My Mother and the Pacific Crest Trail

hiking, personal

In January of 2015, my mother died of stomach cancer. It took six months from her diagnosis. She spent most of it in a hospital.

A month before her diagnosis, but while we knew she was sick, we took a planned road trip for my birthday to Zion National Park. We drove through miles and miles of empty roads. We drank margaritas and ate Mexican food in Cedar City. We lounged in the pool in Springdale. We hiked through The Narrows.

“We should make a trip like this an annual tradition,” she said. We wouldn’t get a chance.

narrows-mom-and-me

My mom and me at The Narrows

I’d first been to the Narrows in high school on a field trip. It was the first time I remember doing something and actually enjoying it while I was doing it. I had a habit as a teen of living in my head. The walls of the canyons, the cool wet of the river, the struggle to stay upright on slick rocks forced me to be there, in the moment. Still, I wouldn’t hike again for years.

Six days after my mother died, my aunt and I went on a summit hike. I don’t know why that seemed like the thing to do. The weather was nice, I guess. I didn’t want to sit around the house. I’d been on maybe two hikes the year before. I wasn’t a hiker.

We didn’t make it to the top. We hadn’t eaten breakfast. We’d taken on the second highest summit in the valley. We turned around.

Still, I remember thinking: There is something out here that helps. I told myself I’d try to go on one hike a month that year.

I read the book Wild when it was published. I’d been a long follower of Cheryl Strayed’s advice column Dear Sugar and got the book on it’s first printing. I devoured it. I didn’t think I’d ever do something as crazy as the PCT. I wasn’t athletic, I didn’t especially enjoy being outside, I didn’t see the value in putting yourself through so much suffering, and it seemed impractical to up and leave one’s life for several months. But I thought maybe someday I’d go on a backpacking trip. That would be adventure enough for me.

I passed the book to my mom. I often gave my mother books that I’d screened – she didn’t like it when books had sad endings. I wish I could remember what she thought of it. I know she liked it. I wondered if the book had made her think about what it was like to lose her own mother some ten years before. I remember being grateful that I loved my mom so much, that she was healthy, that I would have her for a long, long time. She wasn’t afraid of getting older. She liked to say she planned to live to be 120.

A year before the book Wild was published, my mother had emergency surgery for a burst ulcer. It was scary, dangerous, but they’d caught it. When I saw her after she came out of the hospital, she was weak, frail, thin in a way I’d never seen her, and it scared me. But I also thought: Of course you didn’t die. The universe would never take you from me. I wouldn’t let it.

More weeks passed after my mother’s death. In February I took three days and went north and stayed in a cabin my myself. I read. I made campfires. I went on a short hike to Tonto Natural Bridge, climbing over boulders along a creek. I stopped under the massive travertine walkway and watched other hikers trickle in through the morning and wrote in my journal.

I went home. I got a tattoo, a hummingbird, tied to a memory of my mother. I started painting. I read Wild again. I reread Tiny Beautiful Things. I clung to Cheryl Strayed’s writing like a bible for my grief. Backpacking. I would like to go backpacking, I thought. There was a hike I’d heard people talk about in Arizona that took you to clear blue waterfalls. Havasu Falls. Maybe I’d be a strong enough hiker by the end of the year to go there.

But then it was April, and a coworker posted on Facebook that they were going to Havasu Falls and had an extra permit.

When? I asked.

Friday, she said.

I had three days. My tattoo wasn’t finished healing. I had no backpacking gear. I’d never been on more than an eight mile day hike which had nearly destroyed me, let alone carrying weight. The trip to the falls was 10 miles in, 10 miles out.

I said yes.

havasupai

The hike was the first really hard thing I’d done since losing my mom. On the way out, I convinced myself I couldn’t do it. I was going to take a tourist helicopter out. My group passed me and said they’d see me at the top. But then the helicopter was going to take longer than I’d anticipated, almost as long as the hike itself, so instead I hiked my way out. As I climbed the 1000 feet out of the canyon, I looked back at where I’d come from. I wished my mom could see it too. I stopped in every patch of shade to cry. And then I kept walking.

It was nearly a year after Havasu before I went on my next backpacking trip. I started to warm the idea that I might do the PCT someday. Someday, when I’m stronger. Someday, when I’m more confident in nature.

I went on a few more backpacking trips. I liked the way they made me struggle. I liked the way I so often had to do the thing I didn’t think I could do.

I started reading thru-hiker’s blogs. I followed them on Instagram. I saw something I didn’t expect to see, which was that they were just like me. They had all of the same fears and pains I had. The only difference was that they had decided to go.

A year and a half after I lost my mom, I decided for sure I was going to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I’m a month away from starting at the border of Campo, CA.

Losing my mother was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to live through. A close second was the six months I spent watching her die. It doesn’t escape me that for nearly the same amount of time, I will be putting one foot in front of the other, trying to reach the Northern Terminus.

Sometimes I try to imagine whether I would be hiking this trail if my mother were alive. One answer is no. I wouldn’t have needed to. I wouldn’t have needed to see just how much I could suffer and survive if she’d lived.

Another answer is yes. She would come with me. She would make friends with every hiker and trail angel we passed. She would insist we splurge in town on good food and a comfortable bed. She would probably pack wine. She would snore. She would be slow but steady. She would make sure we called home.

Before my mother died, I’d always seen her as a completely different species to me. We got along well, but we were different. Where she was positive I was critical. Where she relaxed, I planned. Where she schemed, I played by the rules.

When she died, an image came to me without asking for it. I imagined that she had shrunk back into a fetus and implanted herself inside my literal, anatomical heart. This essence of my mother would leech out particles of vulnerability when I wanted to be closed, compassion I’d never had capacity for, love for every ounce of my fear. It was as if she’d decided: I can’t be there to help you become this person anymore. I’ll have to show you how to do it on your own.

I don’t get to know what my mother would think of me hiking from Mexico to Canada. I don’t get to know if I’ll make it to the Northern Terminus, or if my pack will be too heavy, or if I’ll wither in the sun or sink in the snow. But I hope to spend as much time as I can being the woman I believe my mother knew I could be. More brave than afraid. More free than secure. More wild and alive.

mom

Mom holding me at the Grand Canyon

Book Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

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Wild by Cheryl Strayed

I’m a big fan of the Sugar columns at TheRumpus.net, spending free time going through the archives and falling into the lull of Strayed’s words and her heartwrenching advice. When I heard about this memoir I knew I needed to have it — but I’d also promised myself that, since I had more time, I wouldn’t give in to spending money. I’d get it through the library.

The first night I got it (after weeks of waiting) I devoured about 20% (I read it on my Kindle). And then it got to the trail, really got to it, and her hours of solitude felt heavy on me and I set it down. I picked it up, got through it little pieces at a time, and thought about how difficult it is to effectively write something with only one person in the scene and keep it engaging. And then, just in time, new people joined her and the scene lightened and I found myself interested again.

That being said, as I read it, I wondered if when I got to the end I would feel disappointed. I’d expected something that would knock me out, over and over, like the Sugar columns, and instead what I got was solid, steady, a woman who was smart and interesting and stubborn but not necessarily a book that I would never let leave my fingertips. I started appreciating her craft — the Strayed/Starved necklace, the black feather, how her feet disintegrated while the rest of her body coped — and when I put down the book I knew that I had enjoyed it but wasn’t quite sure what I would say. I wasn’t sure if it was a new favorite, something I would throw at other people and say here, read this, please, you must.

But when I woke up this morning it was still rattling around inside me, and I realized that while on the surface it didn’t make me weep or make me force Mark to listen to page-long excerpts, it had buried itself deeper and made itself a home. I’m lucky enough to have never been knocked as hard as Strayed, but I could feel something, like I’d been taught a lesson I didn’t know I was learning, something about forgiveness and redemption and the way we are capable of much more than we believe. Read it when you need a book that feels like a deep breath, like a sore body after a long day, something like gratitude and triumph.