Indian Paintbrush

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 my teenage daughter Diana. If it were not for them, I would not be stretched out on this rocky slope, with the rocks sliding beneath me, and the birds—are they vultures? —circling overhead. Voices from my childhood echo in my mind: “You’re so pathetic. I don’t know why you tried to climb that high.” “You’ll never make it all the way to the top.”

“Are you all right, Beth?” Anne, another girls’ camp leader, calls as she watches me warily from her more solid perch.

“I’m okay,” I call back as I work my way toward her. 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. I finally get off the shale face.

I finally reach Anne and I am so glad to be reunited again. Anne is a friend, neighbor, and fellow camp leader and I appreciate her encouragement. Here on the trail, it isn’t as steep, but there is not much to hold on to. This trail is dirt, with tall yellow grasses along the way. The rocks seem solid until you step, or kneel on them, then they slide away. Occasionally you’ll get some lonely scrub oak to cling to. Off to the left are scrub oak and beyond that, pine trees. To the right is the flat, shale, rocky face that I’d gotten onto accidentally. How glad I am that I’m no longer there.

I think of my friend, Joan, safely 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’t see, would she wonder if it had really been an accident?

The thought of Joan energizes me.

I follow Anne up a dusty hill, talking to myself, cursing the girls, whispering to the mothers of the girls in my mind, and conversing audibly with Anne.

“The girls could not have come this way,” I insist as we climb toward the crest. ‘Should I have followed them?’ I wondered. I’m in my late forties; that’s too old to do foolish things.

“Could they have gone up the back instead of the front of the mountain?” Anne asks. It is a good question, as I inch sideways toward a beckoning scrub oak. There’s little plant life, but I hold tightly onto each bit of vegetation 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 okay? Even Diana? Or is she trapped somewhere as I am, struggling to make headway?

I took a week off my office job to accompany my daughter Diana on this week-long wilderness girl’s camp excursion. We sleep in tents (and me almost 50 years old) and take turns cooking our dinners over campfires. I even brought ingredients to make Dutch oven pizza for the group. There are canoes, lakes, survival training, and no electricity.

We hiked 7.5 miles to our destination, just below Hoyt’s Peak, as part of our all-day “Inspirator’s” hike, and stopped for lunch in a grassy meadow full of wildflowers under the mountain peak.

That’s when one girl noticed the mountain peak. “Can we climb it?” she asked looking at the topographical map. “It must be safe. That looks like a trail that goes right to it.”

After a little discussion, the hiking leader agreed that a small group could climb to the top while the others rested. The girls quickly disappeared out of sight; Anne and I follow behind them. We were mothers. We were leaders. Someone had to go with them. The whistles we’d brought to communicate were quickly useless as the distance between us widened. They couldn’t hear us! I could occasionally see a flash of red, or blue high above, and I’d know their approximate location.

Finally, we reach the plateau where the trail ends, and the girls (I call them mountain goats) are nowhere in sight. Above us is another slope, reaching up another hundred feet. Little vegetation mars its surface, and no trail disturbs its beauty. Everywhere is dirt and rocks except at the very top. At the peak, pine trees stand sentinel, like a line of soldiers guarding the summit.

Finally, Anne spots the girls. They are 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?” Anne asks.

“Do you think anyone was hurt?” I reply. I worry again about Diana.

Diana, is, like all teenagers, a contradiction of nature. Short, thin, with her long brown hair curling riotously, her makeup applied perfectly, even on an isolated mountain top, she hates to walk to school! Others might think that because she’s so obsessive about her appearance, she’s weak. But she’s not. She’s overcome some difficult medical problems. 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 Anne and I continue up the hot, dusty, rough, I am so glad that we are on the backside of the incline. I am relieved that I survived the rocky slope. I feel like an ant rather than a fly—an old, dirty, tired, burdened ant.

The climb is much easier here. It is not as steep, but I dig my feet into the dry, barren soil determinedly. Occasionally I find a scrub oak that is rooted somehow to bedrock. I grasp onto it for all I’m worth. 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 for the next few feet, I must climb. I wonder if there is a top to this mountain. My nose itches. Anne and I don’t talk. We just struggle onward.

When I am wondering if this mountain is nothing but endless pine trees stretching to eternity, Anne 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, but mostly just the way we’d come up. 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 Anne.

“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, leaders, the summit is neat. You really ought to see it!” A silhouette of a girl’s head 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. “Don’t go up. Don’t go down. Stay right where you are.” I’m already charging up the mountain.

Only a few dozen 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.

“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 look at the view.”

It is beautiful at the top, I realize. I look at the immense vista laid out below us. The close mountains arch like rocky pyramids, while the farther away mountains merge into blues and purples as they stretch into the mist. Anne 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, with its brilliant red jagged head 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 and resilient.

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

Colorful Indian paintbrush

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