En route to Anchorage, I had the initially unfortunate luck of getting put on the "milk run" plane-- one that, in lieu of going direct, hops from small town to small town. I mean small. It was noon, I was hungry. The macadamia nut cookie was long gone, and not very good. The airport in Yakutat has:
one coke machine.
Hunger aside, the beauty of these towns, from above, was so big, it made my hands still and begged me to put away my camera and just see.
Peter Gomes, a Celtic theologian, says that there are “thin places” on earth where the material and the spiritual world are so close, they rub against each other.
No doubt, one of these places is in the air. Which is pretty crazy for me to say because I hate flying. There have been times when I’ve told myself, even as early as checking in at the airport, “This is the one. This baby’s going down. Just turn around and go home before it does.”
But I think the feeling of being on the cusp of one of these “thin” places is almost always accompanied by a feeling of smallness and fear. There's something unnerving about looking down at the staggering patterns of color woven through a glacier in a place where blue sky, believe me, is rare. It feels like a gift.
Maybe what Gomes meant by "thin" is that in these places or moments, we feel so whispy we don't even know what to do next, so we just wait for wind or the turn of the plane to ease us away from our nearness to that brief thin film separating us from another dimension. Maybe we are puny specks traversing a vast canvas, or maybe we are slicing through that fragile "thinness" in a metal flying boat in the spiritual sky. I wonder what sky was to people before we made it our modern highway. Is the sky still a mystery? Have we lost the wonder people used to have of clouds? What are clouds? I want to bounce on them. Where does sky end? Am I going to die before touching down?
I guess in most moments where I might be on the verge of some kind of enlightenment, I start asking myself existential questions and forget that a good option is to just sit still.
I'll tell you this: Alaska is more full of thin lines between physical earth and sublime mystery than anywhere I've ever been.
This morning, before going to class, I went for a long hike through white flowers higher than my head, alongside two ponds that harbor dog-eating beavers (saw one, lab-sized, got scared). On the way back, right in front of me, about seven feet away was a towering moose, with withers at least seven feet high, who stopped chewing when I looked at him, and stared at me staring at him. Here was that thinness again, like looking over perfect islands, like there was a piece of fishing line strung between us and I could sense it, but I couldn’t feel what it was made of.
And then, after lunch today, crossing a wooden bridge over the South Fork Creek, I stopped once more in my wet shoes, even closer to another moose, this one female, her head craned around to look at me, while her two babies tugged at the sagging skin between her legs. It's true that a man was stomped to death by a moose on this campus, but I think that for us lucky ones, with survival comes a privileged sense of danger. Maybe this knocking of mortality is part of the magnitude of being almost privy to a natural secret. Vulnerability can be a great teacher.
I didn’t get stomped, but, the truth is, all of these beautiful moments were mystically unsettling. In the same way a plane could go down, but it doesn’t, I got this special view of something heavenly and terrestrial, of something I'm a part of, but will never understand, a validation that there is spirit in the scary, and there is discovery even when inquiry remains unanswered.