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The Unbearable Lightless of Being in Alaska

The gap between a fantasy and its realization has always surprised me. I know to anticipate it now, but it persists, even as it narrows. Daydreams and forward projections are clean, exciting—only the good parts are in tact. There’s not much mud or mild hunger in a fantasy. I never imagine adventures and remember that at some point I’ll have to find the bathroom. And that’s the gap.

In his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera laments at length the intrusion on profound solemnity made by the facts of corporeal existence. My favorite example he offers is a bride at the altar who can only think about how hungry she is. My second favorite example is a man sitting at his mother’s sickbed, knowing he should be reflecting deeply, but realizing he has gas. I have often held a map in my mind about how an exciting event might manifest, and even oftener neglected that stuff is just never so neat, effortless, and easy.

I got a reminder of Kundera’s lesson when I tried to fly to St. Lawrence Island on Tuesday. It was my first time leaving Nome for a story. And in a plane no less. The plan was to fly to Savoonga, one of the two communities on the island, and talk with people about how the dismal walrus harvest this year is starting to affect their lives. This had many of the components I’d mixed into my hopes and fantasies about reporting with KNOM from the Bush: trips in small planes, stories of consequence, remote locales, large marine mammals. It was all coming together. I felt like the cool reporters whose work I read, listen to, fantasize from.

In short order, here were a few of the daydream-dissolving intrusions from reality. Emily drove me to the airport in the dark, and accidentally dropped me off at the wrong terminal. After asking for directions from the same woman not once, but twice, I wandered through puddles to get to the right ticket counter. Waiting for the plane, the smell of diesel from the repair-shop in the back made me so queasy I had to quit snacking on trail-mix and take little bird-sips from my water bottle. By the time all five of us passengers were ushered out to the plane I had to nervously make up a mumbled excuse about having left something in the terminal so I could hastily use the bathroom one last time (the nine-seat plane had no “facilities”). Though I’d planned on using the flight to coolly, professionally scribble notes, the plane was totally dark and chilly until we got up in the air and the electric heat began slithering over my top half. I don’t remember when my legs stopped shivering.

And I’m a tad claustrophobic, something I always forget when lost in idle reveries about adventures to elsewhere. So a lot of my attention in the air was taken up by remembering to breathe, looking at the other passengers as reminders that zooming thousands of feet above a cold ocean in a decades-old machine piloted by total strangers is completely normal. People do it all the time.

Then I started wondering why it had been an hour-and-a-half and we hadn’t descended yet. When we finally landed, the pilot welcomed us all to Gambell, the other community on St. Lawrence Island. It turns out the clouds and wind over Savoonga had been too bad to land. Three of the passengers on board had been heading there after the quick stopover in Savoonga, and they cheerfully disembarked. But another woman and I were told by the pilot, Ryan (no longer a total stranger), he’d try touching down in Savoonga on the sweep back, but the chances weren’t good.

Down on the runway the wind and cold were beyond what I’d expected or dressed for. Even though it’s been unseasonably warm lately (low 40s), my three layers were nothing against whipping, unceasing winds. After about five minutes of being outside I was shivering, and realized I’d severely underprepared for the whole trip. Even if we’d made it to Savoonga I didn’t have enough clothing or food to make it more than a day, which, given the precariousness of flights, is a minimal consideration. Re-boarding the plane, I stumbled clumsily down the narrow isle back to my seat and glumly finished my trail-mix fretting about how I’d get back home from the airport.

At its best, the fantasy-reality gap is humbling, a refresher in humility that brings me back down to earth. I try to remind myself that the sting is less about melancholic banality and disappointment than about feeling foolish. The fantasy means succumbing lazily to the easiest parts of a wish before bumping into the messy facts of temperature, appetite, getting lost, and all the unglamorous variables that constitute being in time.

And the space this lessons up is, for me, the exciting part. If the reality of an adventure—or an experience, a trip, a place, whatever one fantasizes over—were as perfect in real life as in the imagination, then it would be simple. You’d know it all before you even went through it. The sprawling, multifaceted tactile experience of a day at the beach is neither as tidy, picturesque, or contained as a postcard of that beach. And while my abbreviated trip to St. Lawrence Island was pretty far from what I’d hoped, I would rather a day of sprawling, wandering trips gone awry than a post-card.

I’m booked to fly to Savoonga again tomorrow morning.