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  • Mya Guarnieri

Why Did I Spend My Last Birthday Alone in Alaska? Ask My Astrologer.

Some people believe that where you are during your “solar return”, an annual event linked to the sun, can change your destiny. For one writer, it was worth a try. By Mya Guarnieri

Illustration by Ben Konkol

I’m deep in an Alaskan forest halfway through an 8K race when I find myself alone. Above me, 30-metre spruces bend and bellow, set upon by wind so loud I mistake it for an aeroplane. Below me, a slushy, icy mess of a trail.

Ahead of me — no-one.

It’s a drizzly late-autumn morning. My clothes are wet with rain and my fingers and toes hurt from the cold. I look down at my black running shoes, willing them to move faster. They don’t.

I can no longer see the two women I followed for the first half of the run, and I imagine the gap widening. Then I picture myself on a map: a speck some 6,400 kilometres away from my home in Florida. I see my seven-year-old daughter’s chubby cheeks and dirty blonde curls, my five-year-old son with his thumb in his mouth.

“I’m going to die here, alone,” I think. In the past, I never had thoughts like this. I was all swagger: back when I lived in Jerusalem, I ran on isolated trails in the forest almost every afternoon. But since filing for divorce in August, I’ve become fearful of being alone. And being in Alaska — with its vastness, the way it dangles, lonely, at the edge of the continent — has only magnified those feelings.

I try to catch up with the women, but I’m tapped out, No. 12 in a field of a dozen. I worry: What if everyone finishes and goes home? I don’t have my phone; there will be no way for me to call for help.

And then I ask myself: Why did I come all the way to Alaska on the advice of a total stranger, to chase something I’m not even sure I believe in — an astrological event called a solar return?

Tilting the Stars in Your Favour

A solar return takes place at the moment when the sun returns to exactly the same location in the sky where it was at the time of your birth, explained Julia Mihas, a San Francisco-based astrologer. This usually takes place every year on or near your birthday.

The thinking behind solar return trips is that just as the place where you’re born has an impact on your birth chart — which supposedly reveals major themes in your life story — so can the place where you spend your solar return affect the year ahead. In essence, an astrologer, using your yearly chart, searches for the place where the stars will be most auspicious at the moment of your solar return, and then you travel to that location. It’s like hacking your horoscope.

These trips, known as aimed solar returns, or ASRs, are central to an approach called active astrology, which holds that you can intervene in your fate.

Let me confess that I’m a little woo-woo. I recently bought a small piece of Libyan desert glass — which is supposed to work with chakras or vibrations or whatever — and hung it over my desk. But solar return trips — which I’d heard about from a friend — seemed out there; I considered one only after my marriage fell apart. That friend connected me to Katia Novikova, a Ukrainian astrologer who lives in Rome.

When Novikova, a pianist by training, took up astrology in 1995, she immediately began searching for a way to exercise control over the stars. A few years later, she discovered active astrology. Novikova’s first foray into solar return trips came in 2011, after she did her chart for the year ahead and foresaw her own death. She recalled with a laugh how she used a combination of software and her extensive knowledge of astrology to find a solar return destination — Barcelona — where her stars offered a better outcome: “Instead of dying, I changed it for health, for art and for money. It was simple.”

The trip was also easy — an inexpensive flight from Rome.

Upon returning, Novikova landed a regular gig as a pianist, and requests for private lessons poured in as well. So not only did Novikova continue doing ASRs, she also offered free readings to friends. When word spread and strangers began enquiring about readings, Novikova started charging.

Braving Tornadoes & Tumbleweeds

One of those strangers who found Novikova is television writer Safia M. Dirie. On Novikova’s advice, Dirie, who lives in Los Angeles, made her first solar return trip in 2016 to the Cook Islands, looking to change her luck in love. Less than a year later, she met the man who is now her husband.

The next year, Novikova sent Dirie to a tiny town called Swink, population 667, on the southeastern plains of Colorado. Because there were no hotels in Swink and her solar return was taking place in the middle of the night, Dirie and a friend white-knuckled it from Colorado Springs, a couple of hours away. In the dark, amid a tornado warning, tumbleweeds kept rolling out in front of the car and she kept slamming on the brakes, thinking they were deer.

When Dirie and her friend arrived in Swink, they found it pitch black, the power knocked out by the storm. They parked in front of a random house until her 2.08am solar return passed. Then the two “went over to the next town and got a piece of pie at an all-night diner”.

Dirie, who likened her own solar return trips to pilgrimages, said that ASRs are “pretty popular” in her Los Angeles circle, but solar return trips aren’t a national travel trend, according to the half-dozen travel advisors I spoke with.

A Daunting Destination

Like a travel advisor, Novikova tries to understand what motivates a client. After I contacted her via email — just a month after I’d filed for divorce — and paid 100 euros (about $163), she had me answer questions about my hopes for the coming year. Then she did her magic and we got on a WhatsApp video chat to discuss the results.

Novikova started with the chart for my previous birthday. “Miserable,” she said. It was all there — the rise in expenses, the unwanted move to a cramped apartment, the endless arguments with my husband My forecast for 2023 would be best, Novikova said, if I went to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, at 5.12am local time on November 13. I Googled the place: beautiful but remote; the logistics were daunting.

Second: Juneau, Alaska. My stomach turned. Far away. Cold. A dark, foreboding landscape that could swallow me up. There’s the Alaska triangle, a vast area of wilderness bounded by the cities of Juneau, Anchorage and Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), where many people have gone missing. The state is also surprisingly dangerous, with one of the highest violent crime rates in the US.

No, thanks.

Third place: Brazil. Yes! Sun, beaches, great food. But Novikova frowned. “There are some things I don’t like in this horoscope,” she said. And that was that.

We settled on Juneau, and Novikova gave me a detailed forecast for the year based on that destination. Not only would I look good physically, I’d have more professional visibility. I’d have luck selling my new book. Novikova said she saw an editor and a university. Oh, and love. A dream job, too.

Downtown Juneau. Photography by Darryl Brooks/Shutterstock

Finding a New Comfort Zone

Because it was off-season in Alaska, I found a round-trip ticket from Palm Beach to Juneau for under $750 and a reasonable rate — $150 a night — for a room at the historic Alaskan Hotel, which is reportedly haunted. If I’m dabbling in the woo-woo, I figured, I might as well go all out.

Then I looked for a run, a great way to get a workout and a different view of a place from that of most tourists. I was in luck — the Juneau Trail and Road Runners’ Veterans Day 8K would take place the day before my solar return.

Arriving in downtown Juneau a few days early, I worked remotely and explored what little was open off-season. At the Rookery Cafe, I enjoyed spiced avocado toast, and at the Alaska Native-owned Sacred Grounds Café, I had a delicious but stomach-ache-inducing reindeer sausage. I found excellent beer and phenomenal charred carrot hummus at Devil’s Club Brewing Company. And Amalga Distillery offered spruce tip gin and a smooth, sippable whisky.

I settled into a routine — working, running, eating — and two days in, I didn’t need Google maps anymore.

The Man on the track

On the day of the race, I took a bus to a carpark 16 kilometres outside town. As a small group of runners gathered, I asked two women if they minded me tagging along. But they were younger, leaner and fitter and they were dressed appropriately — one had snow grips attached to her shoes — and I lost the women midway through the run.

Alone in the woods, despairing, I heard someone push through the trees and step onto the track.

Before me was a man I didn’t recognise. He was dressed like a runner, but I didn’t see the yellow bib all the racers wore. He fell into step beside me, explaining that he had stopped to go to the toilet and decided to wait for me.

Before, I was scared to be out here alone; now, I was frightened by this stranger’s sudden appearance. Trying to push my fear aside, I made small talk.

We arrived at a fork in the snowy track and, because the race was so informal, not all of the course was marked. Both directions were equally covered with slushy footprints and, without anything or anyone to guide us, we puzzled over which way to go.

“Right,” he said.

“Are you sure?” I asked, worried that he was trying to lead me deeper into the woods.

But separating would have been equally dangerous, so I followed him. And then, suddenly, we were on the shoulder of Glacier Highway, and I was striding towards the finish line as best as I could with numb toes.

“There they are!” exclaimed the other runners; they cheered us on as the man and I pushed to the end. Not only had they not forgotten about me, they were waiting. A single thought spooled through my head — I am not alone in this world — and I choked back tears of gratitude.

That night, at 4am, I woke up — sans alarm — just a few minutes ahead of my solar return. Lying there in the dark, I listened for, then heard, the raven’s call, which I’d grown to love while in Juneau.

I looked at the phone again and the time had passed. My solar return was over.

© The New York Times

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eighth edition, Page 158 of Winning Magazine. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.


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