This was a trip of firsts: first time backpacking, first time in the upper reaches of the Trinity Alps, first time passing by a waterfall while being pelted by a thunderstorm, first time swimming in an alpine lake.
Under normal circumstances, a two-mile hike would have passed quickly. With a backpack weighted down with a too-heavy tent better suited for car camping, I found myself playing mental games to stave off collapse. For a while I counted every hundred steps, then allowed myself 5 seconds of rest. I counted every 25 and switched my water bottle to the other hand. I took photos of the trail every 200 steps, envisioning a post-adventure visual project, time-lapse-style, in which I could show people what hiking in looked like – but I had to abandon that dream when, two-thirds of the way in, the sky flung hail-sized raindrops at us. I called out to my friend Shaun, way ahead on the trail, to help me put my camera away.
In the midst of wincing at the pressure the backpack put on my hips, the heft of it hammering at my knee caps with each step, I thought about my friend Scott and his son Owen, 10-year-old Owen, who had just died in an ATV accident while visiting grandparents. I’d caught the news on Facebook and had to re-read the words many times before my unwilling brain would accept the fact of what it was seeing.
The outpour of love, support and grief in the comments included many variations asserting the unthinkability of such a tragedy. Unfathomable. Unimaginable. Beyond comprehension. And yet, the horrifying part is how easily it is imagined, like how one can picture falling when standing on the edge of a cliff – but the difference between toppling over and not is everything. And the truly horrifying part exists in that distinction.
This weight on my back is nothing. The clouds recede. We reach the lake.
The view overwhelms, blue sky reflected in blue lake, wildflowers in purple, yellow and white dotting the surrounding green meadow, giving way to spruce and pine that climb up red-brown walls to the blue sky the lake shimmers beneath. We rest for a moment, scout campsites. The guys determine we should move to the upper lakes. I curse them as I struggle back into my backpack. The rain returns.
We huddle under a tree. I haven’t been in warm rain since I lived in the desert, no, since visiting Taiwan, no – wait. New York in the spring of 2010. That was not warm like this, however, where the thin air dries the thin layer of clothing in minutes, even as the rain continues to fall.
Eventually the clouds move off to the next valley and we set up, eat, watch the sunset, share whiskey. I fall in love with this experience even as I struggle, oh so slightly, with being out of range. Emergency scenarios hover. I shove them to the edge of my mind and the less avoidable guilt moves in. I hope my children are okay. I wonder if making up for the mistakes I made raising them is possible – or if history exists in stone, unable to be challenged or rewritten. But no one past exists, only multiple stories, so maybe hope for a better edit isn’t undue.
I wish I’d been more patient, less angry. Not placed as much value on keeping up appearances as a reaction to poverty and the judgment of others. I would like to retroactively assure them they were always loved, always, even when, exhausted, I was losing my shit. If nothing else, I would write more harmony into the narrative, weave an unbreakable thread through their lives to spare them the worry I never meant to put them through.
What kind of mother I was, am, is an impossibly subjective exercise. I definitely yelled too much. I absolutely did not know what I was doing for much of it and only at some recent point emerged from that uncharted territory blinking into the sunlight. But I fed them along the way. Very well, even. And they were read to and exposed to beauty of many sorts. We had river days and beach days and cozy nights in front of the fire and movies. Those things I know.
The rock upon which I sit is rough through my sarong. The sun has risen over the ridge, illuminating the cirque and warming me despite the breeze.
Mike convinced me to accompany him to the top of the ridge, where the Pacific Crest Trail passes by. When I reached the top, the view resulted in a literal taking of my breath. Photographers and painters have an advantage over writers in times like these.
Back below, I walked through grasses that tickled my calves, between purple daisies, yellow and pink flowers whose names I will have to ask a botanist when I get back. Three lakes lie within the meadow and I found a spot under a spruce by the largest. Birds chirped. Leaves rustled. Rocks remained frozen mid-tumble along the steep wall of the bowl. I stretched out on my towel, legs in the sun, back in the shade and read, losing myself in my book save for the occasional ant crawling up my arm. Bees buzzed.
After a while, I shifted to a rock, situating myself in a broken part that formed a natural chair. Ripples spread across the lake. The breeze also blew in cumulus clouds, puffy white things hurrying across the sky, shadows moving over me as I sit watching.
I want to know the types of trees, flowers, birds, rocks. I wonder how different the future would be if nature was a core school experience on par with math and English. Would our treatment of the environment change and how quickly?
I’ve been cultivating more outdoors into my life, surfing again, biking, making time for the river and now this. The calm, the bigness, provides space in my brain for creativity – ideas swell. Outside is the antidote to my usual state of stress, provides the perspective helping to manage my responsibilities, reminds me who I am and who I want to be. Ants keep crawling on me and I don’t mind. I am grateful for everything.