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April 1999

The Mother of All Beginner Trips

Imagine that your well-coiffed, country club mother calls and says, "I want to go backpacking." Would it be your worst nightmare or a family dream come true?

We slowly made our way back to camp, meandering through open meadows and flowers, then along a gurgling creek. Mom lingered, and when I turned around to check on her, she was doubled over, yanking on the tongue of her boot. “I think I might be getting a blister,” she said sheepishly.

I removed her boot, saw that she was blister-free, then changed the lacing to relieve the pressure. Kneeling in the dirt, as I double-knotted her laces, I wondered how many hundreds of bowknots she had tied for me over the years. She stood up and took a few steps. “Much better,” she said. “Thank you, honey.”

“You’re welcome. I figure I probably owe you a few.”

Back at camp, it was time for the twins to face their number two fear. “It’s not a big deal,” I told them. “Trust me, you’ll feel much better.”

Mom grudgingly agreed and potty training commenced. With trowel and TP in hand, I led her to a secluded spot, dug a cathole, and told her what to do. She listened intently and I tried to keep a straight face. “You can do it, Mom!” I said, mustering my best exclamation point.

A few minutes later she returned triumphant and said to her sister, “It’s not that bad, Linda, really.” I led my apprehensive aunt into the trees.

One of my earliest memories is of my mom taking care of me when I was sick. I must have been four or five, and I woke up in the middle of the night wheezing and gasping and hacking like my lungs were filled with sawdust. Mom turned on the shower as hot as it would go, sat me next to the bathtub, and rubbed my back and talked gently until my lungs cleared.

On our final night in the mountains it was my turn to take care of Mom. She has a chronic ear problem that can feel “like someone’s shoving a skewer into the side of my head,” as she once described it. It had started bothering her that afternoon, and as we ate dinner I could see it was getting worse. Every few minutes, she’d wince and tilt her head to the side. As soon as dinner was over, she took four pain relievers and went into the tent to lie down.

I tried to stay calm. She wasn’t in danger, but to see her in agony made me feel ill. Then Aunt Linda remembered their mother’s home remedy, which I improvised by soaking some tampon cotton with olive oil. I gently packed her ear with the cotton from a tampon, then placed a hot-water bottle next to her head. She was asleep within minutes.

I stayed awake most of the night, listening to the wind howl and the snow crystals bounce off the tent. At 3 a.m. I found Mom wide-eyed with pain. I felt the bottle next to her head: lukewarm. “I’ll get up and heat some more water,” I whispered.

“No, don’t be silly,” she murmured back to me. “There’s a storm out there. You stay right in your sleeping bag. I’m fine.”

Fifteen minutes later, with a fresh hot-water bottle against her ear, she was sleeping peacefully. Lying there next to my mother, listening to her breathe I thought, “This must be what it’s like when your child gets sick or hurt. I’ll be a basket case.”

We rose the next morning to dark gray clouds, strong wind, and an inch of fresh snow. The weather may have been dismal, but mom’s ear was better, and we had hot showers, real toilets, and a celebratory feast with the rest of the family waiting at home.

On the hike down the mountain, snow pelted us from all directions, wind tore at our faces, and the trail became more slippery by the minute. We were bundled head to toe in good, weather-fighting clothes, which-combined with the exercise-kept us warm and dry. The twins couldn’t get over it. Mom poked her nose out from her hood and watched a pine tree sway like a blade of grass. “It seems like we should be miserable out here in this storm” she said, and Aunt Linda finished her thought: “but we’re completely comfortable!”

By now, Mom and Aunt Linda were pros with their trekking poles. With great satisfaction, I watched them maneuver down the slick mountainside with the grace of veteran Nordic skiers. But what amazed me most was that they seemed in no great hurry to get back to civilization. Such rough

weather would have prevented them from walking to the end of the driveway a week before, but now they were happily strolling along in it, even stopping from time to time to gape at the wind-lashed lodgepoles.

I caught myself swelling with pride at their enthusiasm, their willingness to put themselves so totally in my care. Despite all the other beginner trips I’d organized and led, I’d never fully appreciated how much of a gift that kind of trust could be.

That night we met my father, uncle, brother, and cousin at a fancy restaurant. Mom and Aunt Linda-freshly showered, blown-dry, and rouged-looked tan, healthy, and younger than ever. They babbled excitedly, rehashing trip details for the eager audience. As the coffee was served, Mom turned to my dad and said, “Danny, you should have seen Kristin. She took such good care of us. I was so proud of her.”

“Funny you should say that, Mom,” I said. “I was just thinking the same thing about you.”

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