The Arctic Ocean

So often, I find myself avoiding the climax in favor of meandering melodrama. Maybe I’m afraid of disappointment, perhaps I enjoy sitting on the precipice with heart in throat for as long as possible. More likely, I enjoy lingering and making something out of nothing for as long as possible. I could fill a novella with the 48 hours leading up to laying eyes on the Arctic Ocean, such is my knack for making metaphors out of subarctic mosquitoes and so protracted is time as latitude approaches infinity.

I truly thought I would have written something worth sharing about the forgotten Ocean by now. I sat down to do it many times, which only led us far as the eve of the Encounter. I thought about it even more, but the conditions were wrong. The ambiance in the coffee shop didn’t do that day justice, my own brain was too foggy or distracted to talk about the climactic moment of an aimless sojourn.  Ultimately, I ran out of excuses and found myself sitting, just as I might have before I spent a third of a year in perpetual motion and blissful solitude living out of an old Toyota, thinking about the fleeting funnel motion of life’s trajectory. Yet another high school classmate was married, and even more from were engaged. Friends bought new trucks, acquaintances bought houses, and my mind once again longed for shiny new things I have neither funds nor need for. Instead, I struggled to find someone to buy pizza for when I was craving sundried tomatoes and company.

I sat and gathered moss and fell into entropy and despair, and yet I haven’t written a single word about the last major goal I set and accomplished. I have so many more, minor, imminently achievable goals that are now sliding further out of reach as they stack one atop the other—visiting friends a mere three-hour drive away, writing even a page of the book I keep telling myself and everyone else that I’m working on, paring down my belongings, making tangible progress on a move into a place at least slightly more permanent than anywhere I’ve been lately. Life seems to move in this way until something happens to us or until we finally have to decide whether to scream or to sit back and enjoy the ride we’re being taken on, whether we’re actually enjoying it or not.

It can feel impossibly overwhelming to claw for grip and gasp for air in a world that’s always burying us. Between bad news and sheer responsibilities of survival, we find ourselves fighting off an existential crisis or an overdue credit card bill most every day. We are competing against those who have put every type of success ahead of something else, and so we will never be the most successful. Or the most attractive. But we can always be the most authentic to ourselves, and fight like hell for a balance between the responsibilities we simply cannot eschew and the needs that our souls must have met. Spend a few too many days focused on priorities that are not your own, and suddenly you might feel woefully inadequate. Instagram will convince you that everyone else’s life is more glamorous, joyful, and picturesque than yours, random generational peers will seem to be happily trouncing you in career advancement, marital status, home ownership, or some other generic metric of success that should only be measured on your own terms and not the timeline imparted upon you by someone else. Especially because often they are far less happy than their shiny mimetic veneer makes it seem.

Here is something about the Arctic Ocean that I may never be able to put into words. I drove for two months to reach a faraway, objectively meaningless dot on a map. I attached meaning to it because I called it my goal, and even though I often disparage myself and the valor of a privileged Arctic pity party. We must grant ourselves the ability to find meaning in the things we deem meaningful. And when, on that foggy, windy morning, I finally stood on the river-rock shore of that beach facing bleakly North, I felt the elements consume me and spit me out like Jonah from the belly of the whale. The wind was so piercing that my four layers may as well have been in the truck instead of on my body, the fog so thick that I could have been staring at a small lake instead of an ocean that flows uninterrupted from the North Pole, the solitude so enveloping that I could have simply laid down and died of hypothermia and even though there were oil workers less than a mile away, I may have laid and mummified for weeks before being discovered as a bone fragment in polar bear shit.

It was good. It explains why I have struggled to write about it, or share any image or story that does it justice. In the time since I stood there with my eyes closed and let the wind sting all of my skin, exposed or otherwise, I have been utterly transformed. So, no matter how hard I deny that what I did had any merit beyond an aimless Millennial gallivanting around pissing away a couple years’ worth of savings, I am forced to admit that is untrue. I made it to where I wanted to go, against all internal doubt and mental barriers and moments of weakness. I stood as far away as I possibly could drive from every broken relationship and disappointing job and insidious subliminal message delivered to me via social media. You are not lonely when you choose solitude, you are not a disappointment when there is no audience and no expectations of you. I was stricken by which thoughts were still with me and which faded into the invisible horizon along with the fog that obscured it.

The concept of “cool” died on that beach. Misplaced striving blew away in the gale-force wind. The societal construct of loneliness finally fell apart in the face of the largely positive solitude I’d lived in to reach that point. I closed my eyes and let the weather and the utter fleetingness of that moment overwhelm me. It was both extraordinarily plain and movingly poignant, and it felt a comforting bookend to the spiraling annihilation dream that woke me up so many times since I was smashed into by a car while riding my bike last June. It gave meaning to the many inexplicable feelings I have and it robbed other complicating factors of meaning in the most freeing of ways.

The rusty remnants of oil operations poked out from beneath the rocky beach like so many of my dead dreams and random lines on my resumé, while industrial noises emanated from somewhere beyond the fog behind me. The wind howled a haunting howl. Usually I am horrible at mediation or silent, unfocused prayer because my original train of thought is interrupted by something pressing and frivolous like mental math about affording a new vehicle or the outcome of a potential future move and what it might mean for my prospects for finding a companion or even just a few friends to play guitar with. I think about how I wish I had a little more coffee (or, more rarely, a little less) and by the time my mind stops buzzing, the silent time is over. But in this moment, I stood still and shivering and let reality wash over me and blow into my core. It is hysterical how little marketing influences you or how some other human’s selfish opinions or decisions cease to affect your faith or resolve when you are standing with your toes in the Arctic Ocean. I would have gladly traded my clunky old Land Cruiser for something less iconic and more comfortable, but no part of my happiness depended upon it. I wish so badly that a few inflection points in my life had perhaps gone differently, but I was also standing alive and mostly well in a place that I quite literally never could have dreamed I would be. I would still fight a few people and beg for forgiveness from others, but neither opportunity presented itself and so it truly didn’t matter.

Most of all, I stood there until I physically could not bear it any longer. I was wearing clothing more suited for fall in southern Alaska than the first taste of winter on the Arctic, and I let the cold hit every piece of my soul until it started to warm up and fight back. I felt the dreadful ache of a damp, stiff breeze from the North Pole, and I knew that I had made it. There was virtually nothing there, no photo op, no wildlife, no particular activity to tell a dramatized story about later. It was violent and cold and eerily tranquil, this speck on the top of our maps that I had barely given any thought to but felt compelled to reach by any means necessary.

Being there was short and intense, and it silenced every gnawing voice in my mind that doubts, nags, and urges. To stand and be enveloped by the totality of a destination reached, a climate forced upon you, a brain starved of the stimulation that it is force fed nearly every waking hour, is to understand for even a nanosecond what it means to simply be.

The easy part is driving over six thousand solo miles to the Arctic Ocean and standing there until your body whimpers for respite from the elements. The hard part is remembering what that felt like, even a mere month later.

I say often to the few people who will listen to me talk about my dreams of being a writer that I would gladly live in a state of constant discomfort if it provided me an opportunity to write things I believe in for people who want to read them. I have already felt the emotional center of my being starve itself of the cravings that often trip or cripple us—companionship masquerading as love, sloth masquerading as comfort, denial masquerading as acceptance—and so staring loneliness and discomfort and uncertainty in the eyes feels relatively easy. Much like Flannery O’Connor’s proverbial grandmother in A Good Man is Hard to Find, I would be a good human if I were constantly faced by immediate problems and discomforts. But much like most humans in the Twenty First Century, I am far more often faced by the abstract, by norms, pressures, conventions, and defects of a mind given too much leeway to wander and wonder.

How can you write a book while sitting in a comfortable coffee shop in a familiar town, surrounded by people who are exceptionally kind and hell-bent on making you feel comfortable? How can you write a book on the bleeding edge of the tundra when every ounce of energy and second of daylight is spent in the act of survival or exploration?

There is an eternal war waging between the answers to these questions and the life-encompassing urge to prove them wrong.

That war is where we live daily. We get good at lying to ourselves instead of confronting the self-made barriers to where we wish we were. We show flashes of brilliance and trade them for a lifetime of non-threatening complacency. We could be what we daydream of, but instead we are what we’re told.