I paused, legs wide straddled, thumbs hooked through pack straps, my back arched just so against the aching weight of a six hour shuffle.
“Hey fairy-girl! Are you coming?”
“I’m coming! Wait mama. Waiiit!” Lituya ducked out from behind the trunk of a cottonwood, sprinkling a handful of grass seeds on the ground. She came in a rapid patter of little sneakers, and a high-pitched musical narration.
“I’m Tuuu-la the fai-ry! Fly-ing, and making snoooow!”
She shook a wand of cottonwood seeds as she ran. I scuffed my feet in the swirl of fluff from the trees lining the old gravel mining road, waiting for the line that marks Red Mountain. A narrow gully slices it out–alder-green on one side, a dusty orange rubble the color of Lituya’s hair on the other. Red Mountain! What a name to slap onto this barren spire thrust from the depths of the earth. This poisonous rock of serpentine soil. This magical valley where a clear blue creek sweeps between castles of rock and there’s just enough brush to gorge yourself on blueberries tucked into the alders without tangling your feet.
Lituya and I were behind, as usual, and we picked our way through the ruts the four-wheelers had made through the willows, their curling diversions linking up what remains of the old road. Perhaps that was why I was so eager to step across that marvelously sharp boundary between green and orange–because I could finally put down that pack.
Hig wasn’t here today, so I brought it all with me. The tent and the pot, the floss-stitched knees of the rainpants that walked a thousand miles, and the fish hook that pierced my finger when I was reaching in for a lighter because the bag is packed for anything–not just this mountain. And I might have left the kitchen sink behind, but I brought my notebook, my friends, and my family.
Red Mountain was always special, which is why people always did drive there, even 20 miles out as far as the road would ever go. But everything seems more special when it’s hard won. Not just for the grownups remembering when we drove right up here. The kids explore a campsite–any campsite–with more joyful enthusiasm than for anything else in the world.
I assumed that’s what they were doing, anyway. They disappeared from sight (the two five-year-olds and the three-year-old) after the triumphant summit of a towering boulder castle. They wouldn’t be back until the hot dogs were ready.
We had a few days. To hike up to the pass and photograph wildflowers. For Katmai to discover the maidenhair ferns, and talk with me about serpentine soils, and competition, and why this little plant grows nowhere else he’s been. To pick blueberries for oatmeal, make sandy mud pies in an extra cookpot, play “monster-snatch” in a grassy hole, and get very very wet in the creek. And on the way back down, to share the very last sucker with a friend–two licks each before you hand it off–watching it dissolve.
Katmai answered before I could: “It’s when something breaks up into little tiny pieces and then those pieces become part of the water they’re in and you can’t see them anymore.”
It’s August now, and the berries are ripe, and the fireweed are bloooming. And there’s time for one last camping trip before the summer people leave–and we don’t get ready for school. Which is something I’ve kept a little quiet about, in a tiny town where people fret over the 36 kids rattling around in an over-large school building, filled with wonderful and dedicated people that are better at being indoors than I am.
We founded Ground Truth Trekking years before we ever had kids. Because Hig and I kept going on adventures. And without even meaning to, we learned–from people, from glaciers, from clearcuts, from sparrows, from cities, from fishing boats, from all the things we discussed for hours and just had to look up, from eachother… Ground Truth Trekking was our way to share that with the world. I didn’t think of it as an educational philosophy. But it is, of course.
Explore, learn, share. Build a life with as much time and space for this as possible. And that freedom that we’ve worked so hard to protect belongs to our children as well–even the one that’s old enough for kindergarten.
So I’ll buy our supplies–a new pair of rainpants and odorproof bags and maybe that sneaker with a half-gone sole will make one more journey–and revisit our checklist, and ready my family for September’s two-week hike in the Matanuska Valley. And we’ll be ready for Friday hikes, and winter camping, and all the low tides. We’ll be ready to study the orbit of Mercury, and play Go Fish, and make pie. We’ll be ready with scissors and tape and raincoats and skis and shelves overstuffed with books. We’ll be ready to take off in March or April, maybe to see the end of the Iditarod, to walk to Shishmaref, to circumnavigate Unalaska… Maybe to walk–and learn–another thousand miles before the year is done.