The pull of the mountain is strong after our side trip to Fairbanks. I am as determined to see the Great One as Pete is to photograph the Big Five. We arrange for the bus at the Wilderness Access Center, and are first in our route’s line. Our strategy is to take the first row seat for the best view. When the bus arrives, we elbow past some expensively-dressed Euro-trekkers who have cut ahead of us in the scramble. “Take that, you bastards,” we grin and whisper to each other.
We’re hauling a lot of carry-on. We’ve got sandwiches and snacks, bottled water, bird books, other printed guides and pleasure reading, rain gear, and Pete’s camera stuff weighs a ton. Plus, the front seat comes with a disadvantage: the wheel juts up into the floor space and eliminates virtually all leg and foot room. We can barely cram ourselves into our prize location. Still, we are excited.
Our driver, Bill from Bloomington, Minnesota, has a bit of a droll personality. He tells us they’ve never lost a bus down the side of the mountain yet. . . .They’ve always found them. Bada-bing. Later, I come to see why the jokes. Anyone who faces the possibility of violent death so many times in one day would have a little gallows humor, too. Our Midwest compatriot/chauffeur lets us stash our bags with his pack in the seat behind him. I can feel Euro ire at our egregious hogging of space from two seats despues, but don’t turn around. “Hey, how’s that foreign aid thing goin’ for ya?” I say to myself. Later, I read that we’re not the only ones who find ourselves annoyed by our fellow homo sapiens.
We’re rolling down the same stretch we’ve been on twice already, but this time we are going past the Savage River turnaround. Bill asks for passenger help in knowing when to stop. “Just call out,” he tells us, “and I’ll pull to a stop as soon as it’s safe to do so.” I’m glad he keeps his attention on the road. “FOX!,” I scream. Loping across the road into the underbrush alongside us, a red fox. Bill grinds to a rather fast halt and everyone is scrambling, “Where? Where?” Just a flick of Reynard’s bushy tail is what a few others get, and he’s gone. No photo op.
This is by far the sunniest of the three days we allotted to Denali. I am willing the mountain to reveal itself so that I can be a member of The 20% Club. That’s the percentage of people who actually get to see the mountain, and I fervently want the tee shirt. Bill reminds us that the mountain is so big that it makes its own weather and a lot of other interesting bits about climbers and explorers. His narrative also includes what to do about bears. This reminds me that I haven’t worried about bears for two days.
Bill says we’re looking for blondes, not brunettes. Huh? Evidently, Denali bears are pale in color and some speculate it’s because they don’t eat as many fish as the bears do down in the Kenai. What do they eat? I wonder. Don’t answer. Bill’s latest bear encounter was a sow who had her nose up to the door of the bus. Since there was a male nearby making amorous advances, it was Bill’s opinion she was merely seeking respite. He says he didn’t let her in. I am reassured by this. We go the rest of the 16 miles to Savage River along a road awash with snowshoe hare. We’re doing real well toward the Small Five, it would seem.
Through the ranger checkpoint. We’re heading up Polychrome Pass, which sounds suspiciously Disneyesque to me. We’re given the definition of polychrome (“multiple colors”) and we begin to appreciate the grandeur. We are climbing alongside the mountain and the road has narrowed to what looks like one lane. All of a sudden we realize: a) we’d just as soon not seek a permit to drive this part of the Park, after all, and b) sitting in the front of a bus that has to make these turns means that it seems like we are hovering over the edge of the road in thin air with every turn. Someone yells, “CARIBOU!” and there’s a mad rush to the side of the bus closest to the edge. Good eyes! They’re so far away Pete can’t get a good shot even with the long lens. Still, it’s thrilling to see them. That’s Two out of the Five.
The bus meanders along through what must be some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet. There is a sense of timelessness and calm that settles me, and I tune out the conversation and engine noise and just look. It is a magnificence that defies ensnarement with words. The view stretches so far that it can’t be real. I marvel at the force that pushed these massive amounts of rock and water to such majestic form. And I am infinitely grateful for the foresight of those who believed in conserving this Xanadu and set policy so that it remains unspoiled. Aside from another occasional bus and a few hikers, there is nary a human to be seen across these miles of views. White dots up the incredibly high mountains are Dall sheep. Sure-footed, they nimbly pick their way in groups across our lenses. That makes Three.
“GRIZZLY!” A heart-stopping yell. Where, oh where in the distance is she? Pete is clicking away and I’m scanning frantically with the binoculars. Each window is jammed with bus passengers, vying for a glimpse of what they’ve traveled so far to see. She is about a half mile down in the wide open, and her cub is with her. It looks as though they may have made a kill, as they both are intent with their noses down, foraging in some way. The cub’s attention span is short, and he wants to play with his mother. She obliges and for these precious minutes we are treated to an affectionate frolic. A fantastic Four to beat all.
It has been six hours in the middle of the day, and we are feeling fortunate. Critters are usually most active early in the morning or late in the day, so we have been lucky. The bus quiets down again and we all are lost in thought as the vista unrolls before us.
Someone recently asked me what my strengths are. Not having had to justify myself in a job interview or similar for over a decade, I hesitated. I remember that my daughter had once told me I was tough, but fair. I guess you’d say, I finally responded, that my strengths lie somewhere in looking down the road, or big picture stuff. I’m the kind of person who hates being bogged down by infinite details that only serve to divert the purpose. I find it absolutely maddening to work with folks who have to plan for the remotest eventuality. So, I am always looking — literally and figuratively — down the road, I guess, at the big picture in front of me.
I realize that this moment is a great gift. Given the person I am, this place is exactly where I need to be. I am blissfully closer than I have ever been to doing exactly what I must be meant to do.