Being Mammal In Extreme Ecosystems

I’ve always been a gal of the forest. My hometown in the heartland didn’t offer much in terms of “wilderness” (a concept I later learned to interrogate pretty hard anyway – more on that later), but I got by with walks in the parks, cemeteries, and railroad right-of-ways that flanked the river.

During college, I got out to the backcountry when I could, which wasn’t much, since I was collared by the greater Boston area. When I landed in Mongolia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I finally got my fill of unsettled landscape. I lived in the middle of a wide plain bordered by the Khentii Mountains to the north and the Gobi desert to the south. When I hiked, it was as though on a treadmill, across the steppe roughed up by the odd patch of tussocks. I could walk for hours, it seemed, and never draw any nearer to the mountains.

The Khentii Mountains as seen from Undurkhaan, Mongolia
The Khentii Mountains as seen from Undurkhaan, Mongolia

Back home alongside the man who would become The Husband, I threw myself at the National Parks. Two summers before we were married, Husband and I trekked fifty or sixty miles through some of the most spectacular terrain in Glacier National Park. Since we blew in on motorcycles without any advanced planning, we got a less-than-ideal itinerary that involved gargantuan elevation losses and gains in long unbroken stretches punctuated by days in which we’d cover less than two miles (great for mid-hike shagging extravaganzas, we thought, although it turns out tents in Glacier in July do not well-appointed love dens make. For starters, ticks). I cried for the duration of our final several-thousand-foot Miltonian descent.

Marriage led to kids, as it often does for us mammals. Husband and I vowed not to let parenthood keep us out of the backcountry, just as we vowed not to let it sap the vitality of our connection with each other. It’s been thirteen years since the marriage, nine since Son the Elder made his debut. We’ve done okay. I won’t lie: we haven’t done as well as I wanted, though my standards for everything are high (except when, out of sheer frustration, they become amateurishly low). This isn’t a memoir of my marriage, exactly, so suffice it to say that there’s been water under the bridge. Husband and I are in different places. We’ve evolved. We’ve found out things about each other and ourselves we couldn’t have foreseen thirteen or nine or even five years ago. That’s not to say that in some ways we haven’t evolved together, because we have, notably into a meditation practice and mindsets of mutually supporting each other’s more ambitiously personal and creative callings.

Extreme Ecosystems: Mojave, Marriage
Extreme Ecosystems: Mojave, Marriage

One of the important things I’ve found out, and the thing that this maybe is a memoir of, is that the following is a very tricky mixture indeed:

  • one highly educated feminist wife,
  • one highly educated and open-minded husband nonetheless habituated to the structurally-enforced privileges of the white male,
  • two careers
  • two or three serious avocations (at least one apiece),
  • two children, and
  • not enough money to hire more than occasional help around the house (and this should get a footnote of its own, because the help we do hire represents a socioeconomic and racialized externalization of the conflicts engendered in our marriage by a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy).

I watch Husband carve out time to sink into projects which, from where I stand, are not strictly necessary to the functioning of the family or directly beneficial to the kids and which in fact take him away from the things that, again from where I stand, are necessary to the family’s baseline. What’s a feminist to do? Fight over every load of laundry or piano lesson or school form and feel like you just might be crazy? Do everything yourself and tell yourself you don’t mind? Gradually, we’ve reached an equilibrium in the household as our standards (cleanliness, organization, ambitiousness of child-oriented endeavors) have become better coordinated. Most importantly, though, I’ve learned to prioritize the time I want for myself. Doing so has involved taking my callings seriously even when I feel like I’m not good at them or not likely to succeed at them.

That seems important, so let me repeat it: one of the hardest lessons of my adult life has been to learn to take my callings seriously even when I feel like I’m not good at them or not likely to succeed at them. And this project is part of my trying to put that lesson into practice.

To wit: we have gotten out into the backcountry at least once a summer for a fairly involved trip, although the last two summers we’ve been less ambitious because of The Husband’s refusal to fly due to the high impact of plane traffic on climate change. Which has meant long roadtrips, usually in a car that runs on waste vegetable oil, a converted mid-80’s diesel sedan highly prone to breakdowns and other less serious but highly inexpedient malfunctions. But suddenly I’m forty. And suddenly I realize I’ve got eight summers left before Son the Elder leaves for college. So why not hike through them?

Why not hike through the obstacles? Why not hike through the relationships I have with these three boys/men? I love the backcountry, the ache it puts deep in the joints and muscles, the appetite’s sharpening, the glaze of sweat, the dirty fingerpads, the views of plains and valleys, the relentless trudge forward on the path into green swales and across unshaded beds of scree. I love the march down into the washes and canyons, across streams, along lakesides. I love the peaks’ boulders blotched with a leathery alpine plant so hardbitten that it can barely muster green for its leaves and which nonetheless seasonally explodes with tiny amethyst flowers. Or the stars strewn at my feet when I finally bed down on the hard, reassuring ground.

Here we go: through-hike.