A similarity among all my weirdest life episodes are those random epiphanic moments in the meantime, when I suddenly register how strange my situation is. There usually isn’t a single event that provokes the realization; it’s usually the odd but acceptable details that accumulate past some tipping point. I enjoy regularly rediscovering where my “oh, so now this is weird?” threshold is.
My most recent one, for example, was 1AM Wednesday morning hundreds of miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska, when I found myself cramped in a white van with seven shivering strangers, one of whom a broad-shouldered Russian man practically sitting in my lap. Mom stood guard outside. After a bit of thought, I conceded that yes, this was kind of odd.
We’d signed up for a 10-hour night tour to drive up to the Arctic Circle and chase the northern lights, or aurora borealis, on the way down. You can see the lights above the northern hemisphere’s magnetic pole; they’re always there but only visible if the weather permits.
Given that the northern lights were, along with glaciers (see the post-post for pics), our prime reason for visiting Alaska, Mom requested that I do some research. I assume she meant about the science behind the phenomenon and not about how some legends say the lights are actually dead spirits playing football with the head of a walrus, but I can say with certainty I am a better person for having looked up the latter.
Not that any of it mattered if the skies remained obscured, and I’d expected they would, seeing as it had rained at every single cruise port the past week. We were parked in the middle of nowhere (or, if you’re really anal, the Yukon Flats) on the side of the road, looking so pathetic cars passing by thought we were stranded. We huddled back into the van after a couple minutes of unyielding, cloudy skies, unable to stand the biting cold even in at least three layers of clothing. Mom, who had on just one layer but was also not a wimp, stayed outside and continued to watch.
A minute later, she started pounding on the door. We jolted out of our seats. The first streak, faint and white, paled in the night as we craned our heads. Squinted.
I privately thought this was a lot of fanfare for what looked like an indecisive cloud but didn’t say anything because one streak was better than nothing and also because legend has it that if you mock the northern lights, they can descend and murder you in your sleep. Or something.
And then the northern lights began to dance. Amid my awe, I considered that we would’ve missed the show had Mom not pointed out the first streak, high above. Good things come to those who wait, or I guess to the rest of their wimpier tour group who didn’t really do anything but get to piggyback off their endurance.
And I don’t know what it was about the lights. I’d seen plenty of pictures before, and I had a pretty good idea of what they’d look like, as well as some truly stunning professional photography that I could never match.
I mean, these were the best I could do. (The third picture is when I got too confident and thought I could use flash to brighten a picture of the night sky. Almost as stupid as moving in during a hurricane, which is incidentally what I did yesterday.)
Maybe it was the chill. Maybe it was the beauty of extremely low expectations. Maybe it was Maybelline. But even though I saw only a bit of green shoot across the sky rather than the curtains of light I know they sometimes manifest as, the magic of the moment, as we tilted our heads up toward the night, was no less diminished.
Actually, in hindsight, it was probably also sleep deprivation. Twelve hours later, on our flight back home, the pilot announced we could see northern lights from the left side of the plane. I thought about how this viewing would be at no cost and not involve driving 600 miles and be close to our seats. Then I looked to my left, at the stranger snoring against the closed window of my row, and to my right, at Mom, fast asleep, and went “nah, I’m good.”
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Also, as promised, glacier pics: