Pico Iyer on “The Great Wide Open”

Pico Iyer
Pico Iyer has authored several books, which deal with globalism and travel, Cuba and California, and, most recently, the Dalai Lama. Derek Shapton

In addition to being an essayist for Time magazine for more than 20 years now, Pico Iyer writes ten articles or so a month for other newspapers and magazines all over the world, from The New York Times to The Financial Times and The New York Review of Books to magazines in Hong Kong and Germany. He has also authored several books, which deal with globalism and travel, Cuba and California, and, most recently, the Dalai Lama, subject of his latest book, The Open Road. His travel story “The Great Wide Open,” about a recent trip to Alaska, appears in Smithsonian’s November issue.

For this story, editors here asked you where in the world you would want to go to write a story for us, and you picked Alaska. Why?

Alaska appealed to me because, at some level, it seemed the last place that I'd choose to go. I tend to be a fairly urban creature, I had been in Venice four days before Alaska and, as my friends will attest, I can barely change a light bulb without setting fire to the house or shorting every wire in the neighborhood. So I thought that Alaska would force me into different moods and settings than I'd ever visit otherwise. A traveler is really not someone who crosses ground so much as someone who is always hungry for the next challenge and adventure. For me, going to Alaska was probably more unexpected than flying to Pluto and Jupiter by way of Mars.

What surprised you the most about the state?

Its silence. Of course I expected natural beauty and grandeur and a scale that would put everything in place and make most things seem very small. I'd spent plenty of time in Montana and Wyoming—and Patagonia and the Australian Outback—so I was not unaccustomed to vastness. But I'd seldom spent much time in a place where you fly to your hotel for the night, where the nearest road is 60 miles away and where you wake up, in a rustic cabin without electricity or phone-lines, and step out of the door towards an outhouse to be faced with snowcaps in a light so sharp you feel they're 20 yards (not 20 miles) away.

What was your favorite moment during your reporting?

Definitely my nights in Camp Denali, yet another of the wilderness experiences that, in my ordinary life, I'd never think to try. But circumstances put me there, and the very simplicity of the remote location, the clarity and stillness of the air, the community that formed around the dinner table, among people often as far from nature in the rest of their lives as I was, shone and shine in my memory. Just as I had hoped, going to a place so far from my usual treadmill gave me images that glow with a particular uniqueness.

Can you see yourself going back? If so, where in the state would you go? What would be on your list of things to do and see?

I'd definitely go back, and I've been inundating my poor friends, unsolicited, with recommendations. The chance to be within 20 feet of a bear is something I've never really sampled elsewhere, and would travel far to repeat. I'd love to take more flights over the great icy expanse of the state. And most of all, having seen Alaska in midsummer, I'd love to go there in the dark depths of winter and to join those Japanese visitors who come to watch the aurora borealis. Like any traveler, I'm always looking for those experiences that are almost unique to any place, and watching films around Alaska of the skies in winter made me want to taste those unworldly showers of light in person.

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