Mountains. Distant mountains rising above the valley. Some blue-green touching the sky and some golden-brown thrusting the land up to heaven. They feed our spirit and renew our faith.
My mother loved the mountains – any mountains, all mountains. She had this need to see them – to travel to them. They were her church, her temple. Her soul was incomplete without them.
Sadly fate forced her to live in the valley, where she could daily look upon the mountain, but rarely travel there. She made her pilgrimages to the Yosemite high country as often as she could. From her home in Stockton she’d often take a Saturday drive into the golden foothills above Sonora, California. In summer she’d drive over the pass on highway 108 to Bridgeport. In winter she’d stop just below Pinecrest.
These trips were ones I only heard about – often from her friends and not her. It was in a time after her divorce when the need to get a job, drove her to move 100 miles away from where her now-adult-children lived. She needed the comfort of the forest, the peace of a mountain stream, and the solitude that only can be found in a meadow.
Or so I suspect.
When I was a child, before teenage problems and before father’s alcoholism finally shattered what was left of her marriage and our family life, she would take me and my brothers on long summer vacations to the mountains – the coast range of California, the Sierra Nevada, Marble Mountains, Siskiyous, Tehachapi, the Grand Tetons, the Rockies and once even into the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Mother was a teacher and on those trips she taught her sons to love the mountains too. She showed us their importance, their majesty – their soul renewing power.
I now find myself in the same trap as Mother – forced to earn my living in the flat lands and only getting to visit the vistas and tall trees on occasion. Each year Heather and I make our pilgrimage to the sacred Tuolumne Meadows and breath in the life-giving air of that high place. It was one of my mother’s favorite places and I can’t help but remember her when I am there.
Once a month we drive into the hills and hike for a few hours – barely enough time to taste the air but enough time to remember and renew a little.
Just after my mother retired and just before her health failed I decided that we should go on one more car trip together. I’d become interested in the Pacific Crest Trail (link to PCA). The PCT is a hiking trail over 2,000 miles long stretching from the Mexican border and ending in Canada, that generally follows the crests of the mountains that form the boundary along the west coast. Hundreds of ‘thru hikers’ hike the entire distance in a single year – spending six to eight months on foot. Thousands more hike sections of it.
I showed Mother the maps I had and suggested that we could drive to many of the places where the trail crossed the road. We would start in Southern California, just northeast of Los Angles and then up highway 395 following the eastern Sierra until we got to just north of Lake Tahoe. I only had a week’s vacation so our time was limited.
It was an interesting trip and a reversal of roles. I drove and mother sat in the passenger seat. She had recently had knee replacement surgery on both knees and couldn’t walk too far, so we couldn’t do any hiking. Mother got tired easily so we made it a low energy trip.
Each day fell into a rhythm – we had brought an ice chest with food for breakfasts and lunches and it was my job to haul them out in the morning so mother could fix our breakfast and decide if we needed to stop at a store. I’d check the maps, the gas tank and the water bottles and then we’d be off to find the next place the PCT crossed the road. Then we’d find a picnic spot and I’d haul out the ice chest. Mother made the sandwiches. Then it was down the road again chasing lines on a map.
Around 4 pm, I’d start looking for a motel and a place for dinner. By 6 pm we were usually checked into a room and off on foot to find a restaurant.
Mother talked the entire trip – every waking moment. She complained that I wouldn’t let her drive and then would see something that would remind her of a story – then she’d be off down memory lane. She told me things on that trip that she’d never spoken of before – her problems with father, her disappointments with life, where she found strength, her faith – even a few subjects I didn’t want to know about.
I just listened and eventually the journey ended and we came home. I returned to work and she returned to her apartment, but neither of us ever forgot that trip. Neither of us spoke much about it to others – it was our private time together.
I’d like to think that I gave her something on that trip. I know I received from her.
My last gift to her was after she died from cancer. Heather and I went to the cemetery to pick her gravesite. Where Mother wanted to be buried (where her parents and other family are) is getting full and there aren’t many sites left. They led us to a far corner of the cemetery to a section that had some space left. At first I wasn’t sure, as it was very far from where my grandparents graves are.
But then we found the number marker just up a little hill and I looked up from the grass into the distance – beyond my grief – I could see the mountains.