The couple across the table at lunch is discussing the pleasures of eating spring bear. The man sees me raise my eyebrows. “It’s less greasy than fall bear,” he says, “because they’ve been sleeping all winter.”
It isn’t the first (and won’t be the last) time I will be unsettled during my summer vacation to Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve. I had wanted unfamiliar. I had craved big and almost incomprehensible. I had flown from New York City to Anchorage, and headed north and west, because I wanted to find the “real” Alaska, the ultimate and most Western of Western states. I aimed to see and feel the Alaska of sinewy mountaineers and uncompromising outliers and seekers of Strange Truth.
I considered myself a Strange Truth Seeker. Once upon a time, a decade ago, I had made it my mission to seek the Strange Truth that is contained in the one and only piece of bear-proof body armor ever invented, an impressive hunk of titanium, chain mail, stainless steel, and something called “fire paste,” all designed by a high school dropout and apparent mechanical savant. My plan was to buy it (it was on eBay back then), clamp myself in it, persuade some editors from an outdoor magazine to drizzle a few pounds of raw honey onto my titanium- and steel-encased flesh, then transport me by helicopter and lower me onto a patch of Alaska’s carnivore-crawling Kodiak Island, where I would face the largest and man-eatingest brown bears in the universe, vanquish my demons, and find peace.
Friends and family (and a patient if worried psychotherapist) succeeded in making me abandon my dreams of donning the bear armor (which, they all pointed out, had never been actually tested against a real wild bear). They had not, though, dissuaded me from a trip to Alaska’s interior—specifically to its Strange Truth sweet spot, Denali National Park, mountaineering mecca and highest point in North America. Though god knows they tried.
“You’re going to Denali?” one friend had grilled me. “Big mistake. The first thing they do if you want to backpack there is show you a two-hour video of what it’s like to be eaten by a bear!”
“You should go to Nevada instead,” my brother, who had hiked in Alaska, said. “You’ll never see the mountain because it’s always raining and if it’s not, it’s covered in mist. But you’ll probably find your way to a grizzly, who will eat you. And if one doesn’t, you’ll wish he had, because the mosquitoes are as big as eagles.”
The only person who didn’t try to talk me out of the trip was my girlfriend, who had for months been lobbying for a vacation to “see the real America.” If anyone would appreciate the rugged interior of this country’s most rugged state, it would be Bojana, who was born and grew up in Croatia and who complained regularly that Americans were soft (especially this particular American).
I was thinking about Bojana, who would be joining me on my third day in Alaska, when I noticed that the couple was still talking about bear meat. Then the woman was talking about hunting wolves. I think she saw me blanch.
Denali, aka Mt. McKinley (still its official name according to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, but locals go with Denali), is 20,320 feet high. It is made up of “granitic pluton,” and it’s on a fault, so tectonic pressure keeps shoving it upward, which means that while other mountains in the world are slumping and shrinking, it’s actually getting higher. These are things I jot down in my notebook, on which I have scrawled, “Cool Alaska Facts,” and which I crack open on the train ride from Anchorage to the entrance to Denali National Park.
The trip takes eight hours. For most of it, I affect the flinty thousand-yard stares that I sometimes aspire to when Bojana tells me I’m a lazy whiner. Will she think I’m weak when I share with her the section from my Cool Alaska Facts notebook regarding enraged moose, and that while it’s best to run away from enraged moose, it’s also important to know that the most likely way one will try to kill is to kick forward with one of its front hooves?
I keep looking out the windows for a glimpse of Denali, but other than winking, flashing rivers, gravel, and sense-defying expanses of forest, there is only grayness and mist. I have now read that my brother was correct: Of all the people who fly, trek, canoe, and otherwise journey to Alaska’s interior in order to catch a glimpse of Denali, only 30 percent or so ever actually see the mountain. This is because Alaska summers often have rain. Also because Denali is so high and broad that it creates its own weather patterns. People call it The Weathermaker, as well as The Great One, The High One, and The Mighty One.
I drift to sleep. When I awake, we are halfway to The Weathermaker. This is where I get off.