By Rue McKenrick
My dirty American Perimeter Trail Bandana is laid out nicely on the ground cloth as if I am setting a place for myself at the table. On it is placed a tea candle, photos, incense, Cremains, Michael’s key chain, a piece of a Master’s cloak, and a letter. I speak to each of my beloved that have died since I began this trail in the summer of 2019. I light the candle and the incense and ask, “Is everybody in?” Of course they are. They are the departed but so am I. “We are the Departed Birds of a Feather, held to the world by twine and leather,” I say softly with a grin. I imagine they are all finding this amusing but my verses have probably begun to lose their shine. Besides, we have all been cramped up in this tent for months and they hear the same limerick or two from me each night. I usually only see one of my deceased friends at a time. They are all present, but typically the candle is only enough illumination for one Soul.
Other times I feel us as a whole group at a dinner party. These are the nights I have cooked something exciting and in my own way I am sharing it with all of them. No, they don’t eat anything and there is not enough for them anyhow. It’s really quite festive at times inside this tent. Most evenings it’s dark and I am too tired to eat dinner and I lay out the bandana and barely get them all settled in before I have to quickly say, “Sleep tight don’t let the earthworms bite zzzzzz.” In my slumber, I like to think they are all there resting with me. Just then logic kicks in and I feel embarrassed and self conscious at my night time ritual. I ask myself aloud, “Rue are you doing okay?” I don’t answer and roll over onto my side.
I am no stranger to loss just as we all are. My perception before beginning the American Perimeter Trail was that I had an average loss of loved ones in my 30 some years on the planet. I had no more than anyone else. No situational despair or grief that was excessive to the Human experience. No unique suffering or really unique anything. Just your run of the mill Human with some loss here and some growth there. I still feel that way because its true. What I didn’t anticipate how was this run of the mill Human was going to cope with your not so much run of the mill experience.
Each death began with a phone call or at least that is where I enter each of the Swan Songs. The calls came at all times and seasons, in ordinary places. I was in Tahoe Basin, Oregon, The Mohave, Chihuahuan, Cumberland Plateau, some place called Beula. They reached me on The APTrail from every direction. Like glass shards strewn about from a coke bottle pitched from an airplane a thousand miles to home in every direction. The calls are different but I always hear the same thing whether the person on the other end of the line is saying it or not, “Rue you need to get to an airport NOW.”
Its June 2021 and I am somewhere in the great expanse of North Dakota they call “The Fields.” I have just returned from Pennsylvania where we laid my older Brother Michael to rest. He was an exclusive bike and walk commuter just like me. A vehicle struck him while he was walking and he later succumbed to his injuries. I did my best to make it home before they took him off life support but I was several days walk away from any opportunity to get transportation to an airport. I foolheartedly promised him I would make it. I tried, hiking faster than I ever had before, but it was a fools errand or I just wasn’t strong enough. Either way, I am here now in these Great Plains being swallowed with the grief of all those that have passed these two years. Part of me regrets missing so many funerals and then the other more reasonable part says, “but you hate funerals.” I guess its easy to be conflicted in times like these. What exactly is the appropriate amount of sadness and grieving and for how long and at what frequency? Should I cry so people know I loved them. Do I make some sort of declaration about how I am walking in honor of their memory. Like for instance, a shiny slogan that I can wear on my backpack so we can all feel good, “I Hike 4 Mike.” ” Don’t worry, I tell them, I will use this loss to propel me through the next 2,500 in honor of Edith, Sean, and Mike.” You know, some kind of effacing nonsense like that. These questions were all currently flooding my mind along with the belief that I was doing it all wrong. That somehow I had failed my dead Friends and Family, and now I was even more dishonoring them by not even grieving correctly. I can’t even suffer properly, I scolded myself. I wanted to fight grief so I did what I have done for the last two years. Fought it on my own. Without Community, Friends and Family at my disposal I do what any Ole’ Solo Traveler does to find comfort and counsel…… I read.
Immediately, I knew what classic to turn to. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross seminal work laid out in her book On Death and Dying. Her later work codifies emotions into a framework that most of you have probably have heard of, The Five Stages of Grief. They are as follows from one to five; denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Armed with this information I pulled out yet another rusty and equally flawed tool from my Ole’ Solo Traveler Toolbox 2000……. Self Assessment.
Okay self, here we go, Self Assessment Numero Uno.
- Are you in denial? Yes about many things but I don’t know if death is one of them.
- Are you isolating? Umm, I am isolated. Is that the same thing as isolating?
- Are you angry? I mean some of the time.
- Are you bargaining? What the heck does that mean?
- Are you depressed? Wait, what? Seriously? Look at me.
- Are you in acceptance? YES!
According to my initial self assessment I had approached the stages and well…………
This past Spring I had read some writings by a grief counselor in Oregon that had postulated on this topic. His argument was that there were no such Stages of Grief whatever. I asked the sky with hopelessness, what the hell happens now if there are no stages of grief? I used some of his findings as a compass while helping my dear friend transition from her cancer ridden body. Off she went to the great beyond and those of us left behind were, well mostly beside ourselves.
I stood with my hands open but squarely placed in my pockets. I felt like a large pile of empty suitcases. What were we suppose to do? How were we suppose to have a Covid ceremony anyhow? Where is the damn guidebook? I have been walking a trail with no guidebook this past year and a half and I have been fine with the proposition until now. Where is the damn guidebook?
“Grief feels like sinking in quicksand that you know will never breach your nostrils.”
You know you are not going to die of it, but everything in your senses is telling you otherwise. So you struggle and fight. You try to escape but the harder you fight the more the Finger Cuffs squeeze down on you.
I lost my stride on the Plains of Montana or maybe I had never found it in the first place. I tried to focus on the emotions I could connect with. The ones that felt like my true deep down heart center. They were sadness, loss, anger, gratitude, and curiosity. When ever these sensations or emotions would arise, I made space for them. I invited them in like I was having tea with Mara. But who am I kidding? there was no one there to kid. Even by myself I often would feel ashamed and embarrassed when emotions such as guilt, self pity, and loneliness would join the tea party.
I told myself over and over, ” You are not a victim, your Brother was not a victim, all of your friends were not victims.”
Nothing happened TO them, it all JUST happened. And nothing is happening TO You, it is JUST Happening. I believed in the truth of these mantras but they made me increasingly irritable and downtrodden. Especially as they would inevitably roll off the lips of every stranger that wanted to add their two cents. I went back to reading and researching as a means of finding help for my disillusionment. it didn’t last past the first google search. “Hmmm, this should be interesting, it will probably be as helpful as a publisher’s top 10 list things you must know before you go backpacking, I thought as I read the first article.” Yes, I was being curt but I was also becoming increasingly desperate. I read these to myself on the lone Montana Plain.
Spend time with Friends and Family, Binge watch TV and chill, get some exercise, spend time outdoors in nature, and my least favorite…….take a hike. It felt like mud in my eye, but it was me lacking here. I needed to up my google searching game. I know this sounds ridiculous but like I said I was getting really, really, really desperate, so I searched for resources on how to grieve alone. The first search item said, Don’t Grieve Alone. The second said Friends don’t let Friends Grieve Alone and the third read, We Weren’t Meant to Grieve Alone. I accepted this wasn’t helping me and surrendered to some of the previous suggestions. Besides, I was already spending time outside, getting some exercise, and hiking so I continued on with a healthy dose of those.
And thats it. I hope you were not expecting this to be a how to article or one in which I overcome a hardship and triumph beyond all obstacles and the disbelief of every on looker. How I transcended the Monster “Grief” and made way with its head; or a Ted Talk about what I learned from very disturbing situations and how I came out on top, and now for just $19.99 you can read my guidebook on how to “Out Walk Grief.” This is a fictitious title for an even more fictitious notion. One that would have you believe that at the end of the book you come to Stage #5 and you graduate from GU Grief University with a Bachelors in Acceptance. No friends we don’t graduate; we put one foot in front of the other, and then we put one foot in front of the other, and after that we put one foot in front of the other.