Uncovering the Alaskan spirit re-defines what it means to live with IBD.
After spending a week traveling around Alaska, I am amazed by its size and beauty. Spectacular sights lie around every corner, no matter where you go. But I am even more impressed by Alaska’s people and its culture of independence. While there are certainly modern conveniences available, the general sense is that people there make do with whatever they can. And I don’t mean they just get by, they thrive. It is an environment where self-sustenance is a given—where the pioneer spirit is not a historical anachronism, it remains a modern way of life. People help each other out because they know they need one another at times, but the general assumption is that people can do what they want. There is very little wondering about what is and isn’t possible, they just go out and do it.
I found myself marveling at my response to this atmosphere; I have grown accustomed to thinking that I have cumbersome limitations. There are medications to mind, refills to look after, blood tests and doctor appointments to schedule…I don’t normally assume that I’m capable of heading off into the bush for days or weeks or months at a time, and certainly not on short notice. But when I see the ease with which Alaskans go in and out of the wilderness, for work and pleasure, it challenges the way I think. They head to sea and into the mountains at will. They take jobs that send them places too remote for a simple boat trip or float-plane ride. And forget about driving; less than 20 percent of Alaska’s communities are accessible by road. Alaskans find ways to live with only sporadic connections to civilization. And I’m talking about regular people, not a select few.
I can’t help but ask myself, could I do it? Is my sense of limitation really that necessary or is it more of a self-inflicted wound? The answer I keep coming up with is, yes, I can do it—but to a limited degree. The fundamental component of the pioneer lifestyle seems to be flexibility. When things don’t go as planned, they adapt. They rebuild and reconfigure. They change objective if need be. They take risks and suffer hardships along the way. We all do a fair amount of those things in different ways as patients of chronic illness. But there are some very real places where we are inflexible and can’t afford to take risks, including the list of limitations I mentioned above.
I have great admiration for the adventurous IBD patients among us who do amazing things like climb the world’s tallest mountains. They are an inspiration to us all. But these feats are in another category. They stand out as special accomplishments—specific objectives that are planned, prepared for, and lived out, with the support of many people making a special effort.
The kind of adventurous spirit I see in the culture of Alaska is different than that…it’s based on the fundamental readiness (and eagerness) to pick up and go anywhere, any time, as a basic everyday capability, and a normal ongoing part of life. This is a kind of freedom that is much more difficult to envision being possible for me.
Many of us could gear up for and complete a special short-term expedition. Although only a certain elite breed could summit Mt. Everest, there is bound to be some kind of grand accomplishment out there waiting for each of us. But could we live so adventurously as a long-term way of life? Living, working, and playing in the wild as the norm rather than the exception? Is it possible, given the difficulties of chronic illness? Regardless of a person’s resolve, the preparations are quite different for us, which seems to defeat the spontaneity portion—although Alaskans generally travel well-prepared for whatever might come along (but so do we, in our own way). And the potential for complications is certainly increased, with a special set of dire consequences as well. We don’t have to get hypothermia or fall off a cliff to be in serious trouble, all we have to do is drop our pills in a puddle.
I have some rational grasp on all of this, but there’s an emotional component as well. Seeing first-hand a culture that embraces such capability at a basic level of identity is a humbling experience. I find it simultaneously deflating and inspiring and frustrating. It makes me re-think where I stand in the capability spectrum. Regardless of the mixed feelings, I have a new vigor for adventure that might not have awakened had I not made this trip, and perhaps an altered sense of ability. I want to go back. And I want to go beyond. Next time, farther from the car. Higher up the trail. Deeper into the unknown. Closer to understanding where my limits truly lie, and where they tell the truth, and how to tell the difference.
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