beloved on the earth
Backpacking is very serious. You must march.
Family meet up back at camp.
Elmer Fudd’s apprentice. The things that get introduced when Mama’s away! Col’s a crack shot on the BB gun, however. There is talk of pigeon feasts.
She left her bean bag bed and toy guard dog there for the fairies. Bless her mind.
I’m back from my solo backpacking trip with profound revelations and newfound plans to drop out of the techno-consumer culture and live in a ponderosa shack in the woods. Bye!
Actually, despite the exotic luxury of uninterrupted thoughts, for most of the trip my mind was the stage on which the competition for “most annoying song to get stuck on repeat” played out. (I know a weenie man, he owns a weenie stand…Thanks, Camp Kee Tov, circa 1988!).
Mostly, I just walked. I walked from 6,512 feet to 10,400 feet over 3 days. I walked from the hot, dry ponderosa-oak zone up into the cool, dank spruce-fir zone. I walked along creeks, over a thick plug of snow damming up a steep north-facing drainage, across skittery-rock talus fields, and through such newly thawed ground that nothing green had yet speared up through last fall’s layer of aspen leaves plastered to the earth. I walked off some of my own modern tics, like the compulsion to share/text/post random daily minutia (“just saw god in a wild iris!”), or to Google the answer to every question that flits through my mind (“where does Weenie Man song come from?”).
My pack sang “squinch squeech squinch squeech” on my back. I greeted friends like a large, noun-limited toddler: Hummingbird! Red columbine! Pine squirrel! Bear poop! I checked my map frequently and held small parties when I actually knew where I was. I ate bacon strips dipped in chimmichurri and layered with pea sprouts. I plucked trailside wildflowers, popping them in my mouth, raw, like caviar (violets, glacier lilies, sweet cicely, all the mustards, wild onion, columbine nectar). I met two young men hiking the whole Colorado Trail from Durango to Denver; we hugged upon saying goodbye (We need a scholarship fund for long-distance hikers, because you could learn at least as much hiking through wilderness as in a semester in college). I finished two books (this book is a gift to humanity, and this one was simply lovely). I cried when I read all my birthday cards, and then again when I read this poem by Raymond Carver:
And did you get what
You wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.
The hardest part was stopping for the day, facing the long empty unspooling hours of evening. The mind wants to be busy! I tended a tiny hobo fire. The wind shook the aspens. I flicked large shiny black ants off my legs and ate spicy re-hydrated bean soup. The sun slipped another small notch to the west. I wondered if I’d feel scared when the sun did set. (I didn’t).
Mornings were like waking up in the 5-star hotel: bird-song and freedom. No children to feed, no chickens to let out, no carrot seeds to water, no letters to the editor in the local paper to fume over, no existential path-choices to angst about, no identity to uphold. Upon waking, I’d promptly go back to sleep. I’d promptly go back to sleep. I just had to write that again because I didn’t even know my Mama-body could do that. The sun crept up meadows and over fallen trees and I’d doze a little, read a little and finally shimmy out of my sleeping bag to sit by a fire and sip tea.
Everything became very simple, very ordinary. After dinner, I’d fold up my stove and pop it back in its pouch. Kitchen cleaned. In the mornings, I’d get a little giddy with gratitude over finding my toothbrush, ready to perform its important service. You, again! When I found the perfect tree configuration to set up my tarp, it was like receiving a biblical sign that everything was going to be all right. The flavors of happiness began to look different, less about accomplishments and acquisitions, and more like the relief of pulling boots off at the end of the day.
On my 3rd day, I came off the trail early but not quite ready to end my hike. Dan and the kids were car-camping nearby and the plan was to meet them in the afternoon and spend the night together. I thought I’d walk just a little more before joining them, but lo and behold…two small figures running down the road towards me, arms flailing wildly.
After the Hallmark reunion, the grand spaciousness of my whole trip shrunk down to a very loud, urgent and messy place. The kids fought over my lap and ran their hands all over the smarting gnat-bites of my arms and legs while I tried not to yelp. Rose ransacked my pack, ferreting out the hippie peanut m’n’m’s she knew were there. The first ten words I spoke were reminders to Col to please be mindful about where he was kicking up dirt. All the way back to camp Col banged two water bottles together like he was trying to create sparks.
“Ohmygod, the chaos!” I exclaimed. “I haven’t experienced this much chaos in days!”
“Oh, you’ll get used to it, Mama,” Rose said brightly (like the junior zen master she is).
What did you learn, people ask me, from your solo birthday backpacking trip. I learned that our worst fears live in our imaginations, that insects do indeed comprise 75% of the world’s animals, that if we’re willing to count primroses and woodpeckers as our friends, we’re never really alone, and that something internal––often small and unnamable––always shifts from time in the woods. And that will always be enough.