As I stood by the lake, it felt familiar—like visiting an old friend. The mirror-like surface of the water reflected the billowy white clouds and the stark ridgeline of the mountain that rose up sharply from the water’s edge. A breeze stirred, sending tiny ripples across the water. The aspens along the shore began to quiver; their delicate leaves that danced at the end of fragile stems shimmered in the dimming light. I stood quietly, drinking in the the stillness. It felt like medicine.
This was my first trip to the Yukon. Long ago, when I was young and strong, I used to dream of such places, of a life that was not soft and conventional. I would imagine homesteading on the shores of a remote lake, living by my wits and physical might; homeschooling my daughter; hiking supplies in on my back; hunting and foraging for food; experiencing the splendor of the northern lights, the break up of the ice in the spring.
In 1973, I pinky-sealed a deal with my husband. If I put him through his last two years of college, we’d move to the wilderness. He promised we’d point our truck north to Alaska when he had that degree in his hand. But instead—without my vote—he decided to sign up with the Forest Service to work in a mosquito-filled valley town in California. I went from my vision of mountain lakes to living in the middle of rice paddies.
That wasn’t the first time I thought we were headed down one road only to find ourselves going about-face in the opposite direction. In 1968, hubby and I had completed Peace Corps training to go to Afghanistan. Our destination was Kandahar; I would be a nurse working with local health workers under primitive conditions, he would go on surveying expeditions. We had learned to speak Farsi; I was raring to go. But suddenly—twenty-four hours before we were to board the plane—he unilaterally decided we should bail… His reasons were all very vague. Something about not wanting to be part of a corrupt bureaucracy, though I learned later that his “go/no-go” decision process was always a crapshoot when he had to walk his talk.
These abrupt turns in the road were not easy for me. Both times, it was like my locomotive had suddenly fallen off the tracks, bringing me to a dead halt, while the wheels kept spinning in the air for a long time, going nowhere. As with any shock, it took a while to get upright and find my way again.
Those particular changes in course happened because I deferred to another’s decision for reasons that puzzle me now but seemed appropriate at the time. And even though there were many times when I boldly stepped through doors when they opened, not hesitating to take a leap, there have also been occasions when I myself have gotten scared and backed down from something, been unable to take the next step because I feared the unknown, had doubts, lost confidence, lacked faith, or just couldn’t summon the energy.
Sometimes it was impermanence—divorce, a death, a house fire—or illness, a change of heart that altered the trajectory of my life, sending me down roads I would not have imagined or chosen for myself. Once, it was a simple coin toss. I was with hubby at the airport in Port Moresby, New Guinea with two duffel bags full of all our worldly possessions. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments: heads we’d go to New Zealand, tails we’d go to Spain. Imagine the freedom of that! We’d been in the tropics for a year, and when the nickel came up tails, we headed to Europe in the middle of their winter and promptly got sick. One week later we were back to the US. I’ve often thought how differently our path might have unfolded had we landed in New Zealand in the warmth of their summer months.
Drinking in the beauty of that Yukon lake four decades later, I took a moment and bowed to that young woman who once yearned to live in the wilderness. I honored not only her spirit but also the spirit of who I have become. I have aged with grace. My life is simple and cozy. Circumstances have changed; I fully embrace the ease and convenience of indoor toilets, electricity, running water, warmth, grocery stores. I am content. And who knows…maybe that road not taken spared me from becoming dinner for a grizzly bear!