While backpacking in the Trinity Alps Wilderness, my hiking partner and I came to a broad river crossing with thigh-deep water. With hardly a second thought, always confident in water, I took off my boots, resecured the belt of my pack, and started across.
A second thought might have been prudent. I hadn’t thought about finding a strong stick for balance, for instance, and bare feet proved more difficult, the rocks more slippery, and the current more forceful than I had anticipated. One step at a time, I prodded for a footing solid enough to hold my weight while I lifted the other foot to let it search, like a dog following a scent, for its own secure hold. My feet slipped over smooth, round rocks like over watermelons. To wedge a foot into the crack between stable rocks felt secure but painful, the foot twisting into the shape of the crack while resisting the force of the current. If a rock shifted when I tried it, I had to wait, balanced on the wedged foot behind me, while the foot in front of me snuck around that rock, tried another, pulled itself out of a too painful wedge, and tried again. In the middle of the river I very nearly went over, teetering dangerously, bent at the waist, my pack threatening my balance. At last I pulled out of the river to sit on a dry rock at its edge, grateful for a safe, though difficult, crossing.
Just then four hikers came down the trail towards me, on my side of the river – a young man, a young woman, an old man, and an old woman. Hardly hesitating in his stride, the young man walked into the river, holding the hand of the young woman and calling over his shoulder to the old people, “I’ll take Mary across. Then I’ll be back for you.” With his boots on and a strong staff steadying him at every step, he splashed quickly across the river with the young woman, who was also wearing hiking boots and carrying a staff.
The old woman waiting with me at the river’s edge was bowed and shaped by age. She was 82 years old. She and her husband, her son, and her daughter-in-law were just returning from a six-mile hike, their annual pilgrimage to Rattlesnake Camp, where her husband’s brother’s ashes were scattered. Her grey eyes were bright as stars. They were fascinating eyes. They made me want to hug her. Instead, I asked about her staff, beautifully carved into a serpent’s head with an open, wildly toothed mouth and glittering rhinestone eyes. The woman’s own eyes shone like rhinestones as she told me she had had the staff a long time. Her weathered hand fondly stroked the snake’s head. I wanted to know more — where she had gotten it, whether the snake was her totem, what nature meant to her, what kind of life she had led. I wanted to know why her eyes were so bright. I wanted to ask her if she were my wilderness godmother.
But the son was too fast returning. He took her arm and stepped into the river, guided her across, and came back for his father. When all four were on the other side of the river, they took off up the trail at once, hardly taking a moment to note the difference between walking through water and walking on earth, their boots squishing with river water, their staffs arrhythmically stamping the ground. I was left with the bright-eyed apparition of my wilderness godmother and the wilderness wisdom she had left with me through her son: when you ford a river, carry a strong staff and wear your boots.