Day 133: Fires and Preconceived Notions
This photo, provided by Seattle’s KATU-TV, shows a wildfire as seen from near Stevenson Wash., across the Columbia River. The fire is burning in the Columbia River Gorge above Cascade Locks, Ore.(Tristan Fortsch/KATU-TV via AP)
As parts of the country recover from– and brace for– rains, floods and terrible destruction resulting from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and God Knows Who Else, the Pacific Northwest is ablaze with fire and smoke.
I’ll admit to having been clueless to this until my sister Rachel sent a text last week, asking “Is Mike OK? I heard they’re evacuating hikers in Oregon.” All attention in Dallas has been on the Texas Gulf Coast and as the end-of-summer-back-to-school season starts, work has come roaring back to the forefront and I’m swimming in commitments.
Also, Michael has been in the most remote part of the trail, in the Washington Cascades, and communication has been near impossible for weeks. I’ve known it was dangerous territory, but my fears were more around mountains and ice than fire. Yesterday, after 19 days without a call, he got through. Here’s what I know, as of now:
- Michael and his companions did manage to hike to the top of the trail, at the Canadian border and touch the famed Monument 78:
- He has hiked southbound, through glaciated mountains and incredible views, he says.
- He is now in Skykomish, WA. That is directly above Fire #4 on the map below. His next stop, Snoqualmie Pass, WA, is 70 miles south.
- Two days ago, the PCTA announced the following on its website:
“The Pacific Crest Trail is closed for 70 miles from Chinook Pass on Highway 410 (mile 2321) to Snoqualmie Pass (~mile 2391) due to the Norse Peak and Sawmill Ridge Fires. The Norse Peak Fire started during a lightning storm on August 11, 2017. That storm ignited 13 fires within the Naches Ranger District of Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Washington. At this point, you’ll need to ride in a car around this closure. This is a pretty huge closure and we haven’t looked into walking alternates.”
Michael’s goal is to get back to Chester, about 300 miles into Northern California, the mid-way point on the trail where he stepped off and journeyed north for the SOBO hike. But as you can see, headed southbound, he’s looking at almost 700 miles of the PCT trail in Oregon on fire before he gets there. He says he’s walking in smoke on the trail, with limited visibility. And after some discussion last night, his walking companions have decided to hang up their shoes once they reach Snoqualmie Pass on Monday, and go home.
So when he called me yesterday, he said “My friends are going home and I don’t know what to do.” We talked about his options. As he articulated them “I could go home. I could go do another trail, say fly to Connecticut and hike the top of the AP (Appalachian Trail). Or I could go figure out how to get around this and continue on my own.” Then this: “I don’t want to go home. I don’t know if I have the mental strength to do this alone.”
God Above, another one of these parenting moments.
There was no doubt that the “hop to Connecticut and hike the AP” was the most fun option. But here’s what I said to him: “That’s not the job you set out to do. Your pledge to yourself was to hike this PCT to the fullest extent of your ability and to the extent the trail allowed it. Hopping to the AT is like saying ‘I think I’ll go row some kayaks in Alaska for a few months.’ It’s a lark because its fun. I don’t think you or your parents set out on this journey as a lark.”(Nevermind the fact I’d love to get him to the East Coast and out of the fires and harm’s way.) He said “Yeah, I understand that. Fair enough.”
I asked him why he doesn’t want to come home. He hesitated for a few minutes and said “Because I’m not done.” I said “There is your answer, Mike.”
So despite every instinct to say “let’s buy a ticket and you come home, too”, I said “You told me the day would come when I would have to encourage you to push through your fear. So I’m keeping my word to you. Hike the 70 miles to Snoqualmie Pass and when you get there, maybe look for a ride around the fires to continue the trek through Northern California. If that’s best the trail will let you do this year, and you are not yet finished doing what you set out to do, you will have the mental strength to dig deep and walk the last steps of this journey in silence, with yourself. When you get to the next stop, you’ll know what to do.”
And then, of course, I cried like a crazy person after hanging up. I don’t really know what I want Michael to do (other than stay safe and get to a doctor because he thinks he has Giardia) but I know that he has to make this decision and feel good about it. His concern about the North California walk at this point is that he will be entirely alone on the trail as most hikers, walking the Northbound hike, have passed through there by early September and most Southbound hikers are beyond it, as well. Being completely alone, not just without hiking companions, is a very daunting thought. For both of us.
But I did say to him that in my experience, it’s tackling the hardest things head on through sheer gut-it-out determination that makes your whole self swell with confidence and clarity and strength and yes, power. And so long as he’s not in danger, being scared or bored or tired or unhappy are things that, when worked through, just don’t ever stop you in your tracks again.
He said, “Yep. Maybe I try or else I won’t know if I made the right decision. I have to think about it, Mom.”
It’s funny, I never thought to worry about the elements ending Mike’s trip. I’ve worried that he’d run out of time in the north, and I worried that he’d get hurt or sick (which he is.) But it didn’t occur to me that he may have to unexpectedly end his hike because of fires, kind of in the middle of nowhere, without celebration or fanfare. So I’m facing the reality that I too have to adjust my thinking. We’d all hoped to fly out and celebrate as he walked the final steps of the trail onto Canadian soil. But as is so often the case, the vision of accomplishment and success and achievement that I’d seen in my mind’s eye has to change.
None of us set out as parents to lay preconceived notions of success on our children, but it’s very hard not to. I want my kids to be happy, independent, feel a sense of purpose and worth in their work, be able to afford to care for themselves and their families and not be burdened by poverty or financial fears. I want them to find love and companionship in partners and friends and one another. I want them to know they can dream big and dig deep to achieve those dreams. And yes, I want them to have the transformational experience of loving and caring for their own children.
Letting go of those notions of success, those mind’s eye visions of college graduations and weddings and job titles and mountain summits and finish line crossings is a mindful effort on my part. Old habits die hard. I pray every day that my heart and my eyes can be open to the unique strength, skill, beauty, kindness and intellect my kids bring to the world, and I fight the urge to smother them under my preconceived notions of what constitutes achievement.
Every kid demands something different of you, as a parent. I have four distinctly different, uniquely perfect and challenging kids. I have things to thank each one of them for, in terms of what they’ve taught me about becoming the sort of person I want to be. Michael has been teaching me for 21 years that achievement, success, and happiness cannot be defined by anyone else. He’s got his own drumbeat. I may think I’ve been the one keeping him on task all these years. I wasn’t. He was, all along.
My friend Beth Ann had this trophy made for me. It sits on my desk, reminding me every day that I am the archer. And that the arrow flies and achieves what it will achieve, based on its own flight path.
If Michael decides to hang up his shoes and come home in three days, I’m going to jump for joy and meet him at the airport with balloons. He’s done a remarkable thing. He’s done it his way and he’s decided that he is finished. If he presses on, I’m going to pray, lay awake a few more nights, and know that he’s doing what he needs to do, until he is done.
And pray for the people, the towns, the wildlife and Mother Nature in the Pacific Northwest.