A proper walk

I mean besides wanting a drink, I also want to be free from dread.

So says the poet Jim Harrison. Drink, of course, is the antidote to dread, but its effects are short-lived and I always feel worse afterward. Harrison often writes of another remedy for this paralyzing nemesis, and it isn’t a relationship with god, although a great many of them populate the journey.

The prescription is a proper walk.

Words by: MICHAEL LUDERS

Photos by: NICOLAS RAMIREZ

A good long walk is certain salve for the tortured mind, freeing it of nattering demons. There are, to be sure, walks and then there are walks. A midnight walk under a klieg-light moon to a frog pond for a skinny-dip is suited for almost all that ails. But for real despair, when life has you in its maw, the Harding Trail is just what the mind-doctors order.

On the Kenai Peninsula, three hours drive south of Anchorage, sits the largest ice field in the United States. Some forty glaciers, covering 300 square miles, make up this vast expanse of snow and ice. But it is the Exit Glacier that concerns us. It is here that the Harding Trail begins.

As far as hikes go, it is not technical. It isn’t even difficult. Rarely are you scrambling, or using your hands to steady or gain purchase. It is however a walk of strenuous demand.

Barely 8.5 miles there and back, it beckons even the diffident day-hiker with its casual charm. But with each mile, one climbs 1000 feet. It isn’t so much the length of the hike, but rather the elevation, that makes it a task suited only for the fittest. And of course elevation brings its own new set of concerns.

Bears, your teeming fear since reading the literature handed you by the far-too-happy park ranger at the terminus, are the last things on your mind now. Avalanche, snows (mind you this is July), winds, temperature drops, even storms, all loom as hazards not factored into your walk. The fact that your thighs burn and begin to twitch with the promise of cramps is yet another concern. Stair-Master had no setting for this.

A glance around at the halfway point, already ankle deep in snow, reveals only infinite expanse – and your hiking companions, one of whose choice of sneakers as footwear is indicative of all that is going wrong with your preparations. The crowds that had poured forth from the cars swimming upstream into the parking lot are oddly absent. And no wonder. They read the small print on the map, choosing instead to view the glacier from below, through magnified glass.

A wise choice perhaps, but every one of them missed the singular beauty untamed America still offers.They missed a walk through leafy poplar and stone cut by falling water, through muddied meadows drowning in wildflower, up onto the glacial pack and snow fields, barren of anything except the eagles soaring even higher, where Duncan, Nicolas and I made a quick lunch of Bordeaux and cheese and sausage, staring into distances that had no end, infinite horizons of white and gray, and where there was no sound but the winds rushing the snow pack like banshees come to sweep us off the ridge and into the yawning void below, back again to the hordes of the weak-kneed, the yellow-livered tourists looking up safely through binoculars and cameras, so sure they’d seen the gods also.

Here is where you face Dread, he is without the sillier theatrics of his nastier cousin Death – no cloak and scythe, no game of chess proffered. Just bills unpaid. Investments gone wrong. Children misguided. Turns wrongly taken. Opportunities wasted. Challenges unmet. And here also is where he meets his doom. A quick glance across the valley to the crags a mile away and onto the mass of moving ice, thousands and thousands of years old, and he is gone.

A drink would do the trick, sure, but a walk is better.

Words by MICHAEL Luders Photos by Nicolas Ramirez