I’m climbing Pine Log Mountain with my stepdaughter Madison, six years after my home at the foot of mountain was destroyed by fire. I used to climb the mountain when my daughter Cassie was a baby, strapped to my chest in her baby bjorn, always looking outward.
Same mountain, same woman, but so much has changed, so much has been lost and gained. I wish I could have one day of innocence again, before the divorce, before the fire, just me and my baby in the woods. I wish I could have one single second back.
But I have built a good new life, and Madison is a big part of that. She and I have discovered that Lake Arrowhead has created a “Summit Trail” where there used to be a road to the stables and a road up the mountain where the developers cut in cul-de-sacs and lots for never-built houses decades ago. I used to hike back here before they put in the new golf course, and I am constantly shifting back and forth between two maps in my mind, the old and the new, superimposed like a palimpsest.
The development has changed but the mountain has not changed. I love hiking with Madison because she is so delighted with everything that she sees, from the huge boulders to the moss and fern growing along the streams to the way the light falls on the soft grass of the trail. She is always forging ahead of me, then shrieking when she runs face-first into a spider web. Like her little black dog Maggie, who strains at the leash to go faster up the mountain, Madison is eager and full of joy.
The last time she and I hiked this mountain, we saw a bear cub at the summit, and we bushwhacked down the mountain rather than risk encountering Mama Bear. We got horribly lost but followed a creek to the bottom and ended up, three hours later, exactly where we needed to be. It was a bonding experience between stepmother and stepdaughter. If you want to find out what someone is made of, get lost on a mountain with them.
This new “Summit Trail” is steep and we are both out of breath as we plod upward, pausing occasionally to take a drink. This is not an easy trail, but my body feels energized and alive with the exertion.
This “pilgrimage” I am on began with walks up the mountain when Cassie was a baby. That’s when I began to realize how much beauty and wilderness we are surrounded by that we don’t even see. We only see the river crossing the bridge on I-75 at 80 mph. Most people don’t see the mountain at all.
To go to the mountain is a spiritual act, whatever one’s faith tradition. It is a departure from the demands and delusions of the ordinary world and a deliberate choice to enter and ascend a place that is difficult and beautiful.
So many things I have seen and heard and found on this mountain: underground springs I’ve touched, reaching a hand into a dark hole and letting the cold water run between my fingers, listening to the water rush beneath my feet. Forgotten roadbeds, abandoned stills, barrels and jugs. A coyote, foxes, bears, the carcass of a wild boar. Fields of ferns, groves of wild azaleas and wild magnolias, beds of lush moss, red and yellow mushrooms, yellow finches, scarlet tanagers. Bones, skeletons, antlered skulls.
The mountain is also a place where I have come many times to grieve, and maybe a pilgrimage is as much a grieving as a seeking. I came here and grieved when my older son Dante was fighting in Iraq. I grieved for war itself. I came here to grieve for drugs and the way they ravage families. I grieved the loss of my marriage and the premature end of Cassie’s childhood.
Near my burned house on Thunder Hawk Loop, there was a creek that flowed out of a spring at the foot of the mountain, and there was a mound there that I think must have been built by the Native Americans for whom this mountain was sacred long before I came along. I used to go there to mourn, and I wrote in a poem called “Thunder Hawk Loop”:
Maybe this mound is their heap of invisible griefs. Maybe it got too big. / Maybe it is full of prayers like those small papers stuffed / in Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. Maybe mothers rocked in grief as they still do, / keening the names of sons. Maybe the weight of failed prayers grew too great. / Now the spirits lurk where they left the prayers, still waiting for an answer.
I realize as I climb the mountain this time with Madison that I am still grieving the divorce and fire of six years ago, and everything that was lost at that time, so close to where we are now, but I can’t bear to drive down that road. In that particular palimpsest, what’s underneath is ash.
But the mountain still calls to me, like it always did. I was relieved when we moved back to the shadow of the mountain, as if it is some kind of hub that I need to be near.
When Madison and I reach the top, we see that indeed there is a ghost neighborhood up here of roads cut in but never built upon. Someone has scattered grass seed and the grass is lovely and gives the place a kind of fairy tale glow. It worries me, though, that the developers seem to have remembered this place is here. If they try to sell these lots, the mountain is doomed.
We can see the tops of the neighboring mountains – Little Pine Log, Hanging Mountain, and Bear Mountain. But the leaves are too thick to get a good view. When we come back in winter, it will all be clear.
I want to return here with Cassie, but at 14 she’s too cool to think that hiking with Mom would be fun. I don’t know how much she remembers of our time on the mountain, but I hope it’s inside of her somewhere. I hope she remembers how I used to set her down, barefoot and bow-legged, in the clear creek and let her splash, watching over her, watching out for snakes, trying to keep her safe, trying to show her the mountain’s mysteries.
Even the time I got lost with Madison, I knew the mountain would not let us come to harm. I knew we would find our way home, and we did.
Once when I was hiking with Cassie in her baby bjorn, I stepped in a hole and my shoe got stuck, and I left it there and continued on half-barefoot through the woods. My shoe is still there, a home for baby rabbits or baby chipmunks.
There are other pieces of me here, too. My own ashes, scattered. In some weird way it is like visiting my own grave, the grave of who I used to be.
Madison is calling to me, she wants me to see the view up ahead. I walk on.