Pemigewasett Wilderness Area
The White Mountains, New Hampshire, Summer 1993
Starting at the Lincoln Wood trailhead, we cut off onto Bondcliff Trail. On day one, we hiked about six miles, much of it on the old railroad logging trail. The first night we stopped in the early evening and set up camp. We were breaking in our minds and bodies, enjoying getting sweaty and being away from traffic and people and sounds, just far enough into the wilderness that we could feel alone and remote. That evening the rain started and continued all night. We had just bushwhacked off the trail when the storm came. We had excellent equipment with one exception. The tent was serviceable, but wasn’t built to withstand heavy rain. The first night was manageable, but we had to pack damp. Hikers try to avoid that, but we didn’t have any choice. We waited until afternoon but finally had to move on. We weren’t on a strict schedule but we wanted to log a few miles before night set in. So we kept going, the trail becoming narrow and rocky and the altitude rising sharply. We were close to 5,000 feet now.
Late afternoon the rain started again. The temperature dropped fast because of the altitude and the storm system. We later found out it was an unusually strong storm for June for the White Mountains. It’s not as though we were stupidly unprepared for what we were likely to deal with. We packed adequate clothing for this time of year under normal conditions. But these weren’t normal conditions. We put on our ponchos when it started to rain and just kept climbing.
At dusk, judging from the quick sundown the night before, we knew we had to stop soon. We hadn’t eaten since morning and we were tired from the steady climb. We looked for a place to pitch the tent. I was getting colder, soaked clean through despite my new poncho, which didn’t cover my lower arms and legs and boots. The boots were waterproofed, but leaks began to run rivulets into my socks. We kept thinking, just a few more minutes and we’ll come to some place that’s obviously right. We climbed from birch to pine, from deciduous to coniferous, from inclines to densely forested slopes. Finally Kurt said, we must stop. But I said, not quite yet, let s keep going, the landscape will change soon. It didn’t.
In the end we bushwhacked straight in from the trail and made ourselves, in the nearly dark, a makeshift site I hoped the trailwork- ers couldn’t see when they next passed by; we couldn’t get in as far as the rules dictate. Very dense forest—Kurt had to kill a small tree to make enough room even for our small tent. We got inside, but without enough space to get it pitched completely the fit was tight. It was still raining hard so we turned on the weather radio. That’s when we heard this was an unusually strong weather system for June. The rain was forecast to continue through the night and into the next day. Very strong winds accompanied this front. It blew so hard over the next hours that the sound and impact peeled our eyeballs open from resdess sleep—we thought the tent pole might snap. This went on all night. Water seeped into the tent and the temperature was dropping and one sleeping bag was getting wet inch by inch. We generated as much body heat as we could, ate cereal, and moved around to keep from getting too cold.
Are we in any danger of getting too cold? I asked. He said, No, we’re just in danger of getting very miserable. Breaking camp in the morning, we heard that the winds on Mt. Washington were 143 miles per hour during the storm. It was to continue windy, though the rain was to clear out. We figured we probably wouldn’t get across two mountains that day, but we wanted to cross at least one, Bondcliff. It was actually a nice morning. We dried out as best we could and began hiking toward the cliffs. Up in the trees it was windy, but not bad on the trail. The trees provided such dense cover that you couldn’t tell how strong the winds really were.
Near treeline we encountered a rock ledge steep enough that we had to take off our packs and do a different kind of climbing. I handed my pack up to Kurt and pulled myself up into the most spectacular view I’ve ever seen. Above treeline is an almost full-cir-cle panorama of the Franconia Notch. I had to cling to the rock surface and acclimate slowly. Falling from a great height is how my father died, so I pack some extra psychic weight near pinnacles. Heights have been among the determinants and shapers of my life. I clung to the rock face and breathed deeply—then slowly turned around. The peaks were pristine, worth every moment of the climb, more stunning than anything I’ve seen east of the Grand Canyon. We sat quietly, enjoying the great wind blow.
Hiking across the cliff tops an hour later, we were well above treeline. The cliffs were not sheer, but close enough to vertical to make you suck in your breath when you first saw them from around a bend. While they dropped to one side of us, to the other an incline of jagged rockface cragged across the mountain top. The trail itself runs right along the cliff, marked by stone cairns. At some points the trail was only a few feet from the edge of the cliff, so it was the sort of landscape you want to move through briskly and safely. The wind picked up again and began to stagger me sideways. Even Kurt was unsteady. My pack was light and I had a very wide ground pad, which may have been important to what next happened.
We encountered a flume of stone, a curved, broad avenue perhaps 40 feet wide that formed a concave area through which the wind whipped. We had to decide whether to go on or to turn back. Kurt threw rocks over the cliff into the wind. They blew back our way, or eddied wildly before disappearing down the cliff. The gusts that moved us sideways grew spooky, dangerous. We were now into the middle of this open area. I had already hit the ground several times, figuring that if I stayed low I’d be-okay. The gusts were so high we couldn’t hear each other well. I remember thinking that the only really safe way to do this, in such a high wind, would be to tie ropes to each other. You wouldn’t need pitons for the angle, but you could use protection from the wind itself.
Just as I was thinking, I need to turn back now, a huge gust seized my entire body and I flew through the air. We weren’t far from the cliff edge, but the wind was blowing in the other direction. I was completely airborne, and then—I never thought I’d have occasion to use this expression—I was dashed to the rocks. I tumbled side-to-side, smashing up against an outcropping, knees first.
Kurt had said earlier that he wondered when would be the first time on this trip that I’d say, What am I doing here? Now. What am I doing here? My life didn’t flash before my eyes, but I remember thinking, you’re in trouble, girlie-girl, maybe very big trouble. I instantly entered a timeless realm. Kurt was beside me. “Oh my lover,” he spoke into my ear over the wind. (Even at the time I thought this was a fine thing to say, and I will always remember it.) He asked how badly hurt I was, but I didn’t know. I needed to see if anything was broken, so I twisted my legs out from under me and tested my knees to see if they worked, especially the left, which is permanently damaged from repeated dislocation.
But the left knee worked. Then I realized the right knee was injured, though I literally felt almost nothing. Kurt was sheltering me with his body while pulling my backpack off me, and the wind was still screaming obscenities. We called to each other over its roar. Kurt asked me if I thought I could get to a place he was pointing toward, one that might offer some shelter. I said, yes, I can. Later he said it was obvious I was stunned. Since I thought I was answering him quite normally, how could he tell? He said there was something egoless about my voice, resignation expressed in a flat, emotionless, humorless tone. I was an automaton with a single, simple focus: to get some place before—before what? I could navigate, since nothing was actually broken. I half crawled, half staggered to that place of relative safety. Kurt dragged my pack over to this windbreak formed by two large rocks, where I could be assured of not being flown through the air again. I felt utterly weightless in that wind.
While Kurt scouted ahead, trying to figure out what we should do—go forward? go back? down the side of the mountain opposite the cliff?too rocky?—I lay there with my pack up against me. Then his pack sailed into me, nearly knocking me out, but when I recovered from the impact I realized that was a good place for it. I made a triangle with the two packs behind me and watched Kurt run from rock to rock, hunkering down behind large outcrops when the fiercest gusts came. Eventually he disappeared altogether from my sight.
There was something fringy, off-the-wall, about the entire experience, but especially about this seemingly eternal time alone. I don’t know how long it was—15 minutes, 20. ïn my essentially timeless state, I felt forever alone. I took stock of my situation: I was in a severe wind storm on the top of a mountain and I was injured and 1 didn’t know how I was going to get out of there. I had confidence in Kurt’s abilities to help me out of this situation, but his help depended on his return, and something could happen to him. I remember thinking, my dad died this way on purpose; I don’t want to die this way by accident.
I now realize that waiting for Kurt to return, I was beginning to experience the first stages of hypothermia. It was late afternoon, the temperature was dropping, I’d just sustained a shock to my entire system, had not eaten in several hours, and my clothes were both too thin and still damp from the night before. While Kurt scouted ahead, I sat still in one place with the cold wind blowing on me. The AMC White Mountain Guide specifies that hypothermia is the most serious danger to mountain hikers, and is caused by inability to preserve body heat because of “injury, exhaustion, lack of sufficient food, and inadequate or wet clothing.” All of these conditions applied.
Temperatures below 50 degrees are ideal for hypothermia to develop, and the temperatures on Bondcliff were in the 40s that day. I was shivering, and I assumed it was from lack of movement in the cold, and the shock of impact to my system. The AMC Guide states that in the circumstances outlined above, shivering “should be regarded as absolute evidence of hypothermia,” which, in mild cases such as mine fortunately was, ceases on its own. The crucial thing about hypothermia is that the person experiencing it usually does not know it and is likely to behave in strangely reckless ways—nor will others with him or her necessarily know the cause. When Kurt returned, we made the decision to go back along the cliff trail to the place below treeline where we’d seen a possible campsite on our way up. What Kurt later described as my state of shock during our descent back down the trail along the cliffs, and the behavior he indeed called “reckless,” was undoubtedly due to hypothermia. In memory, I have been able to reconstruct what was going through my mind—or what passed for a mind in those moments.
As we had negotiated the trail along the cliffs on the way up, I was somewhat fearful but resolved to do it, and greatly comforted by knowing that I would only have to do it once—our planned loop would have taken us along the ridge linking Bond, Guyot, South Twin, Galehead, Garfield, Lafayette, Lincoln, Little Haystack and Mount Liberty. In fact, as I later learned, none of these mountains would include rock formations as steep as the one that brought us above treeline that day, or cliffs of the height and relative sheerness of Bondcliff. Now I was traversing them again. Inching back along the trail that ran as close as a few feet from the cliff edge, trying to stay low and keep my balance against the rising wind, ì reassured myself further with the knowledge that, as Kurt later put it, the “physics of the thing” was with us—the wind came up over the peaks, blowing in the direction of the craggy but rounded mountain top. Yet eddies formed at the edge, buffeting me in every direction, so that sure-footedness was important. I did not think of my father’s fall to death as we traversed the trail the first time, but it cannot have been far below the surface of my consciousness. When we made the decision to return along the same path, that long-buried death broke through my thoughtlines, reminding me that legacy and inheritance sometimes work in ironic ways.
Kurt coaxed me forward along the quarter mile to the rocks where we would climb down to get below treeline, but there was no way we could hold hands—the rocks were too craggy, and we each needed both hands to maintain our own balance. When the huge gusts blew over the steady winds that would have been gale-force had we been on water, I hit the ground on my numbed knees, now bleeding through my leggings from the cuts. It was the absolute necessity of rising from each fall that felt more nearly impossible each time—clinging to the cold rock, nearly every inch of my front body in contact with terra firma, I felt relative safety. Every rise against that wind, closer and closer to the cliffs as we traveled back where we’d come from, was more terrifying. I began to fear that I would not be able to move at all.
So that when I’d rise part way, crouched low to make as much ground as possible while I could, I began, as Kurt said, to be slightly reckless, moving too fast, too far, with each foray. I knew that I could do it, if only the eddies did not stagger me sideways toward the cliff—but I also knew I could not do it for much longer. A sense of immobility was beginning to clutch not my body, but my spirit. Beating back the sense that panic could overtake me at any moment was not easy. And in this time I began to think, woodenly, robotical-ly, of my father.
I had escaped the family curse of depression that extends through four generations, that led my father to his suicide—or so the story I had told myself had gone, for most of my life. I was 5 when he died. Until I was almost 40, I was usually happy, seldom downcast, never what I’d call depressed (even in depressing circumstances or crises), always seeking to understand depression from outside of its grip, studying poets such as Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath who had lost their struggle with self-hatred, or with the inability to live their lives, as my father had lost his.
Then, nearing 40, a hormonal imbalance that signaled the onset of early menopause, though I did not know it at the time, threw me into deep, cyclical depressions. Depression—I hate the word, often say it with sarcasm verging on a sneer, both loving and missing the people in my life whom it has in one respect or another claimed, and also, tight-assed, work-ethic Protestant that I am, fighting the urge to judge those it has crippled, who, I have sometimes felt, can use its litanies and privileges as a crutch to avoid living their lives, taking existential responsibility for what they do, who they become, how they act upon their world. You want to be a victim? Be a victim. Shut up and leave me alone and get out of my way, because I’m here to live. And if you die, I’ll step over your body and get on with it.
Depression, familiar, hated family friend, destroyer of eros, of delight, of life well lived. I am not always so mean about it, have indeed spent a large part of my professional life trying to promote understanding and compassionate responses to its ravages. “And I alone have escaped to tell you, I shall tell you all…” I thought I would always be the messenger, translator of the language of depression, never to speak it as a native tongue. Because they were cyclical, my depressions always allowed me to imagine my way out; I knew that however I felt, I would not feel this way next week, or, at most, in a month. But as the depressions deepened, I began to imagine this, too: What if it didn’t lift? What if this black, clammy mist remained shrouded over me always? What if you woke up every morning, instead of just a few, feeling that you couldn’t live? For that is what my father and millions of other sufferers have experienced. For him, and him alone, I always saved complete compassion, never judging him. He is dead. My impatience is only with the living, of whom I am one.
Even at my lowest ebb, I never considered suicide. There were times I did not care very much about life, didn’t care whether or not, in particular, 1 lived—but that is not the same as an active desire to die, as I have been well taught by my father and the poets. The suicides are, as Anne Sexton wrote, “stillborn.” Like carpenters, they only ask “Which tools?” They never ask, “Why build?” That building, that creating, is the destruction of the self.
Yet knowing the unconscious as I do, both theoretically and actually, what validity could I really attribute to my conviction that I never wanted to die, that I am, on the contrary, committed to living? Only opposites are true. A cigar is seldom only a cigar. With Freud, I believe in what psychoanalytic theory calls the “death instinct,” fell enemy of the pleasure principle. The aim of all life is death; we just go about getting there in various ways. Looking at myself and at most of the people I know, I see how self-destructive patterns give a degree of lie to our lively struggles to live, always to live. The enemy has outposts in our heads.
Had I come to this height, like the white moth devoured by the spider in Robert Frost’s “Design,” to die? Was there a dark plan for me? Was it the universe’s, or merely my own? Years before, at Big Bend in Texas, I’d watched dung beetles on the trail, and corrected Frost’s “What but design of darkness to appall, if design govern in a thing so small”; for me, it would be, “What but design of lightness to delight—if design govern in a thing so bright.” Now those lines of Frost’s came to me again, turned back toward their dark and original plan:
What brought the white moth thither in the night? What brought the kindred spider to that height?
Unsure whether there is a plan for darkness or for light, I have always opted in favor of No Plan. And yet? And yet? No inflated sense of personal significance need attach to me or to my life for Frost’s nightmare vision to come true—I am indeed a “thing so small.” Does some malign force in the universe, or in me, take delight In such infinitesimal, vicious ironies? if so, what a fine one this would be, 1 thought, face against rock, raised eye occasionally commanding the stunning view of the peaks from which I could fall and die. After all, I’d come here pridefully planning to master my fear.
And a further, final, tidy irony came to me in the form of my last words to my father as he left that morning to kill himself I was upset that he’d tied my shoe too loose. He tied it tighter. It was too tight. I cried. He tied it looser. Nothing would please me. “I hate you, I hate you, go away!” I screamed it at him, over and over, sitting on the top step, looking down at him where he stood on the stairway landing, gazing a final time at his daughter wild with stupid rage, shrieking imprecations at him.
It hardly takes a rocket psychoanalyst to know that when, just hours later, the news of his bloody death came, I blamed myself for it. For years I told no one what I’d done that day, successfully repressing my guilt. Later, as an adult, I exhumed my tirade for examination, forgiving myself, knowing that the child was not to blame, could not have known. Then I banished it—healthy, healthy me—from consciousness, never bothered by it or feeling any terrible attachment to it even when I spoke of it. But probably no priest in the world, even were I Catholic instead of a Presbyterian minister’s daughter, could offer absolution to my unconscious.
There on the mountain top, beside the cliff, injured, in shock, affected by hypothermia, with night coming on, feeling as if I might be fighting for my life, clipped phrases came to me:
Like father, like daughter.
It serves you right. You killed him and now you will die in the same way.
An eye for an eye. A life for a life.
Dust to dust, corpse on the sidewalk to corpse on the ground.
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.
But I didn’t fall. Not all of my poets and parents are dead. My mother, Janice Hume, still lives, a strong and determined and independent person, alone in her 70s. I am her inheritor as well as my father’s. Adrienne Rich continues among my poetic mothers, speaking to me after the fact, though she wrote this long before my trip:
My foot drags in the foothills of two lands;
At the turn the spirit pauses
and faces the high passes:
bloodred granite, sandstone steeped in blood.
At the turn the spirit turns,
looks back—if any follow—
squints ahead—if any lead—
What would you bring along on a trek like this?
What is bringing you along?
—Adrienne Rich, from “Turning”
At the turn my spirit paused, faced the high passes. At the turn my spirit turned and looked back—at my father. And then I looked ahead to survival. My recklessness I attribute to hypothermia. The calm beneath it, the steady steps that finally brought me back, arose authentic, simple, whole, from my desire to live. What I brought along on this trek was my fear. The question Rich does not ask, I ask now: What did I leave behind there? My answer is the same: my fear. I did not fall. My father is still dead, and I am still alive.
Lincoln, New Hampshire
Kurt has remained on the mountain, committed to finishing the hike. I’m in a motel in Lincoln after four days recovering in a campsite below treeline. I came off the trail with my backpack and as soon as my feet hit the concrete I became unsteady. I hiked to the ranger station where I hoped to find my car unmolested, and it was. But on concrete I could feel my injuries more. I felt a strangeness I can compare only to what it must be like to be involuntarily, unpleasantly drugged. I couldn’t find my land legs. This aspect of coming out of a wilderness area after many days must be common. There must be a name for it among packers. Because it was my first time, I was a hazard to myself. If I had been hiking into town with a pack and a walking stick, perhaps people would have expected me to act a bit odd, but not behind the wheel, wielding thousands of pounds of powerful metal.
I couldn’t keep a handle on where I was or what I was doing. I would say out loud, Find a money machine, get ice, Ace bandages, a hotel. But I couldn’t manage a whole series like that in one chunk. I had to break it down into simpler tasks. Turn here. Park car. Get out. Put keys in hand. Walk across street. I couldn’t focus or concentrate, couldn’t keep my mind on what I was doing. I just sat in parking lots and stood outside my van for long periods of time. I consulted my hands often to see what, if anything, was in them. I would be suddenly convinced that I had left my bags somewhere or hadn’t locked the van. Sometimes it was a good thing I did check. This is a mountain town where I suppose people must stagger in from the woods a lot, vulnerable and slightly crazed.
I could feel the impact of every step on the pavement. It took a couple of hours to get to the money machine, buy ice, bandages, a splint. I started trying to find a motel. I would get in the van and say, Okay, you’ve just done this. Now do that. Then I’d stare ahead at nothing.
My injuries hurt more throughout the day—and I had thought they’d hurt less when I’d ceased maneuvering over tree roots and rocks. I stopped at three motels, all with rates higher than I wanted to pay. After the third motel I headed to the highway south of Lincoln for cheaper rates, but that’s when I realized I was not safe on the road. So I turned around and went back to this resort with offseason rates—$65 a night—and saunas and pools and anonymity. I wanted that. I didn’t want a bed and breakfast or a Mom and Pop place where you have to ask Pop for ice. But most important, I couldn’t deal with just a shower—I had to have a bathtub to soak my injured legs. Most of these mountain places have only showers and I finally realized I’d have to pay more for a bathtub. So I stumbled to the desk and got out my credit card and said something really cogent, like Here. My hands were filthy and my bandages were splitting and dirty and my kneecaps were crusted with blood.
The manager behind the counter seemed to recognize this situation. I told him I just came off the mountain. He said, You want a room and a bath. Where’s your car? If you have any trouble, let me know. He was accommodating, but not in that looking-for-a-tip way. Then I stood near my van thinking: I don’t know what I need in the room. Some of it is in my backpack, some in the van, I was standing at the open doors, dazed, when the manager fellow appeared at my side. He helped me sort through things. He told me how he had gone up the same mountain last year alone, had an accident, fallen and cracked some ribs and injured his legs. He wasn’t sure if he could get down. This explained his sympathy. He directed me to the clinic where they handle a lot of people who come down injured. He advised me to have someone look at my hand and my legs right away. My cloth tape was falling off and I was limping. I wasn’t trying to look pathetic; by this time, I just was pathetic. Whereas I’d felt strong just hours before in the woods, I now felt suddenly weakened.
The process of getting into my room, eating bread and cheese and Mounds Bars (my first purchase was chocolate), wandering around assembling things the way one does in a motel room, took me literally hours. I checked in at 3 and it was somehow 8 before I got out of the bathtub. But I got myself some ice—the machine near my room was broken so I had to walk to the other end of the hotel, and it’s one huge building. I had to avoid being stampeded in the hall by a busload of old folks. This woman was walking by them grunting and limping—but my hair is clean, my wounds are rebound, I’ve got vitamin E on my knee, and an appointment at the clinic tomorrow morning. I turned on the television and watched “Murphy Brown” and “Sherlock Holmes” and the news. It’s raining here now, and there are thunderstorms up in the mountains. From the window in my room I can see them. Kurt is somewhere up there.
When Kurt and I were on the last part of the trail together, he said, What might be important enough in the outside world that people coming up the trail would stop you and tell you about it? You could gear the importance of something that way. Did you hear southern California fell into the sea? Did you hear there’s been a nuclear war? Did you hear everyone is dead? What’s the magnitude of an event that people would inform each other of up there? Tonight when I went to buy a newspaper I ended up with one of those local mountain weeklies with a kid holding up his fish on page one. Later I flipped through the TV channels and on CNN the big news was of blasting Iraq. While we were in the mountains, America bombed Iraq again. I’m hearing this news alone, which reminds me that nobody in the world knows where I am—not my mother, not my kids, not my employers, not my friends, not my loves, not my dog, not even Kurt, with whom I’m traveling, knows where I am. This gives me the solitude I need to continue the work of thinking my way through this situation.
Kurt said to me in a fight a year ago that he didn’t regret anything that he had done during our relationship. Since what he had done to me at the time seemed awful for one person to do to another, I said, “How can you never regret?” He repeated it: “I never regret anything. To regret is to permit self-hatred. Not to regret is my religion.” I thought that was strange—lack of regret as a fundamental religious tenet? Over the past year I’ve come to see some of what he intended. He meant that you must challenge yourself to learn from that for which you might merely have said, “I’m sorry” I still believe that if one commits an act of violence, not regretting is inflexible and cruel. But Kurt meant it as William Blake meant his Proverbs of Hell: Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desire. Take that literally and it’s homicidal tyranny. If read more radically it’s useful. I am learning how rejecting regret can be creative, and how much it hurts.
Since I go to Cape Cod at this time each year, I’d normally be on the Cape right now. I’m not exactly sure what I wanted to do here, as compared to the Cape, where I would have been sitting still, recharging my batteries, reading books, relaxing, looking at the bay, my creature comforts well met. This trip was the substitute, and it hasn’t been anything like that, nor did I expect that it would. I let go of the need for the Cape this year. I couldn’t go there because Mac, my ex-mate, got married in our cottage of 20 years’ standing, to which we returned every season as veteran renters. He asked if he could use the place for part of the time this year, and I said sure. He had left it to me—even though we don’t own it, the right to rent it during this time was mine in the breakup, and that division of parts was his idea. When he asked if he could go there, he didn’t say why. He didn’t say he was getting married there. He didn’t say he was going to use it as his honeymoon cottage. Had I done such a thing without a word to him, he would have regarded it as yet another of my betrayals of trust and love. Whatever he did was justified, he felt, by the fact that I left him. This is painful stuff that I’m working through. When it’s there, it’s just there. I wouldn’t feel at home on the Cape, now.
When Kurt gave me the option to go backpacking with him, I thought about it carefully and long, and finally said yes. Part of what I’m doing is a voyage of healing, a final journey during which I will let go of Mac as he let go of me. It’s difficult, filled with pain and love and his belief that I nearly destroyed him. He takes little responsibility. It’s difficult to have designated this a healing journey, and to end up at the top of mountain cliffs, hurting myself physically and mentally.
Many times a day since it happened a week ago, I see myself heading for those rocks. Thinking it through, I encounter more and more symbolic levels at which it occurred. Every night since then I have dreamed about Mac—a man nearly old enough to be my father, who was as convinced I wanted to destroy him as I am internally convinced I destroyed my father. When I told Mac I was going backpacking, he said with a dry laugh, “Right. When I asked you to go with me, you never would.” That’s not true—I devoted my summers to traveling with him for 15 years, would have gone anywhere with him. Yet somehow my backpacking now becomes another act against him. For a woman so hell-bent on destroying men—Mac is not the first to accuse me of it—I’ve loved mine pretty well. They don’t accuse me of hating men until I display a strong will of my own that cannot always bend to theirs. Then they see me as a malicious destroyer, a fatal attraction that nearly broke them down. The pattern is amazingly consistent.
Now several interpretations are possible here. Might they be right? I know I have to resist mental over-generalizing about men, but I do resist it; and while I potentially fear men, that’s not the same as hatred. In my relationships to men, I have often felt my own needs nearly obliterated by meeting their needs, an internal perception supported not only by others close to me but also, ironically, by each of my men in his turn. Observing that same pattern in my relationship with his predecessor, each one says that although he’s seen The One Before Him doing that, and doesn’t understand why I don’t stand up for myself, it will be different with him. So far it hasn’t been. Another possible reading is that I’m a woman who unconsciously seeks out men who will try to control her, against whose tyrannies she will always have to rise to function as an individual.
This possibility is not unlikely, though I hate it. Or perhaps the construction of masculinity in our patriarchy creates a surfeit of such men, such that no neurosis on my part is necessary. This is the possibility often mentioned to me by both women and by men of good will. I hesitate to believe it because then it’s back to square one, where I’m able to be cast as man-hater by the very men who come to hate me. I suspect a lethal combination of the latter two hypotheses—i.e., I’m sick and so are they.
In any case, feeling strong without Mac was important to me. But I went up there and broke myself. Now I’m in bed with bloody kneecaps, swollen ankles, a broken finger. What do I do with that? I’ve got to do something creative with it, and it’s got to be mental. Coming down off of the mountain, hurting, the matter of attitude has been crucial. I have had an adventure I’ll never forget. I will tell this to my grandchildren: I was once picked up by a hundred mile an hour wind on the top of a mountain. I learned about turning back as well as going forward. Talking that way, thinking that way, was important to getting down from the mountain. If I had looked at it only as a terrible accident, I might have had to be carried out on a litter. Attitude matters.
Now that I’m on the ground, I’m recovering. This morning I’ll go to the walk-in clinic. I’ll be OK. But this lost time isn’t retrievable. I needed it desperately. I can’t work 80 and more hours a week without a rest to gather my forces. I would, I believe, simply break down if this pace were to go on. How do I now keep the experience and the memory fundamentally positive? How to keep thinking the same way I did on the mountain? I need to find the right metaphor to place it into an eternity within time, make a way to keep it sacred. And that brings me back to understanding what Kurt meant by Never regret.
I must speak as if in some way I don’t regret what happened, until I really believe it. I have to keep speaking that way and thinking that way as much as I can, taking into consideration this challenge I’ve faced and learned from. I have to say, This is what happened here, and this is what I did to contribute to this, and this is what I newly know. And I’ve got to do this fiercely or I will lose myself in the muck of self-pity. I must rethink what this trip came to be about, symbolically, regarding Mac as well as my father. It was about being strong without Mac, my 20-year base camp. It was about having experiences I never had with him. The four years since I’ve left him have been filled with fine ways of being that I would never have known in our life together. I permitted them to myself—myself, not half of a Platonic soul-egg whose embryo was insistent desires and needs, many of which felt destructive to me. I could not have remained half of that whole and still have come to know myself this way, or grown to become the me that I am.
I wish Mac had been able to change with me and not have been afraid. I loved him, and our parting wrenched me. I’d rather have grown old with him. But he didn’t or couldn’t change, and I had to leave. What I have found out about struggle, achievement, knowledge, and my own dearly individual joy for many moments at a time, I could not have had with him. Though we were supposed to be about all those things, we had come to be about repression and good behavior—mine, not his. That was what I would always have known in the home of my dear old love, not mountains and edges and cliffs and wild wind. I do not regret. I will say it until I believe it is true.
I just went for morning coffee in the “Mountain Room.” I brought it back here to my room because I really don’t feel like talking to anybody, or being in any room connected, even titularly, to mountains. I walked in there completely forgetful that last night, I put a sanitary napkin folded in half on my knee because I had run out of gauze pads and my new Ace bandage was too tight. I came hobbling into the lounge with my Kotex on my knee, my splinted fingers, and probably a stark, rabid look in my eye. The senior citizens milled about, speaking of someone in their group who is limping. A woman pointed to me and said, “Oh look there, she’s just a girl and she’s hobbling, too. What happened to you?” She almost shrieked it.
The whole room looked at me. People pointed to my knee pad, also constructed of other intimate wear—a pair of panties tied creatively around the Kotex. The woman who pointed said, “What did you do, play soccer?” That would have been safer. I told them the short form of what happened up there, which sounded lunatic to them. It was, but not in the way their perceptions processed it. I said to her, “I’m not a girl, I’m a grandmother like you.” She replied, wryly, “You’re still a girl to me, dear.” She had white hair, walked with a cane, and was traveling alone, probably having outlived her husband. A lot more women than men were there, as always with groups of seniors. The widows travel in herds. As I left the lounge they were talking about the crazy things young people do. I’m not feeling young at all right now. I’m creaking.
All right then. How not to regret that? Easy: This is good rehearsal time for empathizing with the stringencies of old age, when women must so often be alone for the last years of their lives. The younger woman I looked like, emerging from the woods, is the foremother and foreshadow, the daughter and the inheritor, of the woman who emerges from the Trailways bus. They have much in common. One uses a walking stick, the other a cane. One still looks primarily to the future, and the other to the past, but this difference determines their continuity: If remembering the past is part of the old woman’s present, if her past constitutes, shapes, builds up moment by moment to that always emergent present, then let her be always active, immanent, embodied, and tough enough to walk that lonesome valley by herself.