Indian Paintbrush

Girls Camp 1991

I am angry. Spread out like an old fly on a dissecting table, unable to move up or down. I am furious at the girls, especially Diana. If it were not for them, I would not be stretched out on this rocky cliff, with the rocks sliding beneath me, and the birds circling overhead.

“Are you all right, Beth?” Ann, the other girls’ camp leader, calls as she watches me warily from her more solid perch. The rocks shift beneath me, and I slip, grasping futilely for the weeds ten feet away on the crest of the cliff.

“I’m okay,” I call back as the rocks scrape my leg, burning and stinging like fire ants. What else can I say? She can’t come back for me. I must get out of this myself.

“Do you need help?” she calls again when I do not move. I look up and I see her gauging how she can come back to help me. I think of the ways I could be helped. Maybe a rock climber with ropes and equipment would see me stranded and snatch me from my perilous situation—ha, only in the movies! Maybe a helicopter would come and pull me up away from danger—only in my dreams!

“No, really, I am okay,” I try to reassure her. “I am just resting. Give me a minute to get a better hold.” The rocks shift again, and shower past me. I lose a few more inches. Are the birds circling closer?

I am praying harder than I have in a long time. I am worried about me. I am worried about the girls. I am worried about Diana. I am worried about Ann. How guilty she would feel if I fell and was injured badly!

I think of my friend, Joan, safe back home. She worries about my moods and is always asking probing questions to make sure I’m all right. If I slipped and fell, not just a few inches, but clear down beyond where I can see, would she wonder if it had really been an accident?

The thought of Joan energizes me, and I creep upward towards Ann.

“The girls could not have come this way,” I insist as we try to inch toward the crest. “Someone would have gotten hurt.”

“Could they have gone up the back instead of the front of the mountain?” Ann yells. It is a good question, and I inch sideways toward the beckoning brush. There’s not much vegetation, but I hold tightly onto each weed as though it were a lifeline. I think of Joan again.

“Dear Joan,” I’d write from the hospital, if I fell. “It was not my fault. I did not choose the rocky path. I would have gone up the weedy way. It’s not as pretty, but far safer. I wasn’t doing it for the fun of it. I was trying to save the girls.”  

The thought of the girls sobers me. Are they really okay? Even Diana? Or is she trapped somewhere as I am, struggling to make headway? But there is no one who can rescue her!

We are not even supposed to be on a mountain peak, for heaven’s sake. We were supposed to have hiked to Lake Placid on our all-day Inspirator’s hike. However, we’d missed the lake somehow, and stopped for lunch in a grassy meadow under the mountain peak.

A few girls, I called them the mountain goats because they’d leaped ahead after each rest stop on the trail, were intrigued by the towering peak above us.

“Can we climb it?” they had asked looking at the topographical map. “It’s only 10,228 feet. It must be safe. There’s a jeep trail that goes right to it.”

Finally, the hiking leader had agreed that a small group could climb to the top while the others rested. The mountain goats had quickly disappeared out of sight, but Ann and I, and a few more intrepid girls followed behind them. The whistles we’d brought to communicate were useless as the distance between us widened. I could occasionally see a flash of red, or blue high above, and I’d know their approximate location.

When we’d reached the plateau where the jeep trail ended, the mountain goats were nowhere in sight. Above us was a solid, implacable rock wall, reaching up another 400 feet. No vegetation marred its surface, and no trail disturbed its beauty. Everywhere was rock except at the very top. At the peak, trees stood sentinel, like a line of soldiers guarding the summit.

Finally, Ann spotted the girls. They were almost at the very apex, their bright clothes flashing intermittently through the trees at the rim of the precipice.

“How did they get up there?” one of the girls with us asked. “It’s solid rock!”

“Do you think anyone was hurt?” I replied, wondering how I would explain to upset mothers. I worried again about Diana. That Ann and I would go after them was understood. The rest of the girls decided to wait for us there on the plateau, but Ann and I could not. We were mothers. We were the leaders. We were the responsible ones.

So here I am, trying to follow Ann across a vertical shoal, talking to myself, cursing the girls, whispering to the mothers of the girls in my mind, writing imaginary letters to Joan and conversing audibly to Ann.

Finally, despite all my expectations, I reach Ann on solid, weedy soil, and we hug each other. The immediate danger has been averted, but the girls are still above us somewhere in the mist. I am still angry and worried. My knees are shaky.

“Are you sure you’re ready to go on,” Ann asks me as my breathing steadies.

“Yes, of course. I don’t know if the girls are smart enough to know when to turn back, especially Diana. She might keep going forever, down the other side.”

Diana, is, like all teenagers, a contradiction of nature. Short, thin, with her hair curled meticulously, her makeup applied perfectly, even on an isolated mountain top, she hates to walk to school! Yet, here on this rocky summit, she is one of the mountain goats. She is too young to be wary, too foolish to be careful. I’m sure she thinks injuries only happen on television. I know better. I imagine her slipping on the steep incline and plummeting over the cliff. I imagine trying to explain to my husband where I was when this happened.

As Ann and I scale the hot, dusty, rough terrain, I am so glad that we are on the backside of the cliff instead of the rocky face where we were. I am relieved I survived the rocky face. I feel like an ant rather than a fly—an old, dirty, tired, burdened ant.

The climb is much easier here. It is still steep, but I dig my feet into the dry, barren soil determinedly. Occasionally I find a piece of wild grass that is rooted somehow to bedrock. I grasp on to it for all I’m worth. I am grateful for weeds. I never thought I’d ever feel grateful for weeds, but then I never expected to climb a rocky mountain peak. My hands hurt from holding so hard.              

I can’t stand up. I can’t see the girls. I can see hardly anything above me but the next few feet I must climb. I wonder if there is a top to this mountain. My nose itches. Ann and I don’t talk. We just struggle onward.

When I am wondering if this mountain is nothing but endless ridges stretching to eternity, Ann stops.

“Let’s rest and see how far we’ve come,” she suggests.

I turn around to look; it’s scary. It’s beautiful below and we can see for miles and miles. I wish I could see above me, rather than below. Sweat is dripping down my face. My scraped leg hurts.

“Do you think they are really okay?” I finally ask Ann.

“I’m sure they are, or someone would have come down for help,” she replies. Somehow her words are not reassuring.

A shout disturbs our tete a tète.

“Hey, guys, the summit is neat. You really ought to see it!” A girl stands high above us. The sun is behind her, and I can’t see who she is. Except that she’s not Diana.

Suddenly I am no longer tired, but full of fire and energy.

“Don’t any of you move,” I yell, standing. “Don’t go up. Don’t go down. Stay right where you are, even if I can’t see you!” I don’t know whether they can hear me, but Ann is impressed.

“How many kids did you say you had?” she asks. “You sound like you could command an army.”

“I just don’t want them going anywhere until I can get to them!” I say, but I doubt she hears me. I’m already charging up the mountain.

Only a few feet up, the ground levels out a bit, and there the girls are, laughing and ready to dance down the mountain.

“Oh, Mom, it’s so neat!” Diana is running towards me. (Doesn’t she know how dangerous running down an incline can be?) “It’s not much further. It was well worth the climb.”

“Don’t you know how worried I’ve been,” I cry as I hug her.

“But I’ve been fine.” She seems uncomfortable with my concern. “Just wait until you see the top!”

“Well, I don’t know,” I say. I haven’t climbed so high for the view. “How much further is it?”

“It’s just over that ridge. Come on, Mom. You can’t come this far without going the last little way.”

“She’s right, you know,” Ann laughs. “We can’t turn back so close to our goal.”

“I’ll wait here for you, Mom,” Diana says.

“You’ll all wait for us here,” I yell to the rapidly dispersing girls. “Did you hear me?” they slowly turn around. Some seem poised to vault away out of my sight, but they come back.

“Now listen up! Ann and I are going to the top. And you girls are waiting right here until we get back!!!!! Do you hear! Climbing downhill is more dangerous than up! We will hold hands going down. We will make a chain.”

“But we haven’t had any trouble,” one of the older girls insists.

“I don’t care. You will wait here! Understood?” I glare at each one until they nod.

It is beautiful at the top, I realize. I look at the immense vista laid out below us. Ann goes to the very edge to wave at those who stayed below at the plateau where the jeep trail ended. I stay a safe distance away from the edge, but I can see the ant-like creatures so far below. I wonder if they can see us. My back itches.

I notice a small Indian Paintbrush plant, brilliantly red as it valiantly hangs over the edge of the precipice. I am awed that it can grow in so harsh and alien a climate. It seems such a veritable contradiction to the barren, rocky soil. It is beautiful.

I look at Diana below; her hair brightened by the sun looks reddish from my perspective. Diana is like that paintbrush. Then the thought strikes me that maybe I am, too.

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