Alaska: The Perfect Weekend Trip from Washington, DC

Alaska Glacier

We settled into our seats, Adam adjusting his backpack to maximize what legroom he could find while I absentmindedly flipped through the in-flight magazine. I checked my watch; we were right on time, which bode well for our tight connection through Chicago. There were no later flights from Chicago to Anchorage that night, and if we missed our plane, we might as well have cancelled the entire trip.

“This is absurd,” I muttered, although I couldn’t prevent myself from smiling. Adam nodded.

“Kind of an extreme weekend trip, even for us,” he confirmed.

From our home near Washington, DC, Anchorage is a long way to travel for a weekend trip. Ordinarily, we would reserve a little more vacation time for a trip requiring us to travel such a distance, but that wasn’t in the cards for this adventure. For years, I had a goal of visiting all 50 states before my thirtieth birthday. I was just two months away from that date, and Alaska was the only state I had not had the chance to explore. I accepted the fact some Last Frontier State experiences would need to wait for a return trip, but fortunately some extensive global business travel had provided me with quite a few frequent flier miles, and I was more than happy to cash them in to meet my travel bucket list item.

Denali (also known as Mount McKinley)
Denali (also known as Mount McKinley)
The trip was, mercifully, smooth. When the plane touched down late at night in Anchorage, it took almost no time to navigate the empty airport, rescue our luggage from the baggage carousel, and collect our rental car. As we pulled into the hotel parking lot, the sun was just setting behind the trees. It was strange for it to be so late—just before midnight in Anchorage, almost 4 AM for our weary bodies—and yet see the sun still hanging on to the last shreds of the previous day.

We had less than two full days on Alaskan soil to make the most of our vacation time, and we spent a good portion of it on the water. Despite the fact we barely slept—the adrenaline and the 4:30 sunrise were enough to spark new energy into us—we were among the first to board a day cruise from Whittier to see the College and Harriman fjords and Alaska’s Prince William Sound. By the time we reached the glacier, it was hard to tell which was more blue&mdas;the water or the sky, or perhaps the reflection of the sky in the water. As our boat floated along, parts of the water were untouched and looked like glass, and the shapes of the fluffy clouds above balanced the sharpness of the ice that bobbed on the surface.

The day trip, a needed respite from the stress of two long flights and an all but sleepless night, was not without its moments of excitement. Squeals and gasps broke the quiet when otters would poke their heads up from under the water, and the audible sound of clicking cameras could be heard over the chatter of a colony of seals simultaneously warming themselves in the sun and cooling themselves on the ice. We had been away from home for just 24 hours, and it already felt like we had been gone for a week. The suddenness of changing our environment, of dropping ourselves into a different world felt like cleansing ourselves of any worry we might have had before the trip.

There’s a reason that, all these years later, our visit to Alaska is often at the top of our minds when we think about our best vacations. It went off without a hitch; the planes took off and landed as promised, the rental car was waiting for us, and every activity we planned was as fun as the websites promised. And as suddenly as it started, it was over; on Sunday night, we again settled into our seats, this time to begin the trip home. Despite the late hour, the sun was still shining, although it quickly surrendered to the darkness as our plane carried us eastbound. I wanted to sleep, but this time it was contentment that kept me awake, not adrenaline. The baby wailing in front of me didn’t help, either.

It can be tempting to plan a vacation only when everything feels perfect: when work is under control, when you have plenty of time, when there is nothing on your to-do list to keep you from fully enjoying the experience. As I watched the clouds float by through the plane window, I wondered if the opposite might be even better. Visiting Alaska didn’t check any of the boxes for a perfect vacation. We were cramming a week’s worth of exploration into a weekend, and our itinerary involved several undesirable flights with almost no chance of returning home rested and relaxed. It was a self-imposed deadline that forced us to find the time for a vacation, and where I expected to find a sense of rushed anxiety I was instead met with mindfulness. The time limitations encouraged me to focus, to be present. I committed to not missing a moment of the brief time I had. I was rewarded with more memories than I could count, more moments of joy than I might have found if I had waited for the perfect time to take that trip. And really, if I had waited until the perfect time I would have missed out on exactly the kind of vacation I needed in that moment.

Putting off a vacation, or saving days to use all at once, can be a great strategy—as long as that strategy takes you to where you want to go. I hadn’t envisioned Alaska as a weekend trip when I realized it would be my 50th state, but by making the most of the time I could carve out of my schedule I had the chance to have an experience unlike any other. On any other weekend the weather might have been bad; perhaps the sky wouldn’t have been so blue and the clouds and the ice wouldn’t have combined in front of the glacier. The seals might have gone off to swim somewhere else. I might have missed it all. Knowing how important those memories are to me, I wonder if that weekend spent any other way might have made me a different person.

I was still pondering these thoughts as our plane touched down, again in the sunshine, but in a place where the days feel comparatively short. After a quick day of rest, I was back at my desk to start another work week the next morning. A colleague stopped by, coffee in hand, to say good morning.

“Did you do anything fun over the weekend?” she asked. I smiled.

“I took a quick trip to Alaska,” I told her. Her eyes widened. Then, her smile matched mine.

“I need a weekend trip like that,” she laughed.

When you think about it, perhaps we all do.

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