Nature Administers a Rorschach Test, Margaret May
I pull my voice recorder out of my pocket, and press the red button. “Hi, mom,” I whisper, not wanting to disturb the peace, “one time, you asked me what the mountains sound like.” I pause to outstretch the recorder in my palm and add, “well, here it is.” I wait for a few seconds, standing still with my eyes closed, and focus on the vast silence and gentle wind. I end the recording and place it back in my pocket before opening my eyes to gaze into the distance, noticing the braided river winding through the valley, thick dark-green willows, piles of rocks that lie discarded under peaks, and the mountains that rise out of the valley, imposing and somehow still welcoming, freshly blanketed in snow.
I smile warily at the mountains and walk back to our tent that is creatively staked, roped, and clipped together with a collection of rain flys and poles. We couldn’t set up a tent with matching parts tonight because we don’t have all the parts. The snow storm that rolled in a few hours ago is too dangerous for the small bush plane that dropped us here in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to return. Our tent parts and the rest of our group will stay hundreds of miles away in the nearest town for tonight.
Coldfoot, Alaska is a desolate town: the last census reported only ten year-long residents. It is the largest town for hundreds of miles, and can be found on almost every Alaskan map. The ten people that live in Coldfoot can find their home marked on maps of the entire Artic Circle, listed among the Russian towns of Tiksi and Nordvik, Finland’s Severomorsk, Sweden’s Hammerfest, and Canada’s Inuvik.
Even though Coldfoot appears large on a map, it feels small on its own. I feel even smaller as I lay in my sleeping bag an hour’s plane ride away in this 38,000-square kilometer Refuge. It might be the most freeing thing that has happened to me – to live simply and disconnected for a while – but also the most unfamiliar.
As I find myself stuck in the middle of the Arctic, in the middle of a transition in my life from a child of my home to an adult of the world, I know that I am here to develop, as David Thoreau put it in an essay in 1862, the “genius forsauntering:” for walking for miles each day, without direction, going “a la Sainte-Terrer,” which sounds like saunterer but means, in French, “to the Holy Land.” I suppose I am searching for something I have yet to determine, hoping to find new familiarity within myself in this unfamiliar place.
For now, I do what’s familiar and sleep. But in the Refuge, I learn that it’s a different sleep: a sleep where my shoulder and hip bones are in constant conflict with the tundra, where I wake up at a different angle than when I fell asleep, where I must burrow deep in my sleeping bag (unable to see the light or feel the cold air) to stay warm.
The weather changes on a dime. Last night it was snowing, and tonight I’m sweating on top of my sleeping bad, wide awake and nearly naked. The sun does not set in the Refuge; instead, it circles the sky, occasionally dipping behind nearby mountain peaks for a few minutes, offering a brief respite from its intense rays: so close at this elevation and constant this time of year.
I pull my sleep mask over my eyes that reads “sommeil de beatué.” I bought it last summer at a dollar store in Canada, on the eve of my first long backpacking trip. It’s French, and since we don’t speak French, we can only speculate its meaning. We are together now and gleefully jabber French gibberish to each other. Sommeil de beatué: something about beauty, we agree; maybe even something of beauty. The meaning of the message, like the mask, seems frivolous in this wild land, hidden in white cursive script and adorned with black lace trim. When I pull it over my eyes, my world becomes dark. I can no longer see the sun’s light, but I can still feel it on my skin: a constant reminder of how far away I am from home.
When I wake up, the mask is lost in my hair. I climb out of the tent and realize that the stream that was only a trickle last night has grown. Our tent, set up on cobbled rocks in the center of the braided river, is now sandwiched between two streams, like a moat surrounding a castle. I grab my wet sneakers, hop over the glittering creek, and boil water for coffee. When the others wake up hours later, they burst out of the tent to escape “tent bake,” the result of the sun’s light radiating inside our tent all night long, making the temperature in our tent several degrees hotter than the outside air. Sweaty and red-faced, they dunk themselves in the stream before coming to join me a few hundred yards away, sitting in the center of the river on a bank of cobbles.
Tonight, instead of climbing inside my tent, I’m sneaking out. I’m driven outside by homesickness and dreams where we are blown away, our tents floating into the sky like helium balloons, vanishing without anyone ever knowing. I sit cross-legged on a rock looking over the valley. My friends sleep, but I sit and watch: the water slipping over rocks; the mountain peaks boldly poking the sky, weaving themselves in and out of the clouds; the arctic terns suspending themselves in the strong arctic wind, appearing still in midair unlike anything I have ever seen before. These birds, a little more than a foot from beak to tail, stay in the Refuge for a few summer months before migrating all the way to Antarctica. They will leave in the fall and return next spring, their bodies tired from carrying themselves all the way to the end of the world and back. Their homes are always changing, a few months here, a few there, and the rest spent traveling between the two. For now, they are here with me in the Refuge and I watch them play in the wind, diving and floating in its strong currents.
I wait for the sun to rise, somehow forgetting – despite its warmth on my cheeks – that the sun will neither rise nor set here. In the meantime, the sun circles my body, centered on this rock in the middle of nowhere. This is the same sun that is welcoming a new day for thousands of people around the world: women squatted around fires in Nepal, men joking and drinking coffee in the streets of Madrid, and my family, doing lord knows what in Wisconsin. Miraculously and ridiculously, the sun will not announce a new day for me.
Hours ago, when I spotted this peninsula, it was a dreamy stretch of land that extended into the center of the river. It’s romantic to stake our tents here, to choose pleasure over practicality and disregard the rules that determine where to place our tents. I am paying its price as water droplets land on my forehead, soak into my sleeping bag, and wrinkle the pages of my book. We decide to switch our heads to where our feet should be and lay downhill, to stay a little dryer and maybe a little warmer. Dynamic pressures interacting miles above our heads in the atmosphere produce strong winds that threaten to snap the poles of our tent. Dirk Kirsch, our bush-pilot and sole local information source before this journey, said that thunderstorms are rare in the Refuge. Tonight, it’s defying all odds.
Around the world, 1,800 thunderstorms are booming and crackling every moment, zapping the Earth about a hundred times a second. Tonight, we are paying our dues, sharing a cosmic boom and bust with an odd 1,799 other places in the world. Maybe my home is among them, filled with my family cuddled in the living room, playing Hearts without me by candlelight.
When I wake up, my head pounds from the blood pressure that can only be the result of spending an entire night with one’s feet above their head. Everything I have is damp. “Sommeil de beatué” floats in a small puddle by my head. The rain fly is torn and it flaps in the wind. As I step outside, I announce to the Refuge that There Is A Goddamn Lake In My Tent.
I crack open my book, “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” and begin to read. Even though it’s the next night, our tent (and everything inside) is still wet, so I’m seeking refuge in the other tent. The seven of us adventuring these unknown braided river valleys and scree-covered peaks are currently not exploring, but squished together in one four-person tent.
We are all reading, pulled outside of the Refuge and into the pleasant world of our books. Bill Bryson and I engage in an imaginary conversation. He says Welcome. And Congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn’t easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize. I don’t do much conversing these days, opting to spend time on my own with my thoughts as I hike. I have made close friends with my companions, but sometimes I prefer my own company, and occasionally, Bill’s. We are not the best conversationalists (after all, he is confined to his 500-page book), but I can make it work. I stare at the black-and-white photo of him on the back cover, leaned to the left casually, looking like an intellectual with his circular wire glasses, sweater coat, and trimmed beard. I ask him about the formation of the cosmos, the planet, and myself. He responds to my curiosities and explains the origins of the atoms and energy that compose me. I ask about the formation of this place: the untouchable mountains, winding rivers, mysterious pingos, and hidden drainage streams. He lists off geological processes, rock formations, and weather patterns. I try to come up with a rebuttal, certainly not everything in this place, and this world, can be explained by the past and predicted in the future. But he does not take my bait. Our conversation halts and I close the book, unsatisfied.
This feels like a milestone: it’s night 13. It could be Friday; I don’t know. Dates and times have lost their value. I run on my “body clock”: eating when I’m hungry and sleeping when I’m tired. My friends at home won’t be able to comprehend this since they are unable to envision a world without watches and schedules. Above the Arctic Circle in the Refuge, it’s even harder to know the time. Hours and minutes pass without count; the time in a day is starting to seem arbitrary. Months later I will learn that sometimes we ate dinner at 3 am, or went to bed at noon, and often hiked through the night. Each time, our circadian rhythms would pull us back to a 24-hour day, unable to deviate from our normal cycles in this abnormal place for too long.
Still, I hope it’s not Friday. I’ve inherited superstition from my grandmother, who died, thankfully, Thursday the 12th. If it’s Friday, I can only conclude that I’m doomed for the rest of this journey. My life seems too perilous right now to be taking unnecessary risks. I unzip the door to the tent, poke my head outside, tell The Gods how much I love them, and add in a little love for my grandmother for good measure. I put on my sleep mask, just like she did every night, and doze off.
I unzip the tent and find a cute bear cub looking for its mom. I scoop it into my arms and give it a kiss. Moments later, a bear claw slices through the thin fabric of our tent. I jolt awake, my pulse racing, body sweating. It takes a few minutes to calm down. I double check that the Bear Spray is within reach.
“Bear stress,” what we have named the ever-present fear of grizzly bears and its accompanying awareness of our surroundings, follows me everywhere and infiltrates my dreams. The scientific name for grizzly bear, ursus arctos horibillis, translates to the Latin word for bear, followed by the Greek word for bear, and finished off with horibillis, the Latin root for the English word “horrible.” So, no matter which part of Eastern Europe my ancestors were from (the linguistically Latin-derived parts or the Greek-influenced parts) where Grizzly Bears were first named, they could understand they were bad. Their name literally translates to “Bear Bear Horrible.”
The size of the grizzlies that inhabit the Refuge are incredible: they can weigh up to 1,720 pounds and the width of their shoulders can span the size of my body, head to toe. Contrary to the myth that many grown men in my hometown hold dear, handguns cannot kill ursus arctos horibillis. Their skin is too think for a bullet to penetrate it. We don’t carry a gun, instead opting for super-potent pepper spray designed to deter bears.
We’ve encountered a few grizzlies already. Once, washing in the stream nearby while we made breakfast. Once, drinking from the water by our campsite while we set up tents. Once, crossing a glacier while we hiked up a nearby peak. Each time, they drop a pile of poop on the ground the moment they see us, and clomp away, heavy footed and terrified.
In the morning, I find fresh bear poop not more than 10 meters from where I slept.
My stomach twists and rumbles, unhappy and making sure I know. My body is starting to weaken in this harsh land after holding up for so long. I can’t be sure what my body is so upset by, but my only option in our first aid kit is the bright pink Pepto Bismol pills. I chew a few more, roll around in my sleeping bag, and fuss with “sommeil de beatué”: stretching and folding, somehow unable to sleep with it or without it.
In the middle of the night, I unzip the door of the tent to relieve myself and I freeze. Hundreds of caribou slowly move across the tundra, their hooves clicking softly on the rocks. I have never seen anything like this before: the migration of a herd through the wild. The caribou follow each other, nose to tail to nose to tail to nose, for thousands of miles. Some stop and stare at me with their dark eyes, trying to figure out what I am and what I’m doing in their home. But most are too busy to notice me and they focus on the rocks in front of them, not wanting to lose themselves on their 3,000-mile route through the Refuge, their very own saunter to their Holy Land.
For the next few hours, I watch as thousands of the 120,000 members of the herd traverse the tundra, in route to a new home under the midnight sun. We climb into one tent, unzip the door, and watch “America’s Serengeti” unfold before us. Eventually, I doze off, dreaming of joining the caribou: holding onto their antlers and riding on their spotted backs all the way home.
We’ve decided to designate our 25th night as Christmas, and we celebrate by exchanging gifts. I decide to cash in on my coupon for a foot massage from Nora and savor it. Pleasure, I’ve learned, is marvelous. In this harsh place, little things can make all the difference: heart shaped rocks, a spoon full of cocoa, sunny mornings and sunny nights.
We welcome this holiday season with crisp air and snowflake flurries. Maybe our excitement is due to holiday spirit; maybe it’s because we have no other option. Either way, our welcome doesn’t disguise our trepidation of this cold weather. We are short on food and don’t have enough calories in our meals to sustain our bodies or maintain a reasonable body temperature for long. This adventure has taken a toll on my body: when I lace my boots every morning, I cannot help but notice that my legs get smaller and smaller each day. I feel my body in my sleeping bag, running my hands over my arms and down my ribs, wondering when I became so bony.
I have not seen myself for 25 days. It’s probably for the better, since I haven’t showered in that long either. I trace my fingers over my nose, lips, and cheek bones and realize that I’ve forgotten the way my own face looks. It doesn’t bother me: I feel happy, and happy people are beautiful (at least, that’s what my mother says). This happiness is not as carefree as I imagined it, but it is peaceful. I pull out my sleep mask and wonder for the 25th time what it means. “Sommeil de beatué”: something is beautiful, I decide. This Christmas, it is me.
Tonight, we are crash camping. Our tents are placed on the flattest spot in sight, which is, for all intents and purposes, not flat. I slide down my sleeping pad and find myself cramped at the bottom of the tent the whole night, squashed against the door of the tent in my sleeping bag, pressed up against Sophie, who couldn’t care less about the incline.
Since I can’t stay asleep for long, I wake up early and bring my sleeping bag outside. These mountain faces are unlike any part of the world I have ever seen before: jagged, ancient, and striped with green, violet, and turquoise sand that has washed into the streams and rivers, leaving a trail of multi-colored sand in the valley below. The stripes in the mountains match my jacket, my mom’s fleece that I snuck inside my pack the morning, now months ago, that I left home. It’s from the 80s and has a loud geometric snowflake design in eccentric blue, green, and purple. I snap the collar all the way up and feel the knot in my throat rise. I miss my mom. I imagine her here with me, sitting on this rock. She would ask about the food, the weather, and the views. I would tell her as best I could: that we ran out of salt and started eating plain quinoa and I didn’t mind it; that I thought my clothes would never dry, but somehow they did; that the river beds went on for miles, and we spent entire days hiking across the tundra, able to see our last campsite at the new one; that I almost always felt loss and loneliness alongside joy and freedom; that I feel a deep sadness, now, when I know that no matter how many stories I tell or adjectives I use, my mom will never understand this place like I do, like I want her to; that I can’t say when I grew accustomed to the ever-present sun, but now I am afraid of what it will be like to sleep in the dark; that it was my choice to leave home and once I left it felt like the place I most wanted to be, even among beauty and peace; that someday I want to come back to this unfamiliar place that is now familiar, but somehow I know that I won’t and that feels the heaviest of all: that I have reached a point in my life where my home is transient, never to be returned to, just left alone but not forgotten.
About the Author
Mackenzie Gearin · Hendrix College
Mackenzie Gearin is a junior Interdisciplinary Studies major at Hendrix College. “Beauty Sleep” first appeared in The Aonian.
About the Artist
Margaret May · University of Vermont
Margaret May recently graduated cum laude and with Phi Beta Kappa honors from the University of Vermont, earning her B.A. in English with a concentration in writing and a double minor in art history and nutrition & food science. Visit Margaret on Instagram @yo_marge. “Nature Administers a Rorschach Test” first appeared in Vantage Point, now The Gist.