Travels with Ben, Glacier Bay, Alaska

Roar. We heard an earthquake-like rumble.

In Glacier Bay, an enormous, luminous, turquoise chunk sheared off the icepack and dropped in the water. The Grand Pacific Glacier calved before our eyes, as it had for John Muir on his Voyages of Discovery into Southeast Alaska. While Muir traveled by dugout canoe with the Tlingit Indians, we cruised on a small tour boat with a National Park Service naturalist.

“Mom, it’s awesome!” Ben said.  I shrugged as if to say he could find a better word.  He answered, “Okay! It’s glorious!” My fourteen-year-old’s eyes sparkled with a three-year-old’s look of wonder. The weary look born by too many video games slipped away.

Whoosh. Waves caused by the crashing ice rocked our ship. Silently, we exchanged wide-eyed glances. Transfixed, we feasted our eyes on the moment in time.

Whirr. A chill wind whisked off the glacier, swept through our layers of tee-shirts, wool sweaters, and windbreakers, brushed and reddened our faces.

Life stopped in Glacier Bay in the ice age. Rivers that once cascaded to the Pacific Ocean froze in time. These days, the aqua ice is melting.

Remember? Memory whispered, Remember how you first saw this when you were a young journalist, single, and so full of dreams?  Twenty some years had passed since a pilot friend had flown me to Gustavus, sending me on my first venture into Glacier Bay. Within a few years, I married, moved to California, became a mom, created a home, and taught school. In showing Alaska to Ben, I returned to a familiar place. I realized that I had revisited it many times. Memory had been my constant companion and Glacier Bay a favorite place to travel.

Life froze up after my divorce. The coldest years of my life were those when my son lived with his father, in a town 65 miles from mine, too far away to visit every day. Separation was hell, but a child can’t live in two places at one time.

I walked around in a trance during most of the week, waking only for our Tuesday night dinners and weekend visits. I felt most alive on summer vacations with Ben. My nirvana was spending time with my son 24/7, seeing him eat, sleep, walk, and do all the ordinary things every child does.

Fortunately, dark times are temporary for glaciers and families. Glaciers recede, transforming themselves into water and new land. Slowly but surely, plants and animals return.

Children grow into young adults. Because we didn’t live together when he was in the sixth through eleventh grades, I missed out on the fabric of his daily life. No longer was I his cook, driver, laundress or homework monitor. Through conversations and travel experiences, we formed a different relationship, a better one than we might have had in other circumstances.  Years passed quickly. Ben grew until he towered over me and went away to college. These days, he’s a college sophomore who visits on his college breaks. Even though this is the regular order of events, I appreciate any time I have with him, all the more, having survived those years of unwanted separation.

We reminisced about OUR TRIP TO Alaska at the Thanksgiving table. Ben said, “Mom, you should read the new research from Glacier Bay on ecological succession.”

Wonder of wonder, my child is a young adult with a vocabulary to match.  The travels we made have given us things to talk about and shared memories to treasure.

Life is bittersweet. If I could go back in time and change one thing, it would be seeing more of my child when he was growing up. I’m thankful that he is with me now. Hard times melted into better days.  My spirit filled with gratitude for life’s cycles. Endings bring new beginnings, renewal, and resurrection.

“Mom!” I heard Ben say. “Where did you go just now?”

“I was thinking about our trip to Alaska. And, yes, I’ll do that,” I said. “I’ll read the research on ecological succession in Glacier Bay. Meanwhile, please pass the cranberry sauce.”

This essay appeared in the online travel magazine Your Life is a Trip with the title “My Personal Glacier Bay” and in the Benicia Herald with its original title “Catching Time.”

photo by Alan Vernon.

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