way up there

Before my Nana died she told my sister she would find a way to come back to watch over us. The month before she passed, thousands of ladybugs came to New England. Hundreds swarmed along the southwestern portion of our house. They stuck to the screens outside Nana’s bedroom. They made their way into our home, appearing between leaves of lettuce in the refrigerator and along the molding above the doors.  One eventually found its way into her room and crawled along the ceiling. I thought maybe we just needed a little luck.

She died a few weeks later. After the funeral, and I returned to the Bay Area, a single ladybug began appearing above my bed. This happened three nights in a row. I like to think it was her checking in on me. I like to think it was her telling me everything was going to be ok.

On our 2,500 mile road trip last month, D and I visited Zion National Park. We hiked a trail known as Angels Landing – a 2.5 mile ascent scaling a 1,200 foot rock formation that involves steep climbs along a narrow pass. Parts of the trail require the use of chains as footing disappears along a sheer rock face. The national park service lists half a dozen fatalities on this hike since 2005. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t know this beforehand. All I knew was that my mother recommended it after visiting the park two years ago with my dad, and that it was supposed to be pretty. A part of me also knew that I kind of had to get there.

Because three years earlier I wussed out of hiking the final part of Half Dome at Yosemite National Park. The chains were crowded and there didn’t appear to be any order as people passed those stalled on their way down. They didn’t seem to see them at all. My partner kept looking upward and tried convincing me I could do it. But something inside just said: Let him go on without you. So I sat in the sun and waited for him to return – disappointed I didn’t finish what I started. And more so, that I didn’t get to stand beside him at the top.

This time was different.  This time, I followed D’s lead – repeating his mantra: three points of contact at all times. I asked him to wait when I felt scared. When the way was uncertain. When I just needed to know he was still there. In the meantime, I had conversations with myself. Calm down. Take a deep breath. Now another one. Focus on your next step. Find something to hold on to. Trust your judgment. Don’t look down. Stop if you have to. And know you can always turn back.

Eventually, I began using the chains less and less for leverage. Sometimes they were placed too low and it felt awkward to slide them along my palms. Sometimes I was better off trusting myself to take the right path – even if it wasn’t necessarily marked. Plus my hands were slippery with nerves. At one point the path narrowed and the chains fell away completely. Then way up there, in the desert, surrounded by a few jagged rocks and sand, a ladybug appeared. D smiled.  “Everything is going to be ok.”

And it was.

Here’s proof.


wilderness first aid – part 1

One of my favorite childhood activities was exploring the woods behind our house. Because I didn’t like adventuring alone, I would force my younger brother Matty to go with me. I enlisted him to help me assemble first aid kits filled with Dixie cups, Q-tips, band-aids, gauze, and ointments from mom and dad’s medicine cabinet, and to help make sandwiches for our lunch boxes – his Ghostbusters, mine Strawberry Shortcake. Then I would pack a notepad and pen and we’d set off along the well-worn paths.

Every few feet we stopped to flip over rocks and roll logs to discover what type of nature was living underneath. Sometimes we poked at it with sticks to see how it moved. Dug holes just to watch the soil change colors. Or pulled apart flowers to find out what made them pretty.

After a few hours (or more likely 20 minutes) we set up camp and I would make up answers to his questions because I was older and supposed to know things he didn’t. For some reason, saying, ‘I am not sure’ was never an option. Once we got to wherever it was I decided we were going I’d leave notes in the trees and under stones. I’m not sure who I wanted to find them, or if I really expected a response. But sometimes I’d go back alone and recover the messages to no one and find them waterlogged or lodged in branches nearby. I still wonder if anyone ever read one.

When we returned home I often embellished the hike crafting danger around every bend, like the time we were shot at by unseen enemies, and the day we were almost kidnapped by teenagers. Two decades later I live 3,000 miles from Matty and still love walking in the woods. I’m not sure how old I was when I stopped packing a first aid kit and started simply hoping for the best. At what age I stopped pretending danger lurked behind every tree. Maybe it was because I didn’t have anyone else to look out for anymore. Maybe it’s because I’ve learned that not everything that can hurt you is hiding in the shadows.

While I am grateful for all the years Matty played along when I’d make up stories that could never be true and for all the times I got us lost and he found our way home, I realized this winter that I was taking unnecessary risks. And not only with myself, but with the health and safety of my friends I convinced to go wandering around in the woods with me. I realized that if I don’t know how to take care of myself, I will never be able to take care of anyone else.

So this spring I signed up for a wilderness first aid class so I could stop making things up as I go along. Because the truth is, what worked for you in the past is not always enough. There are some problems you can’t fix with bandages and kisses alone. Because at some point you realize there is no one out there with all the answers. And that if you lose sight of your path, you have to be able find your own way out of the woods.

no other heaven

Allison and me toasting on a hilltop in Mount Tamalpais State Park. Not sure what exactly Peter is doing. Photo courtesy of Emily Yurko.
Allison and me toasting on a hilltop in Mount Tamalpais State Park. Not sure what exactly Peter is doing. Photo courtesy of Emily Yurko.
Blades of grass tickled my fingertips as I walked with palms outstretched. Following a narrow trail snaking up more than 2,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, I used rocks embedded into the hillside for leverage and kept my head down to avoid tripping on one of the tiny holes some animal had burrowed into the path – long before my arrival, claiming this site for its home.

When I reached the top of the peak I saw a cluster of rocks shaped into a bench and a plaque now green with age. I set my backpack on the seat and read the marker while pulling out a box of Italian cookies from North Beach and a bottle of wine.

“Give me these hills and the friends I love, I ask no other heaven.”

The plaque was given in honor of Dad O’Rourke – a local hiker who led outings throughout Marin County in the early 1900s – on his 76th birthday in 1927. I smiled upon reading his words and took out my camera to snap one of only four photos I took that day.

“There’s a plaque up here you guys have to read,” I shouted to my friends still making their way up the trail.

Now I will admit it has taken me a long time to get to this point. And I don’t mean to Dad O’Rourke’s bench. That is just a short drive across the Golden Gate and a few miles of winding along Panoramic Highway. I mean to the point where I can call California home and not immediately feel the urge to qualify it with, “But I’m from Boston.” (That now occurs about 35 seconds later.) But that’s just geography. I also mean to the point where I have found folks I can call ‘my people.’ (Most just happen to be East Coast transplants.)

When I first moved to California I told my family I was only going to live on the West Coast for two to three years. Well, it’s been closer to five and I have no plans for punching my return ticket anytime soon.

Sidenote: In the past upon reading that last sentence my mother would have booked her next flight on JetBlue to convince me otherwise. Now she just books a flight and we go to wine country instead.

The truth is, the first three years I spent in tiny newsrooms chasing stories and scraping by on a wage deemed “below poverty” by our county standards. The friends I made were all fellow news reporters and wound up moving across the state for other jobs –some for bigger papers, some leaving the profession altogether, and most I have lost touch with.

The areas I covered were located in suburban or unincorporated pockets of farmland– not exactly places teeming with young single people looking to make new friends. I was fortunate to get dumped over Christmas by my live in boyfriend – an event that forced me to move to San Francisco and start over 18 months ago. And given time, distance and an additional 2,000 feet – I am so thankful for that.

When our group reconvened under the trees I poured the wine into plastic cups and we toasted to a good day where Allison took nearly 500 photos (I’m not being hyperbolic), Emily and I binged on chips and salsa, Peter ate everything else, Sam climbed rocks and Chris – well, Chris fell. And then we went home.

Editor’s note: Watching the sunset over Mount Tamalpais marked the first of a series of weekend outings we are organizing to take advantage of the perks of living in the Bay Area. Namely – proximity to wineries, trails and the beach. To view a lovely photo narrative of our trip compiled by Allison visit http://www.flickr.com/photos/allisonmccarthy/sets/72157620162020926/