I do not know what I expected that day, sitting in a circle of strangers, getting ready to share our thoughts about “Arctic Dreams” with the book’s author, Barry Lopez. What could I say to the man I had admired for the better part of two decades? A man whose writing had inspired me to travel alone to Alaska; the very place that has so dramatically shaped my identity.
“Hey, thanks Mr. Lopez, I think you might be my hero!!”
“To be frank Barry, I don’t believe ‘Arctic Dreams’ is your best work…”
But the truth of it all is this — I was there, in the awkwardly lit conference room, in an overpriced hotel in downtown New Orleans, under false pretense. Yes, I had read “Arctic Dreams” long ago, as I had read most of his published works. But I did not love it. I was not so naive as to think that this meant I was in a position as some amateur writer, to critique this giant. There was a simple truth at play. Barry Lopez went on a journey in “Arctic Dreams” where I could not follow, and I could not sit there and pretend I loved this book. I did not know Barry Lopez, but I felt like he deserved the truth. The truth was this — It was “Of Wolves and Men” that I loved, not “Arctic Dreams.”
As a young teen, my older brother by 2 1/2 years had stepped away from the standard abuse typical of male siblings to present me with one of the most influential and thoughtful gifts I have received to this day. The gift was Barry Lopez’s “Of Wolves and Men.” Up until that moment, I had consumed all the major text concerning the North American gray wolf. But the history between human and wolf has a lot more to say, and “Of Wolves and Men” opened the door to a deeper knowledge to this creature I so fervently adored.
A few years later, I had the opportunity, at age 18, to leave the hardwoods and smoky pubs of my childhood for the wilds of Alaska.
Alaska was not as I had imagined; it was instead a real place with real people. People who sometimes preferred to see a wolf through a rifle scope. This was not some wildlife-filled utopia, but it was wild. During that first year I experienced my first wild grizzly, my first wild wolf, Denali, water freezing in air at -70 degrees Farenheit and deep, layered curtains of Aurora Borealis. Not unlike the relationship between human and wolf, the reality of Alaska was far more complex than it appeared on the surface. However, one thing was for certain, I had been bitten by more than just mosquitos, and while I would spend some time away from the Great Land, I would always return to her.
When it finally came time for me to meet Barry Lopez, I had gone down many roads. I had been a teacher, a park ranger, and, at that moment, as I walked up to shake the hand of my favorite author, a stewardship manager for a land trust in Wyoming.
I cannot recall for certain what we said to one another, but I recall every emotion. Two individuals from different stories walking the same road. I was not confident at the time that the job I was in was the right fit and part of my soul yearned to go back to Alaska. Somehow, Barry Lopez seemed to recognize this in me, “This is not it for you Sean, your story does not end here.” Perhaps he never spoke at all, I cannot be certain of what exactly was said, or not said. I was, however, certain of the message. I would see the Great Land again.
Staring out on the slate-colored sky above the temperate rainforests of southeast Alaska, I remember Barry Lopez…how did he know?
• Sean O’Donnell resides in Juneau. O’Donnell’s past work includes publications for the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and various local government and nonprofit agencies.
The Capital City Weekly, which runs in the Juneau Empire’s Thursday editions, accepts submissions of poetry, fiction and nonfiction for Writers’ Weir. To submit a piece for consideration, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.