“Did you hear that?”
There are noises outside the tent, like there are always noises outside the tent.
“Thanks to your trip with Liz, I think every sound out there is a bear.”
My mom and I are lying on side-by-side twin air mattresses that take up the entirety of my parents’ 3-person tent. It is my 23rd birthday and we are camping in Shenandoah National Park. It is a clear, perfect October night, with just enough of a light breeze to rustle the trees outside our tent and make us a little jumpy. The trip she is referring to is one I took with my sister two months earlier in which I forget to bring the dog food into the car at night and we woke up around 2 a.m. to a bear chowing down outside our tent. I had never been camping with a dog before – not without my parents at least – and while I was religious about making sure every crumb of human food was secured inside the locked car, I didn’t think about the dog food.
In retrospect, it’s hilarious, if not a little embarrassing that I made such a rookie mistake. But … I was a rookie back then.
Building a bond in nature
My parents started taking me camping when I was a baby – the exact age neither of them could ever remember. Living on the West Coast, they often went to very high elevations with lots of snow, so a lot of my early camping trips were in a monstrous van they called the “Dinosaur” that was outfitted with a bed and mini kitchen. So I guess my smelly hiker roots go back to living #vanlife from time to time before I knew that wasn’t a thing all families did.
Despite these early origins, however, at this point in my life, I am new to camping solo. I have always gone with either a parent or a scout troop, and the trip with my sister that summer was my first time as the most experienced person in camp. I did not exactly pass the test, but of course it wasn’t going to scare me away. And for my birthday that year, I just wanted a camping trip, and my mother was happy to oblige.
And thank goodness she did. When I was home for Thanksgiving break later that fall, she told me she was having a biopsy done. She might have cancer. At the time, my world did not come to a screeching halt. I took the news, knowing she was going to be okay. It wasn’t something I had to convince myself; I just felt it. I saw the future, and my mom was in it.
Ten years later, her cancer came back. And this time … this time the future was less certain. And this past February, she finally lost the fight.
I’ve thought a lot about how to honor my mother. I took pictures. I wrote a poem. I got out my violin and started practicing, thinking I could play at her memorial service. I wanted to write about her, so I tried writing fiction – that thing writers do where we not-so-cleverly disguise our own pain inside our characters. I knew at some point I would write a blog post about it, but it was just too raw.
Then one night I was lying awake, and the camping trip came back to me, playing in my head as if it was last week and not more than a decade ago. Not all of the trip is so clear. I know my mom packed a lot of gear, as she and my dad often did as they aged. I don’t remember what we ate for dinner, but I remember we used the charcoal grill and not the campfire to cook. We drank wine, ate chocolate and before bed, I walked to the edge of the loop and stared up at the many stars, wondering at how I felt so much closer to the idea of God on top of a mountain than I ever had in a church.
And then we went to bed and giggled about my dog food mishap, hearing bears in every rustle of leaves. Just like friends. And ultimately, my mom was my friend.
Being a role model in nature and in life
With increasing conversation in the outdoor industry about gender equality – REI’s #forceofnature campaign, the 10K Women Trail Project, more and more outdoor badges for Girl Scouts all the way down to the Daisy level – I am lucky to have grown up with the role model that I had. Who took me and my sister outdoors, who never once made me feel like I needed a male partner to experience nature in spite of her own alleged fears about getting out on her own. My mom was not only someone I looked to for hiking and camping advice, but she was a walking encyclopedia for so much of the flora of the southeastern United States.
I have never consciously tried to fill that role of being an outdoorswoman for my own children. I guess because my mom never consciously tried to fill it for me. She just did it. So I do it. And one day, I hope, my children will too.
I read somewhere that the order of parenting is (or should) be that for infants, you are your child’s servant, waiting on their every need. For children, you are their leader. For teenagers, their mentor. And for adults, their friend. I didn’t see it while I was growing up, but my mom followed that pattern perfectly, whether she realized she was doing it or not. Things were certainly rocky, and we went through our times when I wondered if we would ever have a close relationship when I was an adult. Much of our relationship was over distance when I was gone for college, and once I moved back home, she was as far away as Canada and the United Kingdom, traveling with my dad for his job. We spoke on the phone and she came into town to help when my children were born.
It was in the outdoors that we got to be friends. Camping. Hiking. Or even just relaxing together on the beach.
I have a different memory of my mother than she had of herself when it came to viewing her as an outdoorswoman. In addition to my hazy memories of trips in the Dinosaur, she was always outside: gardening, going for walks, eating dinner on the patio, family hikes after church and weeklong camping trips where she and my dad were equals in setting up camp and keeping things running smoothly. When my Girl Scout – and later Boy Scout – troops canoed in the James River Batteau Festival, my mom was a chaperone every year we did it and was out on the water the entire week. I have memories of boating and rafting with her and hearing stories about backpacking and rock climbing with my dad before I was born. She would say those were rare instances – that she was just tagging along – but it ingrained in me a picture of a woman who was at home in the outdoors who set an example that women ARE at home in the outdoors.
When my parents were empty-nesters, she resumed her adventures. She always claimed she missed out on a lot because she was afraid to go out without my dad, so while living in Calgary, she wanted to take advantage of living so close to the Canadian Rockies. She joined a women’s hiking group, learned how to like the cold and ended up snowshoeing in Banff.
And even after my dad died, even as her cancer spread, resulting in surgeries, chemo, radiation, hospital stays, pain, loss of mobility, double vision and incredible physical weakness, she stayed outdoors. One of the last days she had the energy to get out of bed, she spent it walking around our backyard with my daughter, pointing out the first signs that winter was about to break and helping collect firewood for our firepit.
And somehow, she always said that she admired my bravery and self-confidence when it came to getting out on hikes and taking my kids into the wild. I come by it honest, is all I could say.
Paying it forward to the next generation
My mom was selfless, kind and always serving others, but she was also shy and introverted. She was very private and hated to have anyone pay attention to her – it’s probably why she felt so at home in the outdoors, as far away from the attention of other people as she could get. She hid from the spotlight and would have rather spent her time gardening, reading or walking through the trees than be around people on any given day.
My husband and I took our kids backpacking for the first time in late April. It was a short trip – just one night – but it’s one we have looked forward to for awhile. And while my mom never made it into the backcountry with me and my sister while we were kids, her confidence as a mother and her comfort in nature taught me that it was something that I could do. It was a beautiful trip, and the only regret I have about it is I couldn’t call my mom on our way home and tell her how much the kids enjoyed it and how much of my willingness to go I owed to her.
Because whether she meant to or not, she left her mark. And she is very, very missed.
Do you have a special someone who made an impact on your life and inspired you to get out in nature? We’d love to hear your story, so please share with us in the comments below!
- Who inspires you: gaining inspiration and perspective on trail
- 10K Women Project: Celebrating women on trail
- 3 Reasons to get on trail with grandparents
Stephanie is a photographer, freelance writer and adventure mama to two little explorers. When she is not behind a camera or editing pictures, she is camping, hiking and learning how to backpack with her family and documents her adventures at whimsyandwildernessphoto.com. On the rare occasion you find her at home, she is probably drinking coffee, working in the garden or watching “Lord of the Rings” and dreaming about hiking one day in New Zealand.