Taking Risks, Life Lessons, and the Northern Lights
by Sarah Varland
Alaska, the place I call home, is a land of extremes. Beauty and danger, so much life but with death closer than it seems in a lot of other places. I can see so much of God’s handiwork without leaving my neighborhood, and what I’ve seen has taught me so much. God’s creation has served as a way to point me more to Him. From my back deck, I’ve sat and stared at the mountains. They aren’t far from my house, just a handful of streets behind me, and they are tall, imposing, reminders to me that beyond them stretch so many more mountains and so much wilderness—reminders that I am small and God is big. I’ve watched as the afternoon sun turns the mountains and the leaves on the trees golden with a brightness that doesn’t look real. I’ve watched as those mountains turn pink and purple in the alpenglow of a winter sunset, when the sunset reflects off the snow.
But one of the very best, most stunning displays of God’s glory I’ve ever seen is what God can do with a blank, dark canvas of a night sky.
A couple weeks ago, my husband left me a voicemail at four in the morning. He was on his way to work and left a message telling me that the northern lights were out. Since we moved up here, I’ve been captivated by them, and I spent my first winter back in Alaska waking up to an alarm in the middle of the night many nights a week to check the sky from my back deck. He knew I’d want to see them. I didn’t get the message till closer to six, but when I heard it, I dutifully hurried to the back door, slipped on some shoes, and stepped outside.
It took a minute for my eyes to adjust in the darkness. The sky was clear, I could tell that much, but were they still out? They were, and they were pulsing light straight overhead. I turned to the north and could make out a large green band stretching from behind some trees and the mountains into the sky over my city. They were gorgeous, and I went inside to let my family know. My mom, my kids and I stood there watching for a few minutes, then went back into the warm house. I called my husband, excited about what I had seen and sort of debating leaving the house to try to find a darker place where I could watch them, like the real aurora chasers do. He told me if I was going to go, I better leave fast. It was close to 6:30, and it was getting light sometime around 7 or 7:30 at the time.
There was no time to deliberate. I grabbed my kids, some pop tarts and my dogs, and we climbed into the truck and I started driving. I could still see the green glowing river of northern lights stretching in the sky but even still, I cautioned the kids (and myself, let’s be honest) that we might not see them when we got to where I was taking us. They could go away at any time. As I drove in the opposite direction as the lights had been in, I questioned my decision. Should we have stayed at home and watched some more from the deck? This was one of the best light shows we’d seen in a while…was I throwing it away for the hope of a better show that might not happen? In the grand scheme of life, it wouldn’t have mattered much either way. I love the northern lights, but they’re just something fun. But the same scenario happens in real life, doesn’t it? This second guessing, questioning, wondering if we should settle for good or if we should take risks in case “great” really is out there. How often do we let “good” be good enough when we should be brave and try for “great”? I suspect I do it often. But I wasn’t doing it on this morning with the northern lights.
I knew we were taking a risk, driving up a mountain into the darkness to see the lights. That’s how you see them best, of course, because you get above the glow of the city. But I also knew that while we could see them better, there were no guarantees that they would still be strong. I might have cut our show viewing short. They could disappear into the darkness as quickly as they had come, or the sun could rise quicker than I was hoping it would.
I kept driving anyway, deciding we were going to be fully committed to the chance of what I hoped would be something amazing. I navigated the truck up the twisting mountain road, turning my brights on and being proud of myself for taking risks. It was safe enough, technically, or I wouldn’t have done it. But as a life-long “fraidy cat,” driving with no other adults into the darkness, even if I knew there would likely be other cars waiting in the parking lot where I was headed, felt like a big step to me.
We were close to the parking lot but not quite there when I saw my risks had paid off. There they were, the same northern lights I’d been watching from my deck, but against a black sky, almost no orange glow of the street lights in the city below interfering with my view at all. They were still out. And here in the dark, they were gorgeous.
Once again, I kept driving. I suppose I could have pulled over, but I’d already decided I was going all the way to the parking lot. When I finally reached it, parked and turned off my truck’s lights, I was glad I did.
The sky was inky black up there on the side of that mountain, just a dark curtain against which the northern lights were dancing in a way I have rarely seen. I sat with my boys as we watched the lights dance up and down and across the sky in a flickering river of green, the ends trimmed by rosy pink that is hard for the human eye to see. They dance in front of our car, around the side, and we sat watching them. I don’t know how long we were there. I only know it was incredible, an experience I don’t believe I’ll ever forget.
As the sunlight started to lighten the sky around the mountains, I decided we’d gotten what we came for and we could head back down the mountain. As we did, I felt exhilarated, but so, so satisfied. I had wondered if the risk was worth it, if I should settle instead of doing something out of my ordinary, and in the end, I didn’t regret the risk at all.
I’ve learned a lot from my home, from taking in God’s creation all around me and trying to learn more about Him from it. I’ve also learned a lot from watching the northern lights over the past year and a half I’ve been back in my favorite state. I love how God makes them. And I love how He can teach me things through my enjoyment of them.
Sarah Varland lives in Alaska with her husband John, their two boys and their dogs. When she’s not writing, she’s often found, reading, baking, kayaking or hiking.
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