About two seconds.
That’s what you have between being asked and your response; before you let on.
It’s important first, to acknowledge we’ve reached the era of total geographical and technological accessibility. Our generation has become comfortable, in such a way that we can begin to treat a trip to say— Vik with as much insouciance as some may have once— and do, their honeymoon to The Bahamas. So with this accessibility, it’s become less uncommon to cross paths with those whom venture frequently. I believe it’s the sheer magnitude of some variables that revolve around certain destinations; kilometers driven, meters climbed, batteries exhausted, that continue to garner an audience eager to follow along, and possibly take part in the journey through your response. Your response, however, is what you control. Following the great distances and scenes catalogued, you have a brief opportunity to contort history to serve the limelight into which you’re asked to share it.
About two seconds: to say the trip was perfect, or to tell the truth.
We’d gone in, a band of misfit storytellers, documentarians, broken hearts and transcontinental navigators. We’d agreed to drive our friends’ [@floatballoontours] hot air balloon from Phoenix, some four thousand long miles, to Anchorage. Upon our arrival, the Cloth & Flame (@clothandflame) and Royal & Design (@royalanddesign) teams would rendezvous and fly the balloon over the great Alaskan frontier. We’d camp, cook and share in campfire tomfoolery along the way. We’d collect our cast as the journey unfolded, and exchange it as the screenplay called. We’d gather the endorsement of our favorite like-minded brands, and set course into the true unknown, unruly and untamed wilderness of the far, far north. We’d no idea what we were getting into, but as the self-proclaimed crew of the first Survey; Estival Survey, we had done the best we damn could to prepare.
Our initial trajectory took us across Joshua Tree National Park, Los Angeles, the mighty Redwood Forest, San Francisco, the dunes of Oregon, and up to Seattle, Washington, over the course of roughly seven days. It was seldom a matter of beauty, where our attention strayed, as it was a matter of cognitive survival. This was meant to be the mild stretch— the familiar territory where we’d have ample time and resource to recuperate and charge our souls before moving onward.
The reality, and the response we wish to share is that behind the glamor, there lies a greater truth. Fevers, flies, poisonous vines, damp earth and sleeplessness all laid the groundwork to a remarkably taxing expedition. The nauseatingly vast stretch across Canada had begin to set in several hours after crossing the border. The decision had been made to trek through until our final destination. We made several day camps— of course given the extensive amount of daylight the further north we ventured, allowed for some flexibility with this. Kathleen Lake, Yukon was arguably one of the most beautiful places we could have ever hoped to lay our heads, hammocks, and sip a beer in freshwater at. We knew, however, our time was limited, as we wished to make schedule to Alaska. We drove, and drove, and drove into some great towering blackness; bear dotted gravel ways and tree lines set to stun. We drove, and drove.
Our time in Alaska felt short. It felt longer than the days we occupied it, and somehow still brief. I think it’s the madness of going that causes this. The brands we had partnered with allowed for several remarkable campsites and experiences; unparalleled landscapes of blue, and soft etchings of green. Not to say we weren’t in some ways sick, smoke tainted and tattered. Several of us had developed sever reactions and wounds. It was rough. Tempers were fickle. We pressed on, to admire and notice the Earth we escaped to find, and connect with one another in ways we left home to conquer...
When the brazen adventure seemed to be nearing its end, I received an unexpected opportunity to plunge myself one more time into the throws of the unknown. On my last day in Alaska, one of our hot air balloon pilots, Jeff, a slow-talking, wispy outdoorsman with a salt and pepper mustache and a sweat-stained baseball cap, offered to fly one member of the Estival Survey crew over the Knik Glacier in his plane to snap photos since weather would not permit us to charter a helicopter and fulfill our ultimate dream of flying the hot air balloon over the glacier. Knowing it was my last day, my beloved crew of cohorts voted unanimously that I should be the one with the privilege of taking this flight. We went to the local airport and walked up to a 1958 super-cub single-prop plane. At first I was a little nervous about getting in that rickety old thing, but true to the spirit of our journey, I went for it.
We flew over Anchorage and roughly another fifty miles over gorgeous Alaskan frontier to the edge of Inner Lake Gorge which connects to the mouth of Knik Glacier. That’s when old Jeff announced to me over the intercom headsets that we were going to be landing there. We hiked to the edge of the lake to take in the view of the massive icebergs floating in the water. After a little while, old Jeff, inadvertently stumbled upon an old, overturned canoe that was hiding in the brush. We flipped it over to reveal two sun-bleached life preservers and two oars. The canoe frame was bent crooked in several places and there was a large crack in the green frame which is almost certainly why it had been left behind. There are no roads to take you to this lake so the canoe must've been flown in by helicopter at some point. Jeff duct-taped the crack in the canoe and we tested it's ability to float in the shallow water. Once we were confident that the boat wasn't going to sink, we decided to get in and take it through the maze of icebergs; the majesty and grandness of which I will never be able to fully describe. The crackling, squeaking, breathing noise of the ancient ice and how each jagged tower was as beautiful as any sculpture. The blues were comically over-saturated and the whites were blinding. We grabbed a couple chunks of ice that had broken off and fallen into the lake. I don't know fully how to describe it, but this ice was somehow colder than normal ice. We wrapped a couple chunks in a jacket and flew it back to Anchorage with us.
Later that night, when my time on the adventure came to an end, the remaining crew ofEstival Survey poured a glass of whiskey over top of the ice and cheers’d to what had genuinely been, the trip of a lifetime.
This isn’t about running away from your problems or grandstanding or crusade. It’s about connecting with the natural world that is so easy to overlook in the times we live in. It’s about rectifying the blisters on your feet with the sunset from the mountaintop. It’s cleaning your hands and face in the cool waters of the river. I believe that the answers we seek reside within us, always. We are born of truth, but the unbridled beauty of this planet can help bring that truth out of us. Sometimes it’s simple; like how rain on the canvas tent can enhance the reading of a book. Sometimes it’s profound; like the twilight nights around the fire when the sun never fully set; when you question god and yourself. It’s when you realize once and for all that you ain’t no wilting twig damned to a cracked pot. You are a wildflower, born of the sun and the dirt. It’s when you agree to give it hell and see where you end up. It’s when you get up and get going. It’s when you let the compass point you forward and the stars compel you onward. It’s my sincerest hope that we may all meet with vigor the challenges of our destinies.
I aligned with an idea that life could be compared to attempting to lift the stool you're sitting on. I'm now more inclined to think it best described as adrift in a hot air balloon. Silence until noise. Still until caught. It all seems simple, and then you look around beyond the comfort of your woven chariot. You are at the mercy of variables beyond control, with your only powers to react or not. You notice places slip by below, and wonder whether they too had stories; whether they too have chosen a response, or one day will. Regardless, they pass. Regardless, the horizon will never repeat itself, for by the time you circle the sphere, the landscape has changed again.
Estival Survey, 2016 (#EstivalSurvey)
Words by Ryan Neal Cordwell (@ryannealcordwell) & S. Cole Kiburz (@coleplay)
Film by Ryan Neal Cordwell (@ryannealcordwell, @royalanddesign)
Photos by Constance Higley (@constancehigley)
Ryan Neal Cordwell (@ryannealcordwell)
S. Cole Kiburz (@coleplay)
Dylan Brabec (@dylanbrabec)
Constance Higley (@constancehigley)
Michelle Johnson (@meeshalrj)
Brendan McCaskey (@jarofbuttons)
Cheyanne Paredes (cheyp)
Royal & Design (@royalanddesign)
Cloth & Flame (@clothandflame)