Our Alaskan Trip

by Mike Bellah

This summer Charlotte and I finally took our dream vacation—a 10-day trip to Alaska, and, for a couple in their 50s, there were a lot of firsts: 

  • the first time to visit Alaska and Canada 
  • first time on a cruise ship—the 856’ Sun Princess 
  • first time to see whales in the wild—a pod of four humpbacks who entertained us by surfacing and diving alongside our small, touring boat in Auke Bay 
  • first time to see the sun set after midnight—at Denali Park we watched it slowly sink behind 20,320’ Mt. McKinley 
And I’m sure there were other firsts, but this column is not about the joys of Alaska; it’s about the reason we almost didn’t go. It’s about the reason many midlifers do not get to experience their dreams. This column is about fear. 

If you’ve read my other articles, you know that I am a master worrier; I’ve practiced the art most of my life, and I’m good at it. I even know how to worry about worrying. 

I know a good Christian should not do it—worry is the antithesis of faith—and I have overcome some nagging fears in life, but I still worry way too much, and worry, whatever else it may be, is a cruel tyrant. It bars us from some of life’s best experiences. 

You see about 10 years ago I stopped flying. Why? Well it wasn’t because I was on board a flight that crashed or almost did. And I didn’t have a friend who was. I didn’t even have a particularly turbulent ride—between Amarillo and Phoenix, for instance, where summer thermals can make the trip extra bumpy. It’s just that I had always been a frantic flyer, always had trouble relaxing at 30,000 feet plus, always imagined the worst when planes make those weird in-flight noises. So I just decided to stop putting up with it. 

I drove—everywhere, even those long trips to Lake Tahoe to see one daughter and to Martha’s Vineyard to see another. I told myself it wasn’t so bad. After all, you get to see more of the country this way. And when I felt cowardly, I reminded myself that even a big, burly exfootball coach like John Madden doesn’t fly, and I don’t hear people accusing him of being afraid—at least not to his face. 

But down deep I knew it was more complicated than that. For one thing, giving in to my fear was selfish. My poor wife had to endure some long, long road trips, sometimes 16-hour days, because her husband didn’t want to move outside of his comfort zone. And, maybe more importantly, limiting oneself to land transportation limits one’s choice of destinations. Not everyone has the time to drive to places like Alaska. 

Then last spring, I interviewed my friend, Dr. Scott Burner, who was about to spend 90 days in Afghanistan as an emergency room doctor for the U.S. Army. When I asked about feelings of fear, he said something quite profound: “Courage is not a feeling; courage is doing the right thing.” 

His words brought the issue home to me. Sure, I couldn’t keep from feeling afraid while flying—I’m just wired that way. But I could get on the airplane—sort of like plopping down in the dentist’s chair when you know you should but you don’t want to be there. 

So last summer I took the two longest flights of my life: three hours from Denver to Seattle and five hours from Anchorage to Denver. Since then, I’ve been up a few times with my friend Charlie in his private plane, and last fall we flew roundtrip to Lake Tahoe for a weekend with my daughter, a trip that would have been impossible by automobile. 

No, I’m not a calm air passenger now, but I have found ways to cope, like grading student papers or chatting with other passengers. Charlie even got me enthused about looking out the window as we flew low over Palo Duro Canyon. Yet when I fly my hands still get sweaty and I still have those moments of panic. Don’t expect me to run up a great amount of frequent flyer miles, any time soon anyway. 

But thoughts of Alaska help. They remind me of the unclaimed treasures we pass up if we let fear control us. My Alaskan trip reminds me that there are still lots of adventures to be had, lots of new discoveries to make. It only takes a little courage. 

And that’s good because I only have a little to give. 

Here are some pictures from the vacation.

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