Hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail in my late forties, and thinking about conversations I never got to have with my mother.
During the six-hour flight to Seattle from my home in North Carolina in the summer of 2013, my period arrived before my flight landed. So in the cramped bathroom of the plane, I pulled my Diva Cup from its fabric pouch and wondered how to use it while hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail.
While I’d been using the Diva Cup for years, I’d never taken it into the wilderness. By some fluke, my hiking adventures during the previous summers had fallen on weeks when I didn’t have my period.
The Diva Cup — which is made of silicone and sits inside your vagina, collecting menstrual blood, while you have your period — has made this stage of life manageable for me, as tampons can’t handle the heavy flow. In my late thirties, I discovered the Diva Cup after a friend turned me onto the environmental and health benefits of reusable products, and now, the Diva Cup is the only device that will contain the massive quantities of blood produced by my now-49-year old uterus. For most of my life, I privately judged those who complained about their periods, as I could run marathons while menstruating. But now, approaching menopause, my body produces blood clots the size of grapes.
When I drove to the trailhead the next day with my hiking partner, I stopped at a gas station to buy baby wipes, which I hadn’t purchased since my two daughters were toddlers.
“Don’t you think dumping blood in a stream violates â€˜Leave No Trace’?” I asked my longtime friend Gary, referring to the low-impact principles that focus on carrying out everything you bring on to a trail. For women using tampons, this means putting them in a plastic bag throughout the hike; I was worried that I’d be pouring blood from the Diva Cup into Ziplocs as we hiked.
Gary follows the low-impact rules about camping away from streams and avoiding dish soap in mountain waters, but practicality often trumps principles for him; he sometimes throws his apple cores or orange peels into the woods, even though he works as an avian ecologist and knows better than most how food can attract wildlife.
“I think you’ll be fine,” he said, giving me the answer that I was hoping for.
As we hiked, I stopped at every stream to rinse out the Diva Cup, and my typical hiking attire of a well-worn Patagonia dress made this process quite efficient. Within an hour, we fell into a rhythm of walking and stopping, rinsing, and refueling. The second day, we hiked to the Pacific Crest Trail, also known as the PCT, and I took a picture by the small wooden sign that identified the trail.
Cheryl Strayed’s book and movie Wild have now popularized the Pacific Crest Trail, but in spring 1999, my parents hiked the entire distance of the trail, all 2,650 miles. (Five years earlier they had completed the 2,168 miles of the Appalachian Trail on the East Coast.) They waited to depart until I had delivered my daughter, Maya, but before I went into labor, my parents mailed their care packages of food out West and weighed every item before placing it in their lightweight packs.
While we often camped as a family in the 1970s, my parents became middle-age gurus of long-distance hiking after their four children were grown. In hiking circles, they were known by their trail names of “Annie and the Salesman” and were featured on an instructional film about lightweight hiking. With her slow Southern drawl recorded on the video, my mother held up a towel the size of a washcloth: “After you rinse off in a stream, you just shake off like a little puppy!” she said with a self-conscious grin and a flip of her head.
She always described hiking as a form of prayer.
Their last long-distance hike was the near-completion of the Continental Divide Trail, part of the trifecta called the Triple Crown, which also includes the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. But before they could complete the last section of the Continental Divide Trail, they were killed by young male drivers in separate but mirror-image accidents two years apart. They both died while biking to an organic farm where they volunteered in exchange for fresh produce each week in our hometown of Fairhope, Alabama. My mother and father died long before showing outward signs of old age, at 58 and 64 years old, respectively. In fact, at the time of their deaths, in 2003 and 2005, they were in the best shape of their lives.
During our many conversations on the phone and in person, I never asked my mother how she dealt with her changing female body while hiking, although I have faint memories of her mentioning the subject of “heavy flow.” In the years before she died, I was having babies, starting jobs. Menopause was the farthest life event from my mind.
But I do remember when my sister was in college, my mother wrote her a newsy letter, filled with plans for an upcoming hike. My sister says her roommates cackled at this line in the letter: “I’ve discovered the most marvelous thing!” my mother wrote, in her perfect penmanship that seemed to echo her graceful Mississippi accent. “It’s called OB!”
I’ll never know if she packed out OB tampons in Ziploc bags on the Pacific Crest Trail or if my father understood her “change of life” as they walked across mountaintops and deserts. But I do know that when I walked on the Pacific Crest Trail — step after step on the same path — I felt my body melt into her memory. When I hiked on that trail, my mother had been dead for 10 years and my father for eight, but I could imagine them singing together as they walked and then stopping to admire the wildflowers. In fact, I was stepping into a prayer with both of them, following the actual trail of their walking meditation.
The loss of a parent signals the loss of an entire unrecorded history. Every day, I want to ask my mother, “What was it like for you?” When my teenage daughter looks at me with irritation one moment and vulnerability the next, I want to ask: “Did I look at you in that same way?” Because of course, I can’t remember. So I make up stories in my mind, even as I yearn for the weight of her arms around my middle-age body. Some nights, I pray that I might dream about her, just to spend a few minutes of subconscious time with her voice.
“You’ll always be my girl,” she would say, as she embraced me over the years, patting my back with her right hand, over and over again, even when I grew taller than her. When my mother was my age, 10 years before her death, her children were grown, and she was settling into the second stage of a seasoned marriage that had grown stronger with time. In contrast, I am a single parent of a teenager and a third-grader; we live in a 900-square-foot house in North Carolina with one tiny bathroom, where my older daughter has walked in on me as I rinse out my Diva Cup in the sink.
My own body — that can birth babies, hike trails, and raise a teenage woman — has become my mother’s. And there is nothing that can contain it all.