I spent the summer of 2011 living on a farm in paradise (or west Marin County, California, if you ask the mapmakers). One of the women I was living with would play the album that this song is on almost every day in our airy kitchen, doors open, music spilling out into the kitchen garden where we harvested beets and kale and lettuce and borage flowers for our meals. I was nearing the end of a long stretch of un- and underemployment, living off the insurance settlement I got when I was hit by a car in 2008. The summer before, I’d ridden my bike across the country and then spent a couple of months visiting friends and family east of the Mississippi. I’d taken the train back across the country, come home to Portland, spent the holidays with my family, then moved down to California and, six weeks later, onto the farm. I spent my summer tanned and dirty, sleeping in a tiny tent, eating fresh organic food, milking goats, making goat cheese, and driving to Berkeley most weekends to see my fiancé; we’d make music and drink beer and soak naked in the secret backyard hot tub on the next block over in his adorable south Berkeley neighborhood. I hadn’t run out of money quite yet and I still believed I’d be happy being poor and I still believed in the permaculture revolution and I still thought I could maybe be a teacher, that that would be a pretty easy thing to go about doing and being. I also fought with my mom a lot about how (she thought) I’d never figure out my life and get my shit together, which I guess makes the point I’m eventually going to get to in this entry all the more confusing and wonderful and strange.
So I guess if you’d asked me, that summer, where I thought I’d be now—actually I think I might have said India, because A still thought he’d be doing his dissertation there (his master’s degree is in Indian classical music, which is why my cats are named Ravi and Anoushka—after Ravi and Anoushka Shankar). So maybe I’d’ve guessed I’d be in India, with a master’s degree in elementary education, pregnant and dressed in loose cotton, ordering seeds for this fall’s school garden in Berkeley. Heh.
I turn thirty next month and I’m not happy with where I’m at. My life plan has gone all wonky and wrong. I worked part-time in elementary schools in Oakland and San Francisco for a couple of years, and third-graders made me cry. I got divorced and moved home and lived in my parents’ guest room and let them give me a job, which I’m still working now. I’m single and broke. I’ve struggled to save money and to so much as know what I’d rather be doing. I haven’t enjoyed my job in a long while, or even felt like I’m any good at it, really.
I don’t have to focus on that stuff. I started a business, which was, for a while, reasonably successful, and might be again if I found or made more time for it. I adopted my darling kitties. I ran a marathon. I climbed a few mountains and a few gym walls. I moved into my own place eventually, and I never asked my parents for financial support (just all the other kinds). I fell in love again. I saw a therapist for a year and a half, and that was enormously good for me. My ex-husband and I are friends.
But boy, oh boy, have I felt stuck for months and months.
So a few weeks ago, I was talking to my mom about how it was getting to be time for me to move on from my job, and she asked, “Do you still want to hike the Pacific Crest Trail?”
And I said, “Yes, very much, but I’m not sure the timing will work out. If I quit my job and start something new, it’ll be hard to take off again next summer, but I don’t think it’s good for me anymore to stay at this job…”
She interrupted and said, “Can you hike this year?”
“It’s too late to start from Campo, so I’d have to hike southbound, and, I mean, I’ve been having trouble saving money, I don’t have enough.”
And she said, “I’ll give you a loan.”
I laughed and shook my head no. I have a few weddings this summer to attend and/or shoot. Who would take care of my cats? I didn’t want to give up my apartment. And the borrowing money thing tripped me up and made me nervous. But within a couple of days I’d come up with potential solutions to every problem. “Are you serious?” I asked my mom. “Are you seriously okay with me doing this?” And she said yes.
(We did this pretty awesome / ridiculous trail “scramble” race together this weekend. So maybe she kinda gets the trail thing, a little bit.
Or maybe she loves me and wants me to be happy, and this seems like a way she can help me get there. I hope she’s right!)
I quit my job.
I’m free today, or something like it. (In two weeks, I mean.)
I don’t expect to find the answers on the trail. If I’m looking for anything, existentially-speaking, it’s just some time off to think about my priorities and try to project them forward into the future without the daily distractions. Or an interruption to the weekend-to-weekend routine I’ve got going on right now. A reset button. And, of course, a fucking awesome summer and fall on a beautiful trail through the Cascades and the Sierras and the desert.
I wake up very early in the morning to stumble through my to-do list and gather everything together. My place is a mess but it’s been a mess for a week, so what else is new? I shower and wolf down some breakfast and manage to have a little down time to pet my cats before Sara and Sam pick me up at six.
We get to the ranger station in Trout Lake a little early and wait around for it to open at eight, but it turns out everything we need is outside on the little porch. We fill out a climbing register and pick up our “scat bags” and chat with the ranger—the same one who gave J and me some recommendations for Indian Heaven last weekend—for a few minutes and then head on our way.
The pavement ends soon and the quality of the dirt road steadily worsens as we (well, Sara; I should give her credit for driving) wind our way up towards the mountain. The last fifteen miles take us an hour. When we arrive at Cold Springs “Campground,” there are cars parked in every conceivable spot and tents set up next to them. Eventually we squeeze ourselves in next to a pickup truck, pull out our packs, unpack and repack them several times, and finally hit the trail at around 9:45.
It’s warm! We hike in t-shirts and get mighty sweaty. The trail starts out as switchbacks through forest thinned by fire and blowdown, but once we reach the snow level, we abandon what we can see of the trail and follow bootprints more or less straight up the slope towards the mountain looming ahead of us. Every few minutes we stop for breath and to turn around and admire the views of Mount Hood and Mount Saint Helens and the blue hills of the Columbia Gorge and beyond. The higher we get, the more frequent such breaks become, because the views get better and the climb gets harder.
We are all pretty ridiculously happy to be on the mountain in the sun. None of us have been here before and it’s Sara’s first glaciated peak. It feels so good to be breathing hard, gasping a little between sentences as we tell each other about what we did last weekend (we all camped in different places) and joke about pika calls. Every once in awhile we pause to consider which boot tracks to follow. Every once in awhile we meet climbers on the way down and ask about their summit and the conditions up there. During a break in a small saddle, two runners with just sneakers and race vests pass by on the way back from what I can only assume was an early morning summit. Fast and light! Another pair on their way back down left their tents at the Lunch Counter at 4am and hiked to the summit under the stars and the yellow moon.
We’ve had a few snack breaks, but we decide to push to the Lunch Counter before breaking for lunch. It’s starting to feel pretty tough when we finally reach a family group breaking camp in anticipation of heading down. They’re three generations, they tell us, including a nine-month old daughter and granddaughter! The baby is very cheerful, looking around and exchanging exclamations with her granddad. He stayed with her while her parents pushed for the summit this morning.
We ask them if we’re at the Lunch Counter and they laugh. “This is more like the breakfast counter,” they tell us, “what you can see up there”—pointing—”is maybe brunch.” We trudge onward.
The snow is soft and we’re postholing a bit and slipping from time to time. In other places the snow is crumbly ice crystals on top of much firmer ice that catches the sunlight and glows blue under our footsteps. We take turns leading, which sometimes means finding good tracks to follow and other times means kicking steps across suncups.
We start to see a few more tents set up in flat spots amidst piles of lava rock, some of which have been piled up to make windbreaks. Folks keep pointing us upward—there’s tons of places up there, they say. We have a great view of the long, steep climb up to the false summit, Piker’s Peak, and can see a line of ant-people moving slowly up it, as well as several unbelievably long glissade tracks leading down. We’re almost to the top of what looks like the last crest before that ascent.
Finally around three or four we find two guys who are just finishing packing up their camp spot. We stake a claim, but Sam scouts a little further and thinks he’s found a spot where both his two-person and my one-person tent will fit. The spot he has in mind for my tent is too tiny, but I find a somewhat-protected flat spot in the snow on the other side of a pile of rocks from his tent spot, and I was figuring I’d be snow camping anyway—I’d even borrowed J’s snow stakes.
It’s a bit of a struggle to get the stakes into the icy snow, but I eventually manage it, more or less, and pile rocks on top of them to keep them in place. Now that we’ve stopped, it’s pretty chilly, and I’m bundled in my puffy and hat. We’d talked about trying for the summit this afternoon, but we’re pretty beat, and everyone we’ve talked to has encouraged us to wait for firmer snow in the morning. So I set up my tent and my sleeping stuff—pad, bag, and awesome new stuffsack pillow from Goosefeet Gear—and then hunker down out of the wind near Sam and Sara’s tent.
We melt some snow, boil water, I make some dinner. Sam busies himself by filtering water and refilling all our bottles. The wind starts to pick up, but behind the rocks, in the sun, with a puffy on, it still feels quite pleasant. My face feels warm—probably burnt despite three or four applications of sunscreen.
A little later it’s a little cooler, so I add wool leggings underneath my bright spandex and put on thicker socks, then meet Sam and Sara in their tent to play Farkle, a dice game that Sam and Tracey taught Daren and me at Mount Saint Helens. Two rounds later I head back to my tent to curl up in my sleeping bag. It’s only eight or so, but laying down sounds pretty good. We’re hoping to get an early start tomorrow morning. I step out of my tent around nine to pee and stare for a moment at the sunset, then snuggle in and cinch up my bag around my ears.
It’s windy and cold all night. I swear I can feel the wind blowing through my tent on my face. Every time I wake I’m confused by the brightness of the moon; I can still read the logo on the side of my tent at 1am, 2am, 3am. At 3:30 I finally convince myself to sit up out of my sleeping bag long enough to pull on my rain shell and pull up the hood, then burrow in again. Finally I’m warm enough, and next thing I know it’s light outside, and Sam is outside my tent calling my name. “Ready to get going?” In a minute I’m up, out of my sleeping bag, sorting through the things I need to take to the summit. In another minute I am all the way out of my tent and waving to Sam and Sara, “I’m gonna go use this scat bag over there! Don’t go exploring!”
I stomp over to the other side of a nearby rock outcropping and poop on an actual paper target with what is hands-down the best poop view of my life.
The weather reports we read before we left yesterday morning included a chance of less-than-awesome (thundery) weather after 11 today, so we’re a little apprehensive as we look at the sky. The false summit—we can’t see the real one from here—is clouded over, but nothing looks too thick or mean. The wind is blowing east, and we can’t see bad weather coming in from the west. We decide to go for it. “We’ll turn around immediately if we need to,” we agree.
I have no appetite, but I force down some fig newtons. By 5:45am we’ve packed up our summit bags and tossed everything else in our tents, and we’re heading towards the enormous steep slope to the false summit. It looms above us, striped with glissade tracks. We stop to take off a layer and strap on our crampons as soon as we hit the incline. It’s chilly and windy and the snow is firm and icy. It’s around here that we spot the dark, round cloud lurking just east of the mountain. We make worried noises at each other and another woman on her way up says, “that? That’s nothing!” Which makes us feel better, which is exactly the kind of human factor our BCEP leaders warned us about, of course. But it’s downwind and below the summit. We’ll keep an eye on it. We keep climbing.
We experiment on the ascent, zig-zagging across the slope, duck-walking straight up, stepping carefully in yesterday’s boot tracks, and so on. Sometimes a boot track will be perfect stairs for a few dozen feet and then inexplicably peter out. I like using the “hybrid” crampon technique, with one foot aimed straight up and the other perpendicular to it, but after a while my knees and achilles tendons start to complain a bit, so I switch it up, and later switch back. I’ve got my ice ax in one hand and one trekking pole in the other to help me up the mountain.
We break partway up and I manage to eat an energy bar. The rest of the climb to the false summit is more of the same. Finally, we gain the crest and see the whole of the approach to the real summit, a long moderate descent and then another steep ascent to the top. I’m the first of our small team to the false summit, and I pull out my sit pad and sit amidst the other climbers collected there to have a drink of water while I’m waiting for Sam and Sara. When they arrive, Sara notices that Sam has an earbud in, and a brief discussion ensues about the best music for this climb. I suggest Van Halen, and Sara joins me in belting out the chorus to “Livin’ on a Prayer”—which I realize later is by Bon Jovi, not Van Halen; I’m gonna blame that one on the altitude. Anyway, it’s more perfectly appropriate than I realize when I start:
Oh, we’re halfway there,
Oh-oh, livin’ on a prayer!
Take my hand, we’ll make it I swear,
Oh-oh, livin’ on a prayer!
“Okay, let’s keep climbing,” says Sam, and we keep climbing. The gentle downhill after the false summit is a nice respite from the hard effort of climbing, but soon enough we’re headed up again. For the twentieth time today, I get excited and push hard for a moment, then find myself panting and short of breath. Oh yeah: altitude.
We’ve spread out as we approach the summit. When I’m getting close, the group that summited ahead of me heads along the ridge to my right, and Sam is several minutes behind me, so when I summit, I summit alone. One more step, and suddenly Mount Rainier is there, incredibly, before me. “Oh my god!” I say to no one, breathing hard. I go to my knees, and then put my forehead on the snow, crying and hyperventilating. I think about praying and figure I’m already doing it, pretty much. I feel overwhelmed and happy and exhausted. I stare and stare and stare at Mount Rainier.
After a few minutes I focus on slowing my breathing, and I get to my feet. There’s a little rise, essentially a big pile of snow, to my left, and I run up it to peek down at the slope. Sam’s coming up, and soon Sara arrives too, with a woman she’s climbed the last bit with, named Amy. It’s around 10am. We do the requisite photo-taking, and move right along the ridge towards what my topo map (I’m using the Gaia GPS app for the first time—it’s pretty awesome) labels as the summit. From up here we can see Rainier and the Tatoosh range to the north, Mount Saint Helens to the west, Hood, Jefferson, and, incredibly, South Sister to the south.
It’s cold and windy up here, though, so soon enough we head back down. The snow is softening, but it’s still pretty icy, so we keep our crampons on for the initial descent and the gentle slope back up to the false summit.
At the false summit, we take off our crampons, put on our rain pants, and pack away more securely all the stuff that’s been hanging off various straps on our packs. Sam and I make leg-holes in garbage bags and pull them up around our waists. The slope we’re about to descend is steep enough that it looks like a drop-off; we inch towards it and find the top of a glissade chute. I’m eyeing it a little nervously, but Sam’s ready to go—and he’s off. We follow one by one.
I press hard on my ice ax’s spike to control my speed, though part of me wishes I had the guts to let go. I can see the whole chute and the run-out is beautiful and safe… it’s just so, so far below us, almost to where we camped at the lunch counter. Seems like we’ve all made the decision to break the glissade into more comprehensible chunks, and soon I see Sam standing to the side with his phone up to take pictures as we slide towards him. I roll over into self-arrest and join him to watch Sara come down, then roll back into the chute. And so on.
At the bottom, I pull up our GPS track on my phone and lead us back to our tents. The weather, so foreboding earlier, has completely turned. It’s glorious and sunny and here at the Lunch Counter it’s almost warm. We slowly pack up our tents and packs, then sit in the cleared spot where Sam and Sara’s tent was and eat something resembling lunch.
It’s at least one by the time we head out. We try to follow boot tracks, but end up way off course following a ski track, and when I look at Gaia GPS it has us skirting the edge of a glacier. Whoops. Nice reminder of how easy it is to get disoriented on a mountain. We traverse back over without too much fuss—just a bit of postholing and a bit more effort than we were really hoping for at this point in the day—and find a few other climbers and a whole mess of boot tracks streaming down the mountain to the south.
The snow is very soft now, and walking down the slope is less walking and more sliding, skating, skiing. I slide onto my butt twice and prevent several more falls with ridiculous slow-motion trekking pole acrobatics. In short order we’re all very eager to be off of the snow and onto the dirt trail that will lead us to the car, beer, chips and salsa, a change of shoes. We start complaining, mostly good-naturedly, about various aches and pains. Mine: my face hurts. Despite many layers of sunscreen, I am sunburnt and probably windburnt as well. There is no way to hide from the sun reflecting off the snow, and I find myself wishing that the cloud layer hadn’t burnt off.
Eventually I discover, by mimicking another climber’s example, that running down the sloppy soft snow is easier than trying to walk down it. Eventually we step off the snow onto little sections of dirt, and those sections get bigger and bigger until we leave the snow behind entirely. Eventually the long, long dirt trail finally ends, and we take a selfie at the trailhead and then stumble to the car, where I groan in delight as I pull my feet out of my rented boots. We strip off layers, roast in the sun, and then drive home.
a few more photos (from Sam)
Summit panorama here. Hood, Saint Helens, Rainier & the Tatoosh range in the background!
I climbed Mount Saint Helens on Sunday in the dress my mom wore to my wedding. A few days before, I’d told her about my somewhat last-minute plans to join 499 other people in dresses on the mountain for Mother’s Day. Everyone—men, women & children—wears dresses for the Mother’s Day climb. I told my mom I needed to find a dress I didn’t mind destroying, and without missing a beat, she said, “I have the perfect one.” She’s been working hard to lose weight for the past few years, so the dress doesn’t fit anymore, and I’m divorced. So, hey. Good symbolism, right? I took the dress and promised it’d come back shredded and dirty.
Mother’s Day is the single biggest climbing day of the year on Saint Helens; last year almost a thousand permits were sold! This year they limited it to 500 on Saturday and 500 on Sunday; for comparison’s sake, during the summer climbing season, which begins on May 15th, only 100 permits are sold for each day. I had a rough week last week (human condition stuff), and my plans for the weekend fell through; looking for a distraction, I asked my Flaming Pika teammate Karen, who was planning to climb with a big group of Mazamas and friends, if it was too late to get a permit. One of her buddies had a few extras, so on Saturday afternoon I carpooled up to the mountain with Daren, Sam, and Tracey, all also Pikas.
After a cozy night camped out in the woods next to the sno-park, we pulled on our dresses and headed up the mountain, just ahead of (and occasionally in the midst of) the big amorphous Mazamas group we called The Blob. I’d used the climb as an excuse to buy myself my very own ice axe, but we all skipped heavy boots and crampons, betting that soft snow + the footprints of climbers ahead of us would keep us from slipping. It’s been such a low-snow year that we didn’t encounter much snow until just a thousand feet below the summit or so, anyway. (Who am I kidding—that number is a wild guess, and it’s not like I’d ever summitted Saint Helens before; I have no idea what normal snowpack is, but Sam did tell me that the last time he did the climb, the snow started at the parking lot!)
The climb was beautiful, with views of Mount Adams off to the right and Mount Hood behind us. It was fun, and then it was a slog, and then we saw the crater rim up ahead, and dozens and dozens of tiny people, and we rushed across the snow up towards them. Mount Rainier emerged before us, and the sky stretched out above us the way it does, and everyone was happy and celebratory. A man in a purple dress and scarf got down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend, then produced a bottle of champagne from his pack while everyone cheered. I passed around my flask of bourbon. Sam blew up the inflatable shark he’d packed up. We hung out for forty-five minutes or so, until we got too chilled, and then we glissaded a truly unbelievable distance back down the mountain.
(That’s Mount Rainier.)
(That’s Mount Adams.)
The glissade was 100% awesome. I knew glissading was fun, but when we had our BCEP snow session, we just glissaded down short little slopes, 100 feet or less. On Sunday we flew down a mountain we’d just trudged up. Incomparable! Sam rode his inflatable shark. Just sliding down the chute was thrill enough for me, no accessories needed.
And the dress? Until the descent, it was in surprisingly good shape. Then I fell three times on the rocks and sand. The third time, I cut open my hand on a rock and smeared the blood on the dress. So it’s dirty and bloodstained—but you can’t really tell at a glance. I’m pretty sure there’s some symbolism in there, too, but everything I can come up with feels a little forced. After all, a dress is just a dress. A mountain is just a mountain. And time keeps on slippin’ into the future.
If I were going to get a spur-of-the-moment two-word tattoo this week, it would say “start again” or “keep on.” Keep On, incidentally, is the working title of the imaginary cross-country bicycle tour memoir I haven’t written yet, but hey, it took Cheryl Strayed 15 years to write Wild. Also incidentally, while biking through Colorado on that bike tour, I did get a spur-of-the-moment two-word tattoo: “awe infinitum” under my lumpy left collarbone. “Awe infinitum” is great advice when things are going well: be grateful, be amazed, be overwhelmed by the statistical impossibility of your existence and your life, fall down into the grass, et cetera et cetera. It feels less useful when you’re overwhelmed by the work required to keep on (!) existing, to eke out some pleasure and companionship and security in the world, to reckon with no, seriously, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?
So, start again. So, keep on.
I’m taking a mountaineering class right now, and one of the things you’re taught in any kind of outdoorsmanship education, of course, is that if you’re lost, you should probably stay put. I’m pretty sure that advice is terrible when you’re existentially lost, though. Instead I am trying out Wendell Berry’s advice: Be like the fox / who makes more tracks than necessary, / some in the wrong direction. / Practice resurrection. Start again.
I’m trying, in any case, to see the fox tracks as a useful thing, or at least a beautiful thing. I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to find or choose or make a path, alternately rolling my eyes at my own privileged discontent, wallowing in my dissatisfaction, and reveling in the marvelous adventure of it all… or something like that. Right now I’m in an eye-rolling/wallowing phase. A fox in the snow, post-holing to my chest with every step, digging myself out again. The steps in the wrong direction feel exhausting and wasteful. I can’t figure out how to get up high enough to get any perspective, to have any sense of direction, but I’m trying.
I’m being dramatic, of course. I just read Carrot Quinn’s excellent PCT memoir, Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart, and in it she describes one of her coping mechanisms for when keeping on feels tough: she remembers that linear time is an illusion, that everything—past present future—exists all at once on the head of a pin. I hope that somewhere jammed in next to me or on top of me or, best of all, already in me on the head of that pin is a future in which I am happy, whole, secure, anxiety-free. I hope I can wander my way towards that future. I hope I’m keeping on in the right direction.
In the meantime, though, you wanna see the part of my life that makes it look awesome?
Above, some hikes in February & March. Below, adventures with my BCEP team.
I am unashamedly including not one but three photos of me ascending a rope with prusik friction knots, because it was so freakin’ fun. It felt like magic! I did it twice. Here’s a video!
I’m taking the Basic Climbing Education Program offered by the Mazamas, Portland’s mountaineering club, founded over 120 years ago on the summit of Mount Hood. I showed up at a potluck last month to meet my team, was handed a short piece of rope and some webbing, and immediately started learning knots. Every Tuesday evening I borrow my mom’s car and drive across town to a middle school where we attend lectures and then belay each other up stairs and down hallways. Every weekend I wake up at ridiculous-o’clock to carpool to the Gorge for a conditioning hike, my 50-liter pack full of water bottles for extra weight. A few weeks ago we spent the weekend on Mount Hood, practicing our rope skills and learning how to self-arrest. You haven’t live until you’ve wiggled on your back to the top of a steep glissade chute and pushed yourself head-first down the slope with an ice axe in your arms. It was exhausting and beautiful and so, so fun.
I don’t know if the literal heights to which I hope to climb this summer and beyond will help me get the fox-in-the-snow bigger perspective I’m looking for, but in the meantime I’m having too much fun to worry.
(rushing water sort of confuses the iPhone’s panorama function, but you get the picture)
Winter is exactly the right season to hike Eagle Creek, I think. The crowds are a little bit smaller (and the difference in the number of folks I saw between sunny-ish Saturday and drizzly Sunday was dramatic) and the water is stunning and powerful and everywhere. There are umpteen named waterfalls on this hike (I don’t know them all) and this past weekend there were many, many more falls and rivulets streaming by (and, often—as in that first photo above—across) the trail.
I had hiked Eagle Creek a few times before. Once as far as Punchbowl Falls, years ago, for a fall picnic, and once a year or so after that as part of my second-ever backpacking trip, a loop from Eagle Creek up to the Benson Plateau and the PCT and then back down Ruckel Creek Trail. We spent two nights in the woods and partied a little hard on the second night—I remember the hike out on the last morning feeling very, very long. This time I wanted to see Tunnel Falls, so I set my sights on the creatively-named 7 1/2 Mile Camp, seven and a half miles from the trailhead and a mile and a half past Tunnel Falls.
Tunnel Falls was breathtaking. Standing in the tunnel behind it, you’d swear a hurricane was raging just outside.
The crowd had thinned after Punchbowl Falls (two miles in) and again after High Bridge (3.3 miles in). After Tunnel Falls I figured I wouldn’t see anyone else until morning, because who camps in January when the forecast calls for rain? But I was sort of relieved when I saw two separate tents at either end of a sprawling campsite a half mile or so down the trail, and I considered camping nearby. But who camps in January when the forecast calls for rain? People who want to be alone, probably. Including me. I found a spot two campsites later that may or may not have been 7 1/2 Mile Camp. There are tons of gorgeous campsites just off the trail, it turns out, and I imagine they’re very popular in the summer. It was a treat to have a beautiful spot all to myself.
The catch to camping in January is fourteen hours of darkness. I cooked my dinner in the remaining daylight, then sipped some hot cocoa and snuggled into my sleeping bag to read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I read until I fell asleep and picked it up again when I woke up before dawn. I finished the book right around the time the sun came up.
“You and George didn’t go back on your promises.”
She laughed. “Let me tell ya something, sweetface. I have been married at least four times, to four different men.” She watched him chew that over for a moment before continuing, “They’ve all been named George Edwards but, believe me, the man who is waiting for me down the hall is a whole different animal from the boy I married, back before there was dirt. Oh, there are continuities. He has always been fun and he has never been able to budget his time properly and—well, the rest is none of your business.”
“But people change,” he said quietly.
“Precisely. People change. Cultures change. Empires rise and fall. Shit. Geology changes! Every ten years or so, George and I have faced the fact that we have changed and we’ve had to decide if it makes sense to create a new marriage between these two new people.” She flopped back against her chair. “Which is why vows are such a tricky business. Because nothing stays the same forever. Okay. Okay! I’m figuring something out now.” She sat up straight, eyes focused somewhere outside the room, and Jimmy realized that even Anne didn’t have all the answers and that was either the most comforting thing he’d learned in a long time or the most discouraging. “Maybe because so few of us would be able to give up something fundamental for something so abstract, we protect ourselves from the nobility of a priest’s vows by jeering at him when he can’t live up to them, always and forever.” She shivered and slumped suddenly. “But, Jimmy! What unnatural words. Always and forever! Those aren’t human words, Jim. Not even stones are always and forever.”
He had been taken aback by her vehemence. He had thought that because she and George had been married so long, she’d have high standards for everyone. A promise is a promise, he wanted her to say, so he could be angry with Emilio and hate his father for leaving his mother and believe that it would be different for him, that he’d never lie or cheat or run out on his wife or have an affair. He wanted to believe that love, when it came to him, would be always and forever.
“Until you get the measure of your own soul, Jim, don’t be quick to condemn a priest, or anyone else for that matter. I’m not scolding you, sweetheart,” she said hurriedly. “It’s just that, until you’ve been there, you can’t know what it’s like to hold yourself to promises you made in good faith a long time ago. Do you hang in there, or cut your losses? Soldier on, or admit defeat and try to make the best of things?” She’d looked a little sheepish and then admitted, “You know, I used to be a real hardass about stuff like this. No retreat, no surrender! But now? Jimmy, I honestly don’t know if the world would be better or worse if we all held ourselves to the vows of our youth.”
They’re on a spaceship bound for a planet near Alpha Centauri for that conversation. It’s a good book. So I was both far away and very present while I lay in my little yellow tent. In the morning I packed up in the rain, startling myself a few times with branches or tent pieces in my peripheral vision, a little jumpy alone in the woods, but pretty pleased with myself all the same.