All in one week my two year relationship ended, I found out that my dad’s cancer had metastasized to his spine, I was robbed, fired from my job and moved across the country from Oregon to North Carolina to care for my father. Four months later, my friend Erin invited me winter camping. I was standing in the office of my family’s adventure outfitter shop I had stepped in to run so my mom could be with my dad as much as possible. Erin handed me a coffee and pointed out the obvious: I needed a break.
Before my brain full of to-do lists tried to talk me out of a weekend in the woods away from work and cancer, I told Erin I was in despite how much I hated cold weather.
“Hanging rock is one of my favorite campgrounds,” Erin said, beaming with excitement. “And it’s time that we have a sheventure,” she added. She told me to be ready the next morning and waved as she wove her way through the racks of jackets, sleeping bags and camping equipment.
Packing my red enamel cups that night took me back to the trails along the Davidson River campground where my parents took me and my sister every summer growing up. My family used to rent a site right next to the river where at night we lay in our family tent listening to water rushing over the stones. My dad insisted we leave the rainfly off so we could watch the stars. We woke up covered in dew drops but we never argued. Dad loved the stars too much. My dad had always been the first up, making hot cocoa from scratch with a half flickering headlamp before sun rise.
My mom called my name from downstairs and I felt guilt creep up my spine. How could I go camping with cancer camped out in my dad’s body? I tried to shake the feeling as I carried my bag downstairs and took a seat next to my dad in his recliner. I would only be gone for 24 hours and he was stable post surgery and on a chemo drug he could take at home.
My mom called my name from downstairs and I felt guilt creep up my spine. How could I go camping with cancer camped out in my dad’s body?
His wrinkled eyelids were closed and I listened to him inhale and exhale. My mom headed out to the “Appalachian hot tub,” a bathtub outside with hot water hook up that my dad installed on the back deck for her 50th birthday. Our dog Smokey rested loyally by my dad’s side snoring softly. My dad snored himself awake and smiled when he saw me next to him.
“Heard you are going to the mountains to harness their power for me Bee Bubbles. Remember Davidson River? You jumped right in that freezing cold water no doubt about it. Go to Hanging Rock for me Bee. Go climb those mountains and bring me their strength.”
I looked through my teary eyed reflection in the window to my mom’s shiny eyes watching us. She smiled and I knew she too wanted me to go to the mountains, a place that had inspired her career and cemented my parents’ lifelong love of adventure.
Erin picked me up early the next morning. I was glad not to be driving, able to fully enjoy looking at the hills growing taller and taller. As we made our way into the foothills, I could see the rocky mushroom-cap top of Pilot Mountain. As the road got steeper, the views became more expansive and beautiful, peaks forming valleys of green farmland dotted with red barns and black cows and old white farm houses. The last mountains I spent time in were the sharp, jagged, snow peaked ranges of the Pacific Northwest. The landscape in Oregon felt daunting to me, pointy peaks so much higher than the gentle mountains of North Carolina where I grew up hiking with my family.
Erin slowed as the back roads in the final miles to Hanging Rock State Park grew narrow and winding. Despite the cold, we both rolled our windows down to taste the mountain air as we pulled into the campground.
We found campsite 72. The thirty degree air blasted over my face through the window. My body’s constantly cold condition had only grown worse with my worried state.
We got out of the car in all our layers and set up the tent as the wild wind blew in the cold front. My frozen fingers could hardly put the tent poles together. My body shivered and shook. I heard my teeth chattering. The sensation of cold overpowered all my other emotions: the guilt, the free floating anxiety, the fear of something happening to my dad while I was unreachable. There was relief in feeling simply cold, a mental clarity.
“Let’s do the hike to the fire tower before sunset,” Erin suggested. She jumped up and down with excitement to take me on one of her favorite trails. “If we do that tonight I think we can do all 5 peaks over the weekend!”
I fell in step behind Erin, lengthening my stride to keep up with her, trying to quiet my jagged breaths. My feet felt heavy, my legs stiff. Trees surrounded the trail, making me feel safe and protected by the way the forest caught the wind before it reached the trail. I breathed in that fall breeze, cold on my lips with the crispness of the still crimson and saffron leaves.
My legs burned and my right foot hurt but I didn’t care. I had tapped into a reserve of strength I didn’t know I had and I was determined to keep up with Erin. Large stones formed steps to guide us up the trail, solid slabs of rock my dad would love. I wanted to take in every single detail: the golden shimmer of the leaf when the sun hit it, the smell of freshly crunched leaves in rich mountain earth mixed with loblolly pine, and the sound of the bird songs carried on the wind. I wanted to bring back the mountain experience for my dad. A big gust blew through the forest, shaking every branch. The leaves flew like shooting stars.
My breath sounded ragged and broken. I kept a careful eye on my feet, not wanting to turn my ankle on the loose rocks between the larger stone steps. Through the trees I caught glimpses of the mountains, soft peaks covered in golds and reds. We made the final climb and I could see the rocky outcrop at the top scattered with wind blown trees clinging on for life.
At the top of the mountain we climbed the old stone fire tower steps and looked out on the fall forests and farmland. I could see the top of Pilot Mountain and Hanging Rock, a sheer rock-face clinging to the side of the mountain. The valleys in between were just as beautiful, expansive stretches of old farms like my grandmother’s, cows just tiny dots and the tops of tin roofed farmhouses and the thin lines of split rail fences lining fields.
The leaves flew like shooting stars.
The wind howled in my ears. The cold blew right through my layers into my core in a way that made me feel shockingly alive, all my senses heightened. Tears from the wind and cold streamed down my face. Standing with my arms stretched overhead, I harnessed the power of the wind, the perspective of seeing everything from above, the feeling of freedom. I howled into the wind like my dad would have had he been there.
I took in those North Carolina tree covered, soft peaks both familiar and new in all their fall glory. In Oregon most peaks were all rocks, snowy and gorgeous in a more dramatic, drastic way. These mountains didn’t evoke any sense of fear like the sharp pointed ones that towered above me when I had hiked alone in the Columbia River Gorge.
These mountains were friendly, un-intimidating, smoothly rolling into one another. I felt an ease and confidence standing on the top of the fire tower. The yellow leaves delighted my hazel eyes as they turned to gold in the sunset and the red and orange ones deepened in richness and hue. The sun melted the last clouds of the day into a lighter blue above the sunset. I felt warmer bathed in the last golden glow of the day knowing the dark night ahead would be freezing.
From the tower, I could see in all directions, the big picture, so simple and striking. It had been four months since I had felt I had perspective on anything; four months since I had felt as strong as I did in that moment. The confidence of climbing to the highest point reassured me that I had what it took to navigate the rough terrain of cancer. If only I could hold onto this view, remembering the natural valleys and peaks, highs and lows, all part of something much bigger than ourselves.
“I love this state park!” Erin yelled over the whipping wind
“My dad would love this,” I told her, opening my eyes and taking it all in one more time as the sun dipped behind a mountain sending light rays out from all sides. Emotion bubbled up inside my chest. The wind blew the tears right off my cheeks and tangled my curls around my face and sent shivers through me. I felt cold to my core.
I wished I had brought my phone to take a picture of the view for my dad and instantly felt equally glad that I didn’t have my phone. A picture couldn’t capture the contrast between green pastures and thick fall forests, the contours of the rolling hills and crests of mountain tops. A picture wouldn’t give my dad the feeling of being on a mountain top.
Only I could give him that feeling by embodying the confidence and courage I felt in that moment when I returned home. It was the feeling of being strong and capable; believing in my ability to keep living adventurously even as I watched the man I loved more than the stars return to the earth.
We ate canned chili for dinner heated up on the camp stove and star gazed while we drank hot chocolate. Exhausted from the hike and cold, we zipped ourselves into our sleeping bags early and said goodnight. Erin’s breath evened and steadied quickly, the peaceful sound of sleep that escaped me night after night as my mind wandered from one worry to the next about my dad. That night though my mind focused on two things: how to stay warm and how to find a comfortable way to side sleep on my narrow therm-a-rest. Attempting to find a comfortable position distracted me from all the “what ifs” that swirl around when my head hits the pillow.
I lay awake listening to a Hoot Owl. The wind shook our tent, rustling the rainfly. In all my layers with hat and gloves on tight, I burrowed deeper into my sleeping bag, trying to warm up despite the subfreezing temperature. When I defrosted enough to relax, I fell into a dreamless deep sleep. I awoke well rested before Erin and the first light of dawn.
I snuck out of the tent, taking my sleeping bag with me to stay wrapped up as I tried to make my numb fingers press the igniter on the stove. I was the only one up in the campground. The predawn blue light rose with a morning mountain fog through the thick forests. When I finally got the stove to light, the first sun rays glinted through branches.
My dad would be proud that I was first up, making the mochas he use to make on our family camping trips. He was dawn patrol in our family, awake with the sun, full of an unstoppable energy. I warmed my fingers by the burner listening to chirps of birds my dad would know by name. As the sun melted the misty fog, I felt the cold finally leave my body, replaced by the warmth of confidence.
I used the java press for the dark roast and added the gourmet hot cocoa mix I had brought which was my compromise between Swiss Miss and my dad’s homemade recipe. As I mixed the hot cocoa and the coffee, Erin joined me at the picnic table bundled in her sleeping bag. We huddled together to stay warm and drank the mochas quickly before the wind could cool them down. The silence between us felt easy, the sign of a true friendship. We watched the sun filter through the trees, lighting another day.
The golden leaves glowed more vibrantly than the day before. A grounded feeling seeped in with the warmth of the mocha. For the first time in the four months since my life was completely uprooted, I felt connected to place again, rooted once more in the nurturing North Carolina soil, present, reaching with those mountains forever toward the light.
My father died 8 months after that winter camping trip. Before he died he saw the mountains again and felt the freezing cold river on his toes. We spent as much time as possible in his final months outside, breathing the fresh air and feeling the wind on our lips and finding wild animals in the puffy white of clouds floating across the endless blue. He would tenderly remind me, “We will never see the sky just as it is in this moment.”
My dad died at home just before sunrise on Friday, July 28th. Predawn pinks streaked the sky and a cool breeze uncharacteristic for southern summers rustled the leaves of the Sycamore tree outside. Even in death he wore a gentle smile, his translucent hazel eyes open to the first rays of light shining through the window. The next morning, we planted my dad in the earth underneath his favorite Triple Birch in the field looking up at the garden and log cabin he built on our property. Through we buried him nearly 8 months ago, grief still consumes me; a rivelike sadness snaking through my body. Currents overpower me at times. Often I lose myself in the rapid whitewash of a bottomless missing.
I return again and again to an anonymous quote that arrived on a handwritten card in my mailbox a few months following my dad’s death:
“When I am gone, look for me in every star, every moon, every brand new day. I am not gone. I am everywhere with you dear, everywhere the light gets in.”
With every step along the familiar trails we once hiked together, with each outdoor adventure to new places near and far, I look for my dad. I see him in the elegant and mysterious twist of a tree tucked off the trail. He soars on the wings of hawks. I hear him in the hoot of an owl in the darkness. He streaks across the sky in magnificent showers of shooting stars. His warm energy radiates with the sun on the first day of spring inviting the daffodils to bloom. I smell him in the rich soil from the garden that clung to his tattered t-shirts and well worn jeans. I find him within me, his light shining through the cracks of my grief-shattered being. When I gaze at the stars tracing the the bigger dipper with my finger just the way he taught me when I was two years old, I know he is still guiding my path from within and all around me.
About the author: Betsy Bertram is an adventurer, kiteboarder, yogi, writer and lover of speciality outdoor retail as a vehicle for inspiring people to connect on the common ground, experience nature, and build meaningful community. She is the Brand Manager for her family’s 30 year old adventure outfitter Townsend Bertram & Company (TB&C) in Carrboro, North Carolina. As writer, editor and curator of the Glass Top Counter Blog, Betsy loves engaging readers through authentic writing that reflect TB&C’s core values: adventure, passion and community. Betsy believes in the power of words to capture humanity and nature’s fragility to build community and consciousness around keeping the wild places wild.