There was a time, not so long ago, when I could scamper down the scattered boulders of any river trail, with my son’s hand clasped in mine. We would cart our sleeping bags and cook stove down the steep edge of rocks, to perch overnight on a bit of river bar. Luckily, Scott could carry the heaviest of our gear, while I was in charge of keeping our toddler safe on the trail.
Somewhere along the way, with the birth of our second child, and the addition of a little more money in our pockets, we traded in the simplicity of those far-flung places. We chose instead the hotels and campgrounds that offered a few more conveniences. Life with small children was exhausting enough: no need to tackle a tiresome vacation as well!
Fifteen years later, our son Tio had grown into a young man—one more likely to offer me a hand on the trail, than the other way around. Our eleven year old daughter, Dezi, was sturdy enough to shoulder some of her share of the camping gear. We had always meant to take the kids on a real backpacking trip. Now Tio was looking at moving out and going to college. How had seventeen years gone by? If ever we were to attempt this backpacking-as-a-family dream, now was the time.
The South Fork of the Trinity was our first choice. Scott had grown up hiking there with his father, Eli. After we lost Eli to cancer, Scott and his brothers took a trip and scattered Eli’s ashes from a ridge on that trail, along the base of a Madrone tree that leaned out over the river canyon. Eli now rested on a high, wind-swept place where the river stretched in a thin, silver line hundreds of feet below.
This was the place we wanted to take our children, who barely remembered this man, their grandfather. For if anyone should want to understand who Eli was–what he loved and how he moved through his fifty years on this earth–the South Fork Trail was the path to walk.
And so we found ourselves at the trailhead: four people, four backpacks and two dogs. One of our dogs, Marty, a Black Lab/Collie mix, seemed made for the trail. He sprinted up ahead and charged back to check on us, stopping only to arrange himself—as if for a photo-op—upon a downed tree or a rock outcropping. Wind rustled through his ebony coat, his ears pricked forward, and his nose cocked to ascertain the slightest change in scent. What a majestic animal! A veritable scout of the trail.
Our other dog, Miss Frick, was—to put it frankly—obese. Part of this was due to overeating, but part of it was due to design. Her fifty pounds of Bulldog was drawn out and suspended over her six-inch Corgy legs. Her barrel chest splayed her legs outward, making her front end ride lower than her back, and giving her a rolling gait. I had my doubts about taking her along. But she was usually game for a two mile walk, as long as it was off leash. She would trundle along, panting, but able to keep up. So we decided to bring her with us. This, in hindsight, was our first mistake.
Our next mistake was to arrive at the trailhead at three p.m: the hottest part of the day. We also should have allowed Dezi to sit in the front seat, because the road to the trail is quite windy and she was thoroughly carsick by the time we arrived. We started out through the trees in fairly good time, although Dezi was bearing the stomach ache with a little less stoicism than could have been desired. In other words, she was complaining a lot… and we hadn’t even made it through the first mile.
Help came in the form of a bubbling spring. We used our filter to fill up our canteens, and we doused ourselves from head to foot with the icy waters. Frick wallowed in the mud with her tongue lolling to the side. Dezi had developed a terrible blister, and I whipped out my first aide kit so that Scott could bandage her up. Thus invigorated, we headed out on the trail again, which soon narrowed to a one foot wide path, cut into the side of a cliff. The trees thinned, allowing the sun to beat down unabated. Above the path was rocky shale, beneath our feet was the foot-wide trail and below the path was more shale—leading down to a steep drop off. I began to realize that we were cutting across an enormous rock slide, and that one misstep would send a backpacker sliding towards that sickening edge.
The gray shale reflected the sun’s heat like concrete on a summer sidewalk. Poor Frick was going ever slower, and Scott hung back, trying to encourage her. Just to make things interesting, the shale was broken up by an occasional downed tree. This did not present a problem when the base of the trunk hung over the trail: we simply stepped over it. But some of the trees lay with their bushiest end over our path. We then had to step over some branches and crouch under others, weaving our way through the tree.
At one point, I prepared to straddle a trunk by reaching up for a sturdy branch. Just as I lifted one leg, I felt my grip slip. The weight of my backpack pulled me backwards, and I struggled to hang on. I ended up clinging to the branch, my body at a 90 degree angle to the cliff. Although I wasn’t a professional backpacker, this did not seem–in my amateur opinion–like the safest position. But I needn’t have worried: our black lab heard my cry of alarm and bolted back to investigate, thereby knocking my feet out from under me and changing my position dramatically. But again, there was no cause for alarm: my bare knees sank deep into the sharp shale, which saved me from the long slide into oblivion.
Tio gave me a hand up, and we continued forward. Scott was hanging back with Dezi and Frick, so we decided to take a drink and wait for them. I’ll never forget the sight of Scott rounding the bend, his figure slightly distorted from the heat waves rising from the shale. In one hand, he carried Dezi’s pack. Under his other arm, he carried… the fifty pound Frick.
“This can’t go on,” I told him. “You’re going to hurt yourself.”
“Don’t worry,” he said, setting Frick on her feet. “The trail should start heading downhill to Yellow Jacket Creek soon.”
Sure enough, the next bend had a downward tilt to it. And we could just see the shimmering glint of moving water hundreds of feet below. Unfortunately, Frick could see the water too—and the sight of it made her completely lose what sense she possessed. She headed straight for the water, barreling like a tank off-trail and wading into the shale. In horror, we all watched her begin to slide. More shale joined in and soon the surrounding cliff was moving, carrying her toward the drop-off. Her backend began to slide faster than her front, turning her sideways, but also bringing her to rest by wrapping her prodigious frame around a slender tree. For the next fifteen minutes, we called to her, cajoling her to join us back on the trail. She would struggle up two feet, and then slide back three more. But eventually, she re-joined us on the solid trail. For safety sake, we put her on a leash and began hurrying down toward the creek.
Once at the creek, Frick immersed herself in the water. We filled our canteens again and watched her wallow in the mud. My concern for her began to grow as she proceeded to vomit up all the water she had drunk.
“Do you think we should go back?” I asked, edging over to Scott. “I mean, I don’t want to kill our dog.”
We turned to watch Frick vomit and shiver in the sand.
“She’ll make it,” he said grimly. “Even if I have to carry her.”
What can I say? This is why I married the man. Even though–now that I think of it–this same quality might inspire the opposite reaction in other women. I gazed up to where the trail disappeared, straight up the side of the cliff. Shading my eyes, I tilted my head back as far as it could go. The top of the cliff was barely visible, silhouetted by a sun that was beginning to set. There was no shale up there–only bare rock.
“Is that where your dad is?” I asked him.
“Yeah,” he answered, pointing with his hand. “On that peak over there.”
“Way up there?” I asked, feeling faint.
“Yep,” he said, lifting my backpack up onto my shoulders for me. “But it’s all down hill from there.”
And so we climbed. As the sun began to set, Frick became more animated. She trotted along in fits and starts. As for myself, I tried not to succumb to anxiety attacks as I watched my daughter stumble along the six-inch track. Sometimes we had to turn our stomachs to the cliff, and gingerly step over gaps where the trail disappeared all together. Any misstep would surely end in death. It occurred to me that I had nightmares just like this. Some vacation this was turning out to be!
But just as we reached the top of the trail, the sun began to set along the opposite ridge. The trees turned black against a turquoise sky. The river stretched itself out below us, each ripple catching the golden light and reflecting it back. A warm wind rose up from the river bed, lifting my damp hair from my shoulders. A bald eagle swept around the bend below us, riding an updraft from far below.
Eli’s tree stretched out over it all, standing with every bit of strength and grace that the man had once possessed. I felt that it had been waiting for us, and yet, that it was at peace no matter where we were.
Our backpacks seemed less heavy, as we came down from that mountain. The golden light slanted through the trees, and the river sang us to its banks. That night we lay under the stars, and listened as Scott told stories of his father. I wondered if our children would someday sit next to this same river, and tell their children stories of us. The dark river rushed past, in a hurry to reach the ocean, where it would someday rise in the form of clouds, to drop as rain upon this earth again. Just before I fell into sleep, I realized that this was all the proof of eternity that I would ever need.