© Copyright 2010 by Laurie Levinger
A mother and son go hiking. The teenage son gets fed up waiting for his slow-hiking mother and leaves her behind. Will they reach their destination, their relationship intact?
I’m fine, I told myself. I’ll just lie here and catch my breath. I can just stay right where I am. In fact, maybe I’ll stay here forever.
I lay on the ground beneath the big rock I’d slipped off trying to figure out how badly I was hurt. My companion’s back had disappeared a long time ago. I’d been following his dark green pack that blended in with the scrub trees and rocks, with a jaunty splash of purple and orange that had encouraged me: Come along, you can do it. And I had, until now.
Now I was down, and the back was gone.
But I’m starting in the middle. Let me tell you the whole story about how I got myself into this mess.
“I’ve decided this is an absurd activity,” Noah called to me at the beginning of our hike the day before. Staring at his huge backpack, I was trying not to add to his grumpiness by agreeing. Our first 3.8 miles stretched before us--mostly uphill--and we were getting a late start. But what was the point of hating every step? Then again, there was something to ponder here. He went on, interrupting my private questioning, What is the point?
“I’ve been thinking about it. What’s the point of leaving my room where I have everything I need, taking it all, plus food and a tent, putting it on my back and carrying it all uphill?” His voice practically cracking at the final outrage, uphill. “For miles?”
That question lingered as we set off. A steep climb. Up. The things you learn on the trail are primary: the reds and blues and yellows of hiking. After fifteen minutes I remembered them from years I’ve done this before: watch where you step, it’s hard going up, but it hurts even more coming down. I understand with renewed appreciation where the cliche “the rocky road” comes from as I stumble on yet another stone in my path. I treasure the occasional flat sections where you walk on soft leaves and pine needles. I breathe gratitude then. When we’re climbing I use my hiking mantra to set the rhythm: one foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other.
Then there are the signs. They appear unexpectedly, providing a relief from the beauty that quickly becomes monotonous: rock, root and tree. Small, white block print on green background, they announce the important things: VIEW,WATER, SHELTER. Of course, there are the trail blazes, and the weathered signs that tell you how much farther to your destination. Sometimes I make Noah stand in front of one so I can document where we’ve been, and where we’re going. He gazes out at me, disgruntled at having his picture taken, squinting into the sun.
And then, like a surprise guest, there’s one of the signs. VIEW. Noah’s nowhere to be seen so I head down the detour alone, and find him, sitting out on the edge of a rock ledge, admiring the vista. I pause quietly to admire him sitting out there, knowing I’d never do it, before I announce myself. “Hey.”
“Hey,” he says, “look at this view. It was all worth it.”
I drop my pack and join him, standing with my back against the rock face. We can see the hut we came from far below, and look straight across to the summit of Wildcat Mountain. The view made even more marvelous with the pride of ownership. For now, it’s our view. We earned it.
Next time we stop we’re on the summit of Mt. Hight, one of the 4000- footers, as they’re called. I don’t really care, although there are people who do, keeping lists of all the mountains they’ve summited. Like people who keep lists of birds. I don’t understand this mania for lists. I just want to stand there above tree-line and know I’ve climbed up there myself, to feel what it’s like not to have anything higher than I am. I have a short person’s sensitivities, every once in a while I need to be the tallest. There’s a young couple climbing up behind us, tan, shiny with health and energy. I interrupt their conversation. “Hey, would you mind taking our picture right here by the summit sign?” and seizing the opportunity, just so nothing will be towering over me, I climb onto the rocks, making my head even with Noah’s. They nod, smile, the guy takes my camera and then, click, the photo’s taken. To make conversation I ask them how long they’ve been on the trail.
“Since March,” the young man says, “five months.”
“Wow. That’s a long time. And you’re still talking to each other?”
He gazes at her, radiant, like a dazzling shaft of sun illuminating the air between them. “Oh, absolutely.” I’ve only seen that look on one other person’s face, Anna gazing at me when I’m telling her something I’ve never told anyone before. God, I wish she was here just to see this view. The young couple shoulder their packs and stride off, leaving me with the slightly sour taste of having asked that question.
Next summit, next young couple, smiling, talking. Noah’s teasing me about how slow I am, after he’s hiked twenty minutes he has to stop and wait ten for me to catch up. Which means I never get a good rest, because he’s ready to go when I finally arrive. We step aside, good trail etiquette, for the faster couple to pass. I say to them, “He’s making fun of how slow I go,” really just kidding. The young woman pauses, looking Noah straight in the eye. “Each person can only go at their own pace,” she says, heading down the trail. Her partner follows close behind. “She has to wait for me on the uphills,” he adds, while she calls back, “and he’s faster going down.” They pass by, their message hovering behind them.
But I guess I wasn’t really heeding their message. I understood it, it was as obvious as the trail signs—GO AT YOUR OWN PACE-- but it’s hard to resist the urge to hurry. We’d already been walking for a couple of hours and I was starting to get shaky. Usually I stop to drink water, or eat some gorp when this happens, but I was trying to catch up with Noah so he wouldn’t have to wait so long. And that’s when I fell. I caught my toe, my pack unweighted me and I slid down a long face of rock, landing on my knees and side of my face on the hard-packed trail. Shrugging off my pack, untangling my legs, I lay there, feeling all the parts that hurt. Geez, at least nothing’s bleeding or broken. At least I don’t think so.
I got up, first on all fours, then, slowly standing. I retrieved the pack, at least I was alone, no one witnessed that long slide off the rock. My pride is what hurts the most. Time to listen to what people tell you on the trail: go at your own pace.
That’s when the conversations started. First, it was the quads: “How could you ask us to do this for so long? Don’t you know anything about preparing for a long hike? What kind of a moron are you, anyway?”
Then the collarbones chimed in: “Yeah, and how about more padding up here. The rest of you is padded enough obviously, but we’re sticking out here taking all the weight.” And far off in the distance, a whimper I could barely make out. The feet: “Don’t pay any attention to them. We’re the ones taking all the weight here.” Then they started to argue among themselves: “And why did you stupid middle toes get band aids, don’t we deserve band aids, too? No, make that moleskin!” Those were the big toes. Louder whimpers: “We’ll make you pay for this.”
Who knew body parts could talk?
So it was me, and my complaining body that made it down the trail to the next stop where Noah was waiting. I mentioned my fall like it was a minor mishap, deciding to keep my arguing body parts to myself. We drank some water, and headed off again.
There were so many other people on the trail it didn’t feel like solitary communing with Mother Nature like it had in previous years. In fact, it was starting to feel like a Pirandello play or an outdoor circus. The next characters certainly added color. They were Jack #1, skinny and frenetic, and Jack #2, stolid and sincere. The first Jack tried to engage Noah in a discussion of his plans for next year. “Are you graduating next year? Where do you want to go to school? What do you plan to study?”--peppering him with questions. Noah was reluctant to reveal anything personal, out of habit or embarrassment, hard to tell. Then, the comment that unlocked the gate: Jack #1: “So it’s not like you know you want to be an electrical engineer or something like that?” Which is exactly what Noah thinks he wants to be, and said so. That was all the response Jack #1 needed. He started to extol the virtues of MIT, his alma mater, and described his meteoric career path. He asked Noah’s SAT scores, and allowed as how they weren’t half bad, adding, “I got six 800’s and one 795.” This thirty-five years after the fact. Still smarting from that 795, apparently.
To change the subject, I told the Jacks how hard the downhills were on my knees. I didn’t mention that they’d been screaming at me and calling me rude names. How was I supposed to know that this provided the perfect introduction to the topic of correct downhill walking? Jack #2 gave the lecture while Jack #1 provided the demonstration by prancing, leaping nimbly from rock to rock. Which was impressive since he wasn’t even wearing hiking boots, only tevas and socks. The dialogue that accompanied it was succinct, though confusing: “Walk on your balls, walk on your balls,” they chanted in unison. I turned to Jack #2 . “He’s been out here too long,” gesturing towards Jack #1. And Jack #1, not missing a beat, chimed in, “I’ve been out for thirty years.” That’s when I noticed Noah staring at the rainbow flag sewn on Jack’s baseball cap, he nodded knowingly, as we walked off down the trail.
Noah and I laughed. “He just likes to hear himself say ‘balls,’ ” he whispered confidentially. We shook our heads and admonished each other whenever our conversation slowed, “Walk on your balls.” Which is what I was trying to do once he’d left me alone again to find my own pace. I thought I’d found a pretty good rhythm, hitting my stride for the next hour or so. Then in the distance I spied a beautiful bright yellow canopy. What’s this? Some kind of a tarp? Maybe Noah’s found a place to rest and we can set up camp early. Maybe there are people there who’d like to carry my pack for me for a while--as I got closer, closer.
Then I could distinguish what it was. Fall comes early in these mountains. The brilliant gold of poplar leaves arching over the trail created a stunning impressive display, one that had nothing to do with tarps or stopping.
Who knew how much longer--I was so tired I lost track of time--there was the sign for the cut-off to the shelter. I couldn’t remember how long this new trail was. Stumbling. Resting. Calling out, “Noah, Noah!” He was so far ahead, he never heard.
Then, there he was, coming towards me. I was so used to following his back I didn’t know what to think. Is he okay, is he falling down with exhaustion too? What would we do then? But no, he didn’t look exhausted and he wasn’t carrying his pack.
“Here, Mom, let me take that for you.” He reached for my pack.
I just leaned against a rock, whimpering. “How much farther is it?”
“Half a mile. Look, I’ll carry it.” Slinging my pack over his shoulder, and heading off. This time I followed his back with my smaller pack, this is much farther than half a mile.
“I thought you said it was half a mile.”
A small smile, acknowledgement. “A slight distortion. I thought you needed some encouragement.” Dropping my pack to the ground.
I didn’t even care about eating. A cup of tea would do. All I wanted was my sleeping bag. But there was one final character to meet before sleep, Jason, calling himself J., the shelter caretaker. He came to collect the fee and chat after Noah had made us freeze-dried beans and rice for dinner. All I could think about was lying down, but J had some information about wilderness camping he was determined to communicate: please don’t pee in the privy, peeing on the trail was best even though that didn’t afford much privacy. Everything was composted, and it was easier if the poo was dry. He added, seriously, “I know. I work with the poo,” offering to tell us more if we wanted. We looked at him, glanced at each other, and declined, silently shaking our heads. No, that’s okay, we get it. But I could tell we had a new line to use if things got rough. “I know. I work with the poo.”
It was barely dusk when J. left, but I crawled into my sleeping bag, anyway. At last. I lay there remembering when Noah was a little boy, how I’d taken him on these hikes since he was eight years old, fortifying him with handfuls of M and M’s for those long uphill climbs. This was our ninth year hiking together. Now he had stubble after one day on the trail and my knees complained after just a couple of hours. But we still tell each other jokes and we still meet characters on our path and we’re still out in the mountains together.
Noah, Noah, I’ve got it,
resisting sleep. That’s the point.
I turned over to tell him, but he was sprawled out on the ground next
to me, dead asleep.
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