Wilderness Lost

  • Autumn leaves

    STOCK PHOTO
 

My husband, Jay, and I planned our child’s outdoor life before he was conceived. We knew any child of ours would love to hike. How could he not? Spending time in the wilderness was fundamental to who we were.

Jay and I have always connected with one another on the trail. Whenever we had troubles, we’d head to the dusty hiking trails of Tilden Park, outside Oakland, Calif., or to Lake Tahoe or Yosemite, to sort out the headaches of merging two careers, two different religions, and two competitive spirits. And it worked. I can’t fully explain the alchemy of hiking in the wilds. The smell of pine needles, dirt, and thinner air, the bite of the pack into my shoulders, and the sharp ache of my lungs all somehow combined to cleanse me, to slough off my insecurities and anger, to give me perspective. It had the same effect on Jay.

Now we live in Helena, Mont., where hiking trails out our front door wend up two of the mountains that shadow our town. Before we had a child, we used to meet after work most days to climb these trails. Although we claimed we scrambled up the hills for exercise, what we really were doing was connecting with each other.

Even if such things aren’t genetic, we figured our child would imbibe our love of hiking with his mother’s milk. But three months after our son Andrew was born, I was diagnosed with a chronic and serious disease called sarcoidosis. The details of my condition aren’t important here, except for the fact that my heart and lungs -– the two organs most essential for hiking -– have been compromised. Whenever we hike now, it’s for short distances, and I must stop frequently to catch my breath.

My sickness has meant that Andrew, now 3, has spent more of his childhood indoors than either Jay or I could ever have imagined. Though Jay and Andrew have shared a few hiking and skiing adventures, most of our trips as a family involve visiting major medical centers, not pitching a tent under backcountry stars. In fact, Andrew has only gone camping a grand total of three times in his life –- each time out of a car.

I mourn not being able to share special places with my son. But even more, I hate that I cannot impart to Andrew the experience of wilderness and how it works on us. Maybe it’s clichéd, but my time on a trail has always been more spiritual than physical. Making a pilgrimage to a remote alpine lake gives me a sense of, if not peace, then acceptance. Dwarfed by the impassive granite face of Half Dome, or watching the wind scour the treetops below me, I see myself as part of a world so vast it defies any comprehension. I sense my utter lack of control, and this calms me down. Or perhaps it’s just the rhythmic plodding of my boots that induces a meditative state. Whatever it is, it’s powerful, and I want my child to experience it. But how can I transmit it to Andrew if I can’t accompany him?

Like every other parent, having a child forced me to recognize how little control over my life I really have. But contracting a chronic illness has magnified this lesson for me. Like it or not, I simply cannot teach my son my love of the trail by doing.

I want to believe that I can accept this fact more gracefully than I otherwise could have precisely because of the hours I’ve spent outside. I try to think of the cloud shadows I’ve seen on hikes, of the mountains whittled away by wind, of sequoia trees older than generations of people. This perspective does indeed make my weakened lungs seem insignificant, but sometimes it’s hard to see your own place in the grand scheme of things.

But other days give me hope that we have somehow communicated our reverence of nature to Andrew without 10-day backpacking trips in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. On an autumn afternoon at our neighborhood park, as Andrew sprinted across the field to the playground equipment, he suddenly stopped and stood stock still, staring at the tree with owl eyes. “Mommy, look at the trees!” he screamed with delight. “Their leaves have all changed colors.” It was the first time that year he had noticed the turning of the leaves. For the rest of the afternoon, he ignored the swings and the slides, and instead fetched me individual red, gold and brown leaves. “Look at this one,” he said, as he placed each gift gently in my hand.

As we walked home, Andrew’s face was illuminated. “Oh, I love fall,” he said suddenly. In that moment, he seemed more purely himself than I had ever seen him, and I realized that perhaps I didn’t have so much to worry about. Perhaps he doesn’t need to see epic views to understand the majesty of the wilderness. And perhaps I don’t need him to see them. Perhaps I can remember the light in his face and his small body flitting under the trees.

Rebecca Stanfel is a freelance writer in Helena, Montana.


High Country News Classifieds
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • CLIMATE JUSTICE FELLOW
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
  • YELLOWSTONE TREASURES: THE TRAVELER'S COMPANION TO THE NATIONAL PARK
    Dreaming of a trip to Yellowstone Park? This book makes you the tour guide for your group! Janet Chapple shares plenty of history anecdotes and...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.