Welp, I made a rookie-blogger mistake by saying, “more tomorrow,” at the end of my last post. (I did start an entry the following day, but then… life.) Now I just want to finish recounting the trip I made with Jamie so I can start writing about more current events, so here’s what I meant to say:
How awful is it that the threat of male violence shadowed me on this trip as much as the threat of bears? I don’t even like to admit that such fear influences my behavior (since I know that keeping women afraid is a tool of the patriarchy, as depicted by Azis Ansari in one of my favorite-ever sitcom scenes, originally recommended to me by Kyle: http://fusion.net/video/229604/aziz-ansari-master-of-none-walking-home-women/). But let’s be real: it is harder to pretend my feminist Wonder Woman cape will protect me (from men or bears) when I am alone in the woods with my daughter.
Because of this, despite the extraordinary natural beauty surrounding us, I spent an anxious night falling asleep with mace clutched in my hand while staying at Pole Creek Cabin in Big Horn National Forest.
Jamie was excited the cabin was completely isolated – high up on the side of a mountain in the middle of the woods, far from all other campsites. As we unloaded our supplies, we were moved by the generosity of previous campers who had left friendly notes, chopped firewood and cabin supplies we could use as needed. But still, I kept fighting the feeling we were in the opening scenes of a horror movie where the hills had eyes and no one would hear us scream. I kept reminding myself that I had always encouraged Jamie’s refusal to let fear dictate her choices, so I was trying hard not to talk about how worried I was. But I hated how alone and vulnerable I felt we were.
Then, after dark had fallen and Jamie had triumphantly built her first-ever fire without any help or fire starters, she trotted toward the car to retrieve the marshmallows for s’mores and gave a cut-off shout of fear before running back to me.
“Mom,” she said, her voice low and shaken, “there’s a white pick-up truck out there. I think someone followed us and is watching us.”
Before we’d left, my wife Renee had taken me shopping for mace, which I’d been carrying with me everywhere on the trip; I’d attached it to our car keys. A therapist with whom I’d discussed my fears said it was smart, not paranoid, to have a safety plan for what we’d do if we felt in danger. So when Jamie reported her truck sighting, my hand closed around the mace in my sweatshirt pocket – the use of which was the extent of my safety plan – but I was discouraged to realize this did not really make me feel safer. I felt enraged, actually — infuriated that the threat men pose to women is a specter everywhere women go, even in the deep forest on what should have been a night of sacred and open-hearted communing with nature.
I walked to the car myself and saw the pick-up truck Jamie had seen about a quarter mile down the dirt road. I thought of shouting back to Jamie, “OK, I’ve got the gun now, don’t worry,” but then I feared that if the stranger heard me, he’d come to steal our (imaginary) gun. I decided that rather than wait in terror all night, I would investigate, so I started creeping silently toward the truck – and as I got closer, I saw there was a tent set up, and a fire being built, and two figures who looked like a man and a woman working together to set up camp. I relaxed a little. Maybe there was a campsite closer than Jamie had thought; or maybe someone was camping illegally nearby. Either way, the presence of another woman helped me feel more confident that the pickup wasn’t there for us and that it might even be useful to have someone within shouting distance if we had reason to shout. But I still fell asleep clutching the mace.
In the end, we spent 12 days side by side in a crowded car with broken air-conditioning (and side by side in Kyle’s tiny tent), and still ended our trip saying lots of loving things to one another, so that feels like an accomplishment. We also figured out along the way that we wanted to spend more time in nature and less time driving, which prompted us to change our plans once we got to Yellowstone. Prior to that, we were both a little stunned by how worn out we were from driving by the time we reached each national site. Even places we’d wanted to visit, like Crazy Horse National Monument, wound up getting just a drive-by, as we tried to maximize the time we’d spend at each campsite rather than on the road. (Mt. Rushmore got only a drive-by, too, but that was because we didn’t want to support the colonialism and genocide it represented; I felt guilty we chose not to spend $22 to see Crazy Horse.)
When we got to Yellowstone, the park was more breathtaking than anything we could have anticipated – even after days of driving through the jaw-dropping beauty of big-sky country mountains and forests. Everywhere we looked in Yellowstone, there were steaming geysers, mountain ranges capped with snow, hiking trails, massive lakes, trees – whole forests of them, both dead and alive – creeks, rivers, and wild animals: bison strolling beside cars, elk lying on the island midway in a parking lot, a baby bear causing a “bear jam” (a traffic back-up caused by people ignoring all the signs not to stop on the roads when they saw wild animals). We immediately knew we wanted to spend more time there than we’d planned, even though it meant scrapping the rest of the trip and doing triple the driving at the end – so I agreed to primitive camping conditions (Jamie scored us a first-come, first-serve campsite on Fourth of July weekend, but this meant we had to be in a site with no running water and pit toilets, not my favorite part of the journey.) Nevertheless, I was glad to have four nights amid the greatest natural beauty I’d ever seen.
We saw all the sights, including the amazing Old Faithful. We hiked the hardest hikes I’ve ever been on — and I believe we narrowly avoided being eaten by bears: A ranger had warned us we weren’t going to be loud enough, two little women, to keep away an aggressive grizzly, so on our last hike I sang at the top of my voice and shouted constant nonsense, including sing-roaring repeatedly, “I am a Mama Bear, too; you don’t hurt my cub and I won’t hurt you.” Despite this, we still saw a bear print directly on our path — and then in our footprints on the way back down, too, which meant the bear was literally right on our tail. Running was said to trigger a bear’s chase response, so after we spotted the paw prints, we went speed-walking back down the way we’d came, with me scream-singing the whole way. We were trembling with adrenaline when we re-emerged and saw our car.
Most of our time in Yellowstone was a lot more relaxing than that, though. I hiked up my first mountain; the views were absolutely breathtaking everywhere we looked. We read novels, swinging in the hammock Jamie had brought. We cooked hot dogs on a stick. We listened to music and laughed a lot. We wrote poetry. We missed Kyle together. We prayed. We mostly didn’t have any internet access, which was a lovely forced break. We cheered each other on as we talked about our dreams for our futures. And we spent our last night before Portland in a deliciously air-conditioned hotel. (More on Portland itself another time.)
Since I’ve been home I’ve been starting to transcribe all of Kyle’s writing, including his journals, and here’s a passage Kyle wrote in 2014, just at the beginning of his heroin use, before he was truly addicted, as he rode a bus to a rehab in Plymouth, MA. He had shot up before getting on the bus in order to ensure he’d get medically detoxed (i.e., given more drugs):
“I had recently promised myself that no matter what, even if God forbid I relapsed, that I would never shoot heroin again. I decided my selfishness had to have some limit, and with all the headline-making amount of overdose deaths happening in Massachusetts, I couldn’t risk dying on Mom – she’d never recover. Jamie either.”
There is anger mixed in with my grief sometimes – and transcribing this passage really caused fury to spark in me. Maybe Kyle is right; maybe Jamie and I will never “recover,” if by that Kyle meant we would never be the same. Of course we won’t. But we are living, Kyle; we are doing it even though it is hard. We are living on with the blade you left in our hearts because even when we feel we’ll “never recover,” as I know you feared you would never recover, we won’t ever inflict on anyone what you inflicted on us.
Even on our happiest days, we feel the pain of grieving you. On our worst days, every fucking breath hurts because of you. But we are not letting your disease take any more of us out with you. We have learned from your example. We don’t risk our lives escaping reality ; we take our meds and do our self-care and get the professional help we need to keep on living, even when we feel hopeless, even when we aren’t sure we want to.
And sometimes, lo and behold, we find that we are not just surviving, we are thriving. It’s painful to see you knew what you were risking – not just your life, which you hadn’t adequately valued in years — but also our happiness (and the happiness of so many others)… yet you kept on using heroin until it killed you. But rather than dwell on how painful that betrayal is, I like to imagine you can see us from wherever you are and are sharing in our surprise and gladness for every good day we manage to have. Jamie, especially, has wisely surrounded herself this summer with the natural grandeur that fed your soul when you were clean and the love of friends you couldn’t feel buoying you while you were alive. I hope you can experience from wherever you are some of the love she’s getting, as it’s such a terrible shame how much of it you are missing.
P.S. One last picture to summarize the trip: some blue skies, some grey clouds, some tissues in our car window reflection: