Unhinged Alaska: Silent night, heavenly light

Come this Christmas Eve it will two decades since I experienced an unrivaled eruption of grandeur helping me sidestep a pointless night of lonesomeness.

It began as just another occasion where I ended up working along a high Arctic section of the Dalton Highway during a festive time of year.

Vacation rotations work out that way sometimes and during particular spans of employment I spent more than my share in remote locations with the military and then again in various civilian endeavors.

I certainly had no right for any remonstration.

I had chosen to follow the life paths that led me to the challenges such journeys embodied, whether it was on an Asian mountain top or the environs of the Brooks Range.

Christmas has always been a quintessential time for clans to reinforce family bonds and share memories from the past year before such accounts slip away into the void of fading recollections.

Thirty-seven years ago my life became even more special when Jane and I exchanged wedding vows on the eve of such a remarkable day.

From that point on, being away during the Christmastide always engendered second thoughts because of the time lost with her, but because of the strength of our union, no matter how belatedly I crossed the threshold of our cabin, all of the same Christmas sentiment and atmosphere awaited my arrival.

Then twenty years ago, I was faced with the first Christmas without the prospect of hearing the warm voice of either of my parents.

Sadness gently wrapped my soul and an emptiness I had never felt settled in as I rolled out onto the Haul Road.

Close to midnight, as I passed through the rolling hills north of Brooks Range, the moonless, sub-zero, sky was suffused with a profound clarity showcasing the stars with a brilliance enveloping the deep space like a colossal and glittering crystal chandelier.

Nothing moved across the landscape other than my headlights probing for any sign of an errant caribou wandering the highway or the wolf pack that crossed my path near Toolik Lake three days prior.

I had forgotten my tapes so I attempted to locate a radio station to ride shotgun and keep me vigilant. But signal skips from the Lower 48 produced only weak and quickly fading voices along with static-bathed hints of holiday music so I opted for Plan Z, the self inflicted pain of my fractured baritone.

I was preparing to belt out a tragically off key version of Feliz Navidad when the Barrow radio station suddenly took mercy and came booming in with Silent Night just as I became conscious of the western horizon giving birth to a slight and pulsating glow.

Minute by minute the light amplified until a magnificent waving curtain of silver and green aurora stretched from north to south.

It continued its expansion soaring upward until it became an awning of swirling light and color above me.

It was so stunning that I pulled aside, shut the lights off, and stepped into another universe.

The drapery of charged ions began to morph into rivers of mystical multicolor illuminations that swirled and tumbled across the sky encompassing a 360 degree field of vision.

I swore I could hear a muffled hiss as undulating displays contracted, then exploded into soaring columns of bluish green radiance in support of what had become the ceiling of a celestial cathedral.

I stood mesmerized by the manifestations while classic carols resonated from the radio as if they were directed and powered from the churning aurora about and above me.

The earth beneath my boots was solid and as anchored as the mountains to the south. But, as the atmosphere continued to fill with spiraling dances of spectral enchantments, I felt a slight case of vertigo while striving to absorb what was transpiring in such a flickering space of time.

The exultant rays finally tired and took leave delegating the shine of the heavens to the scintillating stars patiently waiting in the wings.

Their departure came none too soon because if the alluring presentation of celestial colors and configurations had continued much longer some passerby would have discovered a body frozen in place with its eyes riveted on the cosmos.

I sat for awhile wishing for an encore but the universe of stars remained stoical and unbrushed by any tint of color or promise of another silken veil swaying in the solar winds, so I moved on.

My trace of loneliness had vanished and there was no room in my heart for sadness. Both had been replaced by a sense of humbling awe.

The power of that event resonates within me to this day and what happened can be interpreted in a thousand ways but to me it was a gift of insight that no one walks alone through life.

It was a simple message but sometimes it takes the world standing still while the aerosphere explodes to get my attention.

Merry Christmas.

Nick can be reached at ncvarney@gmail.com.

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