Through my tears, I strapped on the hiking shoes I wore on our last hike together – untouched since that day – and headed to Seneca Creek State Park, a nook of Mid-Atlantic flora and fauna amid the Maryland suburban sprawl. I wanted to shake the grumpy state I was in and hike in a happier state of mind, but I had put it off long enough; the time had come for me to go without him. In I went, under the canopy of oak and birch and maple.
“Have you gone hiking lately?”
It was my father’s stiff-upper-lipped way of giving advice. In my youth, this question, so unrelated to my tales of woe awakened the ancestral Scot blood in me. Who cared if I had been hiking?! I wanted him to react, to save me; to tell me everything was going to be okay! I knew I was loved. There were bear hugs and scratchy, bearded kisses good night, but he was far too reserved to indulge a child’s drama. Far too many times, my response sounded something like, ‘sigh… I haven’t had time, Dad.’ If only we understood how finite these conversations really are, however many thousands of times we have them. Despite my childish resistance, even then I knew that the trail was the one place Dad and I could find each other, no matter how bad things got between us. He rarely gave advice, but he knew, as sure as the sun rises in the East, that the answers to all of life’s problems are found on a quiet, wooded trail.
It was the first warm day of spring, after a long, cold winter that had so aptly matched my melancholy. Immediately, I could smell him in the sun-warmed, soft earth that wafted up from beneath my feet with each step, the nearby water that gently lapped at tree roots on the edge of the trail that followed the curves of the lake, the new green leaves high above that waved hello in the breeze. His shadow followed behind me in between the shafts of sunlight that strained to find the ground through the trees. His footsteps echoed in the flutter and song of cardinals, starlings and blue jays as they hopped between branches. He had obviously conspired with Mother Nature to create a picture-perfect day to pull me from my grief, but it brought no comfort. My broken heart could only focus on his absence and to allow myself the pleasure of my surroundings was to betray that. Still, a walk in the woods was his legacy to me, so with knitted brow, pursed lips, and a twinge of that teenage rebellion against his advice, my body pushed forward while my mind retreated into the memories of other hikes.
Stage four prostate cancer meant that time was running out for us to be father and daughter. After the shock of our new reality wore off, I decided that I was going to protect him from how intensely my heart hurt, how scared I was to think about what life was going to be like without him. He had his own journey of pain, fear and anger to deal with—he didn’t need mine too. We silently agreed, that our precious remaining time would not be spent mourning a death that had not happened yet; we would get in as many good memories as possible.
Pop was a lifelong member of the Appalachian Mountain Club, and the consummate high school biology teacher—the kind that does more than teach from a text book. I was the baby of his three children, the most like him in my fearlessness of adventure. As a child, I was his shadow, following him everywhere he would let me. While other kids spent school vacations at Disney World, I was on the trails of New England, being taught about every plant species, insect, bird, amphibian and mammal that crossed our paths. He would bring his manual camera and light meter, and spend what felt like hours setting up the perfect shot of an Indian peace pipe to show his students. Hiking wasn’t about exercise or even summiting – those were just fringe benefits to the journey of the walk. We hiked slowly, deliberately. He taught me how the forest comes to life when you stop, look and listen. ‘Don’t forget to look up, Kristin. There’s a lot going on high up in the trees too!’
We had celebrated several of his later birthdays on a trail, him charging up on his seasoned but limber legs, me scrambling to keep up behind him on my doughy desk-job legs. When he turned 80, a crowd of other hikers cheered and sang “Happy Birthday” as we reached the peak of Mt. Cardigan. At 84, Pop’s appearance suggested that he was feeling great—as bright-eyed as ever, his voice the same animated baritone that had brought Grimm’s fairytales to life at the bedtime of my childhood. Despite the diagnosis, there seemed no reason to treat this birthday any differently, so 2 ½ miles of Mt. Kearsarge would be our playground for the day. About 45 minutes in and still a very long way from the top, we stopped for a water break and everything changed.
Dad turned cancer into a learning opportunity for ‘his students’ (anyone who would listen). He explained how the imbalance of white blood cells to red was delivering less oxygen to his lungs and heart, making a task ‘as simple as ascending a mountain’ more difficult. I didn’t know how this would affect our hike together, so I listened patiently and waited for him to signal that he was ready to move again by standing and walking ahead of me. But this time, when Pop stood, he extended his hand toward the trail, for me to take the lead. This subtle, insignificant gesture, unnoticeable to anyone walking by, was the passing of the baton from father to child. As I turned my face to the trail winding up the hill, with my back to him, I wanted desperately to free the tears and anguish that were quickly rising like a lava flow inside me, but I had a promise to keep: he would not see a tear or even hear a sniffle. He needed to know that I could do it. I did too.
In our younger, healthier days, a steep, rocky 2 ½ mile hike would take about 3 hours: 2 hours to walk, at least 1 hour for all the stopping, looking and listening. But well into hour 5, hikers who had passed us on their ascent as we began our descent were passing us again on their descent, and a fear grew that I might actually need to help him off the mountain. He fell, over and over, tripping over roots and rocks, clearly running out of steam. Yet, every time he fell, he stood back up with another scrape, shaking off the pain and embarrassment, and continued to assure me that he could finish the hike. I was deep inside this memory when—
‘Stop, look and listen’ suddenly became single pointed awareness. I froze, scarcely breathing in the hope that it wouldn’t run away. Our roles reversed as the fuzzy, little creature casually rooted through fallen leaves and new spring growth for something to eat, while my heart raced with excitement. He found a seed pod and came to sit in the path, to watch me watch him as he crunched away. He found another seed to feast upon. And another. Who was this crazy, little animal, observing me as his lunchtime entertainment?! This could only be a joke from Pop, sent to snap me out of my gloom since the sunshine and birds hadn’t gotten my attention. It worked. That chipmunk dragged me out of my head and I began to enjoy where I was in that moment.
The chipmunk bored of my presence and scurried off, and I went in search of the next surprise. I noticed for the first time that every exposed log in the lake was covered, bow to stern, in box turtles, sunning themselves in the glorious afternoon warmth. I rounded a corner and found the tall, prehistoric figure of a great blue heron, fishing in the shallow water of the stream that was feeding the lake. Other hikers passed by oblivious to the bird, intently focused on nothing but the ground in front of them. Not wanting anyone to miss out on the splendor of the natural world, I pointed it out to them—EXACTLY as Pop had done so many times in my presence. One hiker had a child with her and stopped to point out the majestic bird to her daughter. Another found a clearing and started snapping selfies with it. Another simply smiled and kept walking.
I stood in awe, with the baton in my hand.
Chest-crushing tidal waves of grief overcame me in the months after he was gone and for so long, my heart couldn’t stomach the thought of stepping onto a trail without him. But, two years and four months after he gave me his final mischievous smile and matter-of-fact wave goodbye, I found my way back. I had been so determined to hate this hike without him. The smells and sights and sounds that started out as painful reminders of his absence became the scratchy-bearded bear hug that he had always intended—warm, earthy, filled with light and wonder and peace. I soaked in that beautiful, warm spring day and when I opened my eyes and heart to the moment, my tears were less in sadness, more in the deepest gratitude for Pop’s persistence. He was right. Any time my heart feels troubled, any time I need to find him or the answers to life’s problems, I need only place my feet on a quiet, wooded trail.