« Return to this article

Know the West

Beauty is always bigger than the pain

A writer finds what she needs on a snowy walk through a cherished and familiar landscape.

You know those days. The heavy days. When the couch is the only friend you want to entertain. When your muscles are lead because there’s something inside you, something deeper than your marrow, something emotional or spiritual, or both, that is reminding you. Of loss.

The ache settles in the lungs, around the lungs, making your breathing shallow. The sighs are constant. And that sciatic pain that is usually a minor annoyance is flaring hot like coals.

So, you count — five, four, three, two, one — and force your body to get up from the couch to do the hardest thing imaginable. Because the hardest thing seems like the only thing that will make any sense.

You go for a walk.


I MOVED HOME to Unalakleet nine years ago. After 16 years of living, loving, building a house, raising children and chickens, renovating a different house, rooting in identity, and chopping wood in Nome, I returned home. For support. For family. For friends. And because the land and waters surrounding our community have given to us, and nurtured us, in the way that homelands do. 

But one recent winter morning in Unalakleet, sitting in another house I built, next to the fire my husband lit when he woke up and listening to pockets of steam crackle in the cast-iron wood stove, I found myself in grief. Next October, it will be 20 years since I last hugged my Mom. Since I received her cheer. Since I heard her voice, excited, telling me the Red Sox won and weren’t out of the playoffs. I missed too my Auntie Abuz, who died three years before Mom. And I missed my Auntie Zoe, who died 11 years ago. 

After a lot of years, a lot of joy and a lot of pain, I missed the women who raised me.

These women supported me. These women cheered me on when I did well. “Wow, Babe,” I can hear Zoe say. “So champ.” It felt like the pride and the joy inside of me were validated. And I’d let my body and brain sing, knowing my auntie was behind me. Beside me. This was the love they gave. 

Women need women. Feeling that need, I got up and went outside. 

It felt like the pride and the joy inside of me were validated. And I’d let my body and brain sing, knowing my auntie was behind me.

WALKING UPHILL on the dirt road to get to the snow-dusted four-wheeler trail at the top, I started my 23-minute every day walk. The birch and aspen trees were bare of leaves and the dark brown fireweed stalks had lost all of their seed. A few dark brown alder leaves clung on to branches, but all the plant friends were asleep. My AirPods were in, and I listened to an audiobook, hoping that something about the author’s words would catalyze new thoughts that would somehow magically rise above the grief that lived in my body. The book was about breaking through limiting behavior. So, of course with grief feeling like a 35-liter backpack full of mud on my back, two minutes into my walk, I found myself ignoring the author’s voice. Instead, a prayer spoke from inside me. 

How do we get past this pain? How do we rise above it? 

The overcast clouds added to my burden. Heavy. I felt the sting of the cold on my cheeks. Praying, still. How do we rise above this pain? I plucked the AirPods from my ears. To hear the redpolls and chickadees. To silence myself, to find the voice of knowing. The God inside, whom I always seem to hear during my walks up the hill behind our house.

Once on the trail, I quickly reached the top and lifted my chin. To the south I saw the Unalakleet River Valley, the hills on the other side of the river looking on like curious, kind elders at church. The ones who have a smile in their eyes and make you feel secure. The ones who give you gum. Looking at the valley that stretches far to the east, to the Whaleback Mountains that tell me I’m home, I took a long, deep breath, feeling the cold travel through my throat and into my lungs. I breathed out, slow and long. Following the river flowing to its mouth where Unalakleet sits, the southern coast greeted me, reminding me of spring picnics on volcanic rocks with my family. Of the time my niece and daughter butchered a seal together. Where land meets ocean, I again felt that elder kindness from the beach line. Fondness, even. Amid the heaviness, I heard the voice.

Snow collects on a birch tree in Western Alaska.

Beauty is always bigger than the pain, the voice said. God said. My inner knowing said. Something said. Beauty is always bigger than the pain, the voice said again.

I followed the coast with my eyes, to the sandy beach that we four-wheel with my brother and his wife, Yanni, with Dad and his wife, Heidi, where we pick aqpiit, or cloudberries. The coast where we cross creeks and stop for picnics, sitting on white spruce driftwood logs, eating dried ugruk meat from vacuum-sealed bags, sandwiches Heidi brings, and tea. Always tea. I followed the edge all the way to Tolstoi, a tiny peninsula of volcanic rock topped with tundra, where we hunt for seals in the spring. From Tolstoi, my eyes followed the overcast clouds that now, with the wide this-is-the-middle-of-my-world view, seemed friendly. Although they covered the tops of the hills to the south, the valley looked peaceful. Welcoming. The clouds led me to acknowledge South River, with black spruce lining its banks all the way to the southern hills. I have not traveled in that area, but I pictured snow-machining up that small valley and into the hills that feed the river. I let myself wonder at a place I’d always seen, but never visited. 


I noticed the willows to my right, gleaming with a hint of frost. The light shining over and kissing the ocean, yellow and gold, warm and welcoming. I walked downhill, back toward the house, the well-trodden trail open and free of trees, snow crunching underneath my boots. I saw Nuthlook, the long hill that welcomes you to the Unalakleet River and all she gives after you boat past the tundra flats. I saw the clean, quiet whiteness of winter. The snow and cold telling me to rest. To stay warm. To take care. The life, light and simple beauty of our home. And I said it to myself, from my belly, knowing: Beauty is always bigger than the pain. And along with the grief I still carried, there was a glimmer of joy. In my belly. And a lightness in my lungs and load. 

Where land meets ocean, I again felt that elder kindness from the beach line. Fondness, even.

I still miss them. My body will remind me, often at the most inconvenient time, of the love that was shared and the nothing that seems to sit where the love once filled our homes. And, somehow, during my walks up the hill and back to the house, I’ll remember. Their beauty. Their lives. Their love. That is always bigger than the pain. 

My aunties and my Mom walk beside me still. While I cannot hear their voices or physically feel their reassuring hugs or dial their phone numbers for a quick call, when I need to, I imagine them with me. And imagining them next to me is just as real as seeing Tolstoi to the south. Nuthlook greeting us to the river, and the frost holding light on the leaves.    

Laureli Ivanoff is an Inupiaq writer and journalist based in Uŋalaqłiq (Unalakleet), on the west coast of what’s now called Alaska. Her column “The Seasons of Uŋalaqłiq” explores the seasonality of living in direct relationship with the land, water, plants and animals in and around Uŋalaqłiq. 

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.