A sticky fog descended as we made our way up loose boulders that peaked relentlessly towards the Summit of Chilkoot Pass. My stomach growled from missing dinner. Nothing in this historic landscape had been stable for the past few hours. My fingertips were raw from clawing my way up. Knees scraped. Feet duct taped and sore.
Somewhere up ahead sending mini avalanches upon my head was my husband. “I’m not having any fun,” he had blurted out yesterday a few hours after we started the Chilkoot Trail and his back had gone into spasms from a pack that was too small.
“Good thing the kids aren’t with us,” he yelled as he slid and had to jam his hiking pole in a crevice to stop his fall. Crossing the Chilkoot Trail off my bucket list seemed like a good idea when we discovered we both had work in Anchorage. We thought five days off the grid would be a great way to celebrate our ten year anniversary.
A product of parents who never did anything without us, I worried whether I was being judged for leaving the kids behind.
Before we boarded our plane, Kyra, who just turned seven, blinked with her big round eyes. “We want to go home too.”
“I miss Alaska,” Ethan, who just turned four, added. I nearly snuck them into my carryon.
But whenever we called them, Ethan was too busy playing to talk to us while Kyra yelled into the phone, “We’re fine. Gotta run.”
There were other parents on the trail who were feeling the same guilt. One couple cried when they called their one-year-old, who refused to stop balling.
As things grew colder and darker, two hikers approached us from the Summit. “Where are you headed?” we asked, relieved that we weren’t the only losers still hiking around 9pm.
“We’re actually looking for you.” They were the rangers stationed at the top of the Summit, who had spent the day asking hikers that crossed the pass whether they had seen a “couple in trouble.”
To ease our embarrassment, they offered “How would you like a honeymoon suite?”
They settled us into the warming shelter at the top of the pass with two steaming thermos of hot water. We collapsed beneath the weight of our packs and stared at the signs posted inside the cabin. One said, “Happy Camp is still 2 to 4 hours away. Do not stay here overnight.”
We felt like teenagers that had snuck behind barricade tape. Peeking out the windows at a cloudless turquoise sky layered on top of snow covered peaks and emerald lakes, I said to my husband, “Now are you having fun?”
He smiled. The world was so quiet up there we could hear nothing, not a peep from an animal or rustle of wind. If we held our breath, we might hear the drip of ice melt into a clear stream.
We savored the silence, the kind of peace we rarely experience now that we are parents. I felt as if my brain was getting a desperately needed reboot, a chance to dump all the complications of parenting and return to the nuts and bolts of our marriage.
That night, Thomas cooked me dinner and we had a chance to dry out our gear and talk. Ten years had braided and frayed our relationship so we were grateful to finally have the time to mend and forgive.
Without 24/7 connectivity and the stress of bills or deadlines or obligations, it was easier to relax into the present moment. With four days of nearly twelve hours of hiking where we had to worry about nothing but placing one foot before the other, we had time to hear rain staccato on our tent or photograph the gills on an orange Alice-in-Wonderland mushroom. Finally, I could enjoy Alaska the way I dreamed of and give myself a chance to be a kid again.
Fellow hikers reassured us that that’s why it was critical for parents to take time away from their kids. Rekindling the parts of yourself that you had neglected after you became parents, they said, made you a better parent. When things got tough in the future, we had moments like this to grip onto. Mothers reminded me that it was important to show my daughter that when she became a mother, it’s okay to take a break and take care of yourself.
A man in his late sixties who kayaked from Washington State to Skagway in order to hike this trail patted me on the back and said, “You can’t sacrifice your life for the kids. That’s really smart that you are doing this now, when you are young.”
Before we reunited with our kids, we squeezed in a fishing trip, which would fill the bellies of our family and friends. We even ran into a former classmate of mine passing through Whitehorse. Similar to our reasons for moving away from Alaska, my classmate and his girlfriend had tears in their eyes when they told us that Alaska was the only place they ever felt at home or made any friends. They were grateful to hear how we’ve stayed connected to Alaska. It had been a year since we left Alaska and I was surprised to hear myself say, “When you miss Alaska, just remind yourself that home is wherever your family is.”