Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Cast of Characters

Her brown hair escaping from the yellow bandanna tied around her head, the English professor, Debbie, hiked with short, swift strides, two trekking poles swinging in rhythm to her boots. We jokingly called her "Mary Poppins" because she was forever pulling magic items out of her pack. Someone would ask, "Is there any salt?" and she would whip a little battered can of salt and pepper out of her pack. When the fire needed to be started, she was ready with pitchy balls of sawdust that flamed immediately. Her magic wand, the "SteriPen", passed from hand to hand within the group whenever we needed to purify a Nalgene bottle full of lake water. She led the group discussions and gave writing assignments each night in addition to her share of the camp chores. The woman never seemed to stop. I had the pleasure of hiking with her on the third day, coming down from the mountain through the meadows, crossing streams on jagged stepping stones. She shared about her daughter, her career in the English Department, her husband of thirty years and her attempts to learn to play the piano. Like me, she glories in experiential learning. She doesn't want to just listen to music, she wants to play it. She doesn't just want to read good literature, she wants to write it. I don't run into many people with that kind of zest for life and I found her to be absolutely refreshing.

Caroline, the trip organizer, is a slim twenty-five year old woman who is in love with the outdoors. She cares deeply about the environment and the wilderness and works tirelessly to preserve and maintain it. She told us stories of learning to backpack with her two sisters in the national parks of Arizona where she grew up, bringing images of red desert cliffs to our minds. I was amazed and impressed by her leadership and organization; she seemed to have an intuitive sense of exactly when to deviate from her carefully planned schedule or when to insist that the group follow her plan to maintain our safety and continuity. She bought dried foods for ten meals, so accurately measured that we never ran short or had leftovers. She adroitly managed to satisfy the tastes of the vegetarians in the groups while still providing excellent nutrition and tasty food. We had chicken stew, tuna mac, delicious lentil couscous, grain cereals, peanut butter sandwiches, hummus and even black bean burritos the first night. After hiking all day the group of ravenous women would descend on her food like wolves, devouring it with sighs and exclamations of delight. She taught us how to balance our packs, how to stay warm and dry even in the freezing weather and how to use the finicky camp stoves. Although she must have been intimidated by a group of women all older than herself, she did not show it, exhibiting strong leadership yet gentle tactful approaches each day.

Odette and Ellen entered the group as friends and in my mind I can hardly separate the two. Odette celebrated her 45th birthday the first night of the hike and her friend Ellen baked the most amazing fruit pie for us to enjoy in celebration. Odette, her eyes bright, her curly hair pulled back in a puffy gray braid was brash, outspoken and told fascinating stories of her many aunts. Ellen, quieter and more introspective, cooked us dinner the last night adding the touches of a skilled chef. She is working on her MFA and was the only member of the group to have been a stay-at-home-mom. Hiking at Mann's Lake near Lewiston, she had stories of discovering populations of birds and the deep subtle joy they brought her. She hoped to use her art to raise awareness of environmental issues.

The Olympic Equestrian, Harriet, was both the eldest member of our group at 61 and also the strongest. She possessed an iron will and an intensity that I have rarely seen in any person, male or female. She shared stories of endurance racing on horseback, rugged 100-mile trails and of training the horses and team members to compete. She breeds and raises these horses, a mixture of thoroughbred and Arabian breeds and teaches them to race. On this trip, however, she shared about how she wished to pull back from the hectic pace of that life to slow down somewhat and thought hiking would be a good diversion. Even on her feet, though this woman did not slow down much. She was always first on the trail and hiked the fastest. She would often come back from a resting spot to carry the pack of one of the slower hikers to give them a rest. She carried mine several times. She looked like a woman who had spent her life in the out-of-doors, her skin weathered to brown leather, her blue-green eyes bright in her tanned face.

One of the younger women on the trip, Emily, was a reporter for the Spokesman Review and is covering our trip from the inside. Her story comes out Saturday, for anyone who is interested. She was another of the fastest hikers since she spends her spare time running, training for a half-marathon she plans to run this fall with her boyfriend's mom. She had many stories to tell of her playful boyfriend, her work on her Master's degree and her writing at the newspaper. I found her enthusiasm contagious and really enjoyed chatting with her around the campfire although I never got the chance to hike with her since she was always miles out in front of where I hiked.

The woman closest in age to myself, Katie, aged 29, was Caroline's good friend from previous hikes. She met the group at the trailhead and seemed shy compared to the other outgoing women. But her writing was beautiful, descriptive and evocative. Her happy smile and long black braids were usually seen on the sidelines but the group would have been incomplete without her. She, too, had a boyfriend and told stories of him and of her family, half-Jewish and half-Atheist. She shared about being raised Jewish and Zionist but the disillusionment she felt at discovering that Israel is not the blameless purist she had believed as a child. She shared her passion for reading and her hobby as a bookbinder and artist.

Susan, aged 54, was my most constant hiking companion and the only other first-time backpacker. Like me, she was not in as good of physical condition and she found after the first day of excruciating soreness that my turtle's pace fitted her needs quite nicely. I found her to be the most outgoing and friendly of the group, the first to make others feel at ease and welcome. To my surprise on the third day I discovered that she is an associate dean in the English Department at WSU, a fact that would have intimidated me had I known it before I got to know her as a person. She was one of those delightful people who reveled in being herself, installing pink streaks in her gray-white hair upon being appointed dean, much to the discomfiture of the staid college administration. Her stories often included her four sons and her experiences in Maine on her family's island retreat there. She told hair-raising stories of storms on the island where the trees rocked in hurricane winds. One of her stories brought tears as she narrated the time her son was sick and in a coma for an extended period of time, a mother's worst fear as she watched him die. We all were relieved to hear that he finally recovered and is thriving today. She grieved over the abuses of women and shared of her desire to help in some way those women who are enslaved or abused.

One of the women could only come to the first night. Andrea, the other English teacher, had recently been hospitalized for something, I did not ask what, and was unable to join us for the hike. Her disappointment was palpable though, as she talked with us around the fire at the trailhead. Her boyfriend, Troy came with her to accompany her back home. He sat quietly in the background with his guitar while we women chattered and laughed.

One more woman, Sheila, had the most interesting story of all. She was recovering from a Traumatic Brain Injury which had affected the listening centers of her brain. I thought her courage in joining a group of chatterboxes such as ourselves was immense. She shared freely about her need to move around in order to better process the information she heard. Of all the women in the group, she was the most understanding of the agony I felt in not being able to keep up like I wanted to. She was a sturdy hiker, though, and usually made good time. She was confronting fears just as I was, her fear of lightning came out when we were threatened with a storm and she was near panic, desiring shelter and did not want to camp in a meadow.

Each of these women became so special and each became such a vital member of the group. I was humbled to be able to join them, to hike with them, to listen to their stories. In some ways they were just what I expected them to be, strong, nature-loving people who would be attracted by such a trip. But they were much more multi-faceted than I had anticipated, and were kind and generous to one another. We plan to join again in a few weeks for a reunion and reading of our work and I am so excited about it!

To Be Continued...

No comments:

Post a Comment