Nature Always Wins 2021 Judges’ Choice

By Jana Kemp

Ida wandered mountain trails all her life. Red braided pigtails flapped against her backpack in the breezes of her youth. Cancer-returned silver-white hair graced each hat-covered sunblock-slathered Greenbelt-, trail-, and sidewalk-step in her forties. Always searching for a new bird or flower, each hike was her adventure of a lifetime.

This weekend her journey winds through the Sawtooth Range in central Idaho. Her favorite range. Parked and locked in the Grandjean campground trailhead-permitted lot (5,200 feet above sea level), Ida begins. Warbonnet Peak (10,200 feet) is the goal. Named after a Native American feathered chief’s warbonnet, this peak and the reflective Bead Lakes about 1,000 feet below symbolize the battle-filled days of her last four years: health, bombardments over social and political issues, work challenges mostly overcome, teenager raised and sent to college, and that teen’s dad departing into a world that lead to divorce. Over it. Well, getting over it.

Sunny, cloudless skies. 72 Fahrenheit by five p.m. Promises of a peach-colored sunset about eight p.m. Backpack full but manageable – a pack specially purchased, shaped, and padded for a woman’s hips. This pack has overnight camped in the White Clouds, the Sawtooth Range, and the Frank Church Wilderness. So has Ida.

Plenty of water and a backcountry water-filtration bottle that worked well for 23 days in India. Snack bars. Matches. Minus-forty down bag for one overnight. Having always run cold, Ida packs for herself, not for predicted weather. A hike to celebrate the endings. A jog through memories and a restful pause to prepare for the solo years ahead.

Alone. 7:30 a.m. Solitude. Just as she wants it. Time to reflect. Moments to hope. Seconds to heal. Hours to rest while taking in vistas not seen in the decade of childrearing completion. Time to overcome the “I hate my life,” yelled at no one and to the universe while alone in a car just pulled into the garage of a house that was meant to be home.

This week, her friends said: “don’t go, don’t hike alone.” Ida confidently assured them “I’ve done this trail before. Everything will be fine. You know where I’m starting, where I’m going, and when I’m returning to my car at Grandjean. It’s only one night. I’ll be fine. I need this!”

Entering the trail, spring moisture keeps trail dust at bay. Nearby, twenty-two years ago, with winter snow perfect for igloo-building, Ida and Joe stamped the snow, cut and built snow blocks with the one ice-saw, and stacked. And stacked. And stacked. Igloos take more blocks than you can imagine. Snow blocks are heavy. So heavy that Ida feared Joe was having a heart attack at one point. Afraid she’d have to haul him out on a sled they thankfully had pulled along. He recovered. They stayed the night after all. Starry night. Easy snowshoe out the next morning.

Fifteen to twenty minutes in, the college-bound teen creeps up. “I hate you” she said more than once and screamed with full lungs at me a few times too. At me. At the one person who always takes care of her. That kid feels everything with every molecule of her being. Whether it is happy, sad, angry, or just mad – every molecule. Once or twice she acknowledged that she knew that without me she might have died or gone to kid-jail. Once she was crystal clear that she’d never use drugs – never do to others what her biology had done to her. Once she wept for “mom chose men and drugs over me.” More than once she needed listening to as she processed wanting to hit something, to tell others off, to make everything okay. More than once I deciphered that she was raging at me when in fact she was mad at her biological mom. More than once family dramas reared their heads in the living room, in the bedroom, in the hall, in the kitchen, on the kitchen floor, on the bedroom floor, sobbing in the shower while she tried to regain balance. Water wells. Tears drop. Eyes blur.

Why can’t she stay out of this? This is my time! Pausing is required. Blurred vision is dangerous on one-person wide dirt trails. Pause is what she’d say in conversations that she wanted to redirect – as though the television pause option was a regular tool in human conversation. Once during a theater movie she asked for the remote – so she could find out how much time was left of the film. HA – as much as there was hurt, there was joy too. Smiling. Recovered. Ida moves forward. Carefully. Consciously taking in sparse vegetation, spring growth aromas, and silence.

Sixty minutes in. More family member stories wander in for a visit. Mom died from breast cancer at 60. She taught us to be independent; open-minded; and home-making capable. Two rounds. We thought she had it beat. Dad was the first male in his family to live past 60. He took us to church and reminded us “God is Love” on a regular basis. Sure hoping I’m well now. That I’ll live to see 60; see my daughter’s wedding and children; and recover financially. Drat. Why do I have to be thinking about all this? Why can’t I stay in the moment? In this spectacular place? Why can’t I walk away and leave behind every scrap of past crap and heartache? Step. Lift. Forward. Step. Lift. Look up. See what is here. Step. Lift. Step. Forward.

A flat-topped boulder beckons for lunch lounging. Ida could always chug more water than anyone else in one bottle uplift. Sometimes a full third of the bottle would be gone. Unpacking prepackaged meal one of four, Ida attempts not to devour but rather to savor. All food tastes great on a hike. Thankfully, Ida prepared tasty treats for each meal. Rhubarb muffins for lunch today and breakfast tomorrow morning. Turkey, Havarti, tomato, and lettuce with mayo on whole wheat bread right now. Dinner is cold spiral-cut Easter ham from the freezer with more Havarti, no bread. Chocolate chip cookies with pecans for three deserts. Breakfast tomorrow includes hot chocolate and oatmeal – if a fire is to be had. Muffin only and leftover ham if no fire. Lunch tomorrow is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because they hold up best in a backpack without any ice after the frozen ham has thawed and been eaten. Trail mix for snacks all along the way. Backpack food planning is an art. Ida is fairly good at it thanks to the Marine. He was very good at camping, backpacking, trail navigation, snowshoeing, yard work, house repairs, and encouragement if not always participation.

That’s the trick, pack in plenty. Eat as you go. Pack out less than you carried in. Makes the hike out a bit less taxing than the trek in.

After lunching, each labored step is a victory. Despite the beauty, this trail can be demanding. Ida finds her mind focused on the strain of the hike. She’s always preferred the downhill. Her focus on increasing but small pains, she misses the first columbine, and the second. A mountain blue jay jars her out of the pain whisperings and memory reverie, back to the present, into the moment. Seldom seen here, chipmunks scamper across the trail ahead. Maybe they smell the peanut butter sandwiches.

With thoughts paused and animal focus winning, overhead movement calls. Two circling eagles silently soar over the clearing. Uplift. Glide. Uplift. Dip. Glide. Circle. Awe every time. This is God’s cathedral. That’s what we’d say every time we’d backpack camp. Maybe everyone claims that their piece of the great outdoors is God’s cathedral. Maybe it’s just people from Wisconsin and Idaho. Who knows? These eagles remind me of New Year’s Day, alone on the Greenbelt a few years back. Exploring the newest bridge linking Greenbelt South with Greenbelt North. East of the heron rookery. South of the Boise River. A lone eagle flew over the river channel. Landed in a treetop. Stayed put long enough for a horrible zoomed-in cell-phone photo. The memory of it is better. Feel the peace you felt then. Standing in silence with majesty beguiling. Then, there was the Colorado Pike’s Peak trip where we learned about the writing of America the Beautiful. And my, how thoughts are running together. Quiet. Quiet I say!

Four hours later, mind more quieted, steps less quick, Ida sees red paintbrush, white daisies likely horse-manure delivered years ago, and plenty of purple columbine. The edge of spring merges with snowmelt for flower arrays worthy of calendar photos. This was true in the Trinities too. What a mess that was. Driving in too early. Getting stuck in the spring snow that melts more as the day gets warmer. Needing a snowcat at the coldest part of the night – at four in the morning – to get our vehicle out. That trip was one part scary, one part fun, and one part exhausting when the dogs howled as though they could break free from their tethers and lunge after us. Outsiders in their territory. Outsiders in the county. Still outsiders in many ways to the state. Twenty years later though, I am sometimes called “nearly a native” which I respectfully deny. Knowing full well that only a person born here can claim native status. Knowing full well that if you didn’t graduate from an Idaho high school, you’ve got nothing near native status to claim.

Maybe today I will pull out all that needs healing and laughing over. Maybe tomorrow I can walk with quiet-mind and fully see what I came to see. I sure hope so. I really need nature to refuel my soul. My body seems good now. It seems my soul is soured and disillusioned. I really want this hike to be a pivot from the past and all its frustrations to a future that is less painful, more productive, and abundantly more profitable. Okay. Stop. No business planning on this trip. Stop. Focus. See what is here right now. Listen to the stream feeding the lake below. Smell the pine pollen as its yellow fairy dust flies. Sneeze. Happens every time. Remember the cool touch of the boulder at lunch – its strong reminder that nature is here. That nature always wins – always reclaims eventually even the most well-built human achievements. Maybe inborn human nature always wins too. People’s personalities seem fairly set, stuck even. Thus, this divorce. I am unwilling to live in his world. He is unwilling to leave his world to live in mine. I can’t live with it. He says he won’t live without his world which means he’s willing to live without me. Divorced.

Dinner is calling. Ida looks for a dining room as delightful as her lunch boulder. Nothing in sight yet. Onward. Step. Lift. Step. Stumble without falling. Lift. Step. Dinner is calling. Ida decides to wait on dinner until she’s camped, settling in for the night. Did I remember to pack a rope to pull the pack and my food into the tree? I think so. No food in the tent – ever. No food in the camp overnight. Put the food up in the tree so the bears can’t get it said Joe on every trip. These reminders strike moments of fear in Ida’s now tired body. It will be okay. This is early in the season. Plenty of food for animals right now. Fall is the time to really worry about bears – right? Think of something else, anything else. You told everyone you’d be fine and you will be fine. You’ve done this before plenty of times. You’ve got this! Think about those rhubarb muffins for breakfast in the morning. Focus on the warmth of the down bag tonight. There’s nothing like a warm-on-the-inside bag and waking up to frost on the outside of the bag. You’ve got this!

With the final saddle past and the drop into the lakes begun, Ida sighs in relief and joy. I knew I could do this. I just knew it. Just ten more minutes. It’s got to be just ten more, thinks Ida, head down, pushing for her campsite while realizing the sun is dropping quickly. As it does in the mountains, quickly. Great. I’m repeating the words that made me so angry decades ago; that made me feel lied-to about just how much further the endpoint was; that made me angry at the Marine who was used to forest marches with over-heavy packs; and that made me so ripe for the final vista of the Peak over the lake at sunrise, I cried the next morning in that mountain lake fiery bonnet reflection cathedral of soul. And I’m ready to bawl right now. Bawl for days maybe. Bawl to purge past pains and people. Bawl with relief over being healthy again. Bawl for…yikes I better move. Uphill for horses, downhill for people. Move!

Ida died today on a solo hike to celebrate her life, falling from a steep section of the Grandjean-to-Bead Lakes trail on her last leg to Warbonnet Peak while moving uphill for a fast-approaching horse during a peach-colored sunset.