I would totally be one of those capable, outdoorsy women if it wasn’t for the mosquitoes.

This occurred to me over the weekend when we were hiking into a lake in the Mt. Washington Wilderness Area. The sturdy, confident strides I am certain I would have been taking had transformed into a sort of herky-jerky crab scuttle as I tried to escape the ever-present clouds of bugs. Whenever we stopped, instead of serenely gazing into the distance as I absorbed the peaceful energy of the great outdoors, I was wildly chopping my hands Fruit-Ninja-style while hissing “Shit! Fuck. Get off. Goddamn.”

Take away the insects, and I am basically ready for my own survival-focused reality show.

Except for peeing in the woods. I don’t know what kind of quad exercises are necessary for performing a squat that does not result in a moistened shoe, but I have yet to master it. Do not even get me started about the logistical and spiritual challenges inherent in a Number Two, which my body refuses to even consider and thus I have spent every backpacking trip in a state of increasing Digestive Distress until I am finally reunited with my own bathroom. Frankly I can’t even poop in our trailer because of proximity issues so what I’m saying is the only thing holding me back from being the sort of person who achieves their full potential during the zombie apocalypse besides bugs is bathroom stuff.

Well, that and the bedding. Did you know that when you spend the night in a tent you just sleep, like, on the ground? I mean you can use those inflatable sleeping pads for about a half inch of cushioning that will instantly slither off to the side as soon as you shift positions but essentially camping involves not just observing nature but lying on it and spoiler alert, nature is dirty, prickly, and hard as hell.

Aside from those small challenges, I like to think of myself as the sun-kissed type you see in Patagonia catalogs, standing next to a kayak and looking adorably low maintenance, the only small difference being that in order to appear even marginally presentable I require, at minimum: shampoo and conditioner for color treated hair, hair dryer, leave-in spray, curling iron, primer, bronzer, blush, eyebrow pencil, a “luminizer” powder, regular powder, lipstick, mascara, eyelash curler thingie, plus deodorant and a fully charged Sonicare toothbrush and lotion and a razor and tweezers.

If I am allowed to pack a very large bag for my outdoor activities, perhaps carried by a well-compensated Sherpa, then I am going to look so awesome standing on top of a narrow rocky outcropping that can only be accessed via a pants-shittingly difficult 5.11 climbing route or posed in front of a jungle waterfall with arms spread wide and sporting impressive yet feminine trapezius muscles or mid-leap from a daunting cliff face above the ocean while absolutely rocking a slightly-too-small rash guard.

Except of course I dislike heights, water, exertion, being too cold or too hot or uncomfortable in any way, confining clothing, and the dietary requirements to have the sort of body fat percentage that results in visible muscles.

But listen: with just a few tweaks, I am extremely outdoorsy. What I really like about my living room is the window that looks right outside. I can sit there on the couch with a book and taste the adventure, any time I want.


P. has bright blue eyes and remarkably smooth skin that stretches across the protruding bones in her hands. Someone in the facility curls her hair every morning. She wears blouses with pretty necklines. Her body is small and indistinct, covered in blankets, propped on pillows. She reminds me of a silvery dandelion in its seed stage: wispy, beautiful, impossibly fragile.

She does not complain. Oh, I guess I’m ready to go to Heaven, she says sometimes. She closes her eyes and rubs her forehead. My entire self aches for the right thing to say in those moments, but even if I knew what that was, that is not what I am here for.

P. talks about her life. She is somewhat adrift between time, truth and fiction. The result is like a mosaic of what was and what she may have once seen or read about, and it is all as real as anything can be. She talks about being on a covered wagon and how there was a little dog who ran behind with a Bible in his mouth. She tries to remember where her brother is, and decides he is visiting the South Pole. She is certain there is a spot in the exact center of the country, right between east and west, where a waterfall runs both up and down. That was sure something to see, she says.

There are some memories that seem to hold a special place in her mind, they have anchored more firmly than others. Every visit, she tells me a funny story about her oldest brother trying to flirt with a girl on a bus. Now have I told you this before? she asks, and I shake my head, delighted. She tells it with perfect pacing and style, and a roguish laugh at the end. I could hear it all day.

P. describes a day at her sister’s house when the snow fell in great drifts and covered a tree in the front yard, and how a flock of red birds came and rested on the tree. On every bit of that tree, in amongst all that white, she says, there was a red bird. We are always silent after that story.

Her room feels tucked away from everything, like being inside the smallest matryoshka doll. Large cheerful windows look out over trees and the busy river trail, but I cannot imagine her outside of this environment, where she lies in a hospital bed or a recliner, her feet elevated, tubes resting in her nostrils. She seems caught between so many worlds.

P. is 96. Her husband died years ago. Her parents and siblings have passed on. Her adult children live far away. It is just her, the gentle attendants, the room, the clock with its steady slow tick, the rhythmic gasp of the oxygen machine.

At home, I try looking up the impersonal medical information in her chart to get a sense of how much time she has left, but the answers I really want can’t be found. Google, why do people have to die this way? Google, can you promise she won’t suffer in the end? Google, can I believe in her Heaven if I do not believe in my own?

I struggle with not having some active way of helping. I take a moment to straighten her stuffed bear and pick up some fallen flower petals, but she has enough people who bustle around and don’t have time to sit. I can feel how I want to fill the air with chatter, but she has trouble hearing, it seems like asking her to trudge uphill. I pull over a wooden chair from her tiny kitchen. I send stillness through my body. I listen.

There were eight of us when I was growing up, and we didn’t have much, but we loved music, she says. She tells me how her brother taught himself to play the violin, how her husband played piano while she sang hymns and drew chalk landscapes. There was a dog named Patches and he would sometimes stand on a fencepost, all four feet nestled together. Her mother could sew any pattern by hand, just by looking at a picture of a dress.

Well, life is sure interesting, she says. Her smile has the clear carrying note of a bell, it stays with me long after I leave. I just want to soak it up while I can.

I can see those birds, their scarlet feathers a glorious contrast against the freshly fallen snow.


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