A long, sad, happy, short, muddled up trip, including Mama
My version of a selfie.
Backpacking must be the original video game: first, shoulder everything you’ll need for next few days on your back (discover just in time that you remembered the goat cheese but forgot a jacket), next, feel a little choked up saying goodbye to family (helps that 8-yr old daughter is nattering on cheerfully about shoes…What if your shoes get muddy, Mama? I would have brought my boots, sandals, flip flops, sneakers….), then, ford knee-deep snow on forest service road (while discovering fairly large rip in old, substandard hiking boots), arrive at trailhead with equal parts excitement/apprehension, descend 2000 feet in 2 miles (the 40 + #@*% yr old knees!), fend off mosquitos, shiver under mountain wind, swelter under mountain sun, arrive here:
All the fear I felt before this solo trip was actually the fear of getting out there and having to deal with feeling fear in real time. Does that make sense? I truly am not scared of wild animals, nor human predators (who would do better than seek prey 7 miles from a road), but of having to feel the fear or loneliness or boredom that might arise. (Which is highly human and slightly neurotic and decidedly not a good enough reason to stay home).
Mostly, I felt acutely the infinite blessings of my own ordinary life. Everything came into focus, which is to say, I felt blessed to be alive walking on the earth, smelling elk musk on the wind, spying big cat poop on the trail, popping glacier lilies in my mouth like caviar. I felt perfectly alone, but never lonely. When a mixed flock of chipping sparrows and siskins were whipped up by the wind, filling an aspen tree like chittering leaves, I felt surrounded by friends. (I may have even began talking to them).
Beloved calypso bulbosa (fairy slipper) orchid.
Ladies in the meadow.
I did feel the tiniest bit apprehensive arriving at camp. Camp, being simply the cluster of trees from which I would string my tarp and spend the night. The night! And then I made a small hobo fire, cooked a pot of rice and beans, set up my tarp for maximum rain protection, and felt like I was home.
I could smell the musky scent of elk from the forest above me, saw the nibbled down grass stems around my camp, and found a hunk of elk hair right where I smoothed out my sleeping bag. Clearly, this was someone elses territory.
As the sun melted into the western hills, mixing with the first clouds of the day, camp stove spluttering its busy tune, a cow elk exploded away from my camp, hooves kicking up dirt. Next, I heard a short, urgent bark, an unmistakable cow elk “alarm call.” For the next 20 minutes this one cow issued steady, loud, frequent calls, each one—a dog-like bark with grunts, growls and screams around the edges—so loud, so close, so wild, a startle rippled through my skin every time. Typically, the lead cow issues her alarm call to alert the herd to danger, and what follows is a thunder of hooves beating away. This lady was sticking around.
I wondered if she had just given birth (first week of June is prime elk calving time in the San Juans), and was giving her newborn a lesson in predators. Or maybe she didn’t want to leave her baby and was giving me a fierce warning. She sounded awfully mad (Being currently steeped in Harry Potter, I couldn’t help but think, she’s sending me a close range howler). I wasn’t aware of being nervous, but strangely had to pee every two minutes.
Just as the sun blacked out, the cow elk quieted down, and I crawled into my sleeping bag, perhaps breathing the same night air as a brand new elk calf and her Mama. I felt peaceful.
I woke to rain, made black tea and sipped it from my sleeping bag, watching the clouds cap off the valley.
I hiked out (now up 2000 feet in 2 miles) in the rain, feeling pulled by the little family waiting for me 7 miles away.
It rained all the next day (except when it snowed), and with each hour of tent confinement the kids reached greater levels of infectious hilarity. They’d stand up wearing sleeping bags like upright cocoons and roam blindly around the tent falling into each other, or quiz each other respectively, on horses and airplanes. (Ok, what’s a fetlock, Col? Um, I don’t know…What’s the rear stabilizer, Rosie?)
Dutch oven birthday cake.
By the campfire, Dan and the kids sang me their (weeks in the making, self-written) rendition of the song, “Mama,” sung to the tune of “Lola,” by the Kinks. I laughed and cried while rain tapped out a beat on our tarp and gratitude became the blood coursing my veins. (“Boys will grow up, and girls will grow up. It’s a long, sad, happy, short, muddled up trip, including MAMA, M-A-M-A…”)
Back home, on my actual birthday I requested a walk alone with each family member. Col held my hand for the entire hour, while we discussed Harry Potter as the hero’s journey. Rose and I tested every neighborhood iris for sniffirifficness, and Dan and I walked along the rain-swollen Animas River, discussing how our lives are filled with blessings, top to bottom, and how in the wild swirl of life, we’re living precisely in the sweet spot. (And then Dan threw out my hiking boots.)
sung to the tune of Lola
We camp all summer and snuggle all night
Reading H.P. by flashlight
You picked me up, and sat me on your knee
Said dear kid, “Don’t you want milky?”