We stood in the middle of a deserted parking lot, a few miles past the Yosemite National Park entrance. My friend handed my son the lantern, which cast a soothing glow into the coal black darkness. She was itching for a short hike to the falls, but my four-year-old knew he’d have none of it. We’d driven through rain all the way from San Francisco to Yosemite, and he didn’t care to poke around looking for waterfalls at night. It was only six o’ clock, and the temperature was 40 degrees, dropping further. I understood his fear; I’ve felt it myself, but somehow the woods are reassuring to me, even in the pitch black of night, even with the sound of nearby cars reminding us of civilization.
I love being a mother, but I miss this part of my life in the age BC – before children came along and made me look both ways twice before crossing the street, or crossing the boundaries of city life. Someday I may take my son to those places where I backpacked in my single days. I’m wistful for the freedom of sleeping under the stars, and frankly, the ability to pack up and take off when I sorely needed to break away from the stresses of life.
Ten years ago, I landed at the southern end of the Appalachian Trail, on a similarly dark night, sans storm, but also without any company. It must have been past midnight when my driver left me at the trailhead in Springer Mountain, Georgia. I remember standing there after the car left, searching for the trail. And then, a flutter of tiny red lights. Were they fellow hikers approaching, or axe murderers in the night? I braced, ready to dive into the bushes. And then, to my amazement, I saw the cluster of lightning bugs with their glow playing off the glass surface of a trail sign. That was my introduction to the South. In the quiet of darkness I hiked at least an hour until I found a place to lay out my sleeping bag. I’d found my trail home for the night, and many nights to come.
Since becoming a mom, I’ve only gone camping once, and have yet to take my son. It would be the next phase of exposing him to the outdoors. That first night in Yosemite, he insisted on going to the motel. A dark, chilly parking lot was much scarier than Daddy playing monster or the “gobble-ins” in his imagination. The bears were no better. While he’d never met one, their images were everywhere, splashed across gift shops, popping out of wood carvings of hollow tree trunks and garbage cans. I wanted to tell him that you could chase a black bear away. Someday I’ll describe how my crew mates and I leapt up from supper and hollered away a black bear that summer I worked outdoors in the Sierras. I merely told my son that the bears were sleeping, night or day. So many parts of my past life have gone into hibernation. I must not be the only mom who wants to reclaim these earlier selves sooner than retirement, when it might be too late, and all we want to do is keep the empty nest warm and stocked with food.
The next day, my little explorer found his stride on the trail to Mirror Lake. No crowds, just a valley of rocks big and small and puddles to skip around. He did ask about the bears, but moved through space fearlessly, at one point running up a giant slab of granite with a vertical drop off. That’s when Mom got scared and hustled him down. My own mountaineering adventures seemed like a film reel, packed away in the attic. One day I’ll tell my son about that time I got lost in the Arizona desert with another hiker. We spent the night on the mountainside under an emergency blanket, flimsier than aluminum foil, and strained out water the next morning from a bug-infested pool. For now, we’ll find more ways to have adventures, the good kind, not the troublesome ones that might make good stories afterwards.
As my son gets older, I see him sharing the same zest for exploring wild places – as long as it’s in broad daylight. On this trip, we spent only two hours hiking, not nearly enough to scratch my itch for the outdoors. I suppose I’ve just scratched the surface of motherhood, which has its share of adventure. It’s a long winding road, and you never know what might be around the corner, a black bear or a flock of fireflies to light the way.