In the summer of 2012, I took a trip that changed my life. The year leading up to it had been rough to say the least, riddled with sorrow and depression and the grief of losing someone I thought I’d get to spend a whole lot more time with. I was lost, feeling purposeless and passionless, spending evenings getting drunk to forget, because it was too painful to remember.
Then I heard about an internship opportunity through Penn State, where I had gone back to finish my degree after a couple years off. Helping collect vegetation data in the backcountry of Alaska, somewhere I had always wanted to visit. I applied, and was accepted for the position.
And thus, I found myself spending the summer in Denali National Park with a woman who would become one of my best friends, hiking up and down mountains and across icy rivers, spending a week at a time camped out far from any signs of civilization. It felt like I was getting back to my roots. The energy and optimism that had been gone from my life for too long began to return. I began to feel whole again.
I journaled a lot during my time there, while spending evenings basking in the summer sun that shone nearly 24 hours a day, on a rocky beach beside the river. Looking back through that journal recently, I found a passage that I particularly enjoy, one that talks about the feeling that Rachel and I had dubbed the “Denali High.”
“The clarity of thought that comes with this state of mind is incredible. Never in my life have I felt so sure of myself, so optimistic about life, so convinced of my dreams and goals. And yet, at the same time, never in my life have I been so happy to simply be in the moment. I seemed to strike the perfect balance of enjoyment of the present while planning for the future. Suddenly so many of the problems that I had been struggling with seemed to be resolved. By my second week in the backcountry, I felt better physically, mentally, and emotionally than I have in a very long time…if ever. I found a piece of myself that I always thought I had but never could get to show itself very much in the past. Denali has made me a better person. Its mountains have made me physically stronger. Its challenges have made me tougher. Its beauty has filled me with wonder and inspiration that I hope I will carry with me even after I leave this place. And suddenly, I find that this experience has healed a part of my soul that was broken. A piece of me that had died was revitalized here. And for that, I will always be in love with Denali.” -H. Kotala, July 2012