Maybe it’s the glimpse of January sunshine inviting me to daydream both ahead and back to moments of wilderness glory. Or, perhaps it’s the claustrophobia of being sandwiched during the pandemic, between telework and caring for a mostly bed-bound loved one. I peer outside to catch the summit of Mount Hood to the east, and the full grandeur of Mt. St. Helens to my northeast. I sigh: it will be sometime before I’ll get much time to scramble amid mountains, streams and meadows whether blanketed in snow or not. I am grateful, even then, to be able to skip out for an hour in our own nature haunts of Mary Young Park, and other trails and riverside escapes.
Yes, writing hero Brian Doyle reminds us, everyone has a story. (See: A typewriter click-clacks forever.) Every few days I pull out our mom’s story, all 352 pages of it, if you include appendices. A memoir she compiled twelve years ago, piecing together old “round robin” letters from her sisters, diary entries, scanned photos and new writing as she pieced together experiences of her life in a read fascinating to those who love her most. Happy, sad, grateful and regretful: all of it shows up here. A gift few children and grandchildren are fortunate to ever receive from someone they love. Most often I read to her what she wrote in her final section “Legacy” composed at a time in her late-70s when it all seemed so clear to her. Our mom’s story is unique, I am certain. A Jefferson High and Oregon State University graduate, one of six daughters growing up during the depression, a woman married twice to the same guy – our dad, a high achieving scholar earning two advanced degrees including a doctorate. And – a lover of mountains. While our dad most loved rivers, I suspect if Mom had to choose between the two, mountains would take the prize.
While I have written an awful lot about our dad, most of my writing about mom has been more recent, this later time of her life. So many followers of this Blog adore this woman and it seemed fitting as these mountains beckon, to share this most ‘favorite of mine’ piece from her memoir. Included is a short journal entry from 1981, a time when at 48 years of age, Mom and Dad were newly divorced. Oh– and just in case someone out there knows more than the rest of you, I’ve changed the name of Mom’s hiking companion.
“Since I had never gone on any backpacking trips alone and had always wanted to hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, we seemed to make a good team. “John” warned me that he was asthmatic, but that he really believed the trip would cure him of asthma. My journal captures the drama of our trip.
August, 1981: We took the bus, backpacks and all, to White Pass and started north on the trail. The timing was perfect, because the wildflowers were blooming rampantly, and every vista was spectacular. I was in high gear, ecstatic and nearly delirious with happiness. As we approached Chinook Pass on about the fourth day, “John’s” steps became slower and slower and his breathing more labored. He finally admitted that he deliberately chose not to bring his asthma medicine — a sort of “do-without, or die” approach. I was furious, dumbfounded at his stupidity, and determined not to go home. I told him to hike down to Crystal Springs, a ski area, and find a way back to Portland so I could continue. However, that night in the tent he had a terrifying seizure. My first thought was irrational: What will I do with his dead body? I then imagined stuffing him into a large garbage bag so I could string him from a tree to keep the bears away. Coming to my senses, I put a pencil between his teeth, held his head and comforted him. When he came to, he told me he had a spiritual experience, faced death, and was choosing life. He was nearly manic in his relief and joy, and I was fearful of his overreaction and conviction that he was healed. .My Memoirs (unpublished), Patricia Daum Montgomery, May, 2008. Note: Patty continued on to hike all of Washington State’s Pacific Crest Trail along with a number of other parts in California and Oregon. The following summer she hiked portions of it with George and his son.
In the morning, however, sobered and aware of the danger in continuing without medication, he agreed to go off the trail, and head down to the ski lodge, which meant cruel switchbacks both ways. I went with him. His doctor was supposed to phone in a prescription to the hotel, and I had a miserable night sharing a room (sleeping on the floor) because of his coughing and wheezing. They hotel was unable to get the prescription, but “John” was so sure he was healed, I’m afraid I had little sympathy for him – just enough to force me to be at least compassionate over his condition and determination. We started out on the trail the next day, both feeling refreshed and I, somewhat optimistic. The trail from there to Green Pass went through unbelievably beautiful country, with scene after scene of natural splendor greeting me at every turn. I was ecstatic and unstoppable. “John“, however, slowed down the second day. On the third day, I (being a “determined Swede” or “stubborn German” – take your pick) told him I was going to hike alone at my own speed. We agreed upon a meeting point at the end of the day. That morning an older man and his son passed me, and we chatted briefly. Throughout the day we ended up hiking the same section of the trail together, engaging in emotionally “high” conversations in language only backpackers would understand.
By late afternoon it was starting to mist, and by dusk it was raining, so I stopped where George and his son were camping. They helped me string up a shelter for me while I waited for “John” (he had the tent and I the stove). When he didn’t arrive by dusk, I went back to look for him, becoming more and more anxious. Several miles back I found various garments tossed aside, but no signs of “John”. Picturing him, hypothermic and dehydrated, dying by the side of the road, I kept searching but in vain. I returned to camp and George and his son set up a tarp for me, then shared their dinner with me. I had a tormented, sleepless night imagining him eaten by a bear, falling off a steep cliff, or dying of a seizure with no one to comfort him. Given all that, however, I was furious with him for spoiling my trip
In the morning, I returned to the search area and found “John” off the trail, dazed, unharmed, but cold, wet and frightened. His water bottle was empty and he had not eaten. With my help, we hiked the ten last miles together, and, begrudgingly taking a bus back to Portland where I gave him a cool goodbye.
I crack up each time I read this (although I admit to feeling thankful I never experienced anything quite as scary while backpacking). Mom writes next about feeling badly for how her desire to complete this experience made her less compassionate than she would have liked, but I say BRAVO! For a baby girl born in 1933 to capitalize on this desire to be independent, it is no surprise to me to have heard how popular an instructor she was in the classes she taught about “Women at Midlife” and “Women and Change” at the now defunct Marylhurst University. And although I didn’t remember hearing about some of her PCT stories until later, I will never forget the day she “stopped by” as I worked that summer of 1981 at Mt. Rainier National Park, just steps from where the PCT borders the park boundary. (See: Reflections on #MeToo). While dad rolled in for a visit with a daypack and sleeping bag under his arm one weekend (see My Music Man) our Mom was the real deal. And I thank her for being meticulous and determined enough to write her story for her loved ones when she did.
Inheriting the Love of Mountains: Patty with Dede, Michael and Rick in the Strawberry Wilderness, 1973; Two of Patty’s granddaughters, Erin and Emily, Columbia River Gorge, ~2017.
The inheritance of the love of mountains.