I can’t write about the outdoors without writing about my mom. She’s the one who brought me hiking before I could walk. She taught me how to plant seeds for carrots, and the right way to dig out a dandelion, so you get the whole long taproot. She packed the car for our camping trips, with our huge old tent, the IKEA folding table, and trunk full of blankets. We even learned how to ski together, when I was in elementary school and she was just over forty. It was a few years after she was diagnosed with, treated for, and then declared free of breast cancer. Only recently did I think to ask why we learned to ski at that time. And she told me: “after the cancer… well, there was no point in being too scared to seek joy.”
I hadn’t pieced it together before, but like a silent underground river, that small philosophy underlies so much of our relationship. So much so that it feels subconscious, this seeking of joy. Yet, it’s what my mom has always done: seek joy, relentlessly, even when it’s off-road and without signposts. This manifested itself clearly, when we went searching for the eclipse three summers ago.
We knew we wanted to see it, the solar eclipse, and intended to get ourselves just inside its path. My mom lives outside Seattle, so we ventured just over the mountains, into Washington’s southeastern backyard. We spent a night at a small state park, Palouse Falls. The park has accessible car-camping right next to its plunging waterfall which is surrounded by golden, sun-bleached grasses and tiny wild sunflowers. We intended to stay here, and see what we could. But the next morning, my mom was itching to keep moving. We had the long-weekend. We had a map showing the eclipse’s path. We hadn’t intended to seek the path of totality but she could see how close we were. It cut through eastern Oregon, so we revised, and made a new and simple plan: drive south.
A few hours into our drive, we entered the town of Ukiah, tucked inside Oregon’s Blue Mountains. With experienced insight, my mom pulled us off the road when she saw the ranger station. She wanted local maps and intel, which the ranger readily provided. Armed with the ranger’s directions, we headed into Umatilla National Forest, to dirt roads our GPS didn’t believe existed. Navigating through towering trees, we reached Potamus Point in the early moments of a summer sunset. In the faint pink glow, the tall grasses were merely soft shining yellows and oranges, with gentle purple shadows. The field stretched to the edge of a huge ravine. Looking across the canyon, we could see the layered geological history, telling a story eons older and longer than human imagination. We set our camp there, on this clifftop, and ate our peanut butter sandwiches as the sun sank and the stars rose.
My mom woke me the next morning as she normally does when camping: with a hot towel, and a hot cup of coffee. We ate apples and cheese for breakfast, and counted down the hours, and then the minutes, until the eclipse began. The event itself feels impossible to capture. It was a hot, dusty, summer day that felt exactly like the last. Yet when the moon crossed in front of the sun and the sweeping darkness hit, it came with a deep and sudden cold, that was as shocking as a roll of thunder. A minute-long yet never-ending shadow cast on what was otherwise an indistinguishable day. It was a skip in time, a collective intake of breath, a true moment of awe. Perhaps only when the sun is obscured, can one realize how very small and dependent and fragile our earth is. Yet, even in this vulnerability, I was captivated, and filled with impenetrable wonder.
Then, I looked over at my mom. She who had driven us further, all the way out here, just for the sake of it. There it was, this underlying, unspoken need to seek joy. Joy not just for her, but very much so for me. I felt it then, an awe as deep and raw as seeing the eclipse: the staggering wonder of all my mom is. All she has given up for me, and all that she has given me. All the small, sweeping and unshakable ways she loves me. The ravine-deep, sky-high love. And we were there, in that moment, at this nexus of moon and sun, of earth and sky, because of her. I was there, leaning into my mom, as the world continued to spin until the sun and sky returned to normal. And even when everything was the same as it had always been, the joy that remained was more than enough.