Honoring your Dreams

Honoring your Dreams

        Much of my life I have wandered beyond a trail. Remote wilderness was so important to us, that our family made it a priority. Now in our mid-sixties, we still spend much each year walking Arctic mountains. Although we create books and film, it is not our reason for going. Often we are asked how we “manage to get away.” It’s the wrong question, and will not get you where you want to go. Once you take your dreams seriously—the means will come. Your focus must be on joy. Ask your heart what draws it.

        To most people, freedom has become a vague notion. From childhood, we learn to put our dreams aside and attend to the work of living. Mostly, this contributes little. As consolation, we are allotted “vacations.” Believing in limited options, we accept a diminished life and perpetrate it on our children. We think we must “earn” our place on this planet, yet every child understands that joy is our highest expression and enthusiasm our greatest Gift.

        I am fortunate that my mother taught me to honor my dreams. Connie Helmericks was a wild spirit who yearned for adventure in an era of obedient women. In 1941, when she was twenty-three, she persuaded her husband to leave Arizona for the Alaskan wilds. Her successful books and their documentaries came later. This is an important key: the act of choosing aliveness over security opens unanticipated doors. That isn’t to say that life beyond the fence is easy, but it is exhilarating.

        My love for nature germinated in early childhood while trekking Arctic vastness with my parents. Later, my mother again had the courage to choose freedom over an unhappy marriage. Giving up fame and fortune, she returned to Arizona to raise her two small girls. Despite five bestselling books, she was only an impoverished divorcee in the culture of 1953. Nevertheless, in a tiny rental, our mother fed us on her dreams. I remember napping through the summer heat to the sound of her typing hundreds of letters as she sought sponsors for another adventure.

        Despite her struggles with money, my mother continued to knock on improbable doors. Though she never climbed out of poverty, she secured an advance on her seventh book. I was fourteen and my sister twelve when the three of us started across Canada by canoe, a journey to the Arctic Ocean that spanned two summers and three thousand miles. Her book, Down the Wild River North was not a major seller, though it has become a classic. I was seventeen when we spent a year circumnavigating outback Australia on dirt tracks. While Connie wrote her eighth book, I entered the University of Arizona. I had only completed two years of high school, but had already learned that responsibility, ethics, and thinking beyond a script are keys to an authentic life.

        I was headed for medical school when the memory of Arctic mountains pulled me back to Alaska’s Brooks Range. During the summer of 1972, a friend and I paddled down the mighty Yukon River and pulled our ladened canoe up a tributary. Autumn found us building a cabin near tree line as snow crept down the peaks. We would spend four years there, eating moose and crafting what we needed from the land. There were no roads north of the Yukon then, and only a few people scattered across an expanse larger than Texas. We were isolated with no link to the outside world, and our youthful adventures could well have ended in misery or death. Yet, I have watched my more cautious friends die without daring to dream. Life holds no guarantees. It changes and washes away beneath the most careful of feet. The Gift behind this stark fact is a poignant and shining beauty in every moment: there are NO ordinary days. To waste time is to waste your Life.

        Eventually, I returned to Arizona, where I met and married Tom Irons. He was a practical man who also believed in dreams. It takes both—for there is little to be gained in throwing one’s life away. Tom had left a good job in aerospace to build a rustic home on five natural acres in the Tucson Mountains. Using his own hands and salvaged materials, he constructed Aspen-Irons art glass studio. For two decades we designed and built large, architectural projects in leaded, stained, beveled and etched glass. Our desert life had little security. It was simple and close to the land, yet we were happier than friends who had “more.”

        Our son, Lucas, was a year old when we spent our first summer in Arctic wilderness. He was four as we paddled out of the Brooks Range, past my old cabin on a six-week journey. Around our evening fires, Tom and I spoke of returning to build a cabin of our own. It took us two years to prepare. Having little money, we made most of our equipment. We invited a young woman to join us, and in June 1992 we four were flown into the wilds and left beside the river. We had only the brief summer to create a shelter before Arctic winter locked down the land, yet the hard work of building a log cabin was joyful. We lived there until breakup opened the river the following spring. Reluctant even then to leave, we explored deeper into the nameless mountains before loading our canoe for the month-long trip back to civilization. Throughout our sojourn in this beautiful solitude, we candidly filmed our lives, but it would take us another two decades to produce the documentary, Arctic Son: Fulfilling the Dream. For more on our wilderness life, see

        Our family returned to the Arctic repeatedly over the years, including another fourteen months when Lucas was a young teen. This wild freedom was pivotal in his becoming a strong and complex young man. Living harmoniously with nature is a process of discovery. “What do you do?” people ask. The answer lies beyond “doing.” We open our hearts to the vast space within and without—silence that waits below the frenetic pace of human busyness. We explore, play, and express in creative ways. Our structures are small, whimsical, and biodegradable. We leave no garbage or careless mark. By entering wilderness with humility, we are accepted by wildlife and invited into their complex world. Year by year, we watch the trees grow. Living is its own purpose. It is enough.

        For more than three decades, Tom and I have enacted our dreams. We have also walked through shadows, for in 2012 we lost our beloved Son—though not to wilderness. Helen Keller said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” I am grateful we that shared our dreams with Lucas and did not put them off. He was always central to our lives. Instead of owning things, our family went out to the woods to play. What greater gift could we have given him and ourselves? Last summer in our sacred space, Tom and I explored our grief in personal ceremony, finding healing and renewed purpose in the grace of wild community.

        Each person has a unique journey, beyond any map. We are born with a sacred longing for Mystery and beauty. Following personal vision is never easy, but it is the purpose in living. Enthusiasm—rather than money or status—are its signposts. Experts (while useful) are not gatekeepers, and money is only a tool. For those drawn to nature, a set of boots and an open heart will start you on the way. A bicycle, the urge to quit your job, an open road, a vacant lot, art, movement, sweet music on the wind: these can open magical doorways. It is up to us to step through. Perhaps you long to teach children; invite them—they will come. You need no license, paycheck, or state sanction. Your dream of growing food could be as close as plowing up the lawn. Possibility opens to those with courage to act on their dreams. Heed your heart, for it is a flawless compass. Then use your head to plot the course, and look for the whimsy which brings your heart’s desire in a form you may not recognize.

        Though your life may appear fenced, your dreams whisper otherwise. You are a worthy Child of the Universe, and this planet is your rightful home. Each of us has but a brief tenure; certainly, no corporation owns the Earth or takes precedence over the human Spirit. Be not dismayed by their rules. Institutions have misused our trust and degraded our planet. Even the Brooks Range is now threatened. It is time we take back our power; we can craft a new cultural mythology where joy and unity are valued and the use of our natural world is carefully weighed against the future.

        Each of us changes the world by daily choices. We cannot wait for someone else to save it or to bring joy into our lives. I would council today’s young ones: “Have the courage to step beyond straight lines and live your Life as if it matters. It does. Freedom is your birthright.” Those are good to live by, for they are the natural order. If you wait for permission or the right circumstances to follow your dreams, you will miss your chance. Go outside and play.

Creative Dreaming:

Follow your heart. There’s a little child locked inside who remembers your dreams—even when you don’t. Then plan with your grownup brain.

Believe in yourself. This is your Gift. You aren’t doing it to show off, and don’t need to justify it.

Do your homework. Starving in the wilderness isn’t fun.

Remain flexible. Life rarely fits your pictures. Move like a fox over thin ice—stepping into opportunities or retreating. It is a dance that wavers through the forest.

Communicate with your spouse: Do you share this dream? Can you support one another following different paths, or do you need to walk alone? Yes, dreams are that important.

Create community. It’s more fun playing together.

Teach the children well: encourage and support young people in seeking their dreams (which, incidentally, may not be yours).

Go forth with humility and grace. Be generous and kind. Treat the Earth as your mother, not your possession.

Joy is your responsibility, not a result of events. If you find fault, you will be unhappy. Therefore, be grateful, even for hardships, and you will find gifts everywhere.

                Jean Aspen

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