Every once in awhile my “aloneness” in the world hits me. Okay, so I’ll be honest—it’s not every once in awhile; it’s pretty much every other day.
The last hit occurred when I was on assignment in the Grand Tetons, working my way through a three-day kayaking, rafting, and camping trip on Jackson Lake and then the Snake River. Joining me on this journey were two couples—one fairly young and recently wed, transplants to the west who had moved from Chicago; the other was a couple in their 70s from West Virginia who had shared a long and adventurous life together.
As we were unloading our camping gear that last night of the trip to set up camp on a desolate but beautiful peninsula beneath the gray shadow of Mt. Moran, I happened to notice the male half of the young couple carrying the bulk of his and his new bride’s gear up from the bouldered beach to a camp site at the edge of the woods. When he was finished, pitying me a little apparently, as I hoisted a heavy dry bag onto my back and then prepared to follow it with a sleeping pad on my head, he came to my aid without speaking, taking the heaviest items from me.
I was astounded. Most of the time, I can’t even entice a man to help me get a large suitcase out of the overhead compartment on an airplane even when wearing a wrist brace, trying to hang onto a small child, and obviously struggling. Yet this young man helped me without being asked and obviously with no expectation of the reward he might receive for carrying out such labor for his young wife.
After thanking him profusely, I began to set up my tent for the evening. I wasn’t struggling really. The task was relatively easy, just a bit awkward for two hands as opposed to four. The 70-year-old gentlemen camped near me soon came over to help and even directed me as if I was a an untried Girl Scout, which was fine. It was rather sweet actually. When he was done, he returned to his own campsite to exchange relaxing foot rubs with his wife—a phenomenon rarely seen among newlyweds much less among partners who have lived together for decades.
Once my campsite was in order, I settled down to rest behind the tent, staring off into the now glass-smooth surface of the lake, granite mountains with glaciers tucked into their crevices facing me across Spaulding Bay.
And I began to feel the aching absence I have known so much of my life.
“What is it like to have someone carry your bags for you?”
My women friends are all married, the smallest handful happily, a few miserably, and most of them in a stalemate of resigned acceptance. So far as I have seen, however, their husbands all carry their bags. Some may groan and gripe over the task, but they do it, dutifully, sometimes robotically, but sure enough, the bags end up properly placed in the trunk, in the overhead compartment, locked safely away from bears in a steel box, whatever.
I watch from the sidelines, envious at times….
You see, I have rarely had a man carry my bags. Even when I was married, my husband was in the U.S. Navy and more away from me than near, so I lived the life of a single woman, seeing him on occasional weekends or sometimes not at all for months on end.
I carried my own bags, mowed my own grass, fixed my own fence, and repaired my own plumbing. I flattened myself into narrow, dirty crawlspaces to troubleshoot furnace issues, test drove and purchased my own cars, carried heavy children in my arms through amusement parks, and found my way alone through foreign airports in strange cities.
I was (and am) the mistress of self-sufficiency…just as my parents intended me to be. All my life they prepared me for a cruel world where I should “trust no one.”
Under this hardline, Scandinavian tutelage, I grew into a woman who could pretty much do anything necessary to handle the basics (and the mishaps) of everyday living. I taught single girlfriends how to change rusty and clogged water filters, repaired my own crotchety lawn equipment, and figured out how to grease stubborn, tight windows so I could close and open them with ease.
I’ve had no need for a man in my life. I am my immensely practical builder father’s daughter….
This last week, however, my seven-year-old daughter has been working on a curious project at school involving trust and team building. I can recall, in school and college, how I dreaded group projects because I knew I would not only always be the lead, but I would also always be the one carrying the bulk of the workload. I trusted, generally with reason, no one.
But Heidi’s project encouraged these things called trust and teamwork. Her class spent a morning at her teacher’s farm, learning to trust one another—closing their eyes and falling off picnic tables with the solid belief classmates would catch them.
And I could not stifle the doubtful Midwesterner in me who wondered, “Should Heidi be learning this? Won’t it harm her in the long run to believe others will be there for her? Besides me, of course? Would it not be better to prepare her, as I have long tried, for solid self-sufficiency?”
For I have, perhaps even more doggedly than my parents before me, adopted a hard line with my daughter, refusing to carry her luggage in airports, encouraging her to find bravery within her soul, nurturing her fearlessness—all in preparation for the day when she will have no mommy to carry her bags, wipe her tears, hold her close in the dark hours of the night when the whole world seems stacked against her.
It is no cruelty on my part. It is an act of love.
I don’t want tears welling in her eyes when she watches a man carry his wife’s luggage, kiss away her tears, or hold her when tragedy strikes. I want her to know she can carry her own burdens and survive.
As I have carried mine…across two decades, across four continents.
People often ask me why I take these journeys—backcountry treks into the Tetons, the Grand Canyon, the Smokies. Less than prudent rambles through dicey South American cities, into dusty and hardscrabble Mexican towns, into sad shops populated more by stray dogs than people in Puerto Rico.
It is partly about character building but mostly about facing fear and uncertainty. Walking through it…alone…and knowing I can do it and come out the other side. And sure, life should be about more than survival and fear facing, but those are two things you must conquer first…before you can conquer anything else.
Would that I did not have to conquer these things alone.
But there is ample reason for why I carry my own bags. It is not just my upbringing. It is not just my independent nature. Part of it is an unwillingness to settle for just any Sherpa.
I want someone who will lie on his back in the woods and name the stars for me, who will race me in his kayak across Glacier Bay and laugh and paddle backwards as icebergs crash into water. Such men are few and far between…. Men of my age have been too burned by the demands of young and foolish women, and most have retreated into a safe sort of nothingness far removed from the rambling of Grizzly bears in the woods and the pressing crowds of St. Petersburg in summer.
They do not seek the land of the midnight sun.
So instead of settling, I carry my own bags, bear my own baggage, and venture into the wilds of life alone, choosing experience over safety, and hardship (at times) over comfort. Because this is life, lived only once, with or without love, with or without someone to carry my bags, with or without the safety of someone’s arms to collapse into in the darkest hours of the night…but never without living and never without the sometimes hard to summon courage that drives one steadily to an existence without the base ugliness of regret.
I may die holding the baggage of my life in two arthritic hands, but I will not die without knowing I have lived.