Looking back, it doesn’t feel like that long ago that I was getting ready to head back to school on a Sunday afternoon when Daddy called a family meeting. We needed to look at options for our trip. The most “Alaskan” experience seemed to be a ride on a Klondike railway and a jump off an Alaskan cliff, so that’s what we chose. It just so happened that they fell on the same day…
Part One: The History
The White Pass and Yukon Route Railway was the product of the gold rush, and we passed markers of the rather gory history along the beautiful ride. A crude cemetery popped up out of the woods where a con-man was buried just outside the fence—forever lying in his shame. The hero who’d killed him was buried within that feeble, overgrown, wooden barrier—a resting place of honor. We passed a black cross on top of a giant boulder, in remembrance of the railroad workers crushed by said mountain.
The gold rush itself is presented as either a tragedy or a great triumph of the human spirit. It opened up Alaska, created towns and a few wealthy people (Donald Trump’s grandfather), but it cost so many lives—all for greed. People came from all corners of the world because they believed false advertising telling them the road to riches was easy. They came unprepared and they raced each other. One hundred thousand Stampeders climbed the angry winter mountains and sailed crazy waters (for the first time) on homemade boats. They went through so many thousands of horses; you can still see the skulls in the valley where they fell. We passed Dead Horse Gulch on the train. This mad race for greed was just over a hundred years ago. There seem to be dark tunnels in the human heart. There was no gold at the end of their journey. But there was a railway. And the railroad itself is a wonder; it shares distinctions with the Eiffel tower and the Statue of Liberty.
Part Two: The World
It went up. And up. For most of our journey, we were dancing with the clouds. We passed massive waterfalls adorning the tall green mountains. They fed the river below, continuing to carve a growing valley. We passed a class six rapids. I saw the whirlpool. The fifteen foot waterfall was nothing in comparison to the others, so it was simply classified as a part of the river.
Part Three: The People
In the middle of the clouds and cliffs, traces of playful humans shed hope’s light. A train engineer set a Mickey Mouse and a rattle snake on top of an old pillar. They are having a battle and every week, the engineer advances the battle it in some way. There are words painted on the side of one rocky mountain, “On to Alaska with Buchanan.” A man in Detroit started a program for young boys to help them grow up. Years later, in their appreciation, they made a monumental thank you note.
The human spirit literally crosses borders. On a rock that divides countries, there are five flags. But the wilderness is so extreme that there are about twenty miles between the border and US customs. We saw no man’s land.
Part Four: The Tunnels
I stepped outside the train car for the tunnels. Their darkness shocked me. I’ve felt this complete only a few times in my life: at Ruby Falls on a field trip in Elementary school and earlier, as a really little girl at Fort Macon in North Carolina. This sort of darkness steals your hand from in front of your face. It’s quiet, reverent, and exhilarating. It is a quick darkness, and therefore, somehow, a hopeful darkness. The light at the end of the tunnel is real.
Part Five: The Transition
From tunnels and trains, we rushed back to the boat for a quick lunch. I read the newspaper, because I was an old-soul preparing to jump off a cliff. A gallon of milk costs six dollars in Skagway, Alaska. A white van came to pick us up. Our bus driver was a strange mix between a surfer dude and a mountain man. He’d just gotten back from a huge hike through Alaskan wilderness, showing that the human spirit to prevail still lives. My sister, dad, and three strangers boarded the bus. Mountain Dude turned around and asked, “Well, what’s going on?!” Silence stretched across our van. My dad replied, “It’s not raining.” Mountain dude replied with enthusiasm, “That is a fact!” My family has a new catch phrase.
Part Six: The Group
One guide was named Sarah. She was an English and Recreation Major from Georgia. The other was named Tadros. He was from Minnesota, and it was his first day on the job. We rappelled first. The instructions were quick. Stephanie, one of the strangers in our group, asked “So what happens if you mess up?”
Part Seven: The Faith
From where we stood, we couldn’t see the “bottom,” the destination, the safe ground. All we could see was the beautiful distance: Alaskan snow-capped summits and valleys of evergreens that sheltered clouds. And there they were, telling us to go against every natural instinct and lean backwards off the cliff. Sarah, seeing the fear in Stephanie’s eyes, replied “Well, the fact that you’re controlling yourself is really just an illusion. We’ve got you backed up, if you accidentally forget to break, you might see Alaska from an upside down perspective, but you won’t fall to your death.”
With my trust in my helmet, harness, and guide, I locked eyes with my sister, I stepped out onto the cliff, I scooted my heels over the edge, I calmly leaned out of my comfort zone, and I laughed as I bounced down an eighty foot Alaskan cliff.
After this, I understood faith in God a bit better than before.
(Hannah found out later that we had more control than the Guide Sarah made it seem. But then again, Hannah repelled with Tadros: first day on the job Guide.)
Part Eight: The Climb
Once we got to the valley, we climbed the cliffs we had just jumped down. The rocks were our only handles. No color paths preplanned the way, making it rather like life. I chose my own route, but I had guidance from those grounded. The view at the top was spectacular, and I spent a few seconds catching my breath. I said hello to Canada (twenty miles away) like I was the only one in the world. Then, I bounced back down to Hannah and Daddy before shimmying up a route with a cave. My fingers were scratched and covered with dirt from where I hung on to the earth. It was wonderful.
Part Nine: The Humility
I made it through the entire day without any incident. This, for me, is impressive. I’m the only girl who has ever been injured playing shuffle board (old soul—when we were in Arizona, I tripped and fell into a cactus dangerously close to the shuffle board court; my dad had to pick out the pricks). I didn’t get mauled by a bear on the train ride. I climbed up cliffs without a problem. I tripped on the stool climbing into the white van. We all laughed because in the experience of jumping off a cliff, the group of strangers had become an odd group of friends.
Part Ten: The Beauty
We walked the historic streets of Skagway, the town with a skating rink but no doctor. Later, as we enjoyed a great dinner, our boat departed. There was one more view I wanted to see before the day ended. I sipped hot tea and wished I’d grabbed my coat and not just my sweatshirt as I stood on the deck of the boat. Nature Guy promised that this would be one of the best views in Southeast Alaska. My dad braved the wind with me. As it whipped my hair, we passed beautiful mountains. The wind’s bite drove me inside long before the midnight sun set. And that was fine; there’s only so much beauty one can endure in a day. And as I finished the day laughing with my family over a duck eligible game, I knew that this was one of the most beautiful days of my life.
For the beauty of each hour
of the day and of the night,
hill and vale, and tree and flower,
sun and moon, and stars of light;
Lord of all, to thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.