“You always make me so nervous when you hike like that.”
I had some pretty strict rules when I started hiking solo. I could only hike well-worn, well-known paths, and always south of the Whites. The rationale there was I’d be less likely to get lost, and, on the off-chance that I did get lost, I wouldn’t be in that much trouble.
It was an objective understanding of my inexperience. I’d been hiking since I was a child – since I was a baby in a backpack carrier, technically – but I can name a whopping total of two trails that I ever traversed as a child, and never to summit. Granted, I did those two trails many, many, many times, to the point that the sound of the water over the rocks on the Falling Waters trail is distinct from others, and the sound carries me home like a reverse Siren.
I’d only done a handful of hikes when I lived in Boston as an adult, and only a handful more after moving to Nashua. And the last thing I needed was to be yet another poor sap who gets lost in the White Mountains and perishes.
But eventually those rules started eroding. With more experience under my belt, I started going for the more obscure trails, the less-populated trails – but still south of the White Mountains, in case I got lost. And then it was trails along the southern perimeter of the Whites – again, if I got lost, I could venture south, and be in relative safety. And then it was trails within the Whites – but only the popular ones, the easy ones, the ones that you make you feel like a runner at the beginning of the race who was put in the wrong pace group and now you’re spending the first few miles weaving around the crowds.
It was only a matter of time before I’d want to start scaling the 4,000-footers – New Hampshire’s notorious set of 48 mountains, ranging (no pun intended) from the relatively moderate to the potentially deadly.
There was a part of me that smirked at the decision. Hiking, camping, the wonderful outdoors, those were all things from my childhood that I kept sacred. And my parents had scaled all 48 mountains, joining the 4,000-footer club as a result.
I had spent so much of my life making sure I never repeated the same mistakes they made, and here I was about to follow in their footsteps – almost literally.
I’ve been meaning to call. A few Fridays from now is when we could have you guys up here. I’ll still make sure to call, but, just let Mom know, okay?
It’s the middle of July. There’s a voicemail from my mother on our landline. A slightly rambling message, asking when she and my little brother can come up to visit. I know I need to call back. It’s outright cruel not to. At this stage in her neurodegeneration, keeping distance is like denying love to a four-year-old for the things they did when they were two. They don’t understand and the acts are too far gone to do anything about it.
I’ll let Mom know. But make sure to call her back.
I will, I will. Just…I need to make sure I have a lot of free time to do so. And to not have anything that requires emotional bandwidth scheduled for the rest of the day.
Talking to my mom is far more complicated than just not having the time to talk to a parent while they fuss with concern about how you’re doing, if you’re eating right, what’s happening in your neck of the woods. Talking to my mom, if done without the right mindset, results in me collapsed on the couch in tears, my husband then picking up my pieces.
Talking with my mom is like being called by a radio prank show, where they have a soundboard with various soundbites from a celebrity. There’s a limited number of things that can be said, and the conversation quickly becomes nonsensical, as I say one thing, and she responds with a repeated soundbite, a non sequitur. And the more stressed she is, the fewer soundbites are available. When she had to put her dog down, she had 12 soundbites, total. When my father was first rushed to the hospital, she had 3. When my father was dying and I was desperate for information, all I got was a set of malfunctioning soundbites — and it made me want to throw my phone against the wall and scream, “I don’t even need you to be my mom right now. I need you to be a person.” I honestly don’t think I’ve recovered from that.
I know I need to call back. I need to simply bite the bullet and do it.
I don’t end up calling her that afternoon. Or the day after that. Or the day after that.
It’s a few weeks before my seventh wedding anniversary. I only have two 4,000-footers under my belt, and I’m traversing a quick, 2,500-foot mountain with my husband. We are chatting about everything and anything, and the topic of my childhood hikes comes up – primarily, how we always did the same hikes, never to summit, and how, looking back, I resent that.
“You know why your parents did that, didn’t you?” my husband asks. My perennial therapist, only with better hours and no co-pay.
“I don’t know. Because they didn’t care if I saw a summit?” I asked.
“Now that’s being uncharitable,” says my husband. “Think. Why would they keep going up the same trails, even if a young kid couldn’t finish it?”
I shrug my shoulders. All I have are uncharitable answers.
“How did they meet.”
“The Appalachian Mountain Club.”
“And what did they do together.”
“Now, they hiked in the beginning of their relationship. By the time you were old enough to hike on your own, they’d been together for over a long while. And, by then, their relationship had crumbled.”
“Now, what would two people do, if they have enough awareness to know that something is wrong in their marriage, but not enough self-awareness to actively address the issue. Would they or would they not try to just put a bandaid on the problem?”
“And their relationship was good when they hiked these mountains…”
“…so returning to the same trails was their way of hoping to reclaim the magic,” I finish.
“Exactly,” he says. After a moment he adds, “You gotta remember: they were entire people.”
“They just feel like caricatures of people sometimes.”
“Even caricatures have full bodies, just like the rest of us.”
That night, I’d write a short story about a young couple attempting (and failing) to save their dying marriage by going on a hike they used to love. At the summit, they meet an older couple, the wife a little too eager to tell them the secrets to a happy marriage. The young woman watches the old couple leave, knowing her marriage is unsalvageable, that they’ll most likely divorce, that they’ll never be like the old couple who can tell people the secret to a happy marriage. But the story then cuts to the older wife, who is repressing her emotions about her husband’s newest affair, who is trying to piece together any proof that he still loves her.
Almost three years prior, the day after my 30th birthday, my husband and I traversed the Falling Waters trail, this time going past where I’d stop as a kid and finally making it all the way to the top of Mount Little Haystack. The symbolism of it all was — and is — enough to bring me to tears.
I think a lot about the memoir I want to write, about the previous four years – and it will be written, and it will be raw and revealing, and I will be unapologetic, and I will not be concerned for those who experience the truth like being caught in the crosshairs – and what I want to serve as a backdrop to the meat of the story. The cross-country road trip? The hikes? Perhaps not the hikes – I’d be stepping on Cheryl Strayed’s toes on that one, and lord knows I’m already uncomfortable with how much her stories overlap with my own.
But there’s a part of me that feels like having anything as a linear backdrop is misleading. I didn’t solve my problems – I didn’t survive my Saturn Return – by going on a road trip, or scaling some mountains. Things weren’t solved by a sequence of events that were, honestly, too good NOT to have in a memoir, that seem almost fictional with how they came to pass.
Things were solved by hard work.
They were solved by running from my problems until I realized I couldn’t anymore, and then facing them head on and asking questions when I was scared shitless of the answers. It meant doing the hard work – the ugly, messy, frustrating work – on the self, to figure out my motivations, to nip bad habits in the bud, to cry big, ugly tears and divulge until my soul felt a little lighter and then to do it all again. I did it by piecemealing something that looked a bit like healing.
And, incrementally, I got myself on the path I am on today. All those adventures were and are ancillary. They make for good novel fodder, but, in reality, were the background noise to the actual work at hand. Bandaids placed in the general vicinity of the sutures from surgery.
There are so many things I’ve moved on from, and other things I’m (apparently) still angry or venomous about. Things that get under my skin, and other things that make me just shrug my shoulders and go, “Whatever it takes for you to get to sleep at night, pal.” Those are things that can only be solved one of two ways: by a sudden balancing of the scales, or by time. And the universe is in charge of both.
The best I can do is keep doing what I’m doing, and have faith God knows what He’s doing.
“So what’s new with you?”
I hold my breath when my mom asks me that. I’ve finally called her back, and had just spent the previous 30 minutes listening to her non sequiturs, trying my best to not get frustrated, not interrupt her and get curt, trying my best to keep that guard up so I’m not in tears on the couch.
And then I get asked that. I’d just returned from my hike from my third 4,000-footer, the first I’ve done since deciding to commit to all forty-eight. I was tempted to say nothing. There is so much in my life that I keep from her, if only because it’s unbearable to open up and then watch it get glazed over, unprocessed, unrecognized, as she goes off on another repetitive, jumbled tangent. It makes me ache with envy for women who have healthy relationships with their mothers, who can be open and vulnerable around them, who know they’ll be supported if they so choose to lean on them.
“I, uh, I actually just got back from hiking,” I say. “I’ve decided to do all of the 4,000-footers.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” she says, and repeats it again. She then tells me about how proud my father would be, how he loved scaling those mountains, how some peaks have amazing views and some don’t have any, how she used the AMC’s huts and how wonderful they were – how, when my mother and father started hiking together, my father would redo certain mountains so my mom could cross off certain ones from her list, and she’d redo mountains so he could cross off from his.
Everything ached as she told me about this. The type of ache only those who grow up with something vitally missing from their upbringing can feel – like the echoes of happiness and love ring too sharp to be heard without wincing.
But it’s more than the hint at how things could or should be. It’s an insight into a marriage that I have painted in severe black and white.
These were two people who fell in love and it went awry and they didn’t know how to fix it. So they never did.
The moment doesn’t last long. It never does. She’s back to her soundboard, repeating the handful or so soundbites that clog her mind. When the call ends, I tell her I love her, and I mean it, and try to turn my attention back to the next hike planned.