My lifelong love of the freedom of mountains, crisp piney air and cold creeks bouncing over rocks came mainly from summer after summer of YMCA camp in the 1970s, a place so rule-less that if a kid was missing for a night, we figured she'd find her way back by morning, and if not, we'd get around to looking for her after a few days.
My dad used to send me care packages the size of Volkswagens, containing piles of candy that replaced dinner with our counselor's blessing (as long as I bribed her with Good 'N Plenty), and canned rum cake that was roughly 1 percent cake, 99 percent rum. Drunk, we'd stumble, giggling, towards the targets at the archery and rifle ranges, while arrows and bullets whizzed by our ears. Bored counselors would turn the pages of the Teen Beat and tell us to quit blocking the targets.
I couldn't wait to be 12, so I could get up at 3 am with the big kids and climb Woody's Peak, which I knew to be an enormous nearby mountain the counselors and teenagers climbed up once per session to greet the sunrise. Tired of waiting, at 11 I lied about my age -- no one checked, of course, nor were there consent forms or even notice to the parents -- for the tingly privilege of taking step after grueling step in the freezing dark, exhausted, hour after hour, lugging dim flashlights the size and heft of bricks. At dawn, we pulled a metal box out from under a boulder at the summit and scratched our names in the log book as we squinted at the fantastic tangerine sunrise.
Back down for breakfast in the mess hall with the others, we bragged about skirmishing with fictitious bears and snakes along the trail. The little kids looked at us with awe as we powered down our well-earned pancakes.
Life didn't get better than that. The last night of camp was filled with dramatic adolescent tears. No one ever wanted to go home.
My dad encouraged all this with more than just rum cake, envelopes of underground comics and "Woody's Peak!" high fives when I saw him next. He too loved hiking. The narrative I tell myself is, "My dad used to take me camping," but the truth is, if I drill down on that memory, we only went once.
At thirteen, I was quite sure that I was an adult, and it was a burning injustice that I couldn't vote, go to college or live on my own. My dad was happy to play along, analyzing James Joyce and William Faulkner and laying out his hatred of Richard Nixon as we moved purposefully along the trail. (People didn't "trek" then. We just walked.) When a rattlesnake crossed our path, I was 100 percent squealing little girl, but the rest of the time, I was cool, pretending to understand what he was talking about.
It wasn't all highbrow. A bird lover, he'd throw out: "Hey Linseed, see that tern? Bet we'll see one on the way back too. Know why?"
"Because one good tern deserves another!" Groan.
Cooking some beans on a camp stove for dinner, my dad slid his ever-present navy blue and white bandana out of the back pocket of his Levi's, where it lived a cozy life. This impromptu potholder allowed me to hold the pan handle and spoon out our dinner; later it doubled as a dishrag for scrubbing the tin plates. My dad washed it in the stream and hung it over a tree branch, and in the morning it was good to go.
I think, like most kids of divorced parents, I eagerly anticipated and cherished visits with my dad, though sometimes I'd end up blubbering while my dad listened patiently, as if my teenaged soap operas were the most interesting stories he'd ever encountered. Because he didn't like to use non-reusable tissues, and also because he was cheap and a hippie, my dad handed me that same worn bandana to wipe my tears and blow my nose. Then he'd -- gross! -- fold it up, snot and all, and put it back into his pocket.
Bipolar disorder, I learned later, means guys like my dad would come up with outlandish schemes, buoyed by their inflated enthusiasm. It didn't seem bizarre to me, though, when my dad announced he was setting off to hike the entire Pacific Coast Trail, Mexico to Canada. All right! I thought. Cool, dad! Can I come? (No. School.) Local newspaper pictures were taken of him, backpack slung on, hat to shield his face from the sun and blue bandana knotted around his neck, as he set off.
A few days later, the expedition ended, just a few miles from its start point. He returned home and he never discussed it again. That's how it was with the manic phase for those who used to be called "manic-depressive" -- the big, bold idea fizzled out, like the end of a 1970s middle school film strip. The tail end of the film reel flap-flap-flaps for a while, then the room goes dark. Fun's over.
Mental illness radically limited my dad's life, and it became a heroic feat -- the greatest accomplishment of his life -- to remain living independently, out of mental institutions, which he derisively called "zoos." Every day he wasn't in the zoo was a good day. After a lengthy institutionalization as a young man, dad stayed out of the zoo for the rest of his life. He could walk to the market, but almost never traveled more than a few miles from home. He could read, but he'd never be the journalist he'd studied to be. He could take his dog to the park, but not climb mountains.
But he could root for me, in all things. From one of my first trials, I called him from a pay phone. "It's not going well," I told him, voice clenched. "This defense lawyer is really good." I felt like a fraud. Who was I to hold an abused child's fate in my hands? I had taken on too much, trying to represent a child sexual abuse survivor against a powerful church. My client was going to lose, and it would be my fault. The burden was too much to bear. "You'll win," he said simply. "You always do."
I went back in and cross-examined my witness like a house on fire. Though we didn't win big, the jury did believe my client and handed us a small victory. The boy hugged me hard. Me? I was grateful to my dad, the guy who always had my back.
When I hiked the week-long Inca Trail in Peru, and then summited Kilimanjaro in Tanzania years later, my dad wanted to hear every detail and pore over every overexposed, fuzzy picture I brought back. The thrill of making my dad proud never faded. Rising before dawn to lace up my hiking boots, I'd think of the one guy who understood the sheer joy of hitting a peak at sunrise -- and who had unshakable faith that I could do it.
When I was in the mountains of Vermont a few years ago, my dad passed away. A few days later, dazed and numb, I walked through his home, and was told I could take any of his items I wanted. Furniture? Nah, what would I do with it in my cramped New York apartment? His clothes? I had even less use for those. I had decided I didn't want anything but memories, when I opened a drawer and found his old blue bandana, tattered and frayed, with a hole in the middle. "We can throw that out," someone said.
Oh, no you won't, I thought, swiping it. Once again, that old hippie hankie wiped away my tears.
Years passed, life went on. My kids grew up and moved out, I became an author, but my love of mountain climbing never abated. A few weeks ago, I flew halfway around the globe for a two week trek on the Annapurna Circuit, one of the world's great long-distance hikes. Could I do it? Hour after hour, day after day, we climbed higher into the Himalayas, the world's tallest mountain range, until the oxygen in the air thinned at about 15,000 feet, slowing our pace.
Still, we kept moving.
On the eleventh and hardest day, we awoke at 2:30 a.m. Breakfast at 3 a.m., packs on and climbing in the 4 a.m. darkness, my small women's hiker group ascended. The next four hours were a steep, panting, leg-burning climb, step after grueling step.
By 7:30 a.m. I turned a bend at the snowy, windswept top of the ridge, and saw multicolored prayer flags -- which mark every significant spot in Nepal -- flapping in the breeze. "That's got to be it," I said. Either that or there's some mean Buddhists around, I thought, which seemed improbable. Step, step, step, pant, pant, pant. My heart was pounding so hard I thought it might blow up.
Oh dear Lord, oh thank you, in a few more minutes we saw the sign welcoming us to the summit of the pass -- over 5,400 meters, or almost 18,000 feet. Everyone gets their picture taken next to the "Congratulation for the success!!!" sign, and I was no different. I handed my friend my camera, and she began framing me for the perfect photo.
"Wait!" I said, remembering. Out of my parka pocket I pulled my dad's blue bandana, which I had clenched for good luck along the climb. "We did it, dad," I said to him, silently. "We made it up this mountain, together. You and me. Thanks for always believing in me." I could feel him there with me, smiling, making dumb jokes, calling me Linseed, giving me a hug.
As Loretta Lynn says, high on a mountain top, heaven's not that far.
For more about my dad, my famous mom, travel and how reclaim your brain, check out my new book, Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, available everywhere and at www.Think.tv.
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