Nonfiction by Meghan Robins
We aren’t supposed to be stuck on this rock. This backpacking trip is a much-needed reprieve from a hard winter of work and feeling disconnected. Time in the woods means hiking in silence or chatting away the miles, being together with nobody around and letting the trail dissipate our worries.
By the time we are in this moment, sitting on this rock beside two swollen rivers, five days have passed, we’ve climbed two eleven-thousand-foot passes, have forded three massive rivers, and are still two days out in the remote high country of Kings Canyon National Park. I’m tired. I’ve been sunburnt since hour one. My right quad is strained. And James is asking me for one more gigantic effort. I’m beginning to crumble.
It’s June 2017. Temperatures are rising by the hour, melting the deep Sierra snowpack twenty-four hours a day. Each river, creek and stream we’ve crossed is flooded. Four years of drought followed by the most brutal winter in recorded memory has pulled down logs and landslides; the forest is a mess.
I was raised in this backcountry, in this very mountain range, assessing risk and learning through challenges, running through the woods with my sisters, our mom yelling, “Be back by five!” We read Anne of Green Gables and Tarzan books and my dad taught us to fish and hike and ski. I can handle being in these mountains.
My partner of three years is an Eagle Scout, engineer, former plumber, and exactly one foot and two inches taller than me. We met at a friend’s BBQ and three months later I moved in. Friends would ask, “Who’s ‘we’?” and I’d say, “James,” like they should know him. But I’d forgotten to introduce him or mention that we were dating, and my friends were thrown off by my sudden couple-ness. Even my dad suspected I couldn’t be so smitten. Up until now, it was he and I who went backpacking together. And now, how clearly I’ve replaced him.
I say this aloud to James while we pick up our permit before our trip. Maybe it’s a weird thing to say to your boyfriend, the obvious, “You seem to be replacing my dad.” But James doesn’t overthink it. He’s listening to two rangers who are unhelpful and unsure of which bridges have been swept away and which are still standing.
“Just don’t make search and rescue come get you,” they say. They’re spooked. Too many hikers have already fallen through snow bridges, deceptive drifts connecting riverbanks, and they’ve been swept away by unusually high waters. One woman died a few weeks ago coming down Mt. Whitney. Another man survived near Tioga Pass and we’ve watched his harrowing story rise to internet fame.
At the trailhead, we ask a hiker if he used his ice ax.
“Duh, record-breaking snow year in the Sierra!”
He sounds like an idiot. We leave ours in the car. If conditions require ice axes, we’ll turn back because that isn’t the trip we set out for.
James and I first bonded over backpacking; he makes wise decisions and respects mine. My dad has asked how he is in the woods, and I feel guilty when saying he’s perfect. He’s everything you were for me, Dad…
Mountain peaks and topo maps navigate us through snow-covered days one and two. The trail is buried ten feet under. By the middle of day two, we’re traversing sun-poked snow toward Glenn Pass, a steep eleven-thousand-foot ridge, below which sits a tiny, blue, watery pit.
James says, “If you feel yourself slipping, hold your pole like this and self-arrest.”
I nod. Sure. It’s like skiing, except uphill and so steep I can touch the snow with my forehead.
“See you at the top,” I say, but he’s already twenty paces ahead. At six-foot-four, his steps are long. His boots sink deep into the wet summer corn. I lunge to follow but resort to punching in my own footprints at my own pace, repeating the mantra my dad taught me years ago: “One turn at a time. Gets you down anything.” I learned to ski and hike by that mantra, impatiently following my two older, faster, stronger sisters. Lately, James has been teaching me to climb and has lent his own steady ethos: “Just move your feet.” I smile at the familiarity.
James is waiting at the top, a snowy blanket tossed over a knife blade. Down the other side, hikers have traversed toward a loose pile of shale. Others sledded down on their backs, slip-sliding towards a ledge I can’t see past. I choose the tortoise traverse, punching slow steps aimed at the shale pile. James careens halfway down. At my rate, it will take hours to reach him. But the backcountry is no place for unnecessary risk, and he cannot help in my descent. When I finally reach the bottom, quads burning, James is admiring his collection of things: a water bottle, a hankie, a Clif bar wrapper. I look up at what we’d just come down; I wouldn’t go back for a handkerchief either.
James compliments my efforts. I find it comforting to be with a strong, supportive man. That night we lie in our tent and watch storm clouds roll in under a bug-less, fluorescent sunset and worry about what rain will do to all this snow.
On day three, we descend in elevation and have trouble crossing an unnamed creek. The warm temps have bloated waterways, turning trickles into rapids, forests into flood lands. The snowmelt is finding any possible outlet from the mountains. We hike miles out of our way, uphill until the water fingers apart. On one crossing James moves a log to make it easier for me, laying down his figurative coat. Another time, he points to a gap between a wet rock and a log.
“Can you make it?”
“I think so,” I say.
Then his tone shifts. “You either can or you can’t.” The shift startles me as much as the request. I have to be one hundred percent. He can’t make this step for me. Neither of us can twist an ankle or break an arm or fall into white water rapids. Our relationship is mutating from domestic to survivalist.
When I was seven, I caught my first fish and my dad set it on a rock. He made me hold the knife blade and hit its head with the handle until it was dead. I tapped the fish, two or three times, giving it a good headache in open air. My dad said, “You’re just being cruel. Kill it.” I didn’t want to. He took the knife and thwapped it once, hard. He made me gut it and bury its entrails, pointing out organs and where eggs might be if she’d had any. I remember the softness with which I held that fish and the feeling of my arms refusing the strength it took to kill it.
Sometimes I feel that same frailty and think how easy it would be to let a man do the things I don’t want to do.
“I could make it without my pack,” I say. James nods and I drop thirty pounds. I leap across the frothing trench, landing solidly on ground, smiling when I turn around. James is cradling my pack; he lobs it to me. Despite my athletic stance, thirty pounds pummels me backwards onto the sharp edge of a rock. I gasp but recover so I’m ready to catch his pack. But James is already jumping across, easily, casually.
“Thanks,” I say, docile.
“Of course, Meghan,” he says. And his voice is full of love.
My five-foot-two body is shrinking, and I don’t want it to. There is so much out here I cannot do without him. I tell him as much. But he brushes it off, says we’re doing this together and a bunch of other highly supportive things. It’s eating away at me. This idea of what I am not capable of in the woods, as a woman. I want to remain sure-footed, to be his confident, independent lover. But you lose some romance when saying things like, “Don’t follow me, I have to poop.” I can’t decide if my confidence is shaken because I’m short and he’s tall, because I’m a woman and he’s a man. Or because of something else entirely.
Branches twist my hair, scrape my legs. He leads the way day after day while I puzzle over logs, taking five steps to his uninterrupted two. He scouts ahead, comes back, waves for me to come this way. I try to keep up. But I’m always behind. Without a trail, my pace is slowing considerably.
Day four, he leads us to a ginormous log jam. The brutal winter’s avalanches knocked down so many long-standing trees, which now tangle across an otherwise impassible river. The jam is fifty feet wide, maybe class two or three whitewater. I don’t know, except that slipping means drowning.
If we take one step through knee-deep water, we can reach the logjam, a series of jumbled trunks and branches with crooked bark floating between, impossible to know if it will hold. If we make this step, there’s no turning back. I go first. I look to James to borrow some confidence. He nods. I feel myself reverting to a child under the protection of a man.
That night we sleep atop a granite knoll, a pinnacle between three intersecting canyons. It’s like Yosemite, but grander. We fill ourselves up, solidifying our relationship, calling the accomplishments of the day our unusual mortar for domestic bliss. Tomorrow, we have one more crossing.
Where the three canyons converge, so do three rivers. The water’s roar makes it impossible to hear. Throw a stick and it’s sucked away before it lands. This water is massive, a spectacle. There are people around since we’re closer to a trailhead, but we still have two days up a final canyon to finish our loop. Not crossing means hitching a ride to the nearest city, which turns out to be hot, sprawling Bakersfield.
By the time we get to this moment, lunching on a rock and assessing the torrent, my enthusiasm for independence had waned. Do I need to prove myself capable when clearly my body is not? Am I the woman my father raised me to be? I want to be strong. I know I can be.
James is not thinking twice about crossing this river. He will find a way. I am keeping him from finishing our loop. And he is waiting.
I am sitting on this rock, crying. I hope we don’t find a series of logs like we’ve done all week. I don’t want to cross another river. I don’t want to be crying. There’s something that has me stuck: exhaustion, the nearness of civilization, lingering day hikers who will surely judge us for endangering our lives.
“I don’t like all these people around,” I say.
“I just need to sit here for a minute.”
James waits quietly. He’s hoping I sort out whatever is happening in my head. I do too. But I’m allowing myself to succumb to a mental block. I feel myself no longer resisting. Why do this hard thing? Why not just give up? I become defensive against his suggestion that we just move forward, which conflicts with who I’ve proven myself to be. I’m reverting to the girl who chooses the easy route. Who never wants to be told what to do. Who is this man, who’s had such an easy time with his long legs and strong conviction? Who is he to tell me I can do this?
My mind is turning against him. Nothing has changed in his demeanor. No words are different. Maybe five days of hard decisions, my requiring his support, his clear-as-day love for me, and his constant kindness are suddenly too much partnership. Maybe something has built up to this moment, how much he respects my decisions and how, right now, I’m pretty sure my dad would say, just one step at a time. Have I ever been truly independent?
Here I am. Stuck on this rock.
James is waiting for me. Except now he’s sitting ten feet away, partitioning himself from my indecision. In the woods, and relationships, we cannot survive without communication, without honesty.
“I don’t know what’s stopping me,” I say. “I’m just grappling with my identity.”
That’s as honest as I can be. How can I be the independent woman my father raised me to be while this man here, this lover and keeper of my soul, is watching me crumble? He knows exactly where my limits are. He’s witnessing me fail.
He has no idea what I’m talking about. He waits a polite minute before returning to the issue at hand. He points upriver.
“Let’s just go look,” he says.
I’m trying to decipher who I am. Am I an independent woman, or am I safest under the wing of my trusted men? Right now, James just wants to cross the river. It’s as simple as that. He is surviving. And step one is exactly that: a step.
Towering over me, he lends two strong hands. “Just move your feet,” he says, smiling.
I let him pull me up. He is strong. And in love. I wipe my dusty tears across my dusty sleeves, pick up my pack, and decide, so am I.
Meghan Robins lives in Bend, Oregon, where she spends her time writing, rock climbing, and circumambulating mountains with her partner and friends. Her work has appeared in Powder Magazine, Tahoe Blues, and Kokanee Review. She is currently working on a historical novel set in a logging camp in Lake Tahoe in 1860.