You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
Love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes,
Over the prairies and the deep trees,
The mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
Are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
Over and over announcing your place
In the family of things.
— “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver
* * *
Being quiet doesn’t mean you are intrinsically boring or even that you have nothing to say. Sometimes silence is the most tangible evidence of a person trying to figure out who they are and what they want out of life.
—Things I Wish I Could Tell My Younger Self, #547
* * *
It was the summer of my 25th birthday and I was returning to my job on a vegetation monitoring crew for the second year in a row. It was my third summer doing seasonal crew work. I was an ex- art student who had ventured into the world of natural resource management, and by this time I knew – or thought I knew — something about the challenges of working and living in remote locations for long periods of time with a small group of people.
Little Tiffany was also back from last season’s crew. She had long blond hair and came in to the office on our first day wearing jeans, a tank top, and a specially-made rodeo belt with fake diamond studs and a big silver buckle. The other two crew members, Lauren and Ian, were new. Lauren also had long blond hair, wore a horseshoe necklace, and liked redneck-themed t-shirts. Ian had long dark hair, wore outdoor-themed t-shirts and drove a VW van. Our crew lead, Megan, was something of an Eddie Bauer girl. Her tastes ran to jean skirts and button-up tops. She had a brand new red pickup truck and took a lot of pride in keeping it clean and shiny.
“We don’t have as many plots for you to do this year,” Megan said, that first week. “So take your time; it’s going to be a slow field season.”
Our crew began work in the little town of Superior, Montana. Tiffany was my roommate at the hotel and I told her about the plans my boyfriend, J, and I had to move in together in the fall. Tiffany told me how she had moved in with her high school boyfriend when she first started college and how that didn’t work out. Even though this was our second summer on the same work crew, I realized I’d never really talked to her before.
I had been determined to begin the summer well, but right away in the season I lost a GPS unit in the field. It was a Garmin Etrex, worth $100, which I knew because I had one myself. We were at the ranger station when I first realized I couldn’t find it. Ian told me to empty out my bag and look for it. I dug through my bag – Nothing. The following day I returned to the vegetation plots where I had last used it – Nothing. When Lauren picked me up in one of the work trucks I felt terrible – I had never lost a piece of equipment before. Later that day I was fishing around for something else in my backpack and, instead of pulling out the thing I was looking for, out came the GPS.
“It was in here all along!” I exclaimed, trying to hold back tears. Suddenly I remembered that I had been concerned about losing it because it didn’t have a case, and had tucked it away in my bag instead of in a pocket of my vest where it might fall out. It had been safe – from me.
“Better not tell Megan how you really found it,” said Ian. And, “I told you to actually empty your bag.”
* * *
It was the Fourth of July weekend and I had five days off work. On Thursday as I left Superior I was still feeling embarrassed about the GPS, and I really had to work to lighten my spirits. I was going to be meeting up with J soon and I didn’t want to be depressed about my summer when I was with him – especially when he had been chosen for an amazing field job I had been turned down for. To distract myself I decided to climb Mount Lolo, which was something I’d considered doing the previous summer, but hadn’t.
After sleeping out a rainy night at the trailhead in my car, the morning dawned brightly enough. As I started out hiking I got caught up in plant collecting and in the hard work of walking uphill – automatic mood-lighteners. It takes energy to be unhappy, and you can’t spend energy being unhappy when you’re spending it doing something else. The day moved along, as did I. Mid-morning a grouse and her chicks — little fluff-balls tumbling over my feet — met me coming around a corner on the trail, and I had to smile.
As the day progressed and my legs grew more tired, I began to wonder if I’d make the summit after all. Mount Lolo had been hidden, foreshortened, behind the ridge all morning. Finally its bald head became visible, still some distance away. I doubt I’ll come back here again, I said to myself. That thought kept me going.
In the end, I made it to the summit. Standing right on top of Lolo with the whole spine of the Bitterroot Range rising up below me to the south, I suddenly didn’t feel tired anymore. I spent some time taking pictures – including one of the USGS elevation marker on the peak – and felt better about myself than I had in a while. This is my good start to the summer, I thought, as I turned back downhill.
I got back to my car at six or seven in the evening. Ahead of me were a couple hours left of daylight, a long drive and finally, at the end of the road, J. It’s funny but knowing I was on my way to see J didn’t make me more impatient on the road, it made me enjoy the journey more. There were pink banner clouds at sunset. A moonrise. People fishing along the river. Twinkle lights on a bridge at dusk. A few early fireworks set off near a town. I stopped and got a mocha coffee at a gas station more because I like mochas than because I needed the caffeine.
It was a bit past midnight when I turned onto the Seven Devils access road out of Riggins. The whole way up I felt like I was holding my breath. Is he there yet? I’d been up to Seven Devils once before so I knew the campground and knew where to drive. Turn left. Go slowly around the loop to look at the other vehicles. It was a bit of a let-down when I realized that none of them were familiar. I found a campsite, pulled my car in and set up my tent in the beam of the headlights.
Saturday morning came. I’d been sliding in and out of consciousness for a while, staring at the lightening sky through my tent’s mesh ceiling. It was pretty early still, and I wanted to make myself wait until it was really daylight before I got up. I was enjoying the suspense. It felt like Christmas. A holiday from the time when holidays were still exciting.
“Hey,” said J, looking at me through the mesh door of my tent.
“Hey,” I said, sitting up. “Come on in.” We were both grinning.
J came in and sat down beside me. “I’ve missed you,” he said, “and it’s only been two weeks.”
“I know. I’ve missed you too.”
* * *
Mid-July. J was in Idaho and I was still in Montana. Although I was okay on my own I thought about him a lot, and either because of that or because of overexposure to certain stations, I found I had a soft spot for some of the sappier country radio songs.
Work wasn’t too bad at this time. I was enjoying the break from school and was staying near Glacier National Park. I learned how to fly fish and how to make popcorn over a camp stove. My crew had plenty of vegetation plots to do for a while, and I had a monitoring partner I (mostly) had fun with and thought I worked well with. Ian had his faults. He could be very critical of people, and he liked to talk about our crewmates when they weren’t around. He tried to get me to say critical things as well, but I didn’t want to be drawn out that way. It seemed like bad policy, and I had noticed how Ian could be critical of a person one minute and treat that same person like a best friend the next. Often I wondered what kinds of things he might be saying about me when I wasn’t around. Ian was very likeable and I did like him, but I didn’t entirely trust him.
* * *
My parents came out to visit me one weekend in Glacier. I talked to my sister on the phone but she didn’t have the free time to visit. That’s the way it usually works with Ann and me. We’re close, but we don’t spend much time together.
My dad came out another weekend and the two of us went backpacking up into the Cabinet Mountains. We saw a bull moose, a female, and her calf. I lost a sandal. Dad reminded me of how I was when I had first begun to hike: not quite in shape for what he was taking on, but very enthusiastic. The two of us tried to make it up to a glacier near Granite Lake but it was too far, too much elevation gain. We turned back, decided to try an easier route, and ended up pushing our way through six-foot tall messes of prickly currant and devil’s club. It was a long trip back, but I was glad that my dad had experienced bush-whacking with me. It’s a kind of rite of passage in backpacking.
* * *
Middle Fork Flathead River, August. I went on a two-day rafting trip with my crew one weekend and the class three rapid we crossed was a lot of fun. I caught a fish, too, on one of the early stretches of calm water. The trip was not all that great otherwise. Tiffany, Lauren, and Ian brought a huge cooler full of beer, and by the end of the trip the cooler was just about empty. Throughout the trip Lauren kept asking me, “Do you have a beer? Drink up!” She was kind of aggressive about it. The few beers I had I spread out over a very long time – In those years I didn’t like beer. Mostly I drank water and Gatorade.
At night, camped on a stretch of beach, we made a fire and everybody told drinking stories. I was very quiet; as somebody who doesn’t drink much I had no stories of my own to contribute. Everybody told pot-smoking stories next. I don’t smoke pot, never have. I had no interest in it. I was very quiet. That was the pattern that was repeated throughout the trip.
More and more, it became a pattern that was repeated throughout the summer.
* * *
From the beginning of the season my crewmates had disliked Megan, our boss. I tried not to get in the middle of that, tried to be fair to Megan, tried not to contribute to the bad atmosphere on the team. I know what it’s like to be an outsider.
By the end of the season I knew more than ever what that was like. The girls had never liked me all that much, in particular Lauren, who was about as different from me as a person could be. Then Ian, my monitoring partner of nearly a month, ditched me after I ran a four-way stop one day in the work vehicle. I had then stopped (because of nerves, mostly) at an intersection where I had no stop-sign. There was no traffic to speak of and there had been little risk of me causing an accident, but I’m pretty sure he thought I was an airhead. There had been enough incidents to convince him of that, though some of them were just miscommunications. But Ian rarely lost things and had yet to make a single mistake while driving.
It made me sad, because I tried so hard to do things right. After that I worked with Tiffany. The job was a joke most of the time because since we had left Glacier there was not enough work left to do. Weeks dragged. I felt a little better about myself while I was Tiffany’s partner: Tiffany was timid in some ways that I was not, and I liked being useful. When a bear ran away from our car down a road we were planning to walk along, she talked about turning back. I convinced her to keep going. When a state crew was logging an area we needed to pass through and had put up a gate on the road, I was the one again who said we shouldn’t turn back. Instead I walked up to one of the bulldozers and talked to the guy inside. He let us through the gate.
* * *
I saw J one more time during the summer, at the end of August. We were going to go backpacking and stay a couple of days in a lookout tower I had rented.
I had five days off and it was wonderful to break away from the crew, the job and all the associated stress. I called J’s cell from the payphone in the parking lot of Libby’s Rosauers grocery. “I’m just leaving now,” I said. “How far along are you?”
“Not far at all. I’m just leaving too.”
I looked at my watch. It was eight o’clock already. “It’s going to be a long night. I’ll see you soon.”
I was about to hang up the phone when J said, “Hey, I love you.”
“I love you too,” I replied.
* * *
My long weekend with J was good, over all, and in particular our trip to the granite slabs and alpine lakes of the Mission Mountains had reminded me why I became a backpacker.
Coming back to work was not good, not over all, not really at all. Tiffany and Lauren were gone for a week, working on some sites in Yaak, Montana, and like it or not I was working with Ian again. It was a stressful time, because things had not improved between us. The drives were quiet, the monitoring work was quiet, the time spent in the cabin was quiet. I wasn’t trying to be cold to my work partner, but I didn’t have much to say to a person who so obviously didn’t want to be stuck spending time with me. I shared information about my weekend hiking trips and made a few weak attempts at small talk, but most of the time conversation languished.
To Ian, a very chatty and outgoing personality, the continual silence must have been infuriating. Once at the end of a particularly long and quiet day of monitoring, he exclaimed, “Talk about something!!”
But I couldn’t. There were no words in me.
* * *
I didn’t realize how much the week had gotten to me until it was over. It was the Labor Day weekend, another four days off for me, and I was back in the Rosauers parking lot in Libby, calling my parents. Talking to somebody back home usually cheers me up a little. Plus I wanted to let somebody know where I’d be hiking over the weekend. It was a safety precaution.
My mom was on the other end of the line. She said to me, “J called the other day.” I didn’t own a cell phone and it was a standing arrangement that if J needed to leave a message for me he should leave it with her and Dad.
“Oh?” I asked, surprised but glad to get a message from J. “What did he say?”
“He said it’s a nine hour drive from Boise to Cheney and gas is pretty expensive. He said he probably won’t be coming up, since it’s just for a weekend.”
“What?” I exclaimed. “But we had it all planned. We were going to go apartment hunting. If he doesn’t come up next weekend we won’t have a place to live before fall quarter starts. What else did he say?”
“Nothing much,” Mom said.
I began to cry. I tried not to but I couldn’t help it. People coming in and out of the grocery store looked at me. I didn’t care. “Why didn’t he tell me that when we were making our plans in the first place?”
“He probably just thought it all out later.”
I wasn’t buying it. “But next weekend’s the last time we’d be able to meet,” I said. “What are we going to do about a place? I can’t even call him now because he’ll be out in the field and out of service. Why didn’t he tell me all this earlier?” My voice had gone all odd and wobbly. I kept picturing the way Ian had traded me out for another partner weeks ago without even telling me first. My mind was drawing parallels, thinking in circles.
My mom said, “Is everything okay between you two?”
I blew my nose and tried to calm myself down, be reasonable. “Yeah,” I said, “it is. It’s just . . . It’s been a really difficult week at work . . .” I tried to say more but couldn’t get it to come out right. About what it was like living and working with a bunch of people who didn’t like me and who thought I was a stupid airhead. About what if I was a stupid airhead? About what if J was beginning to change his mind? The way people so often did when it came to me.
Eventually I said, “I can’t talk about this now, Mom. I’m getting myself all worked up. I think I need to go hiking and work some of this stress out of my system.” I told her where I was planning to go. Then I drove out of town, pulled my car into a turnout and cried harder than I had cried yet that summer.
* * *
There is a bookmark I used to have, from the days when I was a kid and my parents sent me to Sunday School. It had gold lettering and a picture of three cupid-faced children in flowing robes, washing their faces at a water basin. The text said, “How happy is the morning when all is bright and fresh.”
I liked the saying but on this particular morning nothing seemed very bright or fresh or happy. After spending an hour or so at the turnout the night before I had pulled myself together enough to drive to my trailhead. Once there I had cried some more, brushed my teeth, pulled out my sleeping bag and gone to sleep. In the morning all I wanted to do was roll back over, pull the sleeping bag over my head and wait for the summer to end.
Instead, I went on a hike.
The Flower Creek Trail in the Cabinet Mountains is low in elevation and edged with shrubs and trees. You don’t see any peaks or lakes for the first several miles, and if there’s dew or rain on the shrubs your pants get wet. On that day I was wearing jeans and from the knees down they were cold and heavy, sodden with water. I didn’t really want to be out walking a trail, but since I didn’t have any place better to be I kept going.
I took a wrong turn and ended up at Sky Lakes, though I didn’t realize at the time where exactly I was. I did know roughly what direction I needed to go in order to complete my loop hike though, and when the trail turned to my left to skirt around a lake I turned right and took off on my own. The trail, I knew, made its way up to the ridgeline eventually, and I figured I’d be able to find it again somewhere up there. I did find it, although not until I’d crested one small summit and one larger one (the larger one, I later discovered, was Sugarloaf Peak). They were really just big gravel piles, not hard to climb at all.
I found that my mood lightened considerably the higher I climbed. It had to do with the way the landscape had begun to open up. My mind stopped filling the silence of my solo hike with questions, and I started to pay attention to the scenes around me. Soon instead of dense shrubs and trees I was scrambling across talus, looking at ladybug colonies on the rocks and the twisted bone-white snags of krummholtz trees. From the top of Sugarloaf I had a 360° view of the Cabinets. There was A Peak (yes, that’s an official name) to the south, near where I had gone backpacking with Dad. I could see Libby to the northeast where the hills split into a green v-shaped valley, revealing a low line of tan and grey buildings. To the north I could see my trail following the ridge.
I hiked just under 20 miles that Friday, working my way up to Cedar Lakes and looping back down along the Parmenter Trail to the trailhead where I had parked my car. There was even an hour of daylight left when I returned. I wasn’t exhausted, but I was tired. Good-tired, content-tired, the kind of tired you get when you’ve been working your body all day long and you’ve accomplished a goal.
I still had several days left before I was due to start work again, so I drove back to Glacier to do a hike around the south side of the park. There were some dry, open peaks I remembered admiring before, driving through that area. I spent two days out there, and caught a fish for my dinner the first night. I played my harmonica and sang as I walked along the trail. There were bear tracks around the campground I was going to stay at the second night, so rather than set up camp there I kept walking. I made it out of the woods that day.
* * *
That’s how I finished the summer, more or less. Work never did improve any but I earned my last paycheck and eventually came to grips with the experience. Thought about Things To Do Next Time and Things Not To Do Next Time. While acknowledging my own mistakes and shortcomings, I could also see the mistakes and shortcomings of those around me. Next time I knew I would be able to handle the situation better because I wouldn’t feel so cowed by other peoples’ opinions.
J ended up driving out go apartment hunting after all, and we took the first place we visited, a nice triplex loft that was going for $450 a month. There were good running routes in the neighborhood and a lot of wildlife. In the fall I would often hear the honking of geese flying overhead. J and I moved our things into the apartment and began preparing for the new school year.
It was a good beginning.