Life as a parent is not easy. And life as a parent while in the backcountry is another dimension entirely. In our regular lives, we frequently rely on the advice of experts to tell us how to parent- what things to respond to and to what degree. When to take action, when to let things go. I am one of those experts who helps people know what choices to make when it comes to their children. But when it comes to my own child, these decisions are rarely easy and almost never straightforward.
Today is our 16th day on the trail and we have discovered that Sara has developed a parasite. She discovered it in fact. Worms in her poop. My initial reaction was one of horror, disgust and fear. Like most parents, the thought of one’s child having to suffer is unbearable and we want to take away this suffering as quickly as possible. If I was at home right now, I would run to the internet, google the information and be flooded with thousands of pages of information ranging from harmless anecdotes to threats of death. I would call all of my friends who are parents, get their advice and then make a swift plan of action. Most likely, I would be on my way to Kaiser, praying furiously that my daughter had not already sustained irreparable GI damage from my not having noticed the parasite earlier. I would want to fix this. Right away. But I am not at home. I am in the backcountry, miles away from all information that can prove both helpful and harmful.
For the past two nights, Sara has woken up complaining of pain and discomfort. Is this related to the worms? Or is it the general discomfort that comes from walking over 8 hours a day in sweaty clothes that never seem to get clean? Whatever it is, I am panicked and it is the middle of the night. As with most things, the anxiety that strikes us as parents is always worse in the middle of the night. Thoughts become repetitive, irrational, apocalyptic. I have figured out that a cold compress (aka- a handkerchief soaked in an ice cold mountain stream) takes away any nighttime discomfort and allows Sara to sleep peacefully through the night. But after she falls back asleep, I become racked with guilt and fear. What is this parasite? How serious is it and do we need to end our trip and seek immediate medical attention? In my sleep-deprived panic, I wake Paul up in the middle of the night and we both agree that we don’t want to take any chances when it comes to Sara’s health. With our headlamps on, we look at the map and determine that we can hike out the next day over an unknown pass. It’s a long, arduous hike that will take us to a road where we hope to flag down a car who will take us to a nearby hospital. We can tackle this issue. Stat.
After our middle of the night decision, I lay away for hours, crestfallen. No parent wants their child to suffer. And yet, we had come so far and conquered so much already. I was devastated at the thought of abandoning our efforts midway. I imagined myself letting our family and friends know that we had to pull out. Everyone would understand, of course. But my heart was heavy. I didn’t sleep at all that night.
As often happens, the light of day offered a little more hope and a good dose of reason. Paul and I looked at the map again and realized that a major trailhead (the turn-off to Onion Valley) was only three days away. If we could keep Sara comfortable, we could hike towards the trailhead, where we might be able to get more information about this mysterious parasite and if need be, could hike out at a place where we were sure to get immediate help and support. We told Sara our plan, assured her that we would take good care of her and continued to move forward.
We set our intentions for the day to find out as much information on the trail as we could. We had been told by other hikers that there were many doctors, EMTs and military personnel hiking the trail. Surely, they could be of some help to us? And so…Enter the magic. I had been told about “trail angels” before we left. These are people who chose to walk the trail for a few days handing out goodies and resupplies to people hiking the trail. Do-gooders who simply feel great about bringing happiness and joy to fellow hikers. Well, these trail angels exist. And we found them in abundance.
Within the first hour of our day, we met two teachers who quickly diagnosed Sara’s condition as “pinworm”, letting us know that they had seen it many times with their own children and students. They assured us that it wasn’t life threatening and that the biggest issue was one of “comfort.” They told us that a simple over-the-counter medication would treat the issue and that if need be, we could finish out the hike. If only we could walk down to the corner store and pick up those meds! But of course, those meds were miles away. Sara appeared to be comfortable. She was her usual energetic self, allowing us to believe that we could continue moving towards our goal. If only we could get those meds, my mind would be at ease.
As it happens, we had a resupply coming to us on the trail in 3 days via pack stock. Could we possibly summon the trail magic and get those meds into our resupply? We had no means of communication to make this happen, but people on the trail are amazing in so many ways. A number of travelers had the sense to carry two-way communication devices with them and they were thrilled to be able to help us. We sent messages to the outside world, unaware of whether those messages were ever received. Two 18-year old boys who had just graduated from High School sent a message to their father on the “outside” asking him to contact our resupply coordinator and to send the meds in our upcoming resupply. We profusely thanked the boys as they went on their way and I crossed my fingers that the message would be received.
Over the course of the next day, we sent many messages along the trail, some via borrowed one-way text and many others via “trail mail.” Messages left on trail markers were relayed to us from hikers coming in the opposite direction. As the only people hiking with a 6-year old, we were easily identifiable and the messages reached us easily. People were eager to help. I was profoundly struck by the interconnectedness and humanity of this shared experience. On the “outside”, we live such insular lives, separate from our neighbors, our families, our communities. So often, we are looking out for ourselves, isolated, lonely, alone.
And yet, the magic of the trail exists not only in the beauty and humanity that shows itself with each passing step, but in the reminder of the interconnectedness of all things- and all people. Two days after sending our trail messages, we summited Glen Pass, a rigorous climb that took us up above 11,000 feet. There are always “summit parties” happening at the top of each pass- people hanging out together, celebrating their latest victories, swapping stories and often sharing trail snacks. Here, atop this incredible summit, a man, who happened to be a doctor, approached us and said that he had a message for us. He pulled out his phone and showed us a picture that he had taken of a fellow hiker’s text message device. It read, “Got your message. Meds coming in the July 24th resupply.” Tears of joy filled my eyes, not only for the relief of knowing that we would receive Sara’s meds tomorrow, but of the sheer humanity and collective effort that went in to making this magic happen. The doctor gave us a full supply of witch-hazel wipes for added comfort and assured us that the pinworms were harmless and could be treated easily with the meds that were coming tomorrow.
The next day, when we met our packer along the trail, we received our final resupply of food, along with the medications that came on the wings of trail angels. Such beauty and magic rests not only in my renewed faith in humanity, but also in a reminder of the faith in which we must have in ourselves. The trail offers the opportunity to return to the intuitive wisdom and intuition with which we all come into the world. We naturally know what our bodies need, what our hearts desire. We are hard wired to connect with others and to make decisions based on intuition. And yet, we have moved so far away from this internal awareness, often falling prey to the advice of others and failing to recognize the wisdom in our own hearts.
With our final resupply, we had everything we needed to continue our trip. We had food and medication. We had a profound sense of community and togetherness. We had faith in ourselves and in the wisdom of our parenting decisions. We had everything we could possible ask for. Except fuel. The packer had forgotten to bring us our fuel.