(For Part One.)
An old classmate gave this advice: mourn the first anniversary, but stop keeping track after that.
Granted, he went back on his own advice a year or so later, but I still gave it weight. And I tried it myself. And, just like him, I faltered by the second anniversary. It’s just too big of a mile marker. It’s the notch you count the rings of the tree against.
When you lose your father, no matter what the relationship was, there is a distinct line drawn. A before and an after. And one can’t help but measure the distance between them and that line.
My parents met through the Appalachian Mountain Club.
They met because they were both avid hikers, despite being perennial Bostonians. They met back in the early 80s, back before it was popular to hike all of New Hampshire’s 4,000 footers. They met because my father had a car and was offering to be a ride for a group hike.
It’s actually a beautiful story. Leave out a few details, and you have something out of a fairytale. Two hikers who fall in love and decide to conquer all 48 together, sleeping overnight in huts, campsites, and retracing some of their steps so the other can conquer what they already did.
Leave out the details, stop the story at the wedding, and they live happily ever after.
Because there’s a reason why movies based on true stories bend certain truths and omit others. A nuanced story is too heavy for the average audience to carry.
At my father’s memorial, my mom reads her eulogy on lined notebook paper. Written in pencil, and double spaced, as if she’s back in grade school. My heart breaks on that detail alone. She meticulously describes how they met, how they hiked all 4,000-footers, how they joined the enviable club years and years and years ago.
And she leaves it at that. That is the body, the crux of her eulogy. No mention of life after hiking. Perhaps she’s a lot like me: it’s best to focus on the pure memories, when things were good, when you could dip into the well and know the water hadn’t been poisoned.
The summer before my father died, my friend’s boyfriend took us on a long hike through the Pemi Wilderness to 13 Falls.
It would be my first hike in the Whites since I was a child — and to a swimming hole, no less.
The summer before my father died still has a haze around it. It was my lowest point — and I hope to always be my lowest point — of my adult life. Everything was wrong and the dread constantly rumbled under my feet. It was all I could do not to drop everything and run; assume a new identity, call mulligan, and try again.
I still remember seeing Franconia Notch peak out from the bend in the highway. The mountains don’t make my problems seem small, but they make my soul feel large, I scribbled in my notebook. I remember that hike, that gentle slope to a pristine set of waterfalls and freezing pools of water — something to cool the anxiety that radiated under my skin. And I remember that long walk back down a former logging road, my fingers swollen from dehydration and pooling blood, and, for the first time since possibly November, I felt peace. I still had no idea what the outcome of anything was going to be, but for once I’m not clinging to what I desperately hope for. For a split moment, I face the future without carrying my attachments to the outcome.
I’ve used my hikes for a lot of things over the years. To escape, to dwell, to think out all the things I wanted to say to people, especially after my father died. To radiate anger at every person who wronged or manipulated me, who made a hard time just that much harder. Those who used me, either as a scapegoat or a stopgap (or both) when I was at my most vulnerable. To emit everything and beg the forest to take it in. But the main use of my hikes have shifted, and it shifted to that feeling on the Lincoln Woods trail, coming back from 13 Falls after logging over 13 miles before hitting the logging road trail.
Hike not for catharsis, but for serenity. Hike to hear the hum of the bigger machine at play and be at peace with whatever it’s going to bring you.
When I hit 30, I decide I want to follow the trail I took as a child to summit.
All those pure memories of the past, and that trail is the nucleus for them. Hiking along the river to the major waterfall. The smell of the water passing over the rocks, of our old canvas packs, our plastic water canteens.
I’m turning 30 and I’m full of symbolism. Life has just started to piece itself back together. I’m just starting to hold my own, to let go, to break from people who aren’t concerned with my well-being, to reconnect with those who do, to patch up what had been ripped. And I want to return to the very trail that heralds an unadulterated time, but now follow it all the way to the top. I feel the poetry in it, and I chase forward.
The only thing is, I can’t remember the trail’s name. I call my mom, ready to handle the string of non sequiturs I’ll get instead of an answer. Ready to have my question met the same way questions were met during my father’s health spiral, when I just wanted to know what the doctors said. Ready to be frustrated and upset and ready to throw my phone against the wall because of it.
But she answers with ease.
“That’s the Falling Waters trail,” she says, and talks a little bit about the hike. She’s lucid and linear and my heart shatters over it, over the person she must’ve once been, over the million ways our relationship will never be.
The day before my 30th, I climb the Falling Waters trail with my husband to its summit, then follow the ridgeline over two other mountains. The summits are all socked in and you can barely see the trail ahead of you. But the memories are precious and the poetry is still sound.
Two years later, when my hikes are no longer about escape and release, when I feel confident in my time alone in the forest, I decide I want to follow in their footsteps. I want to hike all 48 qualifying 4,000 footers.
Perhaps it’s because it’s the only way I want to follow in their footsteps. Because my adult life has been defined by the ways I went in the opposite direction, and such deviation can chip away at your soul without counterbalance.
I expect the hikes to become a rumination on my parents, my childhood, my father and his life and his death. And, for the first official one, it is. The same way anything that makes the ground tremble will bring rocks to the surface.
But after that, the hikes are my own. I think about all sorts of things, get songs stuck in my head, worry about time, focus squarely on the trail. But I’m not left in the past. In fact, the technicalities and difficulties of the trail have me focused squarely on the present. The moments I don’t, I slip, wipe out, get bruised and banged.
And even with the scrapes, I see the poetry in that. Poetry isn’t always pretty and light.
I mostly go alone and the hikes force my soul into transformation. Some things smooth out, while others reveal their grit — but the right grit, the kind that you need.
I learn the hard way about a lot of things: reading topography, checking the map, packing enough water, understanding your limits.
But then again, that’s always been me. If I don’t learn the hard way, it doesn’t stick. I need to be literally crawling up the rocks, so tired I want to cry but too tired to actually cry, before it leaves an indelible mark. And that’s something that undeniably extends beyond hiking, and why 28 was as hard as it was.
The hikes make me stronger, and stronger than I realize.
Even the hikes when I’m literally crawling up rocks — pep-talking to myself while simultaneously and only semi-facetiously thinking, “this is literally the hill I’m going to die on,” — I’m passing hikers left and right.
I’m hitting mountains in record speeds, destroying book times and averages. A few ask if I’m a trail runner. My concept of what’s an easy hike and a hard one shifts dramatically.
And it’s why I can’t hate any of the trails, even if I was cursing them out when I was on them. They’re the reason I’m stronger, that I have this much fight in me. Their relentless and unforgiving cruelty is why my soul has both grit and smoothed out edges.
In the same way, it’s why I don’t hate any of the people I once had anger for. I forgive them like I forgive the trails. They helped make me who I am today.
I can’t help but think of my parents as my hikes wind down.
Call it one more sifting of the ground. A reminder of the start line as you see the finish.
“They tried their best.” It’s not exactly a new revelation, but sometimes it’s good to be reminded of it. They went down a path blindly and with demons nipping at their feet. The fact that they both got so lost in the woods is a reason to feel sorry, not resentment. There were good moments, and unlike the good intentions they don’t have to pave a road to perdition.
I hit my last summit with a run and a smack of my hand against the cairn. I’m overwhelmed with emotion and grateful I’m the only person on the summit.
And I stay. Stay until the sun is kissing my skin, soaking in more than just the UV rays. Forty-eight. I now qualify for the same club my parents joined long before I was born. And I think of how I recently explained to some friends (partly) why I’m doing it, and how they told me how sweet it was to follow in my parents’ footsteps.
Because stories are light when the heavy details are removed.
I meet up with a group of men that I passed on my way to the summit. We chat in the way hikers tend to do, the ease of knowing you’re around kin, people cut at least in some way from the same cloth as you.
“Are you local?” one asks.
“A bit,” I say. “It’s just an hour or two drive for me. How about you guys?”
They’re from Massachusetts. Two from the South Shore. One from the town over from my hometown, and one from my actual hometown.
Of course he’s from Weymouth. Of course. Of course he’s from where I grew up. And of course his friend is from the town I would escape to as a teenager.
And I exit down that former logging road one more time. The very one that had brought me to 13 Falls. And my fingers are swollen in the same way, and I’m also at peace — but a different kind of peace, different than when I was 28 and hysterical and desperate and insecure. I’m a different kind of person than that girl at 28. I stride down this pathway in a different way than she did. And I relish in the parallels as I round out my time on the Lincoln Woods trail, coming out a completely different person than when I first went in four years ago.
Life is poetry in ways that remind you that something bigger is at play.
The next day, I steel myself to call my mom, to tell her the good news.
My phone calls are like a social worker checking in on a client. A nurse checking in on her invalid. Deviate from that dynamic and it can shatter me, leave me in tears on the couch. To call with any other intention is to play with fire.
And I quickly abandon telling her about my hike, as she immediately dives into a rambling set of non sequiturs, repeating certain talking points over and over again. She tells me about her upcoming back surgery, and I piece together that the doctors have finally advised her against driving in light of her deteriorating mental state.
She quickly segues into talking about the hikes she used to do. This is pretty common these days, to talk about the Whites from 30 years ago. And I use it, these days, as best as I can, to connect. We can’t meet in the present moment, but perhaps we can meet in the past, back when things were good and stories had happy endings.
“I don’t know if you do any hiking, but…” and my heart sinks. She doesn’t remember the calls I made, the letters I wrote, telling her about my adventures. She doesn’t even remember I hike.
Eventually I wedge the information in, wedge myself between my mom and her ramblings. That I also summited all of the mountains she once did.
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” she says, before immediately changing topics, before returning again and telling me how wonderful it is that I summited all 48, before veering away once more.
I know, somewhere in her mind, where grey matter still remains, she is so proud of me, so happy for me. In those little pockets of lucidity, there’s a mother and daughter on two opposite sides of the spectrum, and yet somehow still cut from the same cloth.
Life is poetry if you’re willing to handle a little free verse.