“Time is the substance I am made of,” wrote Jorge Luis Borges. “Time is a river that sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.” There’s no scrambling up to the safety of the riverbank when the river is you.Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks
My twin daughters, Annie and Leah, were eight years old when they went on their first backpacking trip with me, the same age I had been when I carried a canvas knapsack up the Skokomish River with my family to lovely Camp Pleasant. I had been expected to carry one pound for every year, so my small pack weighed exactly eight pounds, carefully weighed by my father at home, adding and eliminating items until the weight was just right.
I had two parents, however, while Annie and Leah had one, and this single mom was determined to give her children the same adventures I had experienced as a child. Obviously they had to carry a bit more than eight pounds, for I could not possibly carry clothing, food, and gear for three people. I bought them inexpensive children’s packs at REI, in which they carried their sleeping bags, clothes, and a little food. I do not remember their packs being especially heavy, even for a child, but Annie began complaining loudly as we made our way up the trail along the Dungeness River in the Olympics. When we sat down on a rock by the river the tears began to flow.
“I can’t do this,” she said.
“Yes you can,” was my reply. I figured any child who could chase a soccer ball down the field and place it perfectly in that sweet spot at the back of the net could hike another mile with a light pack on her back. We sat for a long time by the river, and when we got up we made our way up the trail to Camp Handy, where we would be spending the next couple of nights. Once in camp both girls seemed to forget the torturous journey they had just completed and, after helping me to set up the tent and other camp chores, they began exploring the meadow.
For the next couple of days Camp Handy rang with the laughter of two little girls. They discovered the joys of running down the hill near the shelter, throwing up their hands in the air as they gained speed, and sometimes popping out from behind trees to surprise the other kid.
The Dungeness River is the only river in the Olympics that does not flow from a glacier, so its waters are clear and sparkling. It was shallow enough to wade across. The opposite river bank was choked with a thicket of alder, but we made our way through the dense brush to another meadow and a nice campsite under a tall fir tree, where we ate our lunch.
On the second day my parents joined us, having hiked up the gentle trail to spend an afternoon with their grandkids and daughter, just as my father’s parents had often done when we camped. Grandpa always brought watermelon, as well as hot dogs, a can of beans, and fixings for S’mores. The menu was exactly the same almost thirty years later.
Annie and Leah were spitting watermelon seeds into the fire while the red juice dripped down their chins. My mother sat down heavily on the log that had been placed as a bench by the fire. She looked downcast, and I could not understand why, for there was nothing about this moment that was not perfect.
“I can’t do this,” she said. At sixty-five she was already stooped with osteoporosis. Though I had chosen our camping destination carefully to allow my kids and my parents to enjoy a relatively short and mostly level hike, she was clearly overwhelmed in anticipation of the hike back to the trailhead in the afternoon.
“Yes you can,” I replied but not with the same assurance I had given my daughter a couple of days earlier. I wanted her to be well and strong, to stand by the campfire while fresh trout sizzled in the cast iron skillet. I wanted her not to be old. I wanted this moment in the sunlight with my family never to end. . .and all the other moments in my own childhood that had come before it.
My mother did return to the trailhead, and a few days later they bought an R.V. I was not happy about this turn of events. I had always held the conviction that my family was tough. We slept in a tent on the ground. We cooked over an open fire. We hiked. When they bought an R.V. it felt like a kind of betrayal. It was not, of course, and I should have been more supportive, but I could not allow myself to believe that they would not continue to be a part of our camping life, that those days on the riverbank had ended.
I am now considerably older than my mother was when she told me, “I can’t do this,” and the same words creep into my mind if I am not careful. Having fractured my shoulder last fall, the injury thus far is not healing, and I wonder whether or not I will be able to put on a pack this summer and venture forth onto the trail. More than anything I want to tell my mother, “I understand.”
My shoulder is painful, but I have retained my mobility, and at this point I can carry a day pack without particular difficulty. The pain is only a little bit worse than it is all the rest of the time. I am not yet ready to pronounce, “I can’t do this.” I have no intention of buying an R.V. I can still sleep on the ground in my tent. I can still cook over a campfire. And when I cannot, I hope that I will have the good sense to say to myself, “I understand.”