Thirty-four years ago, on a hot July day in Idaho Falls, Idaho, my mother grabbed her five kids, ages 6 to 13 years old, her reluctant husband, a long-nosed collie dog, and herded us all into the wilderness backcountry for the first time.
We wore Levis and flannel shirts and giant, five-pound leather boots with thick soles that killed our young and tender feet with gleeful abandon.
We carried awkward, heavy external frame packs that killed our young and tender shoulders and hips with equal abandon.
We carried home-dried jerky and rice and noodles and instant mashed potatoes and dried tomato paste that my mother would later rehydrate into a passable pasta sauce.
We carried a huge beige tent in the shape of a three-pronged peace sign—the only thing big enough for seven people and a dog—which must have weighed 10 pounds—the lightest on the market in those days.
My youngest brother Benjamin, the 6-year-old, didn’t carry a pack, just a belt loaded with water bottles, but he walked every step the rest of us did.
We walked for days through the silver and blue alpine world of the Teton mountains and we battled mosquitoes and snow and terrible blisters. We walked for more days and I had to eventually wear my pair of backup shoes with the soft crepe soles that gave out, forcing me to pack the holes in the soles with leaves.
But still, we fell in love, all of us, with the clear night sky and the shooting stars of the Perseid meteor show that we watched from a giant granite rock that stuck up through the late-season snow of Alaska Basin where I first saw the glimmering land above timberline.
Still, we fell in love with the blue columbine and red paintbrush and clean and icy water that we didn’t filter but drank straight out of our silver Sierra cups from mica-strewn water running free at the edge of each snowfield.
Still, we fell in love with space and light and wind and watching the world spin beneath our feet.
And at the top of each mountain pass, the five of us would slide down the other side on trail-less slopes still buried in 10 feet of early season snow, bouncing over suncups and ice patches with the kind of heedlessness only the very young can muster.
When we looked back up the passes from 2,000 feet below, we could still see our tracks—five, Levi-blue, fanny-shaped tracks left behind when the dye from the jeans rubbed off in the snow as we flew down the mountainside.
My father didn’t know anything about being out there. He learned it all from my mother and unlike us, he never learned to love it.
But we did and this year, my mother turns 70.
She broke her leg two years back and it shattered into 13 fragments and the doctor said if she stepped off a curb in the wrong way, she could break it again. If she broke it again, the doctor said it would take a year to heal, not just the six months this break was going to take.
Arthritis has twisted her once-elegant and sure feet into something else and the woman who climbed Laurel Mountain alone on her 50th birthday and came down in the dark, headlamp gleaming on the slopes above Convict Lake, has seen her world shrink to something else.
She has fought it though. She swims and bikes and stretches and lifts weights and eats stuff I can’t stomach because it’s so good for me. She takes fish oil and vitamins and herbs and other things I don’t know the names of and never, ever stops moving.
But her feet are still twisted enough to hinder stability. Putting on a backpack is out of the question. The woman who taught me how to bandage a backcountry wound and make a meal out of nothing and put up a tent in a driving snowstorm and fix it with duct tape and parachute cord stays home now more than she used to.
A couple weeks ago, my sweetie Chris and I packed my mother’s sleeping bag and Thermarest and clothes into our own packs and headed into the Sierra backcountry for her first backpacking trip in almost a decade.
We carried lightweight internal frame packs and a tent that was a whisper and hiked in sandals and featherweight boots. She used her trekking poles like the lifeline they were and slowly, but ever so surely, we dropped down off the rim of the world into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River.
We camped by the shining waterfalls on nights of moon and meteors and got up at dawn and watched the sun rise over the water.
We ate dried jerky and rice and pasta and took big swallows of Carolans Irish whiskey—which we now call Carol Anne’s after her name, Carolyn Anne—and we slid down the slim silver rocks on our butts, cooked dinner by the waterwheels of Waterwheel Falls, and watched the river run backward.
She has wanted to come here for 20 years—here to this place where the river runs uphill.
She didn’t fall, she didn’t stumble, she didn’t stop. We dropped 1,800 feet down, down, down and we climbed the same back up.
And every time I turn a map or notice a bright flower or fix an impossible mess with duct tape and tinfoil or set up the tent in a few moments in a driving storm or slip lithe and sure over the rocky ground and sleep there without fear, I thank her.
Thank you, Mom.