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Alaska—from Denali to the stuffed bear on an Anchorage street, "plays havoc with your senses and turns everyday logic on its head," Pico Iyer decided. (Charles Mauzy / Corbis)

Alaska's Great Wide Open

A land of silvery light and astonishing peaks, the country's largest state perpetuates the belief that anything is possible

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"Yeah," he answered, unimpressed. "I saw some whales while driving up here. A bear, too. One of them just mauled a woman who was going for a hike in my neighborhood park. Right next to my house."

"In the outskirts of the city?"

"No. Pretty close to where we're standing right now."

The next day, the same matter-of-fact strangeness, the same sense of smallness amid the elements, the same polished wryness—and the way these played off scenes so majestic and overpowering they humbled me—resumed at dawn. A young newcomer from Virginia was driving our bus the five-and-a-half hours to the railway depot just outside Denali National Park. "You can look for some of the local sights as we pull out," he said as we started up. "One thing I like watching for is the gas prices rising as we go out of the city." A little later, taking on what I was coming to think of as a distinctive Alaskan love of drollness, he announced, "If you feel a strange fluttering in your heart, an inexplicable sense of excitement, that may be because we're coming up on the Duct Tape Capital of the World"—Sarah Palin's own Wasilla.

Yet as he dropped us at the park entrance, where a worn, dusty blue and white bus was waiting to take us into the wilderness itself, all ironies fell away. Almost no private cars are allowed in Denali—an expanse of six million acres, larger than all of New Hampshire—and the number of full-service lodges where you can spend the night can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Most people enter by bus, driving about 60 miles along a single narrow road to see what they can of "The Mountain," then hurry out again. We, however, were treated to a drive of 75 miles over unpaved roads to our little cabins in Camp Denali, where moose and bears walked around and towering snowcaps reflected in the pond.

When at last we drew up to our destination in the chill twilight, a troupe of caribou was silhouetted on a ridge nearby, and a golden eagle was diving down from its nest. By first light next morning, I felt so washed clean by the silence and the calm that I could hardly remember the person who, a week before, had run an apprehensive finger across a map from Icy Cape to Deadhorse to the first place I'd seen on arrival, Turnagain Bay—names suggesting that life was not easy here.

A quiet place, I was coming to see, teaches you attention; stillness makes you keen-eared as a bear, as alert to sounds in the brush as I had been, a few days before, in Venice, to key changes in Vivaldi. That first Denali morning one of the cheerful young naturalists at the privately owned camp took a group of us out into the tundra. "Six million acres with almost no trails," she exulted. She showed us how to "read" the skull of a caribou—its lost antler suggested it died before the spring—and handed me her binoculars, turned the wrong way round, so that I could see, as through a microscope, the difference between rushes and grass. She pointed out the sandhill cranes whose presence heralded the coming autumn, and she even identified the berries in bear scat, which she was ready to eat, she threatened, should our attention begin to flag.

The springy tundra ("like walking on a trampoline," a fellow visitor remarked) was turning scarlet and yellow, another augury of autumn. "You really don't need to calculate how many people there are per square mile," said a pathologist from Chattanooga squishing through the tussocks behind me. "You need to find out how many miles there are per square people." (He's right: the population density is roughly 1.1 person per square mile.)

What this sense of unending expanse—of loneliness and space and possibility—does to the soul is the story of America, which has always been a place for people lighting out for new territory and seeking new horizons. Every bus driver I met in Alaska seemed to double as tour guide and kept up a steady bombardment of statistics, as if unable to contain his fresh astonishment. Eleven percent of the world's earthquakes crack the ground here. There is a fault in Alaska almost twice as large as California's San Andreas. Anchorage is within 9.5 hours by plane of 90 percent of the civilized world (and roughly five minutes by foot from the wild).

"You need around 2,000 feet of water to land a floatplane," one of these sharers of wonders told me my first day in the state. "You know how many bodies of water with at least that much space there are in Alaska?"

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