I take a long look at the hotel room, across the wreckage of the past two weeks: pizza boxes, empty beer and water bottles, the bed I used more to write than to sleep, the sled I used to lug the gear over snow and rocks. I stand there a long time. Then I realize I'm staring at nothing and turn to leave...but I can't. How can I possibly go home now?
These have been the longest ten days of my life. It feels like we've been here for months. I've slept approximately 45 hours in the past 10 days, 12 of those coming all on the third night when the sky was too overcast to bother. As the results of sleep deprivation began to show, our stress increased so much it felt like we were being ground through a machine. Our friendship was tested to the point that a couple times, whether from Chris' side or mine, I thought the very next move might drive a nail through the coffin. Yet despite it all I find it hard to turn around and leave. I can't see myself back in the 9-5, waiting on the weekend to visit life again.
At times like these the old hobo in me comes calling telling me to perk up my ears: the train's leaving, there's more fruit ripe for the picking, more memories waiting to be made. Waiting to be forgotten. Until the whole story's just one long, blended daydream that floats away like train smoke behind the bend.
Like most of what's happened before, I've little doubt I'll lose most of this adventure to failing memory. What will remain may only be an image – the aurora that came on the last night after we thought it had died down, then at 4 in the morning came shooting haphazardly out of the southwest like a million flashes of flickering light sprinting across the sky. Maybe it won't be an image at all but a feeling – my spirit lifted and wonder inspired by those green-gold lights in their march across heaven. Maybe what will remain will be arbitrary, unrelated – a bend in the road while riding in the truck feeling kind of free. Or just a set of pictures I'll see on passing screen savers. Digital being what it is, images rarely make a photo album these days.
Sometimes, when I'm beholding something truly beautiful, or when I'm I'm looking at something I think is meaningful for what I'm pretty sure will be the last time, I like to bum a smoke. Like it's my last one; like I'm standing in front of a firing squad. I try to lock the scene or the people in front of me into place, in the hope that I can store them some deeper place inside me. I try to take in every detail the way I would if the rifles were leveled at me and I knew it was the last thing I'd ever see. Most of what we experience we assume in due course will come again. Even moments of overwhelming joy are lost or taken for granted. Facing down the rifles is the only way I know how to breathe a present breath. Not upset about the past, not worried for the future, just here for a moment in the miracle.
Because standing there, beneath the most awe-inspiring natural phenomenon our solar system has to offer... you'll think about burritos. Or balloons. Or why it's necessary that both phillips and flathead screws exist. Or you think of the girl. Or the dishes piling up back home, and the pain in the ass it's going to be to wash them. Distraction is the only rule. The riddle remains the same: how in a life that might last a hundred years can we be present for even a moment?
The Aurora begin with a breath of the sun. An exhale from a random point on a random star in the ever-expanding universe. From out of the sphere of the sun, out of the infinite directions it can travel this burst of energy flies through the vastness of space across a hundred-million miles toward a tiny blue dot. An absolute miracle of chance! Yet somehow, upon colliding with earth's atmosphere turns a pitch black night into cascading light.
And at the end of that entire equation, all the odds defied and the elements combined to make that happen, eyes cast skyward you stand there. And when that solar breath from out of all the space that surrounds, crosses the sky of this tiny speck of blue, reflecting in the orb of your microscopic eye – there, where the micro and macro meet – swirling in the ethereal dream of the universe, you're a part of it. A necessary piece of the puzzle. Because without you the light might pass unseen.