I’m floating on Jenny Lake in my wetsuit with the timeless, beautiful Tetons in the distance, my 70-year-old Mom resting on the shore behind me. As I stare at the water, the waves play back in my mind the miles I had traveled thus far: from Michigan to the Pacific Northwest, a green and brown blur on either side of a gray ribbon of road. I’d seen so much of it 30 years prior with Mom and the rest of the family, and 20 years ago on a trip with a friend, and on more recent trips with my husband and kids.
On most other trips, I’d hiked, fished and paddled, but this trip to the west was for Mom’s 70th birthday. After nine months of planning with siblings and Mom and her AAA books, she’d spent one week with my brother, then with my sister, then with my husband and me. The others were home now, and it was just me with Mom, heading back across country toward home. For days I had listened to Mom pointing out details in the landscape I was only half-seeing again. My thoughts were on the road before me, sticking with our itinerary, and making sure Mom had enough food and drinks and hadn’t left any of her belongings behind. After 7,500 miles, this time, floating on Jenny Lake, is the first time in weeks I am without the weight of the trip on my mind.
I follow the shoreline with my eyes to the trailhead we’d hiked yesterday, a dusty, well-trampled trail with rocky sections Mom said would require my help to navigate. I had just held her hand around a steep rocky section when I saw a man in his thirties coming our way. The man’s face was serious, unmoving, and in complete contrast to the seven-year-old boy behind him, whose his eyes were happy and eager, whose feet lurched forward as he tried to follow his father’s every step. The man met my gaze and said only that we had two miles to go.
I led the way down the path and had gone about fifty yards when I stopped at another patchwork of rocks. As I reached out for Mom’s thin yet firmly gripping hand, I saw behind her in the distance the little boy following his father. I looked at my mom and saw in her eyes the same look of eagerness to follow my lead.
Two miles later, the trail turned inland near a boat dock, and a half mile beyond we reached Hidden Falls. After cooling off in the spray, we climbed rock-lined stairs toward a spectacular view of the lake. We wound our way back to the shoreline and crossed paths with a woman, perhaps 45, pushing her son in a wheelchair. She stopped on the rocky trail and checked on her son. Though bent to one side, his limbs all contorted, the boy smiled in return. She patted his arm, smiled broadly at us and said, “It’s awesome just to be in the Tetons!”
We finished our hike and on our way to our cabin, we took the Jenny Lake Loop drive and pulled off to eat lunch. Since it was 90 degrees, I changed into my swim suit and wetsuit, grabbed my shades, towels and keys and stepped into my Keens. At the edge of the parking lot there’s a trail to the water made of stone and cement with a thin layer of dust that makes the trail slick. I felt Mom’s hands on my shoulder to steady her step and we walked to the water some 50 feet down. I set my towel on a rock, saw my Mom past a boulder and walked carefully across the smooth, rounded stones….
A wave from a distant pontoon boat splashes against my face, bringing me back to the Lake where I float like a cork. As my eyes follow another pontoon across the lake, my mind is a whir. I see the boy in the wheelchair and wonder if he knew how beautiful this place is, or what beauty is. And of beauty, I think of his mother, accepting her fate with a smile. I trace the path where I’d seen her, around the tree-covered shoreline to the trampled, hot trail where I’d seen the father and son, the older one leading, the other one following in his dad’s every step.
Suspended in thought, my memories of the west all come together–my youthful adventures, the trips as a wife and stepmother, and now. The mountains acknowledged but not clearly in focus, I see the father and his son, the mother and her son; the father focused intently on the path before him, not the child behind, the mother finding joy on her own rocky path with her son. Seeing myself in each one, a quiet acceptance settles in like a sigh.
I feel a nudge underneath me and come back to the present where the Jenny Lake waves have carried me back to the shallows. I stand up and walk across the slippery smooth rocks I see now in browns and in grays and hues in between. At the shore Mom awaits me, a towel in her hand. When my arms are wiped dry, I wrap one around her, squeeze her against me and say, “Thank you, Mom.”
“Of course,” she says. “This was to be a vacation for you, too.”
I blink my eyes like a camera to capture the two of us standing there, the timeless mountains as witness to this moment in time. Mom takes in the view–one last look at the Tetons –and she smiles.
“It’s awesome just to be in the Tetons with you,” I say.
I look at my mother and see happiness in her eyes, an eagerness to follow my lead. Without hesitation, I hold my hand out to help her, over the uneven, oval shaped rocks and onward the unpredictable path that’s ahead.