I made a quick trip to Utah this weekend to attend my grandfather's funeral. It was a memorable event — having every single person in my rather large, dispersed family, gathered in one room to share their memories of him, many of which closely mirrored my own. He was selfless, he was strong, and he could fix any problem and make it seem effortless. In my "Lone Peak" tribute a couple weeks ago, I described my grandfather as "Superman." My dad repeated the paragraph in his eulogy, and later told me that a couple days after my grandfather's death, he climbed to Lone Peak to reflect. "It was the first time that he was there with me," my dad said as tears filled his eyes. It sent my own waterworks flowing, because I had experienced a similar closeness to my grandfather on the mountain. He was still alive when I climbed Lone Peak, but I had a inexplicably strong feeling that he was beside me on the summit, which is why I went through the ritual of writing him a note — if only to physically acknowledge that feeling of closeness.
I also had an opportunity to spend time with both of my sisters this weekend — a rare occasion to have the three of us together. As we returned from our Saturday night outing, my youngest sister, Sara, made a rather unexpected request — she asked if I wanted to go hiking with her on Sunday. My jaw dropped just a little.
I love Sara, but usually when I describe her to my friends, I say, "Picture the opposite of me. That's my baby sister." Sara is 23 years old, which officially puts us in two different cultural generations (me, X; she, Y). Sara lives in Huntington Beach, Calif. — the "bedroom burg" of 200,000 people amid a sprawling mass of millions. I consider Missoula — the "big city" of 70,000 — to be about my limit of crowd tolerance. Sara works as a sales associate for Bloomingdales in Newport Beach. I've spent my career purposely seeking jobs that place me at an arm's length from the public (it's why I prefer editing to reporting) and would probably pass out or break a bone if I had to stand in high heels for longer than three minutes. Sara loves shopping and has enough clothing to fill many closets. I still wear T-shirts I owned in high school, and not a small number of clothing handed down to me from her. Sara thrives amid urban culture. I get social anxiety in small-town bars. My favorite food is sushi. Sara despises seafood; she once caught a beautiful halibut right out of Kachemak Bay in Alaska and refused to eat a single bite. My favorite things in life are my opportunities to explore remote and wild places. Sara once answered the phone when my dad and I called home triumphantly from the top of Twin Peaks and replied, "Let me guess ... you're calling from the top of some peak" with such derision that we still tease her about it.
And I was pretty sure Sara hated hiking. So when she suggested we go, I thought she was just humoring me — offering a sisterly activity that she thought I would like and she might be able to tolerate. We decided on Bell Canyon. I hadn't been there since high school, but I had a vague memory that it was "easy." And because I was going for an "easy" hike with my non-outdoors-acclimated sister, I decided to go for a run beforehand to work up a good sweat. I ended up running for two hours on the Corner Canyon trails. The singletrack was crowed with mountain bikers on a Sunday afternoon, and I not only felt jealous of them, but also self-conscious, because now I was the annoying runner clogging up their trails. They were all very nice to me, even coming around blind corners when they had to slam on their brakes as I jumped off the trail (I probably have much to learn about runner etiquette, but I did everything I could to stay out of their way.) But I do forget that a two-hour run in afternoon heat is quite a bit different than a two-hour mountain bike ride. I covered a similar distance that I would on a bike (10 to 12 miles), and by the end I was well-toasted.
So I came home and Sara and I headed to Bell Canyon. I still have vivid memories of getting lost on this trail when I was 11 years old, and my route-finding hasn't improved at all in two decades. I guided Sara through a bewildering maze of faint trails, and she took with good humor my continuous advice to "go toward the sound of water. We want to follow the creek."
As we walked, we talked about our grandfather and our individual memories of him, and also how he reminded us of our own father. We talked about our lives in Montana and California. Sara told me she was really enjoying her regular sessions in bikram yoga. I crinkled my nose and said, "What is about bikram that you like?" because to me, spending 90 minutes in a 110-degree, humid room while twisting my body in uncomfortable contortions sounds like one of the lower levels of hell.
"Well," she said, "It's a challenge just to get through it, and there's something so satisfying about that. It teaches me to remove my focus on the past and anxiety about the future, and only exist in the present, which is helpful in the rest of my life."
My jaw dropped a little again. She could have asked me what I love about snow biking or endurance mountain biking or hiking for that matter, and my answer would have been similar if not precisely that. Maybe Sara and I have more in common than I even know.
We found the main trail and it quickly turned skyward — gaining a foot of elevation for every three feet of distance along a narrow, rocky slope with boulders the size of couches. I grew self-conscious again because it was a lot more difficult than I remembered — not quite the beginner hike I'd promised Sara. But bikram yoga must have put her in good shape because she powered up it. Sweat was pooling underneath my Camelback and Sara didn't so much as complain, even though she lives at sea level and never hikes and we were crawling up a rock garden above 6,500 feet. I started to suggest turning back because the afternoon was growing late. "No, I just want to see the waterfall," she said. "We have to be close." I had no idea whether we were close or not, but I didn't want to deny Sara her well-earned reward. If I couldn't produce a waterfall, I'd probably never convince her to go hiking again.
But pretty soon it was 5 p.m., and we had been hiking for an hour and a half, and we were supposed to be home by 5:30. "There's a chance we passed the cutoff to the waterfall," I said. "But at this point, I have no idea, and we really need to head back." She accepted it and we started down. As crawled down the rock garden overlooking the valley, she said, "This is a good lesson for life, too, that it's about the journey, not the destination. I mean, this is so beautiful, and if I only cared about getting to a waterfall, I might've not noticed it."
At that moment, I was brimming with pride for my baby sister, because she's wiser than me in the places I excel.