Of all the skills I have felt essential to pass on to my daughter before she launches into adulthood, learning how to pack human waste out of the backcountry was at the top of my list.
Unsurprisingly, it was not even on hers.
“Why did you put a roll of bags in here?” she said as she quizzically pulled out a Ziplock full of granola bars, baby wipes and biodegradable waste bags.
I didn’t answer her until we were miles deep into the canyons of Zion. Any sooner and she probably would have hitchhiked back to Idaho. Even then, I said something cryptic and wise like, “You’ll spend a lot of your life trying to figure out what to do with the messes you make.”
Several times a year, I try to impart this sort of tangible wisdom by taking her into the wild on an adventure. Success has been mixed at best. Primarily because she doesn’t really like hiking. As a compromise, I asked her to look up the most beautiful places in the world she would like to see. After claiming the Grand Canyon looks “like a crack in the ground,” she showed me pictures of Zion National Park.
When B was little, I was under the impression children are just an extension of their parents and she would learn to love/hate the things I love hate (Bruce Springsteen, AC/DC). It turns out, children, though small and reliant on daily reminders to change their underwear, are actually autonomous humans. They even have their own personalities and everything. Understanding this has been a painful process for me.
When we drive into the north end of Zion, it’s hard for me to pay attention to the road because I’m winding my way through a landscape painted by God. I don’t know a lot about God, but as far as I can tell, the deity knows how to get color right. The burnt red canyon walls tower around us, topped with the saturated green of manzanita bushes. The edges stand out in crisp lines against a blue sky interrupted only by the early morning glare of the sun.
We finish loading our packs and layer ourselves against a bitter wind. My pack is too heavy, but I heave it onto my body with the stoicism of a determined mother. Every pound I carry is one my lanky-but-taller-than-me teen does not have to carry. Also, something tells me I can’t trust her with the food.
“How far are we hiking today?” she asks. “My pack hurts. When is the next stop? Is it snack time yet? Let’s just go to a hotel and pretend we camped.”
I am reminded that going into the backcountry involves a kind of detox period in which memories and luxuries and task lists of the outside world still matter. That first day, time and distance seem pertinent. The body protests this or that just to be sure one is committed. Those first miles, she remains a dependent extension of me. She slogs along behind me, complains about the sand, needs reminders to hydrate.
I sometimes wonder why I force these things and why I so often make them hard. I know it is my undaunted optimism and my deep-rooted belief that all wounds past and present can be healed by nature’s affirmation that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves.
In the morning, I put empty water bladders in a small pack. The rivers in Zion are contaminated now, tragic evidence of climate change. Safe water supplies are limited and I will run several miles to refill us for the day’s hike.
Moving without a loaded pack is freeing and my feet dance around the red rocks as I make my way down the trail. The sun is just hitting the top of the walls of Hop Valley. I feel my soul awakening from a fatigue of appointments, media, board meetings. I can smell the cool sand. I notice lizards, birds, how time passes here in a peaceful rhythm rather than a ticking clock.
When I return, B is packing the tent and I show her my method because getting all the parts back into the original tent bag always seems a bit of a puzzle. We set out our snacks for the day. On this day, I learn that my daughter consumes approximately twice as many calories as I, and that I will have to survive mostly on sunshine and black coffee. By noon, she’s eaten her day’s rations.
While I strategize my parenting plan of motivation, B leaps over creek crossings in graceful strides and begins cataloguing her earliest memories of the places we have lived.
“I remember we had a floral sofa in India and I hit my head on the marble floor.” She was 2 then. All her memories of India are told from a height of just-below-the-table.
“My room in Germany had the blue wall that you painted when Julie drew all over it and you turned her pencil marks into a mural of flowers.” Those memories are about 3½ feet tall. She remembers children’s names, the tools and toys of those years, the layout of our flat, the time she biffed it and skinned her knee, how I lied and said I was holding her bike seat but she’d already pedaled off on her own.
What she does not remember: How often I yelled and ran and ran and ran to be away. How the sound of the liquor cabinet opening caused a panic in me so deep, I trembled in bed and pretended to be asleep. The day we told her we were getting a divorce. How awful I was as a mother.
Those were only my memories. And she is not me.
We commiserate on the long days as our packs seem to grow heavier by the time we reach camp. I teach her how to light the camp stove and not singe her fingertips and she becomes the official Camp Chef, adhering strictly to the instructions of “20 minutes plus one for each thousand feet above sea level.” I would have just eaten my food crunchy. I learn that B is patient about things that matter to her. They are different from things that matter to me. Then again, she ate all my snacks and I’m starving. It occurs to me halfway through the next day that I barely know this young woman. These miles become a journey of remarkable discovery. At home, our relationship consists of logistics: get up, go to school, don’t forget your lunch, babysitting pick-ups, homework reminders, chores, I-don’t-have-time-right-now, getting to bed at a decent hour.
I learn that my daughter can talk literally for 10 hours straight. I listen to her explain in great detail how she will structure her high school education to support her European university goals. Until now, I didn’t even think she understood a grading system, much less its relevance.
She explains to me that she’ll go to school in Denmark, then shares many statistics about the Danish social system, environmental consciousness, education opportunities and happiness rating as contributors to this decision. She’s 13.
I learn everything, and I mean everything, there is to know about dragons on a 20-mile day during which she provides a synopsis of a 15-book series. Not only did I not realize that dragon societies were plagued by the same troubles of dysfunctional families and crumbling health care reform, I had no idea my daughter had read 15 books.
Occasionally, I remind her to pause and take in the view. We slip into a synergized rhythm in our days. She wakes slowly while I breathe in sunrise and watch the steam of coffee rise from my cup. She watches from the tent as my smile spreads with the morning light.
There is a vulnerable part of me that is only witnessed in these places. Like a hero who needs her magic potion, the wilderness is where I come to hear my heartbeat again.
B quietly emerges from the tent, her ever-present beanie pulled over her ears, and drapes her long limbs around me, leans her head on my shoulder. She looks into the expanse of landscape with me and takes a deep breath. I know she sees me.
“I love you,” she says.
I realize then that I am falling in love with my child all over again for different reasons than my status as mother. I love her gregarious nature, her empathy, her ability and willingness to articulate emotions. I love that she teaches me new things and random YouTube uses and can deliberate on the usefulness of Minecraft while I wince but am forced to recognize the validity in her argument. I love that through her, I am forced to grow.
The unsung beauty of motherhood is in the reflection of our own self through our children. It comes from a place of unconditional love, an offering we seldom extend to ourselves. Our children watch us through eyes of reverence and wonder as we wobble our way through parenthood trying to give the impression that we are trustworthy, experienced guides. In reality, I get lost in motherhood even more than I get lost on the trail.
To know my child is to take time to be with her, to watch her unfold her mysteries before me as she explores the world and discovers who she is. To be her mother is to bear witness to my own unfurling as the delicate fingers of her laughter and love and enthusiasm for life give me both the courage and compassion to change.
“I learned a lot about camping this trip,” B says as we’re driving home through the desert of Utah after covering 70 miles on foot. My feet are gross and my heart is full. We’re listening to a book she suggested as we sip our much-anticipated Frappuccinos. Sometimes, she has the best ideas if I can pause to hear them.
I always thought Mother’s Day was about honoring our mothers, but as a mother, I’m starting to feel the day is a celebration of our children and the gift it is to offer them stewardship along their journey.
As persistent beacons of love and learning, they unwittingly guide us on our own.
Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at email@example.com
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