The shimmering leaf. Leaf of a kinnikinnick. No bigger than the tip of my pinky, an insignificant thing. Unintimidating, most ordinary. The leaf and I, both stopped in the middle of trail #71, refusing to go on.
I had plopped down in the middle of the trail, pouting, though such behavior is anathema to the women in my family. My mom—who at 79 has survived ovarian cancer, four children, and a passionate and excitable husband (that would be my father)—never stops. Nor did her mother, my grandmother. She lived to ninety-one, which I attribute partly to her contrarian personality. Ya'think I’m going to stop picking huckleberries on a mountain ridge at 80? Hell no! One of the last times I saw her, she was grabbing the branches of an apple tree with her cane so she could pluck the fruit like a rambunctious boy scout.
I’ve felt proud of these ornery women, stubborn women, cranky women, but also secretly afraid of their fierceness.
Fierceness. What is it?
My father, my mother, Myron (my husband), and I had started up Trail #17 off the St. Joe River an hour earlier. We crossed the swinging bridge, which flies high over the river, and swung into another world. The forest was bisected by a wide, duff-covered trail, shrouded in shadows. My father said, “I’m going back to the car,” but my mom kept going. I watched him walk back across the bridge.
The trail climbed. And climbed. It was buttressed by sturdy walls built along the endless switchbacks. Someone has put a lot of love into this trail, I thought, as we rested at one of those walls a half mile up. My mother said, “I think I’ll turn around, I'll see you guys back at camp.”
When she left, I felt the gasp of loss. Would she be O.K. walking back alone? I wanted to turn back too, but for some unknown reason I trudged ahead.
Maybe because Myron had shot off and I wanted to keep up. I steadied myself and put conscious effort into working my leaden leg muscles. I couldn’t catch him—he’s a foot taller and naturally more athletic.
I noticed the ascent increasing. I registered that there were no more lovingly-constructed switchbacks. I felt like I was going to cry. “Wait for me!” I shouted into the void. I feel a putrid yellow sulking mood well up in my throat.
The trail grew steeper, if that was possible. And narrower. The tread was gone. When I reached a shady half-level place, Myron was there, panting under his floppy brown hair, sweat dewing his shirt.
“This is a 45-degree angle!” I said, doubled over, gasping for air.
He groaned. “No it’s not.”
“Can we go back?”
“Let’s just get to the top, it’s right there.” He pointed.
“That’s two miles away!”
“It’s only a couple hundred feet.”
My mind turned white hot. I KNEW it was more. Thoughts ricocheted around my head.
“You go,” I said with a growl.
He bounded up and out of sight, and I felt more bereft than ever. Why was I 5’2” instead of 6’2”? Why was I so slow? Where was Mom? What if she got into trouble, and here I was trying to scale this peak just to prove I was--what? Fierce? Part of the warrior woman clan? That would make me a really terrible daughter. An image gathered of my three brothers standing around me, jaws gaping, saying, "How could you let this happen to Mom?"
I sat down, and as my body fell to the cool earth, my mind fell with it. Self-pity. It starts as a sliver of an emotion, then grows quickly large and ugly.
I don’t know how long I sat there—half an hour, maybe, when I noticed something peeking out from the edge of my bare knee. A shiny leaf of a kinnikinnick plant, with its intricate veins and its sturdy body, catching the glow of the afternoon sun. It smiled at me.
From some unknown place inside on the other side of self-pity, I summoned the energy to jump up. My legs were two concrete blocks. They burned as I climbed. The angle grew even steeper. I turned around and snapped a photo, half thinking I’d post it on social media to prove how difficult this hike was. Wait, what? This grainy blur of an image didn't even show the grade! Amidst this commotion, it occurred to me that Mom was fine. It's me who wasn't.
That's when I thought fierceness isn't about being stubborn or proving something to the nebulous face of social media, to my husband, or even to myself. Fierceness isn't a quality, a characteristic like stubbornness or badassness. It isn't trying to gather power or aggression. It's not an attitude of resistance. It's something else. What?
I moved ahead, slowly, adrenaline tingling my skin, and then there was Myron, standing on the flat of the trail guzzling water.
“Is this the top?” I said weakly.
“No, you’re right, the top is too far." He glanced at his wrist. "It’s four o’clock. We should get back.”
He started down the grade but I stayed, gazing at mountain upon mountain like the layers of a dream, feeling the intensity of my own insignificance.