Strolling along the port of Valdez.
After a week of traveling solo, I was looking forward to seeing someone I knew. I met Sheri on my Kilimanjaro trek in 2018 and was impressed and inspired by her faith and fortitude on the mountain. When you travel with someone and do an effort like Kilimanjaro, you quickly see past any veneers. Sleep-deprived, cold, and feeling the effects of altitude sickness, you see what people are made of, and Sheri was the real deal. When I told her I was visiting Alaska, she graciously invited me to stay in Valdez with her and her husband.
Valdez (properly pronounced "Valdeez") is a small town of around 4,000 permanent residents. It felt fitting to be ending my trip there. Valdez is the terminus of the 800-mile Alaskan pipeline, which I followed for much of my trip. Valdez is unlike any place I've been to. Nestled near the head of a deep fjord in Prince William Sound, the town is walled by glacier-carved mountains and sea. The micro-climate in Valdez produces an astounding 300 inches of snow each year, but with more moderate temperatures than other parts of Alaska. It was amazing to me that early prospectors found the place, let alone built a town there.
Valdez has experienced hardships. In 1964, the community was devastated by a massive 9.2 earthquake that lasted a horrifying-to-think-about four-and-a-half minutes and claimed the lives of 32 people when an underwater landslide collapsed the docks in the harbor. After the earthquake, they moved the town 4 miles to the north to build on more solid bedrock. Then, of course, there was the oil spill in 1989 that occurred 25 miles to the south of the port of Valdez, which was my only association with Valdez until my visit. I no longer think of crude oil when I hear the word Valdez. I think of grandiose natural beauty.
The town of Valdez quaintly nestled in by mountains and clouds.
On the second evening, Sheri and Todd treated me to dinner theater. The show was an original musical comedy about the history of Valdez. The four-course meal was superb, and the show—surprisingly bawdy—was quite charming. After the show, the venue hosted an open mic. Guys with long scraggly beards on a reprieve from working the fishing boats played their guitars and sang their songs. There was nothing pretentious about it, which made the whole evening enjoyable. No one plays an open mic in Valdez, AK, in hopes that they'll get "discovered." They played because they love music.
I was packing up the car to leave on the morning of July 5th, which happened to be my birthday, when Sheri bounced out of the house.
"Do you think you can stick around for another hour or two?"
I looked at her inquisitively. "I suppose so."
"Todd and I want to give you a birthday present. We want to take you on a glacier helicopter tour.”
I couldn't believe it. Really?! I accepted the offer.
Sheri and I drove to the airport, where the small twin-blade helicopter awaited us. The flight was a little over an hour long, and I enjoyed every minute of it. I sat next to the pilot on our flight out and gawked at the views of the quaint little town and surrounding lush green mountains. Our pilot pointed out black bears and mountain goats along our path to the Chute Glacier. He landed the copter on the glacier, and we spent about 20 minutes exploring the living ice. The whole experience was quite astounding and was one of the best birthday gifts I have ever received.
The pilot and I chat about the characters of blue water.
Driving from Valdez to Anchorage to catch my flight home, I had hours to reflect on my time in Alaska. I couldn't stay any longer. I mean, I could, but the experiences of the last 10 days filled me to the point of overflow. I needed to leave to process and reflect. I needed to take the sensory input and let it transform into memory and integrate meaningfully into the larger whole of my life experiences. That sounds weird as I write that, but perhaps you'll understand what I mean. This fullness I speak of is a profound sense of satisfaction and wholeness that arises from deep within. It is Boundless Love, and I believe it to be the rarest kind of love.
When we think of love, we mostly feel and express it in terms of subjects and objects. I love _____ . And we long to be the object of someone's love. We search for it. We'll settle for it in unhealthy teaspoon portions because our hunger for it is so great. This kind of love can be powerful, but it is nonetheless bounded and will be accompanied by anxiety, fear, and longing. How much of our energy is spent worrying about the things we love? Bounded love will at times feel like bliss, betrayal, hope, lunacy, intimacy, and loneliness. This is because objects like people can fill the heart but not the soul. The soul can only be filled by the ineffableness of Boundless Love.
Our helicopter rises above the clouds in the mountains near Valdez, Alaska.
A WRITER AND TRAVELER KEEPING THE FAITH IN LOS ANGELES