This is the last story of a cycle in which women play a major role
“There are only three things I’m worried about,” my mom said over the phone. I could picture her standing in front of the kitchen bay window, the phone cradled against her neck as she chopped fresh oregano for dinner. “Getting attacked by bears, going to the bathroom ... you know, number two ... and looking ugly for the pictures.”
I mustered my most confident, yet gently reassuring voice. “I’ll beat the bears away with a stick if I have to, but we probably won’t see any. Squatting in the woods is no big deal; you’ll have to trust me on that one. And I promise we won’t publish any ugly pictures in the magazine. If we do, we can always put one of those little black bars across your eyes, like they do for fashion don’ts in Glamour.”
It was settled. I would take my fifty-one-year-old mother, Priscilla, and her twin sister, Linda, on a three-day backpacking trip—an assignment for Backpacker magazine. I was excited, but also nervous. Mom and Aunt Linda are not your average hairy-legged hiking gals. To them, spending a day in the Great Outdoors means eighteen holes of golf and steaks on the grill. But they each have three outdoor-loving kids, and they were anxious to see what all the fuss was about.
“Can I at least bring some lipstick?” Mom pleaded as I checked her pack contents at the trailhead. We were at the doorstep of California’s Desolation Wilderness. The weather was promising, our chosen route was challenging but not difficult, and with my friend Tracey to help ferry the load, Mom and Aunt Linda would have to carry only clothes, sleeping bags and a few essentials. And herein lay the great debate.
I’d already jettisoned mascara, an eight-inch hairbrush and two Victoria’s Secret silk bras, all of which Mom thought were vital to her safety and well-being. My pack full of food and group gear weighed close to fifty pounds, and I’d sacrificed my fresh undies and spare T-shirt so I could carry a puffy pillow for her. But I allowed the lipstick, rationalizing that it was lip balm with color.
I cinched up her pack, checked the weight and watched Mom wait behind Aunt Linda for a final primp in the car sideview mirror. They were as nervous and giggly as schoolgirls getting ready for the senior prom. The twins took off at a respectable clip, trekking poles shushing, blow-dried hair bobbing. The climb was gradual, and the views of Lake Tahoe were inspiring. When we stopped for lunch in a sunny boulder field, Mom dropped her pack and said proudly, “That was nothing compared to the StairMaster.”
Even though we were only a few hours into our trip, I was relieved to see them both smiling—and not just their regular, “Hello, lovely day, isn’t it?” smiles. These were ear-to-ear, round-eyed, “We are strong and healthy hiking machines and, wow, look at that view!” smiles. I felt what every Cub Scout leader must feel: nervous that trouble could happen at any moment, but happy to see “my kids” enjoying themselves.
“It’s about three miles to camp,” I told them. “Why don’t you put on your fleece jackets so you don’t get chilled while we break?” It suddenly occurred to me that the parental tables had turned. I sounded like my mother.
Mom, sitting on a rock next to her sister, said sweetly, “Okay.”
“Lunch is served,” I said, plopping a communal bag of gorp at their feet and handing them each a whole-wheat bagel bulging with cheddar, salami and brown mustard. We ate in silence until Aunt Linda blurted out, “This tastes incredible!”
“It’sabsolutely gourmet!” gushed Mom, who’s famous for her cooking skills and for her fancy sandwiches in particular.
“And this gorp,” said Aunt Linda, who’s equally talented in the kitchen, “did you make it yourself?”
Had it been anyone but these two I’d have assumed sarcasm, but this time I was genuinely touched. At 8,000 feet, after an afternoon of amicable rambling, Aunt Linda rounded a corner, stopped and gasped. “Priscilla, look at this!” Sprawling before us was Upper Thelma Lake, shimmering in the afternoon sun like a giant sapphire. And there was not a soul around.
We found an established campsite with perfect views. Mom and Aunt Linda soaked their pedicured feet in the cool lake while Tracey and I pitched camp. When our four-person tent was set up, Mom crawled inside and collapsed. I poked my head in and discovered that she had arranged our beds neatly, with Tracey and me on the outsides—to protect her from the bears, she said. Mom was lying contentedly on her back, smiling up at the screened ceiling.
Soon we were sipping cups of Cabernet around the camp stove. Mom was reclining in her camp chair, watching intently as I chopped garlic and onion to add to the simmering lentils. I picked up a piece of onion that had fallen on the ground, blew the dirt off, then dropped it in. Her eyes widened. “Don’t worry, Mom, a little dirt won’t kill you,” I said. When the lentil and rice burritos were finally served, they oohed and aahed, bestowed more exclamation points on my culinary talents, then gobbled down seconds.
With dusk upon us, conversation revolved around the prospect of getting ambushed by bears. During dinner, cleanup and pre-bed chores, they stayed well within the safe, yellow circle of lantern light, tensing with every rustle in the darkness. Once inside the tent they felt safe and were soon shuffling cards by candlelight.
The next morning was a glorious day: warm and sunny, with cotton-candy clouds drifting through a deep blue sky. Our plan was to take our time hiking without packs to a nearby lake, stop for lunch, then loop back. Not twenty minutes down the trail, my mother and her sister had already ticked off the names of five types of wild-flowers. They’d never before set foot in a high mountain meadow, but years of tending lush gardens back home had turned them into amateur botanists. By day’s end they’d taught me to identify ten new wildflowers, which was ten more than I’d learned while lugging around a two-pound field guide on countless other trips.
After lunch, we slowly made our way back to camp, meandering through open meadows filled with flowers, then along a gurgling creek. Mom lingered, and when I turned around to check on her, she was doubled over, yanking on the tongue of her boot. “I think I might be getting a blister,” she said sheepishly. I removed her boot, saw that she was blister-free, then changed the lacing to relieve the pressure. Kneeling in the dirt, as I double-knotted her laces, I wondered how many hundreds of bowknots she had tied for me over the years. She stood up and took a few steps.
“You’re welcome. I figure I probably owe you a few.”
One of my earliest memories is of my mom taking care of me when I was sick. I must have been four or five, and I woke up in the middle of the night wheezing and gasping and hacking like my lungs were filled with sawdust. Mom turned on the shower as hot as it would go, sat me next to the bathtub, and rubbed my back and talked gently until my lungs cleared.
On our final night in the mountains, it was my turn to take care of Mom. She has a chronic ear problem that can feel “like someone’s shoving a skewer into the side of my head,” as she once described it. It had started bothering her that afternoon, and as we ate dinner I could see it was getting worse. Every few minutes, she’d wince and tilt her head to the side. As soon as dinner was over, she took four pain relievers and went into the tent to lie down.
I tried to stay calm. She wasn’t in danger, but to see her in agony made me feel ill. Then Aunt Linda remembered their mother’s home remedy, which I improvised by soaking some cotton with olive oil. I gently packed her ear with the cotton, then placed a hot-water bottle next to her head. She was asleep within minutes. I stayed awake most of the night, listening to the wind howl and the snow crystals bounce off the tent. At 3:00 A.M. I found Mom wide-eyed with pain. I felt the hot-water bottle next to her head: lukewarm.
“I’ll get up and heat some more water,” I whispered. “No, don’t be silly,” she murmured back to me. “There’s a storm out there. You stay right in your sleeping bag. I’m fine.”
Fifteen minutes later, with a fresh hot-water bottle against her ear, she was sleeping peacefully. Lying there next to my mother, listening to her breathe, I thought, This must be what it’s like when your child gets sick or hurt. I’ll be a basket case.
We rose the following morning to dark gray clouds, strong winds and an inch of fresh snow. The weather may have been dismal, but Mom’s ear was better. On the way down the mountain, snow pelted us from all directions, wind tore at our faces, and the trail became more slippery by the minute. The twins couldn’t get over it. Mom poked her nose out from her hood and watched a pine tree sway like a blade of grass.
“It seems like we should be miserable out here in this storm,” she said, and Aunt Linda finished her thought, “but we’re completely comfortable!”
By now, Mom and Aunt Linda were pros with their trekking poles. With great satisfaction, I watched them maneuver down the slick mountainside with the grace of veteran Nordic skiers. But what amazed me most was that they seemed in no great hurry to get back to civilization. Such rough weather would have prevented them from walking to the end of the driveway a week before, but now they were happily strolling along in it, even stopping from time to time to gape at the wind-lashed lodgepoles.
As we approached the end of our hike, I realized that our adventure had been one of my most satisfying ever. My mom, who had slept under a roof every night of her life, was, if only temporarily, a true outdoorswoman.
That night we met my father, uncle, brother and cousin at a fancy restaurant. Mom and Aunt Linda—freshly showered, blown-dry and rouged—looked healthy and younger than ever. They babbled excitedly, rehashing trip details for the eager audience.
As the coffee was served, Mom turned to my dad and said, “Danny, you should have seen Kristin. She took such good care of us. I was so proud of her.”
“Funny you should say that, Mom,” I said. “I was just thinking the same thing about you.”
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