I am home after nine days in the Adirondack High Peaks Wilderness Area. We spent three days backpacking in remote areas, where we met maybe ten people (and one huge black bear). The streams were beautiful and ice cold, the trees sang, and I worshiped at the altar of those huge boulders left behind when the ancient glaciers receded, huge, moss-covered boulders that only the Adirondacks can claim, wrapped by the encircling roots of trees that began their lives as seedlings way up high, not knowing that the real ground lay much farther below.
I love the mountains. They restore my soul.
At the summit of Whiteface Mountain (New York’s 5th highest peak), sweaty and exultant, I found cell phone service and phoned to briefly check on my children (yes, I know, technology in nature and all of that horrible stuff, but we have five kids between us, one of whom is about to deliver a baby–we need to check-in occasionally). At that summit, on my first phone call out in days, I learned that my grandmother had died the day before. The news was not delivered gently, as family had been trying to reach me for a full day and my mother assumed I knew.
Mountain climbing and hiking require a certain amount of focus and attention to be done well. I am not sure how I managed to descend those 4,000 plus feet safely, wiping tears and snot and sweat on my bandanna every step of the way, but I did.
I lost a lot of salt that day.
My grandmother was 94. On August 28th, she would be 95, but on my last visit to her in July she told me she hoped she didn’t live to see that birthday and some part of me knew then that she wouldn’t. Still, it was hard. I loved that woman with a fierce, irrational, passionate love. She was cantankerous and outspoken and immovable. She was born in 1910, saw the end of WWI, WWII, and most of the 20th century. She lived in such places as India, Ethiopia, New Zealand and had friends all over the world. She took one of the first transatlantic flights ever, on a double-decker sleeper plane. She drove a VW bug across the African desert surrounded by extra jugs of petrol and water and floated the car across the Nile on a raft of sticks. She kept the home front going as a mother of two young children while my grandfather landed on Iwo Jima and wrote home to “My Beloved Minnow…” Minnow because she swam in Minnesota’s frigid lakes year round, and was always the last to exit the water.
I will miss my grandmother more than I can articulate. I know there was a certain “rightness” to finding out about her death after I had scaled a massive mountain. I know that she lived a full life and didn’t suffer and died on her own terms. I know all of that. But I still feel like that tree that started as a seedling on top of a rock, grew to a sapling and then found that there wasn’t enough soil after all and so grabbed the rock with encircling roots trying desperately to hang on, to make it to the ground, to become a freestanding tree, a tree in its own right.