I said Part 1 of this two-part post was going to focus on the good, and yet all I did was talk about nearly dying from hypothermia in the Smoky Mountains; failing at mountaineering in the Grand Tetons; and risking life and lungs in the New River Gorge. I’m getting there, though. The experience I’m about to relate also took place on a mountainside, only this time, it involved Alex, my oldest daughter.
If you’ve watched the Corona video, you probably noticed the incredible scenery that Corona and I routinely traversed during her lifetime:
One of my favorite pastimes in the world is hiking, and Western Washington offers endless opportunities to visit remote mountain meadows, glacial-fed lakes, and vast snow fields. Sometimes I think I must have been a dog in my last life, given how much I enjoy the type of outdoor activities the average dog does. Part of the reason I wanted to settle here was to raise children who would share my love of the outdoors. And sure enough, from the first couple of weeks she was born, I have packed Alex along on my assorted Pacific Northwestern adventures.
I know I’m saying “me” and “I” a lot, and not “we.” There’s a reason for that. Kris’s rheumatoid arthritis was diagnosed in 2006, and while she was able to bike and swim up until her pregnancy with the twins (2013), running and hiking fell by the wayside a little earlier. And honestly, hiking was always more my thing than Kris’s. Back in Massachusetts, as a college coach of two or three sports (depending on the year), she worked pretty much every Saturday during the academic year. I took to loading Corona in my truck and driving around New England exploring assorted trails. From the Appalachian Trail in Vermont and the wilds of Mount Greylock to the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail and the Holyoke Range just down the road from our house in Western Massachusetts, I went hiking or snowshoeing on my own with Corona most weekends, and trail running most mornings. When we moved here, Kris became a gym manager, which meant a lot of weekend hours and events. The routine I’d developed with Corona stuck, only now we were exploring trails in the Cascade Mountains.
By the time Alex came along, Corona was ten and beginning to slow down. My early explorations with Alex were local—woods and parks within an hour of our house, mostly. But in the back of my mind, I was planning on bigger hikes sooner rather than later. Then the twins joined the family, Kris’s arthritis worsened, and Corona and Maggie officially reached elderly dog status all pretty much at the same time. Until very recently, our household has been narrowly focused on day-to-day survival, with bodily needs (mostly those of others) occupying the forefront of my mind when I’m not at work—sleeping, eating, bathing, dressing, diapers, and potty training. There hasn’t been much room for anything else, not even exercise (or blogging, obviously). The only travel we’ve done has been local—Portland, Vancouver, the Olympic Peninsula, and the San Juan Islands. In our old life, we flew pretty regularly to different parts of the country or even the world. But in our new life where many days seem to bring some sort of crisis, real or imagined, we are home-bound in a way I’ve never experienced.
One of the challenges in a marriage where one partner is struggling with a chronic disease is learning how to balance needs. Kris used to run more than I did. We played indoor soccer together in Massachusetts and the early days in Washington, and we went running together until both of our bodies made it known that we damn well better not try to run the way we had throughout our twenties and thirties. But in the last couple of months since our new rescue dog, Leila, came to live with us, I’ve been running or hiking with her almost every morning, and I’m getting fit again. The same isn’t true for Kris; we don’t know at this point if it ever will be. So we’re trying to figure out how our new life is going to work—the one where I’m able to hike and run and so are our kids, but she isn’t.
With old dogs and tiny children, I went years without venturing into the mountains for a real hike. A couple of times I bundled Alex up and took her up to Mt. Baker with Corona, but she was too little to do much but pick up rocks:
This year, though, she was finally big enough to go a couple of miles, possibly more. With that in mind, I was determined to take advantage of the brief mountain hiking season. August was going to be my month for exploring, since it’s the perfect time to hike the Cascades and, besides, I have it off each year. But then Maggie got sick in July and died, and I didn’t have the heart, frankly, to do much of anything. Besides, this August we needed to transition the twins into toddler beds and Alex into a twin bed, and probably due in part to the lack of sleep that process engendered I got sick for the last two weeks of the month.
September rolled around and I still hadn’t gone for a hike. Then one Saturday I woke up to bright sunshine and thought, “This is it. This may be my only chance.”
Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m not known for my filter. Or any degree of subtlety. So as I rose that morning, instead of discussing my longstanding feelings of cabin fever with Kris, I simply announced, “I’m taking Alex to Skyline Divide today, and that’s final.”
Kris wasn’t thrilled with the idea (or it’s possible it was my delivery that caused her reluctance), but her father was visiting and my parents live in the area now, so for the first time ever I didn’t feel guilty about leaving her and the twins behind. Alex was thrilled at the idea of spending an entire day in the mountains, just the two of us, which made me even more determined to seize the day. I knew it was hard for Kris to watch us bustling around getting ready to take off on an adventure she couldn’t begin to share, but she swallowed her disappointment and made Alex’s lunch while I rushed around collecting hiking gear.
Soon Alex, Leila, and I were in my car on our way to the mountains. I was so excited. For the first time since Maggie’s diagnosis, I felt a glimmer of happiness sparking inside. Alex’s happiness was obvious and contagious, and we talked and sang as we drove through the late summer sunshine.
Before setting out on the Forest Service road that would lead us to the trail head, we stopped at the Glacier Public Service Center. Skyline Divide would be crowded, a ranger told us, but the dirt road should be fine as long as we took it slow. Reassured, I buckled Alex back into her booster seat and set off for nearby Forest Service road #39.
The lower part of the road was fine—a few potholes, but nothing major. We made good time and continued our cheerful conversation as we went. But then, about four miles in, the road began to switchback up a mountainside, and that’s when the fear set in. I hadn’t driven the road since 2009. And, more to the point, not since I became a parent. As the angle of the climb increased, so did the number of ruts. The drop at the edge of the road grew increasingly intense—without any sort of rail or natural barrier, one wrong move would send the car off into space. Two thousand feet of space, to be precise. I drove slowly, barely breathing as I fixated on the fact that the mechanic who had fixed an erroneous engine light a few weeks earlier on my Escape had commented on my soft brakes.
“You really should get those fixed,” he’d said.
“I will,” I’d replied. And I’d meant to. I just hadn’t found the time yet.
I mentioned I’m not good with water. The other thing I’m terrified of? Heights. Add together bad brakes, a difficult road, and the precipitous drop at the road’s edge, and I was almost hyperventilating as I drove us slowly up the mountainside.
And then, nine miles in, I turned a curve and hit a washboard stretch that sent my car nearly sideways on the narrow road. For once we weren’t near a major drop, given the switchback curve we’d just completed, but I knew we would be soon. Suddenly all I could think was how we would still have to come back down this road later, if by some miracle we actually made it to the top.
Why was I risking our lives, again? The view from the top was amazing, but so were plenty of other places in the area that didn’t require ascending a long, dangerous road. Why had I insisted on bringing Alex and Leila with me to a hike I hadn’t done in years? What was I trying to prove? Why couldn’t I just accept that the mountain traversing part of my life might be over, or at least temporarily on hold?
I let the car drift to a crawl and looked at Alex in the rear view mirror. “Hey, bud,” I said, “the road is getting really bad and we still have four more miles to go. I don’t know if we’re going to make it to the trail, sweetie.”
“No, Mimi,” she said immediately. “We’re almost there. We can’t turn around now.”
“But kiddo, I’m not sure this is such a good idea. This road is really dangerous.”
“Just go slow,” she said reasonably. “The ranger said it would be okay if you just go slow. We can’t turn around, Mimi. I really, really want to go hiking.” As I wavered, she moved in for the kill. “It’ll be okay. Pleeease?”
“Oh, all right,” I said, and drove on, my knuckles white.
And she was right. We went slowly, and we were okay. The trail head was packed, and we had to create a parking spot for ourselves just past the trail head. But we had made it. For now, everything was good.
At the trail head, we shouldered our packs and started hiking. The trail, like the road, was steeper than I’d remembered. Within a half mile, Alex was ready to turn around and head home. So I slung both of our backpacks across my front and carried her on my back for a tenth of a mile or so at a time. It took us two hours to go two miles, but in the end we made it. And as we walked out of the trees and onto the ridge, I knew why I had brought Alex to Skyline Divide. The view was incredible, but so was the sense of accomplishment at hiking on our own feet up to what felt like the top of the world. We had struggled and stretched ourselves out of our individual and mutual comfort zones, and here we were about to take a snack break with Mt. Baker, Mt. Shuksan, and the Twin Sister mountains to keep us company. We had done it, and the pride I felt both for my daughter and myself at achieving the literally lofty goal I’d set for us even before she was born made me feel like I was floating.
“I’m so proud of you,” I kept telling her as we hung out on the ridge, as we hiked back down, as we drove down the road that wasn’t, as it turned out, nearly as scary it had seemed on the way up. “I’m so proud of you, and I love sharing this with you. This is the best hike ever.”
There’s a lesson here, of course. Fearful situations are everywhere, particularly when we open ourselves to love. If we let it, fear can keep us from experiencing great highs—and great lows, too. Sometimes all we need is a little push to keep going even when the brakes are soft and the road is bad and there’s a precipitous cliff waiting to swallow us up. Or, say, a hole in a river that can suck someone under and spit them out TWO MILES downstream. (Clearly, I’m still not over that one.)
John Muir said it much more eloquently (and, just maybe, more subtly): “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. [P]etty discomforts… are quickly forgotten, while all that is precious remains. Fears vanish as soon as one is fairly free in the wilderness.”
And from the same work: “As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but Nature’s sources never fail.” Amen.
I’ll leave you with a video compilation of one of my top five days ever. And given that watching the 2015 World Cup final match live in Vancouver is another one of my top five days, you know I’m serious.
Thank you, Alex, for not being afraid.