The red flags popped into my head left and right: You’re sure you want to sleep on the ground? A day’s walk from the nearest restroom? And, carry how much water on your back along with all your food, sleeping bag and tent? Stereotypical images of an emotional trailside breakdown fluttered through my mind, and I hung up the phone with mixed emotions.
I’d been describing an upcoming desert backpacking trip to my mom. That sounds nice, she sighed.
Yeah, I said. The quiet in that part of the country is almost overwhelming.
Wow, that sounds really peaceful, she said. Not many people around?
We’ll hardly see another soul for three days, I explained. And then I realized she wasn’t just interested in what my trip would be like—she was interested because she wanted to do it, too. And it took me by surprise.
The last time my mom went backpacking was the weekend she found out she was pregnant with me—and I can’t say I really blame her. She’d wound up with a wet dog in the tent, and then spent the next morning helping a ranger carry an injured stranger down the mountain. It wasn’t exactly a dreamily perfect trip. And then I came along. And then my sister. We didn’t exactly grow up near scenic public lands, either. On family vacations, we traveled to our grandparents’ cabin in Colorado’s Rockies instead of roughing it in tents. My own progression into camping didn’t really start until I left for college. And it hadn’t occurred to me that my mom had any feelings about my adventures other than worry. So when she expressed interest in taking a backpacking trip, around the time of her 60th birthday, I found myself making snap judgments.
Since when do you like to get dirty and go for days without showering? What if it’s cold? Or hot? Or hard? When did you start enjoying discomfort?
As I started ticking off the stereotypical complaints about backpacking in my mind, ready to ask, Do you really think you want to do this? I began to realize I was completely wrapped up in my image of “what my mom is like” without actually taking into account the depth of who she is—and why a few days in the wilderness would call to her, the same way it calls to me.
And it goes both ways, since we’re both growing and evolving as people, even if we’re not there to see it in each other on a daily basis. Just a few weeks before, I’d been slightly mortified when my mom had said, You like to swing dance, right? She, naturally, assumed I was still somewhat interested in something I’d dabbled with in high school and college more than a decade ago—the last time I’d lived in the same house, or even the same town as my mom and dad. Assuring her that it was something I’d left behind long ago, I realized I was guilty of the same kinds of assumptions.
Over the past several years, if I’d really been paying attention, I would have noticed the signs that my mom is really somewhat of a badass, even though I still forget and try to keep her in my “this is what my mom is like” box. She redesigned her diet and started taking intense spin classes, she traveled to Uganda, she more than held her own on a hike through Canyonlands that was probably the longest hike she’d ever done before. At age 59. Why would I question her ability? Or her motivation?
It seems we all make assumptions about each other. What we can handle, what are our motivations, what was really behind that beautiful Instagram shot. But we do so at our own peril, at the risk of never making an honest connection with another person about something greater than ourselves. We content ourselves with superficial judgments instead of finding those common currents within our hearts that lead us all into the wilderness on some level.
After hanging up with my mom that night, I lay in bed, as I often do, dreaming about my next trip into the desert. I thought about what it feels like, what it sounds like, and how much it means to me. And my assumptions started to fall flat. I e-mailed my mom the next day, and we started planning a trip. It’s just an overnighter, but the trail is only a stone’s throw from that original fateful trip almost 33 years ago, when I was just a zygote but along for the ride.