The day after I submitted the final manuscript of my book to the publisher, I read the poem “For the Children” by Gary Snyder, which ends:
To climb these coming crests one word to you, to you and your children: stay together learn the flowers go light
These two stanzas would have made the perfect epigraph for my book, a memoir about hiking the Colorado Trail with my husband and three kids, if only I had discovered the poem one day earlier. They would have made even better advice for the six-week, 500-mile hike my family and I embarked on five years earlier. I felt as if Snyder had reached across time and space and whispered the words in my ear, and I wanted to turn to him and say, “Well, two out of three ain’t bad, right?”
We went light. My husband and I had hiked the Colorado Trail in 1996, twenty years before we returned with kids in tow, and I had struggled with the weight of my pack. Ever since, I’d been obsessed with lightening my load, reading books and websites and watching videos about lightweight backpacking. I didn’t have much opportunity to put any of this knowledge to use when my kids were little and we mostly went car camping, but once we started planning for our Colorado Trail hike, I went to work shaving pounds and ounces until our base pack weight came in at 18 pounds for my husband, 15 for me, and less than 10 for each of the kids.
I learned the flowers. For years before hiking across the Colorado Rockies from Denver to Durango for a second time, I’d been learning the flowers–and the trees, the mammals, the birds, and the butterflies–around our house in Maine and on visits home to Colorado, where I grew up and where my family still lives. In the weeks and months leading up to our trip, I studied wildflower books, committing to memory colors, shapes, and habitats. I took up precious ounces in my backpack with two laminated accordion-folded field guides, one for flowers and one for birds.
But we failed to stay together. My husband has always hiked fast. My oldest son, 15 at the time, hiked even faster. My other two sons, 11-year-old twins, hiked fast some of the time and dragged their feet some of the time. I am a plodder, a dawdler, a picture-taking, lollygagging woolgatherer. In other words, I’m slo-o-o-o-ow. All day, every day, I trudged along at the back of pack, sometimes with whichever kid was also in slow mo that day, more often alone. I didn’t know how far ahead everyone else was or when they would stop or when I would catch them or if they were even all together. On the trail, my family’s conflicting hiking styles made it impossible to stay together either physically or mentally. And in that gap of miles between me and my husband, friction grew.
It was this friction that formed the basis of conflict in the book. Unlike many outdoor adventure books, mine is not so much a man-against-nature tale as a woman-against-patriarchal-expectations-about-strength-and-speed tale. I realized that being a slow hiker did not make me a bad hiker, nor did my preference for being there over getting there, and that epiphany fed the book’s resolution.
Of course, Gary Snyder is a poet, and the medium he works in is metaphors. “For the Children” was first published in 1969, in Turtle Island. Was he thinking of Vietnam when he referred to “The rising hills, the slopes, / of statistics”? What other anxieties made up the “steep climb” he imagined ahead? Because the poem could have been written yesterday or last year. Today we stand facing a mountain range of statistics: rising temperatures and sea levels, hurricanes and wildfires, pandemic cases and casualties. With democracies under threat around the world and war unfolding on the other side of the globe, the “valleys, pastures” where “we can meet. . . in peace” seem further off than ever.
I look to the closing words of Snyder’s poem as I navigate this uncertain world. I remind myself to go light–to not let the weight of the world bear down too heavily, to be light hearted, to shine a light in darkness. I learn the flowers, pay attention to the small things, see the beauty of the world. But as my children stand at the brink of adult independence, I wonder, how do we stay together even as I let go? How can I be there for them and also for children half a world away?
There is another lesson I took home from the trail: when you stand before a mountain range, it appears impenetrable, but if you look behind you, the mountain range you just passed through also looks impenetrable. You found a path through that range, and you’ll find a path through the one before you and the one beyond that. As you make your way through those ranges, it is best to stay together, learn the flowers, go light.