It is easy to go down into Hell;
night and day, the gates of dark Death stand wide;
but to climb back again,
to retrace one’s steps to the upper air —
there’s the rub; the task.
— Virgil, 70–19 B.C.
I wish I had a nickel for every occasion that I signed up for something offered without thinking it through. I have a long history of responding with an enthusiastic “Yes!” to anything with a question mark at the end. It’s almost reflexive that affirmatives roll off my tongue whenever I am presented with a raised inflection in someone’s voice. Confronted with the wide open space at the end of a sentence that has trailed off without a conclusion, I leap in to fill the void. I often walk away from these conversations with the puzzled realization that I have agreed to do something about which I am slightly uneasy.
Thousands of feet in the air above the Juneau Icefield in Alaska , as the tiny craft into which I was strapped suddenly sailed sideways with a violent gust of wind, I had just such a premonition validated, along with the sensation of having left my stomach far behind.
The practically 360 degree panorama visible from the helicopter’s mostly glass enclosure was a swirl of white, black and gray, with the landscape below almost indistinguishable from the different kinds of condensation drifting by. The sky was layered with intersecting swaths of clouds, fog, and mist hovering above an amalgamation of earth, ice and water far below. The otherworldly expanse was a vast wilderness more remote than anything I have ever experienced. If it weren’t for the splashes of rain visible on the windshield, I would have felt shakily suspended in soggy space.
The relentless roar of the rotating helicopter blades rendered conversation impossible but my husband Tom could see the terror in my eyes. Rocking slightly back and forth with no real predictable rhythm, like the odd flight pattern of a hummingbird, the helicopter descended toward the glacier. As we came closer, I could see veins of translucent blue emanating from the smoky shades of the immense field of ice. Getting nearer, I was jarred to see how black the ice was with grime; the sight conflicted with my image of a glacier’s surface as pure, gleaming white.
Tom leapt from the helicopter and bounded off; I yelled at him not to go far and gingerly disembarked, taking hesitant footsteps. I was both repelled and fascinated by the deep, deep fissures in the glacier, from which the luminous turquoise of pure arctic ice glowed. Looking into the depths of these cracks, they seemed as bottomless as the horizon seemed endless.
While the atmosphere was surreal, with my feet on the ground, from the depths of my fear another emotion began to flutter, one somewhat similar but far more welcome: awe. Despite the gut-wrenching, heart-pounding, hair-raising half-hour to get to this frozen outpost that few other people would ever experience, or perhaps because of it, I felt a reverential, soaring exhilaration.
My free-falls into fear can occur under far less dramatic circumstances, and be triggered by much more mundane, everyday events. Negativity can swallow me up and once it does, it can be like an abyss from which escape is difficult. I am learning to say an emphatic “No” more quickly when such moods descend and seek a source to stay grounded. Often, when I am able to take a hard look at what’s lying at the bottom of my anxiety, a beautiful, liberating lesson is illuminated that can give my heart wings.
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For more images of Alaska, see my Travel Photos.