It's mid-December and I miss the warmth and cheer of summer. Most of the time my roles as wife, writer, dog mom, and gardener are enough for me. But come fall a malaise creeps in, like cold under the door. Nearly two years into retirement, I’m struggling to find a sense of purpose.
Outside a peach glow outlines the Kenai Mountains and makes a silhouette of the trees. The temperature hovers just above zero coaxing little spirals of steam from the surface of the bay. I sit on the couch before a glowing fire in the woodstove, dogs Arlie and Tavish curl into me for warmth. I have unscripted time to sit and contemplate the many opportunities I’ve squandered – or worse, all the ways in which I’ve failed. The sense of some interrupted mission or spiritual stirring nags at me like notes of a song I can’t quite follow.
My instinct, when faced with this wanderlust of the soul, is to book a flight somewhere. Annually I travel to visit family and friends to further long-distance relationships. Then there are the trips for pleasure, sometimes with my husband Hal, and sometimes on my own. I am never more alive than when hiking up a narrow path in unfamiliar terrain, or weaving my way through a salvo of languages at an urban market, never happier than with salt spray on my face, braced against a rocking boat as the shoreline recedes.
Before Covid, I usually had two or three trips lined up in advance, like planes on a runway, engines primed for takeoff. When Covid travel restrictions took effect, through the worst of the winter’s case numbers and fatalities, I waited and laid plans. As soon as Hal and I received our second vaccinations we were traveling again. Funny thing, I’ve always thought of myself as a homebody, wedded to the garden, the arrival and departure of Sandhill cranes, the comfort of my own bed after time spent away.
For me, the best trips are like the fabled quests of old. I spend weeks of giddy anticipation searching websites and travel guides for lodging, local farmer’s markets, and bike paths paralleling rivers with names that sound like magical incantations. Then, setting aside my normal schedule and all worldly goods (save a shoulder bag and a come-along suitcase), I venture out. The next bit is a happy blur of compelling landscapes, tempting regional foods, and the pleasure of a dawn campfire or drinks on the deck at sunset, depending on the particulars. Then it’s over and I’m back home starting a load of laundry and preparing to resume the day-to-day.
But here’s the catch. The looming climate catastrophe spooks me. For years Hal and I have followed the dire manifestations of a warming planet. In Homer, we’ve personally witnessed sea bird die-offs from starvation, collapsed salmon runs, and the loss of our spruce forests. And each summer we watch the three glaciers visible from our bedroom window recede with more rock exposed each year. During the 12 years we’ve lived here I estimate we’ve driven 150,000 miles and flown another 500,000, spewing a total of around 140 tons of carbon into the atmosphere or 12 tons per year. If we’re serious about being less of a problem we cannot in good conscience continue to drive and fly with impunity.
I could reasonably argue that travel offers us world citizenship. The farther afield we go the more it erases the “otherness” of people who sound or dress differently. That’s why 40,000 people attended the COP26 Climate Summit in Scotland despite the enormous carbon footprint required to get them there and back. No Zoom or GoToMeeting ever generates the networking and brainstorming that come with face-to-face dialog. Yet despite the appeal of new places and meaningful human connections air travel accounts for an unsustainable 12 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions produced globally each year.
Still, foregoing travel is a tricky thing. I find myself checking the Alaska Airlines website for specials between Anchorage and Seattle or using Google Maps to imagine my way across New Zealand. Then I bargain with myself – just this one trip in March to California or Tucson or Saint Louis, and then I’ll be good the rest of the year.
For Hal, travel largely consists of flying to Nome before taking a small bush plane into one of the remote villages in the Norton Sound region. He works alongside local Natives who motor him upriver and help him collect water flow data in some of the most remote reaches on Earth. These work trips are fraught with weather-related flight cancelations, temperamental equipment, sleeping on hard schoolroom floors, and subsisting on packaged, processed food from the village grocery. Consequently, he’s all for reducing our carbon footprint by scaling back on flights outside of Alaska. He’s had enough of ever-longer security lines, greasy airport food, and attempts to sleep folded into a window seat. In truth, he’s not much for travel under any circumstances so maybe he’s the true homebody.
I suspect the key to my uneasy quest for meaning and spiritual growth is not out there beyond the curve of the Alaskan landscape. It’s here in the diminishing wilds of home. The Kenai Peninsula with 25,000 square miles of trails and summits, bays and freshwater streams, populated with fish and moose, bear and wolves, and all number of birds, offers a lifetime of discoveries. This environment is both rich in resources and imperiled. What better place to devote myself to?
Collectively, we need to come to terms with our planet’s limitations. As I reckon with my own limits, I strive to embrace a “less is more” attitude. I’m coming to learn that sometimes it’s not what you do but what you don’t do that makes a difference. I love how freeing that feels. It’s time to forego travel for travel’s sake. And while family visits will pull me south from time to time, this rapidly changing, challenging place is where I can make a positive difference, however small. That’s purpose enough.
The fire pops, and I add another log before settling back, waiting for daylight to spread wide fingers over the snowy yard. Later, after the air warms a bit, I will bundle up and take a cup of seeds out to the birds and walk with the pups to the lower overlook where they will nose fresh squirrel tracks while I consider the ever-changing mood of the bay. But for now, a warm fire and snoring dogs are enough.
If you see the suffering in the world but you haven’t changed your way of living yet, it means the awakening isn’t strong enough
Thich Nhat Hanh – Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet