how you see.
We need to be less dumb, less destructive and less dangerous, but the momentary excitement and subsequent indifference seem contagious. But I refuse to catch this contagion of indifference and instead will allow the excitement to lead me to a love of these wild places even more deeply.