A particularly fat marmot has been following me for a while now, peeking over and disappearing behind the granite boulders along the trail. He can smell my M&Ms, I just know it, and thinking about them makes my mouth water. Marmot scampers twenty feet in front of me and perches on top of a rock, looking chubby, greedy, and bold. His fur glows lustrously in the high mountain sunshine. I sit to rest, my back against a boulder and my rear end in the grey dust. Besides the M&Ms, I am carrying ten days worth of food locked tight in a bear canister. This is the highest past yet, and the loneliest.
The John Muir Trail is a 221 mile stretch of hiker’s paradise: with eleven high passes, 46,000 feet of ascent, and opportunities for some serious solitude, following a north-south route that passes through Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon National Parks. This hike is just what I needed. That’s what I told myself.
But today I have been crying.
Today I am haunted by a dream from the night before, from which I awoke breathless and shivering. My mother was dancing in the kitchen. She had a perm, and her cinnamon-colored curls bounced around her head, like the way she looked when I was seven years old. She smiled such a painfully bright, wide, perfect Miss America smile at me that when I awoke, gasping, it was all I could see. Sitting in the dirt on the John Muir Trail, it still is.
I am sitting below Muir Pass, and at just under 12,000 feet, it’s the highest pass I have yet to cross on my north to south journey; from here they would only continue to get higher. The sky burns blue, without a wisp of cloud, without even the distant, fading trail of an airplane. I feel so exposed, as if a slight wind will send me tumbling down all the way to the forested valleys below. Here Marmot and I rest above the tree line, with ten days of pure wilderness stretching out in front of us, and I have never felt so far from the world. I open the coveted pack of M&Ms.
My dream, tauntingly happy, replays in my mind. I grab the heels of my boots and yank them off one by one, throwing them away from me in the hopes that all we need is a little time apart, and then I’ll start loving them again. My feet ache, as they have for the past twelve days, and my big toes have long since gone numb. Then I start crying again. Marmot sits on a rock and stares.
I feel my mother’s presence here. She has been shaking me awake, inside my tent. In the morning my eyes fly open, and while I lay on my back in my blue sleeping bag I search for her briefly in the darkness. She is an image flickering in and out, like the reel of an old, old film. As my eyes adjust to the morning light, she disappears completely, and I wriggle into my hiking clothes to start a new day.
I dream of her almost every night. She is haunting me. But what I have been praying for—that the memories of the last weeks of my mother’s life be replaced by the real her, healthy and alive and dancing in the kitchen—has started to come true. Sitting below Muir Pass I believe my mother is sending me better dreams, delivering me from grief, slowly. And below these mountains, although it has only been two months since her death, I even feel grateful.
Here all I can see are craggy, grey peaks, snow clinging to their highest pockets, and several glassy cerulean lakes. Up here it looks like the face of another planet. This could be Mars, I think. Or the moon. No trees, no people, not a single shrub to pee behind. Not even the faint chirping of a bird. Cupped inside these shells of mountains, the living world lay far below and out of view. Except for the marmots. I smile to the wide-open sky, and continue my climb.
About the Author: Marisa Monroe is an English teacher currently living in Gijón, Spain. Her most recent adventure was to raise money for charity by walking 1,500 miles through the U.K., France, and Spain.
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