Right now my mind is buzzing in ten different directions. There is so much happening that I can’t focus on that one thing I want to write about. Usually I decide on a direction before I sit at the keyboard but my soul is waffling. I’d like to write more about my hike yesterday and about the books I am working on. There are still things about the cross I haven’t said and there was a hymn in church this morning that reminded of something I wanted to say.
But then there was the trip to the cemetery today that is still weighing on my mind and my soul. I’ve been fighting with my mind for the last 30 minutes – this wasn’t to be my mother’s day post. It was going to be a post about mountain lions and wild flowers
But my brothers and I stood by the grave today. How could she not be on my mind.
Her picture is on the wall above my desk, smiling as I struggle for words – any words.
My mother. A contradiction in life and a puzzle my soul has yet to understand. One day she could be strong, a survivor, and on another helpless and unable to do anything. Educated, but couldn’t balance a check book.
It was my mother who gave me my love of the wilderness, of camping, of hiking and of being in God’s creation. Some of my earliest memories are of being at camp with her. She taught my bothers and I to pitch a tent, build a campfire and how to collect water from a stream.
Every summer until I was a teen she took me traveling with her. There isn’t a state west of the Mississippi that I haven’t been in because of her. I’ve seen Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. I’ve been to Zion, the Petrified Forest, the rockies and have seen parts of King’s Canyon that only park rangers and my mother have been to.
My mother insisted that I join the boy scouts for at least a year. She thought it was important that I learn their ways and skills. I stayed in scouting for two years but I was never a good scout, in the sense that I worked to get merit badges or advance my rank. It was the camping, hiking and biking that I loved, not the other trappings of scouting.
I’ll have to say that one reason I didn’t like scouting too much, was because of my mother. The scout master would get annoyed with me when I’d correct him on the proper way to light a fire with one match or the best place to pitch a tent. I remember an assistant scout master trying to teach me a lesson in map reading and being surprised that I already knew how to read a topography map. My mother had already taught me those lessons and I thought she knew it better than they did.
When I was twelve my mother decided it was time I saw Water Wheel Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne up in the Yosemite high country. At the time she was 45, over weight, out of shape, but convinced it was the thing to do. She went through our camping supplies, found two old boy scout rucksacks, two WWII surplus mess kits, an old canteen and a piece of plastic for a ground sheet. Then she took me to the local camping store where we rented a couple of light weight “mummy” bags. Then she bought a small backpack size stove, a small pot and a three day supply of dehydrated food. I was very delighted when she found a box of “Tropical Heresy Bars.” I wasn’t sure what hardtack was but she bought plenty.
Weeks before this I had obtained the maps we needed by writing to the USGS in Menlo Park asking for the two topography maps we’d need. I remember the surprised and puzzled look the school librarian gave me when I came in and asked if she could help me find the correct address to write to.
We arrived in Tuolumne Meadows two days before the hike in mid June – mother wanted a couple of days to adjust to the altitude (8600 feet). Mother insisted that we go in early season because the falls would be at their highest. The fact that this meant that all the rivers would be at their highest and harder to cross never came into her thinking. Instead we made camp at the driest campsite the ranger had and I tried to ignore the fact that half the camp was still closed due to snow on the ground.
On the morning of our hike, mother stopped at the ranger station telling them our plans and then we drove to the trailhead. We put on our boots, filled the canteen in the river and slung the rucksacks on our backs. We must have used enough DEET to cause permanent nerve damage to fight off the mosquitoes and then set off down the trail past Soda Springs, over the twin bridges and towards the Glen Aulin High Sierra camp.
We crossed the streams feeding the Tuolumne by crawling over logs, balancing on rocks or just as often by taking off boots and socks and splashing through the icy water. We must have made quite a sight – mother and son, clearly ill equipped and woefully unfit for the journey.
But we made in to Glen Aulin in mid afternoon and mother sent me off to find firewood. At dinner time I went down to the river with the canteens and filled a pot with water. Then I lit the little gas stove while eating one of the candy bars. Beef stew over hardtack – I can’t remember a better meal I ever had with mother.
In the morning we left most of our supplies and gear in camp and I took one rucksack with lunch, maps and water. We then set off downstream in search of the falls.
There were other people on the trail that day and we would often stop to talk with them and compare maps. About mid-day we found the falls and sat down to a lunch of hardtack, dried fruit, canned deviled ham and a chocolate bar for desert.
It’s hard to describe the falls. Upstream there is a water fall and the river cascades over solid granite. Then somewhere in the middle of the stream the water hits something and the water shoots into the air making a graceful half wheel. To my young eyes the water seemed to shoot up a hundred feet and the noise of the falls sounded like the roar of a million jet engines.
Awestruck. That is what I was. I’d never seen anything like it before and I knew that only the few who braved the 11 miles along the river could see it. It became a moment that mom and I would share – a moment that became one of the bonds of our life.
It was an uphill hike back to camp and the other package of beef stew with a carefully measured one-third of our remaining hardtack for dinner. After that mother figured we had enough candy bars left to have two for desert.
At first light I woke and carefully fetched more water. After a breakfast of oatmeal and – yes – hardtack, we packed up camp and started the long climb out of Glen Aulin. It was a hard climb for mom. She wasn’t in very good physical shape and had to stop often to rest. Thinking back on the climb out I am surprised she didn’t have a heart attack on the trail. She then taught me a hiking lesson I’ve never forgotten – the rest step. She’d take a half step and rest for two seconds. Then take another half step and rest for two seconds. She showed me how and said, “don’t stop, but don’t go so fast that you run out of breath.”
Sometime in the late morning we stopped for an early lunch and to let mom rest. While we were sitting a group of college aged young men appeared. They were out on a day hike and after doing a little rock scrambling had gotten turned around. I pulled out my map and compass and showed them where there were. Then I gave them directions to the parking lot.
They sensed my mom’s problem and walked with us for awhile, helping her cross over a stream on a log. After a time they offered to carry mom’s pack but said that they had to hurry back to the parking lot because someone was waiting for them. I still don’t know why mom did this but she gave me the car keys and told me to show the young men to the car and wait there for her.
It was odd and today we’d never let a 12 year old wonder off with four strangers and the keys to the car. But at the time it was an adventure to me. The young men were kind, fun and watched out for me. At one point they carried me over a stream to save time (I was about to take my shoes off and wade).
At the car they left mom’s pack and said their good byes. I put my pack in the car and waited under a tree. I don’t think I waited long as I became concerned about mom. I grabbed a canteen, the map and my two remaining candy bars and headed back up the trail.
I found her siting on a log about a mile and half from the trailhead and gave her one of the candy bars.
I don’t remember where we went after that. All I do remember is the thrill of the hike and the beauty of the falls.
Mom died on March 12, 2007 after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. It was a difficult time in our family’s life. She was my friend and my two brothers were especially close to mom. I was the one helping to manage her healthcare when she was admitted to the hospital. I took the call from the oncologist and I was the son who had to walk into the hospital room with the doctor to tell her, “You’re dying.”
How do you tell someone that?
I’ve done it and I still don’t know how.
Yesterday I hiking on Russian Ridge, not exactly Waterwheel Falls but still the memory of that hike along the Tuolumne came to mind.
Today it came back to mind. Since mom died we three brothers gather in March to visit the cemetery and to remember her.
Most years, in March but not this year. In March I had just finished my own treatments for prostate cancer and I wasn’t physically or emotional strong enough. Instead we picked a Sunday closer to Mother’s day.
Today was that day – a glorious spring day. The sun was bright and a gentle breeze cooled the grass.
There in the sun we stood by the grave and looked at the gravestone that simple says:
Irene Gloria Reynolds
9-27-1927 – 3-12-2007