I sit in the windowsill of my hotel room, the 4-foot tall window partially open with no window screen. The cold, brisk Alaska air is slowly finding its way into this dark, musky hotel room. Everything here is new: walls newly painted with crisp grey accents around the door frames; freshly installed cabinets that do not squeak; a perfectly white, clean refrigerator. When I opened it earlier, the frigid air rushing out reminded me that I have not opened a fridge in almost three weeks.
I’m in this windowsill alone. Yesterday, Michelle was here. She flipped through the 100 cable channels, including 6 different HBO’s, and commented, “It’s been so long since I’ve watched TV like this, changing channels.” She lingered on a Reba marathon. I said, “Seriously?!” and lovingly mocked her. We wondered aloud whether we would leave this isolation room of our own making. It’s comfortable: no social interaction required, the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold, and there’s a bed. Compared to the last few weeks, I’m in luxury if only for the bed.
When we finally leave the room, we decide to do one last thing that we’ll be able to add to multiple lists: Michelle’s First Time Summit’ing a Mountain, Michelle’s Fifth Hike, Touristy Things We Did in Anchorage, Alaska. After pulling up directions, we grab the leftover food and get back in the car. We pull out utensils to eat out of the to-go containers. I look at us and can’t help but laugh. “We brought the food in the car. You know, we could have eaten it in the room, there were probably utensils in the kitchen,” I say.
“Yeah, but this is our environment. It’s comfortable. We know how to live in the car,” Michelle responds truthfully. We are not ashamed of our own desire for anonymity. We’ve both been living in New York City. We don’t want to encounter other people in shared spaces and indulge in small talk. We want to get our shit done as independently and seamlessly as possible.
We finish eating and drive to the highway. It seems that all of the main roads in downtown Anchorage become major highways within a mile of leaving downtown. We get off at O’Malley Road, which soon becomes a two-lane narrow country road. We follow the step-by-step instructions to get to Flattop Mountain, which has been described to us as the most climbed mountain in the state. The series of roads takes us higher and higher and soon, we can see a view of Anchorage from the parking lot. We leave the comfort of the car and find the trail.
I am breathless and panting immediately. “Goddam, this is hard,” I say, clutching my arms against my head in exhaustion. “And they said this is moderate?” We slowly hike uphill. The trunks of deranged trees stretch only as high as we are tall and create bizarre shaped U’s and squares as they intertwine. Their leaves and branches create a thickly protected shelter, with few plants in the undergrowth. The smaller plants that do exist are stunted: we see a flower we are familiar with, whose leaves are typically twice the size of my face; here the leaves are only palm-sized. One plant clings to the ground and has needles like a pine tree, but also sprouts blue, tasty-looking berries. I commit it to memory, adding it to the List of Things We Need to Look Up. For a minute, we reach a plateau and can see all of Anchorage underneath us. We gaze at the clean-cut edge that gives way to the Cook Inlet, a shimmering grey mass of water that leads out to the Gulf of Alaska and, eventually, to the Pacific Ocean.
After we catch our breath, we start hiking straight uphill on wooden stairs. They jut out haphazardly from the earth, with bolts fixing them into the mountain. Some are on an angle, requiring I step on them with the arch of my shoe perfectly balanced on their edge. My face gazes downward constantly, as most stairs are covered with dangerous a two-inch thick layer of gravel. I am focused only on my ability to keep moving up.
We silently march into the clouds.
The views of Anchorage have disappeared, and any hint of water below us is gone. We see only a sheet of uniform white clouds as we ascend. Each step brings us higher and the clouds grow closer and denser. We stop for a water break at a sign that reads, “Difficult Conditions No Small Children Or Pets. Use Extreme Caution During Descent.” We have been warned that in order to get to the top, scrambling across rocks is required. I have very little idea what that means. Michelle, who has been on few hikes, always wants to have a back-up safety plan. She says, “I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to do this, but we can try.”
So we climb, gasping for air with every step up. We search for a quickly disappearing trail. “Look! There it is,” we exclaim over and over again. There are people far above us at the peak, but no one climbing immediately ahead of us to follow. The once-gradual dirt path is hiding and, finally, it’s consumed by the rocky spikes above us.
“Well, it’s kind of there…” I say cautiously, pointing to a rock that careens straight up. I step forward onto the slightly flattened edge that my shoes grip. I’m reaching for protruding edges of rock with my whole hands, refusing to have fewer than 3 points of contact with the mountain at any given time. You will not slip, I convince myself. Reckless teenagers do this. You can do this.
Michelle emanates fear. She is wearing worn-out sneakers that were barely made for walking. Her usual, upbeat, constant chatter has been replaced by an intense focus. “We don’t have to go to the top,” I offer. “After all, I live here now. I can always come back.” She continues to climb silently. “Well, it’d be pretty awkward if you fell and died. So don’t, okay?” I laugh.
“Okay when you’re the one saying shit like that, that makes me nervous,” Michelle says seriously.
“No just kidding you’re not going to fall and die,” I quickly retract and laugh again.
After a few risky maneuvers, we see the US flag on a 10-foot flagpole, waving in the wind. It cries, “You made it to the top!! Way to go!” Only a few people share the summit with us, so we take pictures in front of the dinky flagpole and celebrate, ignoring the impending descent. The naming of Flattop Mountain becomes clear: the top of the mountain is flat. A coat of gravel covers the shallow, level plateau. The wind, elevation, latitude, and sun have doomed this mountaintop to relative lifelessness, but a few signs of life can be seen. Thin, bleach white roots crawl out between the rocks. A few dwarf shrubs and mosses attempt to grow, but their green colors have faded to grey, blending into the surrounding rock. Red, black, and white lichen paint the jagged stone like graffiti. Even on a mountain made of solid rock, plants have found ways to humbly survive.
The clouds are fluffier up here, and instead of creating a pure, impenetrable, white sheet in front of us, they part. A valley unveils itself. A mountain looms across from us. We see, below us, the clear tree line. The white cotton clouds dance below us, and I realize I haven’t been above clouds like this without having been in a plane. It’s almost serene.
“America!! I’m Neil Armstrong!!” the group of twenty-somethings yell as they stagger to rocky top. We walk around Flattop’s edge and then, with extreme caution, begin walking backwards down the pointy peak.
When we reach the bottom, I bring Michelle to the airport. For the last few weeks, I lived out of my car with one of my best friends. Every day, we made sure we were as equipped as possible: Chex-Mix, baby carrots, apples, snap peas, tuna packets, tortillas, and chili were our emergency preparedness plan. As two young women with no secret car mechanic skills, we resigned ourselves to relying on the kindness of strangers in the event of a flat tire, dead battery, or smoke from under the hood. We had chosen the route before leaving, but changed the plan with the help of friends’ suggestions along the way. And somehow, miraculously, after almost three weeks of camping, staying with friends-of-friends, and avoiding bears, we made it to Alaska.
After almost three weeks together, Michelle and I had only a few fights. They were borne out of misunderstandings, hunger, a lack of creature comforts, and contradictory travel styles. We didn’t have a lot of options with only each other as company, so we worked through these disagreements. This hike was our last chance to explore, adventure, and experience something new together. On our way down the mountain, we each fall onto the slippery gravel. Michelle cuts up her hands catching her falls. Teenagers make fun of us for peeing in the woods. We finish our snacks and water. When we get in the car, exhausted pride consumes us. Despite fear and a lack of experience, we summited a mountain, scrambled across rocks, and, surprisingly, did not die.
I’m smiling, because that was only yesterday. Michelle left on her non-stop, direct flight to NYC. She returned to a city with walkable streets, adequate public transportation, and Tibetan restaurants that don’t serve gyros, like I recently found out this one in Anchorage does. Most importantly, she’s returned to the part of the country where she, and most of my friends and family, live. Here I am, eking out a life for myself here, with mountain ranges in my backyard, mudflats that act like quicksand, threatening to consume anyone who treads on them, and beautiful backcountry at every turn. Just as I refused to slip, fall, and die, here, I refuse to let myself get bored and lonely. There’s a life for me here yet.