Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail - Cheryl Strayed (2012)
Part V. BOX OF RAIN
Crater Lake used to be a mountain. Mount Mazama, it was called. It was not so unlike the chain of dormant volcanoes I’d be traversing on the PCT in Oregon—Mount McLoughlin, the Three Sisters peaks, Mount Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Mount Jefferson, and Mount Hood—except that it was bigger than them all, having reached an elevation that’s estimated at a little under 12,000 feet. Mount Mazama blew up about 7,700 years ago in a cataclysmic eruption that was forty-two times more voluminous than the eruption that decapitated Mount St. Helens in 1980. It was the largest explosive eruption in the Cascade Range going back a million years. In the wake of Mazama’s destruction, ash and pumice blanketed the landscape for 500,000 square miles—covering nearly all of Oregon and reaching as far as Alberta, Canada. The Klamath tribe of Native Americans who witnessed the eruption believed it was a fierce battle between Llao, the spirit of the underworld, and Skell, the spirit of the sky. When the battle was over, Llao was driven back into the underworld and Mount Mazama had become an empty bowl. A caldera, it’s called—a sort of mountain in reverse. A mountain that’s had its very heart removed. Slowly, over hundreds of years, the caldera filled with water, collecting the Oregon rain and snowmelt, until it became the lake that it is now. Reaching a maximum depth of more than 1,900 feet, Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States and among the deepest in the world.
I knew a little something about lakes, having come from Minnesota, but as I walked away from Ashland, I couldn’t quite imagine what I would see at Crater Lake. It would be like Lake Superior, I supposed, the lake near which my mother had died, going off blue forever into the horizon. My guidebook said only that my first view of it from the rim, which rose 900 feet above the lake’s surface, would be “one of disbelief.”
I had a new guidebook now. A new bible. The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 2: Oregon and Washington, though back at the co-op in Ashland, I’d ripped off the last 130 of the book’s pages because I didn’t need the Washington part. My first night out of Ashland, I paged through the book before falling asleep, reading bits here and there, the same as I had with the California guidebook in the desert on my first night on the PCT.
As I walked during those first days out of Ashland, I caught a couple of glimpses of Mount Shasta to the south, but mostly I walked in forests that obscured views. Among backpackers, the Oregon PCT was often referred to as the “green tunnel” because it opened up to far fewer panoramas than the California trail did. I no longer had the feeling that I was perched above looking down on everything, and it felt odd not to be able to see out across the terrain. California had altered my vision, but Oregon shifted it again, drew it closer in. I hiked through forests of noble, grand, and Douglas fir, pushing past bushy lakes through grasses and weedy thistles that sometimes obscured the trail. I crossed into the Rogue River National Forest and walked beneath tremendous ancient trees before emerging into clear-cuts like those I’d seen a few weeks before, vast open spaces of stumps and tree roots that had been exposed by the logging of the dense forest. I spent an afternoon lost amid the debris, walking for hours before I emerged onto a paved road and found the PCT again.
It was sunny and clear but the air was cool, and it grew progressively cooler with each day as I passed into the Sky Lakes Wilderness, where the trail stayed above 6,000 feet. The views opened up again as I walked along a ridgeline of volcanic rocks and boulders, glimpsing lakes occasionally below the trail and the land that spread beyond. In spite of the sun, it felt like an early October morning instead of a mid-August afternoon. I had to keep moving to stay warm. If I stopped for more than five minutes the sweat that drenched the back of my T-shirt turned icy cold. I’d seen no one since I left Ashland, but now I encountered a few day hikers and overnight backpackers who’d climbed up to the PCT on one of the many trails that intersected it, which led to peaks above or lakes below. Mostly I was alone, which wasn’t unusual, but the cold made the trail seem even more vacant, the wind clattering the branches of the persevering trees. It felt colder too, even colder than it had been up in the snow above Sierra City, though I saw only small patches of snow here and there. I realized it was because back then the mountains had been moving toward summer, and now, only six weeks later, they were already moving away from it, reaching toward autumn, in a direction that pushed me out.
One night I stopped to camp, stripped off my sweaty clothes, dressed in every other piece of clothing I had, and quickly made dinner, zipping myself into my sleeping bag as soon as I finished eating, chilled to the bone, too cold even to read. I lay curled into myself in a fetal position with my hat and gloves on all night long, barely able to sleep. When the sun rose at last, it was 26 degrees and my tent was covered in a thin layer of snow; the water in my bottles was frozen, though they’d been beside me inside the tent. As I broke camp without a sip of water, eating a protein bar instead of my regular granola mixed with Better Than Milk, I thought again of my mother. She’d been looming for days, riding low and heavy in my mind since Ashland, and now finally, on the day of the snow, she was undeniably here.
It was August 18. Her birthday. She’d have been fifty that day, if she’d lived.
She didn’t live. She didn’t get to be fifty. She would never be fifty, I told myself as I walked under the cold and bright August sun. Be fifty, Mom. Be fucking fifty, I thought with increasing rage as I forged on. I couldn’t believe how furious I was at my mother for not being alive on her fiftieth birthday. I had the palpable urge to punch her in the mouth.
Her previous birthdays hadn’t brought up the same rage. In past years, I’d been nothing but sad. On the first birthday without her—on the day that she’d have been forty-six—I’d spread her ashes with Eddie, Karen, Leif, and Paul in the little rock-lined flowerbed we’d made for her in a clearing on our land. On her three subsequent birthdays, I’d done nothing but cry as I sat very still listening with great attention to the entire Judy Collins album Colors of the Day, its every note seeming to be one of my cells. I could bear to listen to it only once each year, for all the memories of my mother playing it when I was a child. The music made it feel like my mother was right there with me, standing in the room—only she wasn’t and would never be again.
I couldn’t allow even a line of it now on the PCT. I deleted each and every song from the mix-tape radio station in my head, pressing an imaginary rewind in a desperate scramble, forcing my mind to go static instead. It was my mother’s not-fiftieth birthday and there would be no song. Instead, I passed by high lakes and crossed over blocky volcanic rocks as the night’s snow melted on the hardy wildflowers that grew among them, hiking faster than ever while thinking uncharitable thoughts about my mother. Dying at forty-five had only been the worst thing she’d done wrong. As I hiked, I made a catalogue of the rest, listing them painstakingly in my head:
1. She’d gone through a phase during which she’d smoked pot on an occasional but regular basis and had no qualms about doing it in front of my siblings and me. Once, stoned, she’d said, “It’s only an herb. Like tea.”
2. It hadn’t been uncommon for my brother, sister, and me to be left alone when we lived in the apartment buildings full of single moms. She told us we were old enough to look after ourselves for a few hours because she couldn’t afford a babysitter. Plus, there were all those other moms we could go to if something went wrong, she said. But we needed our mom.
3. During this same period, when she became really mad, she often threatened to spank us with a wooden spoon, and a few times, she’d followed through.
4. Once she said it was perfectly okay with her if we wanted to call her by her first name instead of calling her Mom.
5. She could be cool and often distant with her friends. She loved them, but she kept them at arm’s length. I don’t think she truly let any one of them all the way in. She held to her belief that “blood was thicker than water,” in spite of the fact that my family was rather short of blood relations who didn’t live hundreds of miles away. She maintained an air of insularity and privacy, participating in the community of friends, but also sealing off our family from it. This was why no one had swooped in when she died, I supposed, why her friends had left me in peace in my inevitable exile. Because she had not held any of them very close, none of them held me. They wished me well, but they didn’t invite me to Thanksgiving dinner or call me up on my mom’s birthday to say hello after she died.
6. She was optimistic to an annoying degree, given to saying those stupid things: We’re not poor because we’re rich in love! or When one door closes, another one opens up! Which always, for a reason I couldn’t quite pin down, made me want to throttle her, even when she was dying and her optimism briefly and desolately expressed itself in the belief that in fact she wouldn’t die, so long as she drank a tremendous amount of wheatgrass juice.
7. When I was a senior in high school, she didn’t ask where I would like to go to college. She didn’t take me on a tour. I didn’t even know people went on tours until I went to college and others told me they’d gone on them. I was left to figure it out on my own, applying to a single college in St. Paul for no reason whatsoever other than it looked nice on the brochure and it was only a three-hour drive away from home. Yes, I had slacked a bit in high school, playing the dumb blonde so I wouldn’t be socially ostracized because my family lived in a house with a honey bucket for a toilet and a woodstove for heat; and my stepfather had long hair and a big bushy beard and drove around in a demolished car that he’d made into a pickup truck by himself with a blowtorch, a chain saw, and a few two-by-fours; and my mother opted not to shave under her arms and to say things to the red-blooded gun-loving locals like Actually, I think hunting is murder. But she knew I was secretly smart. She knew I was intellectually avid, devouring books by the day. I’d scored in the upper percentiles on every standardized test I ever took, to everyone’s surprise but hers and mine. Why hadn’t she said, Hey, maybe you should apply to Harvard? Maybe you should apply to Yale? The thought of Harvard and Yale hadn’t even crossed my mind back then. They seemed to be utterly fictitious schools. It was only later that I realized that Harvard and Yale were real. And even though the reality is they wouldn’t have let me in—I honestly wasn’t up to their standards—something inside me was smashed by the fact that there’d never even been the question that I could give them a shot.
But it was too late now, I knew, and there was only my dead, insular, overly optimistic, non-college-preparing, occasionally-child-abandoning, pot-smoking, wooden-spoon-wielding, feel-free-to-call-me-by-my-name mom to blame. She had failed. She had failed. She had so profoundly failed me.
Fuck her, I thought, so mad that I stopped walking.
And then I wailed. No tears came, just a series of loud brays that coursed through my body so hard I couldn’t stand up. I had to bend over, keening, while bracing my hands on my knees, my pack so heavy on top of me, my ski pole clanging out behind me in the dirt, the whole stupid life I’d had coming out my throat.
It was wrong. It was so relentlessly awful that my mother had been taken from me. I couldn’t even hate her properly. I didn’t get to grow up and pull away from her and bitch about her with my friends and confront her about the things I wished she’d done differently and then get older and understand that she had done the best she could and realize that what she had done was pretty damn good and take her fully back into my arms again. Her death had obliterated that. It had obliterated me. It had cut me short at the very height of my youthful arrogance. It had forced me to instantly grow up and forgive her every motherly fault at the same time that it kept me forever a child, my life both ended and begun in that premature place where we’d left off. She was my mother, but I was motherless. I was trapped by her but utterly alone. She would always be the empty bowl that no one could fill. I’d have to fill it myself again and again and again.
Fuck her, I chanted as I marched on over the next few miles, my pace quickened by my rage, but soon I slowed and stopped to sit on a boulder. A gathering of low flowers grew at my feet, their barely pink petals edging the rocks. Crocus, I thought, the name coming into my mind because my mother had given it to me. These same flowers grew in the dirt where I’d spread her ashes. I reached out and touched the petals of one, feeling my anger drain out of my body.
By the time I rose and started walking again, I didn’t begrudge my mother a thing. The truth was, in spite of all that, she’d been a spectacular mom. I knew it as I was growing up. I knew it in the days that she was dying. I knew it now. And I knew that was something. That it was a lot. I had plenty of friends who had moms who—no matter how long they lived—would never give them the all-encompassing love that my mother had given me. My mother considered that love her greatest achievement. It was what she banked on when she understood that she really was going to die and die soon, the thing that made it just barely okay for her to leave me and Karen and Leif behind.
“I’ve given you everything,” she insisted again and again in her last days.
“Yes,” I agreed. She had, it was true. She did. She did. She did. She’d come at us with maximum maternal velocity. She hadn’t held back a thing, not a single lick of her love.
“I’ll always be with you, no matter what,” she said.
“Yes,” I replied, rubbing her soft arm.
When she’d become sick enough that we knew she was really going to die, when we were in the homestretch to hell, when we were well past thinking any amount of wheatgrass juice would save her, I’d asked her what she wanted done with her body—cremated or buried—though she only looked at me as if I were speaking Dutch.
“I want everything that can be donated to be donated,” she said after a while. “My organs, I mean. Let them have every part they can use.”
“Okay,” I said. It was the oddest thing to contemplate, to know that we weren’t making impossibly far-off plans; to imagine parts of my mother living on in someone else’s body. “But then what?” I pressed on, practically panting with pain. I had to know. It would fall on me. “What would you like to do with … what’s … left over. Do you want to be buried or cremated?”
“I don’t care,” she said.
“Of course you care,” I replied.
“I really don’t care. Do what you think is best. Do whatever is cheapest.”
“No,” I insisted. “You have to tell me. I want to know what you want done.” The idea that I would be the one to decide filled me with panic.
“Oh, Cheryl,” she said, exhausted by me, our eyes meeting in a grief-stricken détente. For every time I wanted to throttle her because she was too optimistic, she wanted to throttle me because I would never ever relent.
“Burn me,” she said finally. “Turn me to ash.”
And so we did, though the ashes of her body were not what I’d expected. They weren’t like ashes from a wood fire, silky and fine as sand. They were like pale pebbles mixed with a gritty gray gravel. Some chunks were so large I could see clearly that they’d once been bones. The box that the man at the funeral home handed to me was oddly addressed to my mom. I brought it home and set it in the cupboard beneath the curio cabinet, where she kept her nicest things. It was June. It sat there until August 18, as did the tombstone we’d had made for her, which had arrived the same week as the ashes. It sat in the living room, off to the side, a disturbing sight to visitors probably, but it was a comfort to me. The stone was slate gray, the writing etched in white. It said her name and the dates of her birth and death and the sentence she’d spoken to us again and again as she got sicker and died: I’m with you always.
She wanted us to remember that, and I did. It felt like she was with me always, metaphorically at least. And in a way it was literal too. When we’d finally laid down that tombstone and spread her ashes into the dirt, I hadn’t spread them all. I’d kept a few of the largest chunks in my hand. I’d stood for a long while, not ready to release them to the earth. I didn’t release them. I never ever would.
I put her burnt bones into my mouth and swallowed them whole.
By the night of my mother’s fiftieth birthday, I loved her again, though I still couldn’t bear to let the Judy Collins songs come into my head. It was cold, but not as cold as the night before. I sat bundled in my tent wearing my gloves, reading the first pages of my new book—The Best American Essays 1991. I usually waited until morning to burn whatever pages I’d read the night before, but on this night, when I was done reading, I crawled out of my tent and made a fire of the pages I’d read. As I watched them ignite, I said my mother’s name out loud as if it were a ceremony for her. Her name was Barbara, but she’d gone by Bobbi, so that was the name I spoke. Saying Bobbi instead of Mom felt like a revelation, like it was the first time that I truly understood that she was my mother, but also more. When she’d died, I’d lost that too—the Bobbi she’d been, the woman who was separate from who she was to me. She seemed to come at me now, the full perfect and imperfect force of her humanity, as if her life was an intricately painted mural and I could finally see the whole thing. Who she’d been to me and who she hadn’t. How it was she belonged to me profoundly, and also how she didn’t.
Bobbi hadn’t been granted her last wish, that her organs be used to help others, or at least not to the extent that she had hoped. When she died, she was ravaged with cancer and morphine, her forty-five-year-old body a toxic thing. In the end, they could use only her corneas. I knew that part of the eye was nothing but a transparent membrane, but when I thought of what my mother had given, I didn’t think of it that way. I thought of her astounding blue, blue eyes living on in someone else’s face. A few months after my mom died, we’d received a thank-you letter from the foundation that facilitated the donation. Because of her generosity someone could see, the letter said. I was mad with desire to meet the person, to gaze into his or her eyes. He or she wouldn’t have to say a word. All I wanted was for whoever it was to look at me. I called the number on the letter to inquire, but was quickly brushed aside. Confidentiality was of the utmost importance, I was told. There were the recipient’s rights.
“I’d like to explain to you about the nature of your mother’s donation,” the woman on the phone said in a patient and consoling voice that reminded me of any number of the grief counselors, hospice volunteers, nurses, doctors, and morticians who had addressed me in the weeks during which my mother was dying and in the days after she died—a voice full of intentional, almost overstated compassion, which also communicated that in this, I was entirely alone. “It wasn’t the entire eye that was transplanted,” the woman explained, “but rather the cornea, which is—”
“I know what the cornea is,” I snapped. “I’d still like to know who this person is. To see him or her if I can. I think you owe me that.”
I hung up the phone overcome with grief, but the small reasonable core that still lived inside of me knew that the woman was right. My mother wasn’t there. Her blue eyes were gone. I’d never gaze into them again.
When the flames from the pages I’d burned had gone out and I’d stood to return to my tent, the sound of high and frenzied barks and howls came to me from the east—a pack of coyotes. I’d heard that sound in northern Minnesota so many times it didn’t scare me. It reminded me of home. I looked up at the sky, the stars everywhere and magnificent, so bright against the dark. I shivered, knowing I was lucky to be here, feeling that it was too beautiful to go back into my tent just yet. Where would I be in a month? It seemed impossible that I wouldn’t be on the trail, but it was true. Most likely I’d be in Portland, if for no other reason than that I was flat broke. I still had a small bit of money left over from Ashland, but nothing that wouldn’t be gone by the time I reached the Bridge of the Gods.
I let Portland roll around in my mind through the days, as I passed out of the Sky Lakes Wilderness into the Oregon Desert—a high dusty flat plain of lodgepole pines that my guidebook explained had been smattered with lakes and streams before they were buried beneath the tons of pumice and ash that had fallen on them when Mount Mazama erupted. It was early on a Saturday when I reached Crater Lake National Park. The lake was nowhere in sight. I’d arrived instead at the campground seven miles south of the lake’s rim.
The campground wasn’t just a campground. It was a mad tourist complex that included a parking lot, a store, a motel, a little coin laundromat, and what seemed to be three hundred people revving their engines and playing their radios loud, slurping beverages from gigantic paper cups with straws and eating from big bags of chips they bought in the store. The scene both riveted and appalled me. If I hadn’t known it firsthand, I wouldn’t have believed that I could walk a quarter mile in any direction and be in an entirely different world. I camped there for the night, showering blissfully in the bathhouse, and the next morning made my way to Crater Lake.
My guidebook had been correct: my first sight of it was one of disbelief. The surface of the water sat 900 feet below where I stood on the rocky 7,100-foot-high rim. The jagged circle of the lake spread out beneath me in the most unspeakably pure ultramarine blue I’d ever seen. It was approximately six miles across, its blue interrupted only by the top of a small volcano, Wizard Island, that rose 700 feet above the water, forming a conical island upon which twisted foxtail pines grew. The mostly barren, undulating rim that surrounded the lake was dotted with these same pines and backed by distant mountains.
“Because the lake is so pure and deep, it absorbs every color of visible light except blue, so it reflects pure blue back to us,” said a stranger who stood beside me, answering the question I’d nearly uttered out loud in my amazement.
“Thanks,” I said to her. Because the water was so deep and pure it absorbed every color of visible light except blue seemed like a perfectly sound and scientific explanation, and yet there was still something about Crater Lake that remained inexplicable. The Klamath tribe still considered the lake a sacred site and I could see why. I wasn’t a skeptic about this. It didn’t matter that all around me there were tourists taking pictures and driving slowly past in their cars. I could feel the lake’s power. It seemed a shock in the midst of this great land: inviolable, separate and alone, as if it had always been and would always be here, absorbing every color of visible light but blue.
I took a few photographs and walked along the lake’s rim near a small gathering of buildings that had been built to accommodate tourists. I had no choice but to spend the day because it was a Sunday and the park’s post office was closed; I couldn’t get my box until tomorrow. It was sunny and finally warm again, and as I walked, I thought that if I’d continued with the pregnancy I’d learned about in that motel room in Sioux Falls the night before I decided to hike the PCT, I’d be giving birth to a baby right about now. The week of my mother’s birthday would’ve been my due date. The crushing coalescence of those dates felt like a punch in the gut at the time, but it didn’t compel me to waver in my decision to end my pregnancy. It only made me beg the universe to give me another chance. To let me become who I needed to before I became a mother: a woman whose life was profoundly different than my mother’s had been.
Much as I loved and admired my mother, I’d spent my childhood planning not to become her. I knew why she’d married my father at nineteen, pregnant and only a tiny bit in love. It was one of the stories I’d made her tell when I’d asked and asked and she’d shaken her head and said, Why do you want to know? I’d asked so much that she finally gave in. When she’d learned she was pregnant, she’d pondered two options: an illegal abortion in Denver or hiding out in a distant city during her pregnancy, then handing over my sister to her mother, who’d offered to raise the baby as her own. But my mother hadn’t done either of those things. She decided to have her baby, so she’d married my dad instead. She’d become Karen’s mother and then mine and then Leif’s.
“I never got to be in the driver’s seat of my own life,” she’d wept to me once, in the days after she learned she was going to die. “I always did what someone else wanted me to do. I’ve always been someone’s daughter or mother or wife. I’ve never just been me.”
“Oh, Mom,” was all I could say as I stroked her hand.
I was too young to say anything else.
At noon I went to the cafeteria in one of the nearby buildings and ate lunch. Afterwards, I walked through the parking lot to the Crater Lake Lodge and strolled through the elegantly rustic lobby with Monster on my back, pausing to peer into the dining room. There was a smattering of people sitting at tables, handsome groups holding glasses of chardonnay and pinot gris like pale yellow jewels. I went outside to the long porch that overlooked the lake, made my way along a line of grand rocking chairs, and found one that was set off by itself.
I sat in it for the rest of the afternoon, staring at the lake. I still had 334 miles to hike before I reached the Bridge of the Gods, but something made me feel as if I’d arrived. Like that blue water was telling me something I’d walked all this way to know.
This was once Mazama, I kept reminding myself. This was once a mountain that stood nearly 12,000 feet tall and then had its heart removed. This was once a wasteland of lava and pumice and ash. This was once an empty bowl that took hundreds of years to fill. But hard as I tried, I couldn’t see them in my mind’s eye. Not the mountain or the wasteland or the empty bowl. They simply were not there anymore. There was only the stillness and silence of that water: what a mountain and a wasteland and an empty bowl turned into after the healing began.