Hiking With My Mother In Grizzly Country

My mother stands by the front door of the house she and my father share in the heart of grizzly country.

North of her strong feet and enviable legs, a 30-06 Winchester rests comfortably over her shoulder. A fluorescent fanny pack sits high on her waist and from her gloved fingers, a canister of bear spray dangles insecurely beside her aforementioned adornments.

We however, are a tornado of wide-brimmed hats and handkerchiefs, of sun block and water and finding the right shoes. She will surely look us over when we muster from inside to embark on  a rare hike with one of the toughest, most kind-hearted women I know.

She had a grizzly bear come at her a few years ago. The way she tells it, he was big but she was ready. A few yards from her determining stare, the bear stopped, huffed and turned away. My mother never had to shoot, but anyone who knows her can pretty much count on the fact that her trigger finger was at the ready. Anyone who knows her, will also understand that she was happy not to be forced into taking his life that day. I have often thought that when my mother is ready to go, she will morph into Tristan from Legends of the Fall and find that bear one last time.

When we hike with my mother, I recall the barefoot Ecuadorian who led us over the serpentine rocks of the Galapagos Islands while on one of the most eye-opening journeys my parents took us during my teenage years. Walter was a sinewy, tanned athlete who moved like a lissome cat. I envied his lithe movements and territorial command from the soles of his feet. My mother in Grizzly Country, is much the same.

To our left, she points out a large depression in the ground where once she discovered a black bear burrowed for a nap. She steals up a heavily-wooded deer trail with her rifle at the ready because she knows the places they’ve shed their antlers in years’ past. My mother has called-in many a poacher, carried hundreds of pounds of meat during a winter’s storm; she’s nailed more than her share of No Trespassing signs and fixed many fences. She hefts the lids of cisterns like a woman unaware of 70. She drives her pickup like a Monster Truck Driver–it has a winch and a grill, and she uses them both.

But on this particular hike with three of her grandchildren and me, she has found her match, my mom. And it is no grizzly bear or poacher–no sheep hunt or political adversary. He is no wolf or any other predator of livestock, but he is my son. He has challenged her in hour-long duels of time outs, unblinkingly stared face-to face with her at bedtime and mealtime; he has set his brow to match the stubbornness of hers and put his foot down over her own fixed foot like I’ve seen no one else do. He is not yet three years old and refuses to be carried for any duration of our three-hour long excursion through the jarring terrain of some of the roughest and most wild country there is. Just like his grandmother, he is loving it.

So when he looks up from under the rim of his wide-brimmed hat–red-hot cheeks, lucidly blue irises, and into the eyes of my mother says, ” I follow you the whole way G-MA”…the toughest grandmother in Bear Country smiles as big as her face will allow, and knows so clearly through the sudden film of moisture over her own eyes, that her spirit is in no danger of extinction.

Thanks and Giving

On our most recent trip to Texas, I found myself in a car with my mother-in-law— twisting our way through the back roads of a hill country so vast and deep it seemed we should have been on the lookout for wild javelina and the shiny, keeled scales of snakes stretching their way across the road.  The low rise and twist of cedar scrubs and live oak gave way to the slump of creek beds where cattle gained respite standing and unmoving in the wind-shifting shade where we drove.

We were delivering meals. This is something my mother-in-law does often and thankfully; driving the remoteness of Texas back roads so frequently, I feel she could take on each curve of the road with her eyes shut.

Our first stop was a mobile home owned by a gleeful woman in her eighties named Grace. Grace welcomes her company with all the warmth of the South and has a smile on her face unaffected by her inability to care for things like she used to. She is surrounded by photographs and items of her youth and her face looks younger than her years. She hangs onto conversation like thirst to water, and the silence is concrete when we leave.

There is an old bull rider who lives in a cozy ranch house of stone lived in by generations of cowboys. Its yard is a scene right out of Eight Seconds where Luke Perry and his lady get married under the suspended white string of lights swinging from the oversized pergola in the Texas breeze. There is a cove of Live Oaks like genealogists surrounding the house—they cast tricky, moveable shadows with the darting sun.

Several miles downwind, there is another ranch made of stone and its inhabitant a bent and thoughtful octogenarian who chronicles every whitetail buck he can see from his kitchen window. And like Grace whose face has yet to catch up, Maurice’s neat, upright print mismatches his age. He is still sharp and feisty and proud and amused by the life around him. He accepts the meal delivery most likely because of what comes with it. He shares his delight at the wild turkeys roaming his yard and has fashioned a gun stand on his kitchen counter directed towards its only window. He also cares for his ailing wife who rests without sound in a back room. And like the others when we leave, there is a silence that is concrete.

Last but not least, my mother-in-law delivers meals to a man named Joe. He anticipates her arrival by pulling a trolley (with which to carry his delivered food) down to the front of his driveway and he sits peacefully in a chair to wait for her. His big dogs idle in the shade; their apathy suggesting familiarity with their visitor. Joe wears ironed overalls and tucks what I’ve heard to be his long, wispy hair under his baseball cap. He has lived a long life, yet there is a quality about him that suggests innocence and purity. There is not much of a house where he hangs his hat, and so I think he must love that chair at the end of his driveway looking out over the space of the road and the trees and the wild. When Joe talks of race cars, his eyes explode with weightlessness as if he is the one soaring around chicanes as the crowd cheers him on. The sound of Joe pulling that trolley slowly up the driveway and out of our sight as we leave, is a heavy loneliness.

This Holiday season, I will inspire my children with the service of their grandmother. Grace and the Bull Rider, Maurice and Joe, will all make their way from the desolate backroads of Texas and take their seat at our Holiday table. In their spirit, we will seek out that sound of stillness and need, and pay it forward where and when we can.

To those who put smiles on the faces of the elderly; to those who give purpose to anyone in need no matter the season: thank you for reminding us of what it means to be human.

On My Daughter’s Sixth Birthday

Before my daughter went to bed on the eve of her sixth birthday, she had one wish: to have a good thunderstorm; complete with plenty of lightning and ground-shaking thunder. To her, that would mean an exciting sign of spring and affirmation of the season in which she was born. At eleven O’clock that night, for 56 minutes straight, I sat alone on the couch in our living room. I had just returned from a book club meeting to a sleeping house, and reveled in the chance to witness the exact storm my daughter had wished for—except she was fast asleep and would have to trust my retelling of the night’s events over her birthday breakfast the following morning.

We went to the Zoo a little over two weeks ago and came upon a young boy who was “losing his breakfast” while crouching over a bush by the hyena exhibit. I too tend to have this reaction to hyenas, but it was clear to me that this little guy was suffering from a common malady we see more than once a season here in Colorado: the stomach flu. I was surprised when we crossed paths with the same little boy checking out the gorillas over an hour later, and not so surprised when three days later, my son and I came down with a mysterious stomach virus similar to the exhibit we had witnessed near those mocking, laughing non-dogs.

None of this is bothersome or that off base for a family with three little ones who, especially when in public places, like to put their mouths all over things. While at Disney World a couple of years ago (waiting to ride the Flying Dumbos), I turned my back for a split second only to return my eyes to a two-and-a-half year old boy licking the chain that divided the mile-long line ahead of and behind us. That boy was my son, and his tongue was roaming over the world of hands before him like it was a strawberry slurpee soothing his rabid thirst in the triple digit temperatures we were blessed to have timed so nicely with our visit. I have witnessed similar acts of poor judgment in my youngest son, who seems to like the taste of shopping cart handles chased only by sips from the stagnant, stale water of random puddles (very hyena-esque, if you ask me).

Sickness is something you get used to and expect when you are a mother of school-age kids—except for when your pregnant sister, her toddler son and her husband come to visit for Easter weekend.

As one might have foreseen, when my sister and her family visited they spent the majority of Easter day benefiting from the gift of a little boy at the Zoo whose generosity in paying it forward knew no bounds. But what can anyone do? As I am human and make many bad judgment calls in my own life, my first reaction was to think about how the parents of that little boy should have brought him home. Then our Easter Sunday wouldn’t have been ruined. As I am inclined to do with many things over which I have no control, I looked for someone to blame.

But as I sat there on the couch, on the eve of my daughter’s sixth birthday—the lightning illuminating my solace in our living room and the crisp crack of thunder overhead, I considered the things I would want her to learn and practice this year’s birthday and beyond. The very first thing I want her to see is that we are all connected. As much as I want to find someone to blame for my own misfortune (most of the time for things on a much larger scale than a simple spring stomach bug), that little boy and his family are no more to blame for passing along germs that someone gave them, than my family is for passing along the Easter illness to my sister’s family. The choices we make in life have the power to continuously and eternally affect those around us. Not to mention that–the way one handles circumstances over which he or she has no control, is the true measure of a person.

Secondly, what good could possibly come from my judgment? I would like my daughter to learn what Atticus Finch so eloquently suggested his children take into account: You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it…Being given the gift of reason doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act like zoo animals when it comes to judgment. How often, each and every day, do we rush to assumptions about and judgment of those around us? Parenting techniques, color of skin, cars, clothing, someone else’s choices, behavior? Hi, my name is Karen, and I can be very judgmental. The best gift I can give to my daughter as she starts the next year of life is the gift of a home without judgment. I would like my daughter to steer away from joining this inclusive club that divides not only families, but groups of people everywhere.

I would like my daughter to continue to be a person who can sleep well at night (no matter the volume of storm) because she is okay with the choices she has made throughout the day. I would like to see this new place of non-judgment in our little bubble spread faster than any stomach virus, and I would like to know that my daughter has learned about her role in receiving, carrying, and passing along misfortune.

I would like to live in a world where her birthday wishes continue to be so simple.

I thank the boy at the Zoo for allowing this message of Springtime to be so clear.

Willing Suspension of Disbelief

Just recently, as the Easter Bunnies in our household were getting ready for Easter, our own little Cadbury egg in the form of a sweet, unassuming,  five year-old daughter asked, “Is the Easter Bunny for real”?

“What do you think”?

“Mama! Of course the Easter Bunny is real!”

And so my heart fell and leaped within the same moment. Don’t parents prepare for the day their child comes home from school having heard an older kid ruin the surprise of Santa, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy? However, at the same time we want them to believe,  I’ll be the first to admit; the total and utter trust and belief my own children have in the existence of these magical, mythical beings has almost concerned me.

Come on, really. Can you picture the Easter Bunny laying pastel-colored jelly beans into hinged, plastic eggs and then hiding them not just in flower pots and patches of grass, but on top of the swingset? And the chocolate. Would you want to eat little, brown, chocolate pellets that have supposedly sprung  from the Easter Bunny herself? No matter the story parents have devised to paint a more believable picture for their child, you would think that there is a little bit more critical thinking involved when it comes to matters of Santa and the Easter Bunny and the little fairy that covets their teeth. But there isn’t.

Just this Easter, our neighbor across the way (in plain sight of our little egg-hunters), was tossing plastic eggs into the flower beds of her yard and exclaimed to us “I hope I’m not too late!” My husband and I did what we could to distract our sugar-seeking toddlers, but realized shortly afterward that they were so happily unaware, even me pulling the $2.99 price-tag off of my son’s basket presented no doubts or questions in the way their perfect Easter story played out.

To try and understand my kids’ belief in things that seem so obviously unbelievable, I am brought back to my own experiences as a child. The things that stick out the most were the stocking-stuffers on Christmas morning: I remember getting sensible socks and toothpaste, and other useful things that seemed mostly to be  in the taste in my mother and father. Did I put the pieces together back then, or did I just assume that Santa gave me the things my parents knew I needed and would want me to have?

And even with all of the presented clues, I am convinced that children fully exercise their right to suspend their disbelief in all things that are so magnificent and magical and beautiful. Besides, who wouldn’t want to believe in the existence of these Holiday icons when no matter how naughty or nice you have been (and let’s admit it), Santa delivers. Santa and the Easter Bunny seem to love us no matter our mistakes, intentional or not. Children seek to believe in the very things that define them, and we as adults, make a conscious choice for ourselves to hang onto the things that define our children: goodness, purity, and faith in the human spirit.

Even when presented with historical evidence that might discount Jesus Christ’s presence as he traveled from town to town making sermons in the marketplace and healing the wounded and sick; when  faced with the impossible notion that He was laid in a tomb and came  back to life, many of us still choose to believe in what seems realistically unworkable. We see the other side and yes, possess our doubts, but we have put our faith in what we cannot see. We choose to highlight the goodness and truth and beauty that Jesus represents. We are not all that different from our children whose belief in this same goodness and beauty surprises us sometimes.

There is no magic that matches a child’s belief in Santa or the Easter Bunny. At the same time, there is no magic that matches a grown-up child’s desire to hang onto that goodness. To strive for it and to emulate it, and to know that no matter our behavior and our expanded view of the world, Jesus will deliver.

We need Him to.

Why I Run

While I was pregnant with our third child the only thing I wanted (besides a beautiful, healthy baby) was a jogging stroller that could fit three. After Byron August was born, we decided against it; our two eldest were perfectly capable of riding their bikes while I jogged, or they would be in school and I could fit my runs in then. Not to mention Byron wouldn’t be able to sit up by himself for at least a half a year in the types of strollers they make for three anyway. My husband kept pointing out that I simply would not enjoy pushing over one hundred pounds of kids during my “leisurely” time.

Now, almost six months later, I appear as if I am a caricature of an exercise-obsessed suburban mom who totes her baby in the Baby Bjorn while pushing the other two in the stroller only made for two. And although I can’t jog with an 18 pound mass of smiling baby between my strained arms, I realize that these outings with my children are about way more than me getting exercise, or how many kids I can fit into a stroller.

There are the summer days and the endless questions as we roll down our favorite tree-lined street of one of our most familiar routes: “Mama, what do coyotes eat?”

“Bunny rabbits, or squirrels, or mice.”

“And what do bunny rabbits or squirrels or mice eat?”

And thus we make our way down the food chain until we start at a much larger predator and repeat the same line of questioning all over again.

Naturally, the food chain evolves  into a discussion about people’s mailboxes, getting sprayed with their sprinklers and making sure to get the other side of the stroller on our way back up the street, to the garbage they’ve spotted on the side of the road.  Someone must have been naughty throwing their Taco-Bell box or beer can down right on top of the dandelions or the beautiful twisty vines, (which are really invasive weeds)…And when we can, that garbage comes home with us so we can deposit it where it really belongs, and can be gone permanently before nine o’clock every Friday morning with the predictable beep of the garbage truck.

There is the hair pulling on our longer outings (I can’t blame them too much for having to tolerate each other in such a confined space for much longer than any toddler should have to endure). There is the sharing of snacks, the imaginative play; there is me reading them a book from my position behind while they hold up the pages so I can see. We read “Going On A Bear Hunt” so many times, I no longer needed them to hold up the pages. We ventured through many more places than the book could take us, making up rhymes for the pages we would add between. There are the songs we make up to fit the mood of our outings, there are the playgrounds we’ve ranked (the blue playground being our favorite), the horses along the fence we feed, and there are the nodding heads of a premature nap-time; how quickly it becomes unbearably quiet. It seems that the things around us used to our daily visits, miss the exuberant chatter of my children as much as I do when they fall asleep.

There are the fall mornings, crisp like their eagerness and the extra layer of clothing making intolerance come a little bit more quickly within the tight confines of the chariot. On the winter days, they are heavier to push through the snow on our way to more plowed paths, and the sled we have somehow managed to fit always comes out at the slightest promise of a hill. Springtime, their questions and our dialogue of the life sprouting around us makes the stroller our little, portable classroom where the lessons come more readily.

And I run alone sometimes too. Working my way through the things that have discouraged me, becoming my own, personal therapist who promises to deliver me back home a better wife, a better mother, a better person.

My years as a mother of young children have been measured by the life that has happened from the seat or the steering arm of our stroller. I have taught, I have parented and I have loved during the outings away from the piles of unfolded laundry and cleaning needing to take place at home. My children first learned about morality and love of nature from  these outings. And I have realized, triple stroller or not, we will find a new way to work our way down that same street;  my children will talk about life from the seats of their bikes, ask questions between their strides on a scooter and perhaps one day, even jog alongside their mom while exchanging life lessons.

Our voices will continue to echo through each season we visit, our mode of travel no longer important.

So Much More Than a Sheep Hunt

On a road trip coming straight off of an unsuccessful sheep hunt with our mom, my brother stopped to visit my family and I in Colorado. Although my parents certainly did enough to get us passionate about hunting as we were growing up, my brother has been the only one to really follow in their footsteps. He is an accomplished archer and marksman, and has made hunting more of a priority in his life than my sister and I. You need to go hunting with mom and dad before they can’t hunt anymore. My little brother has never told me I needed to do anything, so while his words gave me pause, I valued his continued emphasis: you should see the sparkle in their eyes—see who they become, when they are hunting...

For 18 years, my mother has been putting in for a sheep permit. This fall, (not a year too soon), her name was pulled from other various hopefuls gambling for a chance to grip the horns of one of Wyoming’s greatest regal and elusive kings reigning over some of the most beautiful and formidable backcountry of northern Wyoming. The initial week-long trip with my brother, who was along to photograph, videotape and help out if need be, turned into a journey of touch and go. The two of them were led by a guy named Griz who can saddle a packhorse faster than you can say Snuffelupagus, and whose wife turns hunting camp into a makeshift home—complete with hot water to wash your face and warm meals better than most can conjure given twice the accoutrements. The four of them rode horses through dense foliage and lingering summer heat just below tree-line. They led their horses while sliding down shaky scree fields, and at one point, my mother got whipped in the face by a surprisingly buoyant tree branch, the result of which might be a jaw that is able to predict the weather for years to come.

For months prior to this trip, my mother (who can smell seventy just around the corner), hiked up and down the hill near her and my dad’s ranch, getting her lungs ready to be pushed above 10,000 feet. Knowing what I know of her, she packed and repacked the right clothes for subzero mornings, tepid mid-mornings, hot afternoons, and bone-chilling evenings. She prepared to wake up and hike when most of us have only been asleep for a few hours. And rightly so. When the first week of rigorous hiking, riding and camping yielded only some spooked sheep who knew just where to go so as to be unreachable even by a long-range firearm, my mother went home and prepared herself to return to the unpredictable backcountry and try again.

The second trip (a series of day-trips) proved to be even colder without the reprieve of the warmer afternoons. Breakfast well before the sun has come up, exhaustive hiking and riding, and then dinner well after the sun has gone down. Only to repeat the process for several days in a row and depending on only a few hours of sleep. And she held up well, my mother did—preparing herself for round three.

My mother knows her scree fields; she can post-hole through snow, warm her bitter-cold hands enough to use them while pulling herself up from numerous falls—exhausted and spent on the frozen ground. She knows her valleys—she is not fooled by the gentle meadows that lead towards the treachery of their ascent and onto the tops of their breath-taking ridges. She knows that the mountains of Wyoming go deep, and that within their layers exist the secret migrating patterns of elk and mule deer. She can promote and ensure first-hand, the next generation of offspring so that her grandchildren can feel the same healthy flush of spotting a 10-year old ram imperially perched high on a cliff in the mountain sun. She knows how to calm her shaking fingers to take the one shot that will end it for one, but carry it forward for many. And as my mother gets to meet her sheep for the first time, (after giving much of her blood and sweat to the land where they both live), she knows a respect that exists no where else.

So in the dark, after what has been one of my mother’s most trying journeys (compared even, to hunting in some of our world’s most challenging climates and terrain) my mother and Griz manage to pack out over three hundred pounds of meat, get marked again by an angry, errant tree branch and insurmountable weakening falls to the ground, and arrive back home after having been transformed again, by the experience of this chosen way of life.

I may have missed a few hunting seasons in the past (well, about 22 of them since my parents moved to Wyoming), but I will not let the legacy of that sparkle in my mom and dad’s eyes fail to live on. My children will know their grandparents not just through passing the sweet potatoes around the Thanksgiving table, but they will hear about and see for themselves the images of the parents of their parents with rifle in hand and a redness to their cheeks; they will understand that a shoulder-mount of a large ram on the wall means so much more than a trip to the taxidermist or chagrin from their non-hunting friends. And while I yearn for the day we can all go hunting together, the transformation that happens out in the wilds of Wyoming will definitely play a part in the lives of my children and me for a long time to come.