My mom was dead. A relative's quivering voice broke the news to me on a Thursday evening late last fall. I closed my eyes as the tears fell. I envisioned her rising calmly into a tunnel of light, while I succumbed to a vacuum of darkness. Her death was sudden, depriving me of the opportunity to tell her how much I loved her.
Life after a death punishes the living. I went through the emotions of grieving—shock, denial and anger—not sequentially, but all at once. Over the course of seven days, I saw my mom in a box; I tried to honor her legacy in a eulogy; and I watched as her body was lowered six feet into the Earth. She was in heaven and I was in hell.
Experiencing a loved one's death—especially without closure—leaves you in a dark, precarious place. It is purgatory. The torment is persistent and paralyzing. Yet, you have to act normal. You have to function while every fiber of your being is shattered.
The Darkest Place
For weeks, even months after my mom's death, I didn’t know what to do. I was looking for answers, constantly asking people who had witnessed her passing if she'd said my name. “Did she mention me?” I desperately wanted to know. I was spiraling out of control, and just as I was about to hit bottom, my own sense self-preservation kicked in, and I knew this had to stop.
As an avid hiker, the wilderness has always been my fallback—it had once saved me from addiction and suicide—and I hoped that it might be able to save me again. This idea of turning to nature for healing is actually a growing medical field that has some doctors even writing prescriptions for time outdoors. Known as ecotherapy, the practice has real science behind it, with studies suggesting that time in nature can reduce stress, improve sleep, boost your immune system and more. I knew it was time to write myself an "outdoors prescription" and I chose one of the darkest, coldest, most isolated regions in the world: Alaska's Arctic Circle. The Last Frontier.
Alaska was poetic for many reasons. It's home to more than 57 million acres of wilderness and in its northern most city of Barrow, winter brings 67 days of darkness. Perhaps unsurprisingly, nearly 10 percent of Alaskans suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, and the state also has some of the highest rates for depression, trauma and suicide, particularly among Native Alaskans. One thing was for certain: These latitudes were no Shangri-La. They were a kind of underworld. I felt like I needed to experience a kind of palpable darkness to acknowledge my pain, embrace it and, hopefully, emerged from the experience healed.
Regardless of whether I was physically prepared or not, I signed up for a tour that was going to take place in two weeks. I packed thermals, wool socks and gloves, cargoes, snow boots, my mom’s favorite Hello Kitty blanket that she would always lend me when I visited, canned salmon—which would be my primary source of protein—and a Stanley thermos courtesy of my dear friend Mia. I carefully slipped a wallet-sized photo of my mom inside the pocket of my parka. I was nervous, but I was ready.
Bracing for the Cold
Alaska's Arctic Circle was 3,547 miles away from Los Angeles with average highs of 8 degrees and harrowing lows plunging to the negative 30s. In my mind, it was North of the Wall and I was Jon Snow. And like him, I didn’t know what was I going to encounter in those benumbing, uncharted zones.
I flew into a snow-packed Fairbanks, the largest city in Alaska’s interior, about 356 miles north of Anchorage. The baggage claim area was lined with taxidermies of polar bears, Alaskan moose and Arctic foxes. It was 3:30 in the morning and I was surrounded by carcasses. This wasn't quite the ecotherapy I had planned on, but something about being surrounded by death in this moment felt like the right place to begin my journey.
A hotel in Fairbanks was my home for the night. When I woke up, I opened the curtains to see the sky lit a golden amber. I stood there in awe, watching as the winter solstice sun struggled to breach the horizon at almost noon. I took a long shower while mentally going over my Wilderness 101 rules. Two stood out to me: If you’re not peeing enough in the wild, then you’re not drinking enough. It’s winter; bears are hibernating. Within an hour, I was back at the airport, walking along an icy runway toward a propeller plane bound for my final destination: Coldfoot, Alaska.
Finding the Light
Wedged between the Gates of the Arctic National Park and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Coldfoot is a town of 10 people that caters to tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights, as well as daredevil truckers (who venture along the infamous Dalton Highway made popular by The History Channel’s "Ice Road Truckers"). It's a place where Fox News blares and you can get food and warm drinks laced with whiskey, and where there are cabins to accommodate weary travelers.
After a night in Coldfoot, we set out for our first day of hiking. Wrapped in my Hello Kitty blanket—my mom’s blanket—I plodded through the snow, attentive to every rustle in the bushes. Sometimes I was alone, sometimes there were others nearby. I slipped twice on black ice and fell countless times from a speeding dog sled. I saw creamy hares, a skulk of elegant foxes, and skittish reindeer leaping right before me. Maybe it was brought on by grief, but I recognized my mom’s gentle soul in the innocent eyes of these creatures.
I spoke to my mom, reminiscing about the past. I’d occasionally turn on my best Elvis Presley voice and burst into “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” her favorite song. I even asked her for a Christmas present. I asked her to send me the lights, the glowing colors of the aurora to illuminate the dim world she’d left me in. On that first evening, the aurora forecast wasn't promising. There was too much cloud cover, we were told. But I believed. Like a crazy person, I told everyone that my mom would come through, that she would send the lights. And she did.
It started as a faint trail. There was a fizzing, electric swoosh. Then it came like an undulating, ethereal curtail, smacking the high heavens with psychedelic colors of emerald and purple. I was witnessing the auroras.
I plumped down in an ugly cry when seconds later I felt our guide patting me on the back. He was soon followed by others who gave me a hug. There was a distinct expression on their faces: a blend of compassion, empathy and uncanny euphoria. I nodded, replying with an "I told you so" look. For the next three nights, like an eager kid, I sat in the snow, wrapped in my mom’s Hello Kitty blanket, and gazed up. She lit the heavens and gave me hope.
On my last day in Alaska, I flew south to visit the Anchorage Museum. I stopped at a display featuring 16 pairs of mittens. It was fittingly named the Goodbye Memorial. The mittens belonged to those who have struggled through depression and suicide. Right next to it was a marker that read, "Healing is a process that takes a lifetime and sometimes generations." These haunting words were meant for me and to every one who had lost a love one.
As I stepped outside, the muted sun hit me. I was radiating, baptized, reborn. I took out my mom’s photo and gave her a kiss. I don't know if I'm ever going to be okay or the same again, but at least at this moment I realized that death had a purpose: I had to feel the pain to be reawakened. I had to be in a vast wilderness to find peace. I had to be in the darkness to see her light.
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