You always know when to say goodbye, in Denali. When the aspen leaves turn to crisp gold coins and flutter on the sides of the road. When you watch the snowline sagging lower and lower on the mountains. When you can’t seem to shake that headache and you realize you are hung over, yet again. When your heart is weary from too much living. You bow out, make your exit as gracefully as you can, and head south.
Seasonal life comes with a set of parameters. You are here for one brief season. One season to absorb what you will, be it place, people, or alcohol. You live in this community of vagabonds and seekers, each drawn to this northern place by the promise of jobs or perhaps something more elusive. The spongy promise of tundra, the bite of glacial fed rivers, the sense that here, something is still whole. Maybe it’s you.
You come here as a kid in your twenties. Adult summer camp, you hear, and your ears perk up. A place to party, to drink with abandon, to dance around the solstice fire like a pagan, as cold rain baptizes you into something bigger.
You keep coming back, summer after summer, to work in the coffee house. You forgo a tan, stay winter white all year, because the place is magnetic. You start to feel a part of the community, recognizable, one of the returners. “She’s one of the coffee girls!” you hear on top of Mt Healy, and you secretly thrill. When you are pulled over on the park road for speeding, the ranger recognizes you too, and lets you off with a warning. “Slow down! You are here to see stuff, not just pass through,” she tells you.
You return each year to the same place, the airstrip with the tiny green cabins where you live. The coffee shop with the cool local vibe where you work. The cookshack where Wiley presides, cook and emperor and demigod. Where you drink with him by nights, and Sailor Jerry sets sail to a sea of prophecies and omens. Wiley is bawdy and irreverent, wicked and sweet. He turns up the music with a fierce flick of the remote. “Don’t Cha” throbs through the logs of the cookshack, and some nights, you can’t help but get up and dance. You feel it deep in your hips. Outside the spruce trees scratch with clawed fingers at the windows. Inside, you are home.
Night by night, it grows colder and darker. Paths you learned in the early summer light, you now have to trace by memory, by foot-feel, in the dark. Sometimes you trip and tangle in the spruce. You know that soon, it’s time to go.
I am leaving tomorrow, but tonight I dance like this is it. Hair wild, rollicking into strangers and friends alike as the band plays under the yellow spotlights. The singer smiles at me; I make her lattes every day. Higher up, the stars spin. I orbit between here and there, not really anywhere.
Kantishna: the end of the road in Denali National Park. Literally. An old mining town, now inhabited by tourist companies and lodges. And home to the best damn music festival ever.
Earlier, we crowded into the Skyline lodge, pressed together hip to hip, Carhartts and fleeces, Sitka slippers stacked by the door next to hiking boots. Folk musicians charm us from the stage below; they have traveled from across Alaska to be here tonight.
The music twitches in my toes, taps in my fingers. I am surrounded by friends. And I’m leaving. I watch faces, I lean into shoulders, I memorize the profile of spruces out the window. I memorize the feel of wildness all around me.
And before I slip up the mud-slick road to the tent, under black spruce silhouettes, under the possibility of aurora, I am drawn to a circle of glowing faces. A large white paper sphere is lit on fire and gently let go to drift up into the night. It is illuminated, it eats itself alive and sheds sparks as it fades into night. It lights the way for us as we leave.
Leaving a place you love is a kind of death. It changes while you’re gone in ways you can’t imagine or want.
Wiley died last weekend, flipped us all one last bird and left us behind. I remember his skin warm against mine as we sat in the cookshack holding hands. I remember his voice as he sang in the bathroom. I remember him sleeping in the armchair by the door.
Wiley, I hope it’s better than we can imagine. I hope you are without pain. I hope you know how much we love you. Goodbye.
Wiley, by Wendi Sims Schupbach