A couple of weeks ago, I took my parents to the Appalachian Mountains in Eastern Tennessee. I have been writing about hiking and the lore and mythology that surrounds America’s great natural past time, walking the Appalachian Trail. I’d wanted to do some research and hike as well as spend some time with my parents at a cabin I’d found on Lake Watauga. And it was my birthday. My parents are aging and have struggled with the onset of my mother’s loss of memory, due to early stage Alzheimer’s.
It didn’t take long to realize that my plans to take a long hike alone weren’t realistic. The second day there my mother wandered down the road while my father and I were collecting firewood near the cabin. We found her after a panicked search up and down country roads, standing next to a bridge, looking at wildflowers by the road.
I got out and handled her some water. “Have you been looking for me? my mother asked innocently. My father, sitting rigid and ready to explode, literally bit down on his false teeth. “Yes, we wondered where you went, Mom,” I told her, reaching for her hand, and helping her into the back seat.
“I just need to walk sometimes. Things pull me in and I get to looking a them and then, sometimes, I lose what time it is and forget where I am.” She explained as we drove back to our cabin. “I’m sorry.”
The next day everything was back to normal, and I suggested we all take a short hike to an overlook on top of Roan MT. When we get there, my father begs out and says he'll hang around the parking lot, complaining of his hip and lungs; though in reality, as an old athlete, it’s just too frustrating for him to have to try to keep up. I don’t push. My father’s pride is something I feel in my own body, and, in a way, it’s up to me, to help him protect it. But my mother is out of the car and ready to go before me. "I'm ready."
Though my mother’s in very good physical health and loves walking when my parents go to Florida, she’s on unfamiliar ground. This isn’t a wide-open beach. It’s a dark over-grown forest of pine, fir, and tangles of rhododendron trees. The trail is flat but full of roots and rocks. I slow down, slow more, and finally stop and wait for her. It’s going to be a long walk, I think, as I watch her, concentrating on each step.
Then she stops. “I think I need a walking stick. They’re good to hike with don’t you think?”
“Sure, good idea, mom.” (I hate hiking sticks, though they are now de rigor for most hikers.) We find this rickety rhododendron branch and she looks like a character from a Grimm’s Fairy Tale, but it helps her, though it doesn’t change our pace much.
My mother hiking the AT
I try to relax and enjoy being with my mother on the trail. I take some photos. It’s just a short walk, I tell myself. But coming up to the first trail marker, I can see we’ve gone barely a tenth of a mile. I take a breath and watch her as she takes her careful steps, each movement an act of concentration. But it’s not just her unsteadiness and unfamiliarity that slows her pace. It’s her fascination with the novelty of the landscape. She stoops and looks at the moss on some rocks. “I've got moss like this in my garden, isn’t it something, so green and thick. It’s everywhere.”
My mother's Garden
As I watch her, I think that it was probably not far from here, down the Appalachian Trail a hundred miles or so, where my parents took me and my sisters on our first nature hike, in the rainy summer of 1962 camping in the Great Smokey Mountains.
It finally occurs to me as we reach a rather rough spot that she needs to hold my hand. I wasn’t sure if she wanted my help. But when I put out my hand, she grabs it and pulls me toward her. We walk a long but now the pace seems somehow no longer to bother me.
Of course, I’ve held my mother’s hand before. The evening before, we went canoeing and I just about had to let her grab a hold of my body to stabilize us as she climbed in the canoe. But walking with her on the trail, something felt different to me. Her hand felt fragile and yet electric, making me feel and see a bit more intensely, as if I were being asked to look for both of us or perhaps it was the other way, she was looking for me, I don't know. I’ve never had children, but I had this thought that this is what it must feel like.
We got to the over look and it was really not much to look at. I’d seen some of the great sites hiking around the world, in Patagonia, Colorado, the Alps, South Africa, Asia. It was foggy, but she was happy and sat down and lit a cigarette. I cringed and then had to laugh. Fortunately nobody showed up.
Roan Mountain, Tennessee
My mother’s life as an independent woman, able to go out and take in the world by car or even by foot is nearing its end. Or is it? What are boundaries of our independence? And who sets them? Who is to say, when and where our freedom to explore the world begins and ends?
A few years ago I spent a week at a meditation retreat in Thailand. All day was devoted to meditation. Up at 5 and back to bed early by 9. We sat and we walked in the classic training for the Thai Buddhists who make their retreats in the mountains to learn the dharma and the ways of their ancestors. It was there I learned walking meditation, that patient art of slowing movement down so as to explore the very essence of each sensation of the body touching the earth.
I’d forgotten that until my mother’s hand had slowed me down and made me feel how easy it is to be tricked into thinking that time and movement are something we can control. Walking that short mile with my mother on the great Appalachian Trail, I was made to feel and see that each mile, each step offers a new landscape, a new sensation, a new possibility to see beyond where we think we are going.
My hiking guide with her stick