A few years ago I was planning a trip to Italy with my friends, Mark and Paul. It was 1999, and in the midst of our planning, peace talks failed in Yugoslavia. As a result, United Nations and NATO forces mobilized to stop Serbian aggression and bring in peacekeepers. A few days after this was announced, I got a phone call from Mark and Paul saying, “Let’s go to Alaska.”
What?!? Where was this coming from? What happened to Italy?
Mark explained that, with Italy being used as a staging ground for UN and NATO forces, we might want to steer clear of Italy. Alaska was about as far away from Italy as one could get, and they had always wanted to see Alaska.
Alaska had never been on my dream list of travel destinations. It’s not that I didn’t want to go to Alaska. It was that I had never even considered it. Italy…land of centuries-old art, iconic buildings, the Tuscan hillsides, Venetian canals, Rome—the eternal city. Alaska…what was it the land of? The land of the midnight sun? Grizzly bears? What was there to do in Alaska?
Packing for a trip to Italy includes flowing skirts and light sweaters, sandals and a neat little bag. What do you pack for a trip to Alaska? Flannel-lined jeans and parkas? Hiking boots and a backpack?
Travel is about being open to new adventures and Alaska certainly had all the earmarks of being an adventure. Perhaps it was time to unpack my skirts and sandals and pack some jeans and boots and head to Alaska.
As with any trip, planning and preparation is part of the learning and fun. We made plans to fly to Anchorage and rent a car. We would travel through the Matanuska River Valley to Valdez, then take a ferry to the Kenai Peninsula. One of my favorite moments in planning came when Paul called the Caribou Hotel to ask for driving directions once we arrived in Glennallen. After a long pause, the hotel desk clerk said, “Well, there’s only two buildings in Glennallen. I don’t think you’ll miss us.”
Staying primarily in southern Alaska, we drove north of Anchorage to Palmer, taking in the Alaska State Fair, with its supersized produce on display. We then headed up the Glenn Highway, between the beautiful Talkeetnas and Chugach mountain ranges, alongside the Matanuska River. The source of the river is the Matanuska Glacier, and to my delight, we were able to hike on the glacier itself. We took a ferry down Prince William Sound and saw the Columbia Glacier calving icebergs. The last few days were spent in the Kenai Peninsula driving Turnagain Arm, taking a cruise, viewing wildlife. I fell in love with puffins, the diving seabirds with their black and white plumage and bright orange beak and feet.
Alaska turned out to be one surprise after another. The trip was full of lessons that continue to shape many of the choices that I make today. I learned that, sometimes, it’s not the destination that matters; it’s who your travel companions are. Sharing dinners of Alaskan amber ale and halibut made the long evenings especially memorable. Mark's and Paul’s responses to Alaska made my own experience of this trip much deeper and more lasting.
My second lesson is about focusing on the opportunities in the here and now—and not on what you might be missing. If I continued to dwell on what I would miss in Italy, I would not have experienced what Alaska offered me. Everyday life is often like that. You can become so set upon fulfilling your expectations that when circumstances change, you can’t step back to reassess and look for the positives in what this change offers you. Just because you don’t get exactly what you want, when you want it, doesn’t mean the alternative has to be bad.
Like so many things, travel experiences are what you make of them. What you make of your experiences is the difference between life happening to you…and you happening to your life!