Mom and I hiked a lot, just the two of us, when I was younger and she was alive. Every sunny weekend we made sandwiches, consulted maps, and drove to one of the many trailheads scattered through the mountains that encircled our tiny riverside town. We’d start early Sunday morning, sometimes leaving in darkness so we could initiate our hike with the sunrise. We’d bounce along a gravel road for several miles in our battered Subaru, between skyscraping fir trees, until we reached the dirt turnout full of muddy puddles that would be our parking lot.
The mountaintop hikes were our favorite. Starting at low elevation, we passed through dense forests of ancient trees, lush with ferns and moss. The trail twisted along the side of the mountain, always rising, and zigzagging up the steeper slopes. Often we would cross a clear, cold stream on a bridge of rough-cut logs. Mom had a filter so we could drink the water safely; there’s not much more refreshing than sweet mountain spring water on a warm summer morning.
As we ascended the ferns would give way to berry bushes and open forest floors with the trunks of evergreen trees like living pillars. Colorful mushrooms and waxy white ghost plants could be found there, if you were lucky enough to catch their rare and fleeting appearance above ground. And then after hours of struggle and aching feet, we would reach the summit and enter a new reality. Everything is different from the top of a mountain, the world feels vaster and more intimate at the same time, the noises of civilization muted or absent entirely.
During the week, Mom worked for the local Fish and Wildlife department as a biologist. She told me the name of every species we saw, so many times they became our shared knowledge. Whenever she forgot something I remembered it, and when I forgot she remembered. We knew what was edible, what would kill you, and what would cause a minor stomachache. We learned their phylogenetic relationships, their places in the ecosystem, their meaning to the original inhabitants of the land.
We watched our favorite locations change, as invasive species and increasingly dry and hot summers strained the adaptivity of the native life. One year an enormous wildfire raged down the river and there was no hiking for several months. We sat on our lawn under a sepia-toned sky and watched whole mountainsides explode in flame, half a mile away. Our town survived, but others didn’t.
Mom changed too. The spring I turned thirteen, on our first hike after several months of rain and snow, she had to stop and rest every ten minutes. It was the first time I remember worrying about her. I had always been the one falling behind and needing a break. And then seeing her gasping for oxygen at the top of a small mountain, smiling at the beauty but her eyes looking so tired. I think that was the moment I knew I was going to lose her. Not in the she’s-about-to-die sense, that would come later, but in the sense that the life we had was temporary, and soon I would have to be a person of my own without her.
From that breathless hike to the diagnosis was barely a year, and the cancer took her after another year, about a week after my fifteenth birthday. During the last six months she was mostly bedridden, so I made her favorite meals and read stories to her, like she did when I was a four-year-old with a fever.
I refused to go to the memorial service. My extended family are religious and Dad generally agrees with them, but Mom and I were quietly atheist. More secular humanist than anything else, although Mom liked to talk about the spirituality of energy and unity of all things. I didn’t want to hear about how she was in an imaginary better place, and somehow watching over me without the ability to communicate. I wanted to stay in her bed forever, crying and reading again and again the last poem she wrote for me. I knew her energy would never be destroyed, that she had only changed form. I knew she would always be with me in her art and my memories. I knew the life we had together would always exist, even if it was hidden from me by the stifling fabric of spacetime. But it wasn’t enough.
“Lucas, wait up!”
I stop and look down the hillside at my friend Aylen, who is two switchbacks below me. Her straight black hair flows in the breeze as she hurries to catch up, and I feel a small twinge of jealousy. I’ve only been able to grow my hair as far as my shoulders, and it’s so curly it all sticks together. When my head wool moves with the wind, it’s more like a freshly-shorn fleece flapping about on a clothesline than a curtain of fine shimmering threads.
Aylen stomps up to me, breathing heavily, and leans on my shoulder. “I can’t keep up when you zone out and turn into a hiking machine, you know.”
“What you thinking about?”
“You’re not being negative about yourself again are you?”
My cheeks feel warm and I shrug her off as I turn to continue up the trail.
“Your hair is magnificent!” she shouts after me.
“If you insist.”
For a moment she doesn’t do anything, and then she runs to catch up and continues walking alongside me in silence. A few minutes later the trail takes us around a corner in the base of a cliff, and all at once we can see fifty miles of layered hills, marching up to the enormous white dome of Pahto, also known as Mount Adams. We step out of the trail to let a descending hiker and his dog pass by, and stay to take in the view.
Aylen takes a deep breath. “I know you’re upset about what Jude said yesterday.”
“Upset doesn’t quite cover it.”
“Ok, maybe you’re furious. Maybe you’re depressed. I can never tell because you always shut down the big feelings.”
“He called me a fairy and implied I’m trying to look like my mom because she made me weak.”
“But you’re not weak at all. He’s an ignorant asshole and his opinion doesn’t matter.”
I don’t know how to tell her. I don’t think I can. That probably means I am actually weak.
“You can tell me,” she says, seeming to read my mind as she often does. “Whatever it is. You know it’s safe with me.”
I wish I could believe that. I don’t have any reason not to, I just can’t.
“I’m tired,” I say, barely more than a whisper. “Like, emotionally exhausted.”
We share a brief moment of eye contact. I know she understands the emotional cost, better than I do, of living in the margins of society. She would understand if she believed me, but that’s what I’m afraid of. That she won’t.
I terminate eye contact within a couple seconds, like I always do, and we resume our hike. It’s another fifteen quiet minutes to the summit, where we sit in the grass and gaze out over the landscape.
We’re almost a mile straight above the valley where I parked my Toyota at the trailhead, and if I squint from just the right angle I can make out a tiny flash of light, a vehicle’s windshield among the trees. The sky is flawless, an endless smooth gradient of pure blue. For the moment, no airplanes can be heard. Everything is birds, and insects, and the roaring ocean of trees dancing in the wind.
“This is my favorite part,” Aylen says.
“It’s the whole point of struggling up four thousand feet of elevation.”
I haven’t told her the significance of this location. After Mom died, I would have gone into near total isolation if Aylen hadn’t convinced me to keep hiking. It was never her thing, but she came along to keep me company, and by the end of that summer she was hooked. Now it’s spring again, I’ve just turned sixteen and bought my first truck, and we’re on our third hike of the season. At this elevation, this early in the year, the air still has a biting chill despite the sun. It’s at least ten degrees colder at the summit than the trailhead.
I pull a couple sandwiches out of my backpack, and while we eat a fit man in jogging shorts comes up the trail. He gives us a friendly hello as he passes by, and steps out near the edge of the cliff to get some pictures.
“Hey Aylen,” I say. “Thanks so much for hiking with me. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
She smiles. “I should thank you for getting me into it. I never knew what I was missing.”
“You should thank my mom.” I wave my hands at the view. “This was her favorite spot. This was our first spring hike three years ago.”
She nods. She knows what that means.
I look over my shoulder. The other hiker has left the summit, leaving us alone again. If I’m going to take this chance, I better do it now or I’ll get too anxious and won’t be able to say anything.
“You said anything is safe with you,” I start, and that’s all I can get out.
“Yes, what is it?”
“I…well I don’t feel like I’m…a person.” It sounds weird when I say it. Of course what I feel is what it’s like to be a person. I go on, trying to translate feelings into words for the first time. “For years I’ve felt disconnected, like nothing is real, if that makes any sense. It’s like I’m watching from inside while someone else lives their own life with my body.”
“That sounds like dissociation to me.”
I look at her. “It’s a thing? There’s a word for it?”
“It’s a common symptom of trauma.”
I nod slowly. That does make sense. “Except it started before I knew my mom was sick. I wanted to talk to her about it, three years ago when we were right here, but I didn’t.”
“She couldn’t catch her breath. I was worried about her and it didn’t feel like the right time.”
“Did you ever get to have that conversation with her?”
I turn my face away, and I try to answer but it isn’t audible. My fists are tight around blades of grass that snap away from the ground one by one.
“No, I didn’t.” It comes out louder, angrier than I thought it would.
“It’s ok to be angry.”
My eyes sting and a tear rolls down one of my cheeks. This is not what I had envisioned. I was hoping for a conversation that felt safer and more comforting. I wasn’t ready to feel all of this. I didn’t want to make my closest friend do all this emotional labor. I just wanted to be honest for once.
“I can’t say it for you,” she says, in a sort of voice I’m not sure I’ve heard before.
“The thing you want to tell me. The thing you didn’t get to tell your mom. You have to say it.”
Does she know? My stomach feels like I’ve just gone over the first drop of a roller coaster. One part of me is trying to bail out, to invent a red herring and leave the real story buried. But a larger part of me knows this is the time, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
“When Mom died it felt like I totally lost direction.”
Aylen scoots closer, and her shoulder touches mine. “You lost the person you looked up to most, who showed you how to exist in this world.”
She holds my hand between hers. “And now you have to be yourself.”
My fear subsides a bit and I feel more numb than anything else. Maybe I’m starting to do that dissociating thing. I’d better tell her before I shut down.
“Aylen,” I whisper.
“I can’t be a man, I think it would kill me. I need to be a woman.”
My head is bowed low, I don’t know what’s coming next. I feel ashamed of admitting it and afraid of the overwhelming truth and its consequences.
“I know,” she says, and she wraps her arms around me as I start to cry. “I know, Lu.”