Some people fall into the snakepit of their lives and reach their arms, like a baby, toward God. Others discover long-distance running or opium on a back street in Bali. When I realized that there was no escaping my pain, I turned my compass north and followed it until I reached a place where it was light all day.
Alaska. I went there after a friend told me that people in the 49th state partied till dawn in the endless gloaming of the Arctic summer. Our plan was to hike up glaciers and hang out on the banks of rivers loaded with salmon rumored to be as big as small dogs. We might work; we might not. The town we were headed to, McCarthy, didn’t have phone service and was accessible during the winter only by plane. It was a place where nobody knew you or cared if your story was true.
I took to Alaska like I’d been born there. By December 1994, my first winter, I was living in a 12-by-16-foot cabin, just off the McCarthy road in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. The cabin was eight hours northeast of Anchorage near the Canada border, with 10 million acres of wilderness out the front door. I was 24 years old—a baby. Even if they’d known where to look, my parents couldn’t have found me.
In the mornings, I wake up, stoke the barrel stove, and haul water from a pond after chopping a foot-thick hole in the ice. All day, I ski giant loops through stands of birch and black spruce on waxless cross-country boards. I glide along the moraine of a wide glacier that recedes at a geologic pace, skiing so hard my body sweats—even in thin layers when it’s -20°F. The miles rack up: 15, 30, 100. When I ski, some of the rage and sorrow seeps out of me.
Throughout the winter, I meet people who don’t care where I’ve come from, how long I’m staying, or when I’ll move on. My neighbors share homemade bread, store-bought cheese, and other prized possessions. We sit in wood-fired saunas drinking nearly-brewed beer, planning climbing trips, and watching the northern lights. I stare into their winter-rough faces and think I see something I can trust.
After McCarthy, I move to Fairbanks, the coldest spot on earth, to work for a sprint musher who spends $30,000 a year on 70 huskies that never win. I am in charge of something—four litters of puppies—for the first time in my life. I will make big decisions, like who will lead us out of the dog yard, who will get extra food, and who will live or die.
Solstices and equinoxes pass. By June 1996, I’m living in Talkeetna, on the southern edge of Denali National Park. I am building a cabin on two acres of land with a dog trail out back. I make friends who admire my tenacity. I start to believe they might be right. One day, a neighbor asks me to help with her dogs as she trains for the Iditarod. She, too, is brave and afraid; her boyfriend is dying of cancer. When I meet her at the start of another long race, she is crying, but she pushes 150 miles to the Kuskoquim River, then turns around and brings her dogs across the finish line. When I get home, I write a story about her on the back of a grocery bag, then take it to the local radio station and read it over the air. Weeks later, on the eve of the Iditarod, my story is broadcast on radio stations across the state, and months later wins an award. A light goes on in my head.
When I look back on the years I spent in Alaska, I see a more perfect version of myself emerging. I am stronger, more trusting, and kind. In 1997, I score a job as a backcountry ranger in Denali. I roam the park protecting grizzlies from people and people from bears. Against all odds, the hikers trust my advice. I’m promoted. One day, I find myself hiking with Bruce Babbit’s secretary, talking about the power of wilderness and how it changes lives—how it’s saving mine.