The road was darkening sooner than I expected. I’d been up here once before — crossing these southern Yukon valleys — but that was in summer. The sun was high on the horizon then. In fact, I was reading my book at 11 p.m (or was it 2 am?) without any help from my headlamp.
But that was summer. Now the latitude was sunk in darkness for more hours than it could claim light. We were just past the first day of spring, but here in Yukon Territory, it was winter to me.
-14 degrees Fahrenheit.
My rearview mirror’s thermometer was dropping as I spun further into this wild land. There was no moon. Mountains ripped into the sky as black silhouettes, lit only by starlight — but those were bright enough. They were brighter, in fact, than most moon-lit skies I had seen in the lower 48.
The night wore on but there was no sleep to overcome me. The road was barren, single-laned and uninhabited, and my imagination was deep in motion.
It was then that I saw it.
Shapeless, white, and faint. It was like a city illuminating a cloud cover, but I knew there was no city other than Whitehorse, and no cloud cover in this moonless night. Anyway, I had passed Whitehorse ages ago. There was nothing here — except that light.
And then it hit me. I pushed down on the brakes and moved onto the shoulder before cranking on the e-brake and turning my lights off. The window rolled down, frozen air rushing in to replace the heat. My numb fingers fumbled with a camera lens, trying to focus on something that wasn’t quite there yet. But it was growing, it was shimmering, it was beginning to dance.
The northern lights.
This trip, like the last to the Yukon and on to Alaska, was the result of spontaneity. At the last minute, I’d decided to go — or rather, the opportunity put itself in front of me and curiosity wouldn’t let me sit still.
Ever since I could remember, I’d been like this. When my brother and I dug holes to search for buried treasure in the yard, I always wanted to dig deeper. After all, something had to be down there, and if not, we’d dig straight through to China, right? I wanted to meet the kids there and play in their backyards. Every time I went trail running, I searched for a new trail; I knew the curiosity of what was around the next bend would keep me running longer. And hikes were unbearable if I could see the entire length at any point along the way. I even left the famed Utah powder for a season in search of what I could ski back east, and to understand why eastern skiers stayed put.
Curiosity: it’s what made me an adventurer.
Some may fault me for never being satiated, for always seeming to be in search of “new.” Some laugh, saying I’m child-like in the excitement of all this discovery. That’s fine. I don’t want to talk facts and figures. I don’t want to be asked what I do for a living when I introduce myself.
I want people to read my stories and realize there is more to life than clocking in and out at an “important” corporate firm. I want them to know their reality is not set within the hours of 9 to 5, with nothing to look forward to but a few hours of tv and a quick kiss from their loved ones before repeating the routine. It’s beyond, if that’s what they want. It’s out there.
And all you have to do is stay curious.
Back on the Yukon road, half my body was frozen from hanging out of the window. Earlier, an aged van slowed to ask if I needed help. Their plates told me they were locals. I shook my head and thanked them, pointing to the sky. “I’ve never seen them before,” I yelled out over their struggling motor. Their look surprised me; their faces read just as easily as spoken words: “Tourist. Pulling over in the middle of the night to look at the sky.”
They sped away without a word. I stayed put until my camera battery died from all the long exposures.
Driving toward Alaska, my chin touching my steering wheel and my eyes shifting from road to sky, I continued on as the lights bounced between white, green, and purple. I drove until the Yukon Highway ended, and in Alaska, fell asleep under those shimmering, dancing lights.
It was -17 degrees, I was wrapped in two sleeping bags, and I was still curious.