In preparation for my trip to the Rocky Mountains, I had my toenails painted yellow. I did this gutsy thing to remind myself I’m capable of anything, and can overcome my fears. The deep yellow matched my hiking attire: the shirt that belonged to my daughter who died, an old bandana, and the leather bracelet my mother recently bought for me. It was a happy yellow to cheer me as I first attended a bereaved mothers’ retreat, and then set out on my own for four days of hiking alone in the Rockies. It was the yellow of road signs that said Avalanche Area, Falling Rock, Runaway Truck Ramp, and Beware of Animals Crossing.
Let me just unload a few things right now. At the Crazy Good Grief retreat they called this a “Brain Dump.” I call it my current, ever-changing list of things to worry about:
The headaches and nausea of altitude sickness, avoided by drinking tons of water which means having to pee every hour. On trails. Driving a strange rental car on unfamiliar, narrow, two-lane twisting roads that wind around mountains and have shear drops on the sides instead of shoulders and guardrails. Add fog and the possibility of ice and snow to that. Trying to remember what to do when encountering a moose or elk – stand my ground and make a loud ruckus or run for my life? Being alone. Staying by myself at my cousin Neal’s cabin, a construction site in a remote area up a steep dirt road that I won’t be able to find after dark. Not to mention snakes, roaches, spotty cell-phone service, no Internet, and getting lost.
A rainbow happened on the evening of my first day at the cabin. And it followed me the next morning on the way to the Rocky Mountain National Park where I alternately drove and hiked through a year’s range of weather systems in one day. Was that when things changed? Or was it when a young elk and its mother crossed the road right in front of my car? Was it after singing to my daughter and blowing bubbles into Bear Lake? Or did things change when I met the women on the rocks?
Six women were posing on the huge rocks that marked the end of the Tundra Trail. They must have been waiting for me, watching as the wind jolted me up the path, because one handed me her cellphone to take a photo as soon as I reached them.
“C’mon up here,” said Lillian their leader, after I snapped a few shots. They were climbing up beyond the designated trail end, scrambling to the highest point.
“I’m sixty-four. I’m too old to do that kind of climbing, I said.
“Well, I’m sixty-five. We’re all sixty and older here,” Lillian yelled from her perch above my head.
So I climbed.
“Are you alone?” Lillian’s sister asked.
“No. I’m with the spirit of my dead daughter,” I blurted out.
“How did she die?” She asked. It was just the invitation I needed.
On the last day, on my last hike, a notice at the trail head said BOBCATS IN THE AREA. Travel in Groups. Make Noise. Don’t Run. Stand Tall. FIGHT BACK.
Like I didn’t have enough to worry about.
But by then, something had definitely changed.
Testing the never-used whistle attached to my backpack, I trotted to the trail, and came up with this:
THE MORE YOU FEAR, THE MORE OPPORTUNITIES YOU GET TO TEST YOUR COURAGE.
Yellow is the color of aspens in Colorado in the fall. Over my week in the Rockies, I watched as more and more of the hills and mountains turned bright yellow (a hue that is more attractive on trees than on toenails).