Total Miles: 765.4
Divorce, loss, upheaval, trauma. For as long as there has been wilderness there have been people who seek its healing and its catharsis. Packing with them emotional baggage as heavy as that which rests upon their shoulders, I’ve never counted myself among them—until now.
For anyone who has even passingly read the posts of Stone & Sky, there’s been one person who has appeared time and again in the connections I’ve often drawn between the past and the present: my dad. In 2007, we lost both him and all of the future memories I had foolishly painted his presence into: my own wedding to Ace, and that of my sister; the birth of his four grandchildren; as-yet-to-be-savored moments in the twilight of a life spent with his loving and selfless wife.
It’s a time honored cliché that time will magically move all of us past the things in our lives that have cut us the deepest, that healing requires nothing more than patience. Watching these final steps of the AZT pass beneath me, I realize now that no amount of patience will transcend a loss that I can’t seem to move beyond. That no number of steps will bring back what has been lost.
Years, trails, and many thousands of miles have come and gone since then in the wilderness he so loved, and with unsettling consistency, both a healing and reopening of wounds has joined me on every one of them. The grief I never experienced in the way I watched it devastate those around me crept up slowly in the kinds of places he would have so loved walking through right beside me.
Like miniature waves presaging a tsunami that would surely be arriving right behind them, I would begin to cry while hiking down the trails that have meant so much to me. But the tidal wave breakdown would never come, stopped short by a body seemingly unable to allow the complete falling apart that was about to come next. A rejection of the grief as though it would mean acceptance of the reality. A stiff upper lip confusing strength for what it really was: shame. Shame for not accepting this sooner.
My own story is not a special one. But what I’ve slowly come to understand is that moving beyond the loss of my dad is perhaps the wrong goal, that there are some things you never get over. That his loss may always be a scar destined to heal and to fray, in equal measure, but that the wilderness is a memorial where I can always find him and the imprints on my own life he has left behind.
Most of all, the memory of his companionship in places like this reminds me of how lucky I have been to share the trail with so many wonderful friends in the years since his loss. With Ace striding along mere seconds behind me, I realize that his most lasting gift to me was to draw loved ones like her to the same places that he had always drawn me to.
Down along the 6 mile ramp of trail leading to the border, the summit of Miller Peak—the last of the sky islands—began to recede into the crown of rocky ridges and knolls that it claims as neighbors. Like birds slowly floating down on the breeze, the desert grew larger and larger until only one small peak lie between us, Mexico and the end of our Arizona Trail adventure.
Arriving there, the only reaction we could muster aside from celebration was laughter at the irony of a border wall—incomplete, and neither big, nor beautiful, nor paid for by Mexico; another wall that the world does not need—stopping mere feet from the gleaming silver of border monument 102 that marked the border with Mexico and the official end of the Arizona Trail. Far in the distant east, I pictured the imaginary line connecting us to the monument along the very same border that we wrapped our arms around on the Continental Divide Trail last November.
Six weeks had come and gone, seeing us through an adventure as diverse as any I’ve ever had. An adventure shared with only 13 other thru-hikers we’d met along the ribbon of rock and dirt that had guided us all from Utah to where we now stood. Beside my best friend, I realize that so much of my dad’s memory lives on with her. A gift that will always transcend his loss. A gift that will always have us searching for the next trail. Together.