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Grateful for the outdoor wonders Alaska offers (and I can experience)

  • Author: Alli Harvey
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published January 18, 2017

Wes Hoskins celebrates the outdoors at Sanctuary River, just past Sanctuary Campground, while cycling the Denali Park Road in Denali National Park with the author. (Photo by Alli Harvey)

I am that person who scoffs when I see #blessed on an online post.

I know. I should feel happy for the person experiencing and sharing blessedness. But I have an aversion to any level of sincerity that results in #blessed, plus a suspicion about the authenticity of whoever posted it.

However, I've recently realized that science is on the side of the #blessed people. Studies show that quality of life and happiness are vastly improved by a focus on gratitude. This week in particular, with temperatures taking a swan dive across our state, I might read this column headline and decide this part of the paper is better off as fire starter. But I've been thinking, and I've come to realize the connection between gratitude and my own happiness is undeniable, and it runs pretty deep.

Battling asthma

For me, enjoying being outdoors was a long-fought journey — and not an easy one. I'm surprised I didn't give up. My first backpacking trip was with Girl Scouts at age 11. We embarked on a 3-mile journey to a hut in New Hampshire's White Mountains. My stepdad came along as a chaperone, which I think was logistically unusual for the all-female group. But he was the only chaperone available who would haul a heavy, battery-operated nebulizer for me in case I had an asthma attack. I went on the trip, and he supported me, mostly because I wanted to do normal things like everyone else my age. I was in an out of the hospital so much in those days that I missed a lot of social opportunities, so this backpacking trip took on bigger significance. It was never about being outside, though. I was just sick of missing things due to my asthma.

I don't share this for sympathy. I share it because, even with my stepdad doing the hard work of carrying the heaviest things uphill, it was a struggle for me to hike — and I didn't enjoy it. When we got to the hut, I hung out while the rest of the girls went off exploring. I liked the outdoors all right, but I was hardly capable of bringing myself to it, or taking care of myself once there. Sure, I had done a "normal" thing and participated, but because I was in terrible physical shape, I remained an outsider.

Despite how uncomfortable and ashamed I was, the trip wasn't a total flop. Something stuck, perhaps the feeling of appreciating the way the air smelled and felt. It felt like fall in the mountains even though it was late summer. I loved the way the scratchy wool blankets were carefully folded on each bed — a bit of bare-bones attention to the needs of travelers on foot. I fully appreciated the sharp air. I loved the cold water. I liked the short walk between the buildings where we slept and where we cooked, the way the breeze made my nose cold even while the rest of me was warm. I loved the idea that it could snow.

I also appreciated the work my stepdad put into the trip. He did it because it was the right thing to do. That really stuck with me, and that's saying something for a girl on the cusp of her teens.

Sadness creates conditions for joy

I don't think about this trip often. But I have been doing a lot of thinking about forming new habits in the new year, and reflecting on what kinds of mental practices help new habits stick. I know. This is the point where I write "gratitude" and throw up in my mouth a little.

But I look at it this way: What I want to feel most in life isn't irritation, frustration, or any of the many emotions rooted in sadness. Yes, they're real. I'm sure many arose during that backpacking trip. That's OK, and honest, and I actually think negative emotion helps shape positivity. The greater spectrum of feeling I have, the more I am alive. Deep sadness creates the conditions for joy.

But many times my emotions are my decision. In the long run, my time outdoors has helped train me to see that and to apply it in other areas of life.

I've noticed when I'm beating myself up on a run, feeling irritated at the conditions or other trail users, the run itself is bad. Sure, I run to work things out in my head. I'll frequently work through a personal or work situation using various scenarios, and it usually helps me settle on a decision. But when I focus on negative thoughts for the sake of staying in them, my run is terrible. The feeling colors the experience.

On the other hand, I could point out stretches of trail across Anchorage that have a very positive connotation, entirely because of my focus while on the trail. I have often marveled at the ability of my lungs to work at all. I've been happy in crazy low temps that I can work up a sweat so my fingers feel warm.

In weather like we're enduring this week, frosty eyelashes are a novelty I'm grateful to experience. Maybe there are people out there who never will (or never want to).

Embracing possibility

But these days, I am happy when I can go outside with friends, my husband or stepdaughter. I love seeing others I don't know outside, or running into people I do know. I want to say, it's amazing that we are all out here. What an incredible world and place we share.

Of course, I don't say any of that because even I can only handle so much Pollyanna-ish enthusiasm. Like I said before, I scoff at #blessed.

Still, even for a fleeting second, that's how I feel. To live and breathe and function in the world, and to directly experience a planet that science and religion endeavor to understand is pretty damn cool.

There may be a million hindrances in this world for me, but I truly believe that on the flip side is possibility. I've learned that life can be long, that years do make a difference and that change is constant.

I am not writing this as an ode to perfection, or striving to always feeling happy. But when I have a choice, I mean to feel grateful for what I have and where I can go.

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.

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