Less than ten words into an account of Thomas Waerner’s recent Iditarod victory, I stopped reading and frowned. According to the story in the Anchorage Daily News, Waerner’s arrival in Nome had returned him to “the real world.”
The reasoning (once I resumed reading) was that Waerner had for nine days “escaped” the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that his racing adventure had ended and he was back in a city, even one as small and remote as Nome, he’d rejoined a culture—in fact an entire world of people—dealing with the unsettling and, in some places, devastating spread of the novel Coronavirus. Even that was not entirely true, because this year’s Iditarod was run in the shadow of the viral outbreak and many precautionary changes had been made as the race progressed across some of Alaska’s most remote regions.
Here’s what bothers me — even makes me a little grumpy: the implication is that the world of humans, and what’s important to us, is somehow more “real” than the larger, more-than-human world we inhabit. That’s nonsense, of course, but I think many people—likely most people, at least in our culture—accept such reasoning as a basic truth.
My guess is that Waerner’s time with his dogs while traveling through Alaska’s remote wilds was more meaningful, more “real” to him than much of what he’ll experience in the coming days and weeks while he figures out how to get back to his Norwegian home. Yes, that, too, is reality. But it’s not the real world.
I bring this up now because it ties into our collective experience of the ongoing and escalating Coronavirus pandemic. I’ve observed and questioned such sentiments for many years, though rarely have I voiced my disagreement. Here’s a classic example: returning from a wilderness trip, a friend will mutter, “Well that was great, but now it’s back to the real world.”
What that person really means, I suspect, is ‘now I’m going back to my usual world of routines, work, social and family obligations,’ on and on. These may be things more central to the person’s life. But are they more important than the wilderness adventure? More real?
In my experience, the times I spend in wilderness—whether deep in the Arctic or atop some ridgeline in the Chugach Front Range—are among the richest, enlivening, joyful, spirit-lifting moments in my life.
To be part of, and feel connected to, a larger community of wild beings far from human constructs, while being pulled out of my own ego—well, for me it doesn’t get any better than that. Though to be sure, there are also times in the company of certain people that are equally enriching and blissful.
These are among the moments I feel most alive, most in the present, which some spiritual teachings advise us is all we really have. Of course they don’t require wilderness immersion. I find daily pleasure and sometimes a calming presence in the murmurings of the chickadees and nuthatches with whom I share west Anchorage (to name a couple of my favorite neighbors).
I can’t think of a better time to connect with the larger reality of nature than during human crises. I vividly recall a walk I took along a favorite woodland trail on Sept. 11, 2001, to gain some needed solace and perspective during that crazy, frightening day. It helped immensely.
Sadly, such connection is not always possible, especially in war-ravaged places where natural landscapes have been destroyed along with human communities.
But here in Anchorage, as in many places across our country and around the world, wild nature can be found right outside our homes. Our community is blessed with an abundance of trails and greenbelts and parks, not to mention our “backyard wilderness,” Chugach State Park, along the city’s eastern edges.
Given the substantial upside of getting out into nature, I’m encouraged, even downright giddy, that our city’s leaders have made it clear that the mandate to “hunker down” at home allows such activities as dog walking, hiking, skiing, bike riding, and the like.
I’m even more encouraged to see lots of people going outdoors, even those who might be driven mostly by some form of cabin fever. On a Friday afternoon hill climb of Little O’Malley with Jan and the dogs, we crossed paths with dozens of adventurers (though we largely had the summit ridge to ourselves), and Sunday’s beautifully mild and sun-brightened afternoon drew more people to the Coastal Trail than I’ve seen in months, probably not since during last summer’s tourist peak.
Especially notable on those outings (and Saturday’s ski with Jan through Bicentennial Park and Campbell Tract) was the good-natured behavior of most everyone I saw. Social distancing proved a challenge at times, especially on the Coastal Trail, but people seemed to be doing their best. Even better was the abundance of smiles, hellos, and friendly waves, during a time of stress and uncertainty.
I’m guessing that many folks who don’t normally spend much time outdoors have been making the effort. And I’m hopeful they’re noticing some of the benefits to be found in the very real world of nature, even—and perhaps especially, nowadays—right here in our city wilds.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.