I began to realize the power of quiet, and how sometimes the best way to truly understand a place isn’t to go and do but rather to sit and be. In the quietest moments of that day — as when I stopped to feel the prick of the wind on my face only for it to abate in a brief, perfect moment of stillness — I began to understand, in my bones, the north, with its spectacular extremes, wildness and long, sinuous light, all of which chases some people away and forever seduces others.
An enduring mystery
A couple of days later, I drove to Chena Hot Springs. Sixty miles northeast of Fairbanks, it was originally discovered by gold miners in the early 20th century. Now, there’s a small, casual resort with guest rooms, dog-mushing tours and ski rentals. But the place remains a pilgrimage site for locals in winter. After cross-country skiing up a frozen riverbed, I changed into my swimsuit and slid into the mineral pool, ensconced by boulders. Closing my eyes, I let the sun warm my face and the steam soften my hair.
There was almost no one there except an elderly Alaska Native couple, who said that they made the schlep every year from their home near Anchorage. As they leaned back against a rock, I watched the calm wash over their faces, as if the water had the power to rinse away the stiffness of winter. I let my back soften and my arms float, watching the spruce and birch trees for stirring wildlife.
I was flying out of Alaska later that night, and sitting in the pool, I reflected on my trip. I realized that I never had gotten to see the northern lights, which reportedly travel through the sky like phantoms on clear nights.
In a way, I was glad, not only because it meant that I had a reason to come back. It also seemed fitting that this place, a mind-bending mix of big landscapes and delicate beauty, would retain a shred of mystery.
Siber is a freelance writer based in Durango, Colo.