Artist Residency: Return to McCarthy
by Julia Rosen, 2016 Artist in Residence
People warned me that McCarthy had changed. But this August, when I walked back across the footbridge — over the roiling waters of the Kennicott River — I was struck most by the things that have remained the same. The smell of the dirt road, wet from the rain, thrust me back to the summer of 2002, when I came to McCarthy as a college student in the Wildlands Studies program. I saw the familiar silhouette of Sourdough Peak rising into the clouds, and the tenacious willows marching across the glacial mudflats. A few days into my stay, inside the dilapidated red shack on the road to Kennecott, I spied a bearskin hanging in the shadows, just as I recalled.
But if McCarthy has stayed more or less the same, I have changed tremendously — in many ways because of my first visit. This is where I discovered my interest in geology (I went on to get a PhD) and where I first felt the allure of the wilderness (I have spent the years since exploring it). In retrospect, McCarthy is also where I first began to use science and nature as subjects for nonfiction writing, now my profession and what brought me back as an artist-in-residence to the Wrangell Mountains Center. I hoped, in returning, to understand what it was about this place that so profoundly affected me.
So I wandered the trails looking for answers, calling out for bears, admiring tall blazes of fireweed, watching the aspens smolder gold along the ridgelines. I walked through the soft dryas flats to the toe of the Kennicott Glacier, where I stood on the crumbling moraine and shivered in the sharp breeze. I spent a rare bluebird day alone on the ice, negotiating crevasses and skirting gaping moulins, making my way to the base of Donoho Peak, where I basked on a flat rock eating vegetables from the Hardware Store gardens. And of course, I wrote about the powerful memories and emotions these small adventures conjured.
When I couldn’t get past a barrier in my words or thoughts, I sought the company of my fellow resident artist, the inspiring and fearless Nina Elder, on her own journey to understand McCarthy’s place in the world. I sat on the porches of locals and gazed into the flames of welcoming campfires; I danced to music at the saloon and loitered around the mail shack, watching the ritual sorting. I learned that I was not the only one to have McCarthy in my bones. So many people have come to this valley and gotten caught in its thrall, builing shrines in the form of simple cabins or enduring institutions. I have done neither, and can offer only humble words, starting with a note of deep gratitude to the people and places that welcomed me back.
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