In Praise of No Other Options

Photo by Josh Hild. Description: A girl or young woman wearing dark clothing and a wool cap walking away from the camera along a dirt path, through moss, grass and fir trees, toward a lighthouse.

Maybe you saw us on the trail last June, a reddening but resolute woman carrying a day pack and a pale eleven-year-old girl carrying only her heavy hair, skulking along the rocky ground some distance behind. The girl expending the least possible energy. The woman stopping, turning back, suggesting that the girl walk ahead. The girl refusing. The woman’s irritation rising through sentences like, “This is beautiful. Isn’t this beautiful?” Maybe, if you were really listening, you heard the girl’s eyes roll in the silence.

Through two pandemic winters of hard isolation and a rough return to school after more than a year at home, my daughter had grown from a shy, trusting child who loved her teachers, her brother, fantasy books, and sports to a proto-goth, semi-punk, inward person who would not talk.

When questioned, she’d say she was very happy to have a set of new friends, a likeable mixed-gender group who seemed to have spent the pandemic together, considerably freer in their socializing than we’d been with an immunocompromised family member and nearby grandparents. She’d say everything was fine. But in contrast to other kids her age who seemed lighthearted and silly when I observed them at pick-up time, she was quiet, watchful, and serious. She pulled her hair over her left eye like a character in a favorite anime series. This character she loved was smarter than the others, old beyond his years, and jaded because he alone could see how rotten the system was around him. 

At the end of fifth grade, she refused summer camps. Her brother had started a new school that ended in mid-July. I wasn’t teaching, so we’d have a month together, just the two of us. But she no longer wanted to hang out with me, and I didn’t want her in her room on screens all day growing only more morose.

At the same time, I was tired of micromanaging her after too many months—years—of being the source of nearly all structure in her life. At first I was simply organizing our days of pandemic schooling, but lately she’d been so slow and spacey that getting her out the door in the morning—even out of bed sometimes—meant coaching her through every step of daily preparation: Put on pants. No, right-side-out. Okay. Now socks. She was like a sinking buoy I kept trying to push to the surface, hoping that if I could just get her there, she’d start to float.

We needed a summer plan. So one afternoon in the car when I’d forced her to accompany me on errands, we agreed to some increased independence, with conditions. She agreed to self-monitor her eating, sleeping, and hygiene and keep her screen time within the longstanding appointed limits. She would walk the beloved, aging dog at least once a day. I would get her a basic phone with no internet access so that she could text her friends and check in when she was out of the house. And she would go on a hike with me once a week.

“How long a hike?” she wanted to know. “In the neighborhood? Like a walk, right?”

“Not in the neighborhood. My choice. Hours, maybe all day. Non-negotiable.”

This hiking idea was pure impulse on my part. She was asking for independence, the normal, gentle ramping up of which had been blocked by pandemic restrictions. At the same time, I sensed that she needed connection, not to mention exercise. And I hoped it would be fun.

I inventoried the nearby, not-too-strenuous places we could go. For our first hike, I chose a trail in Forest Park, 5,000 acres of part-restored, part-disturbed/ivy-choked mountainside near the house we lived in when she was born. Forest Park: vast but close, wild but still in city limits, familiar but fading. Though I hadn’t been there in years, I remembered the shape of my favorite easy day hike: a small unmarked parking lot, a short climb to a flat stretch along the hillside where I imagined we’d be dazzled by maple leaves flickering in the filtered sunlight, then up a steep, narrow path to a hidden field with a fat green water tower.

Her performance of reluctance began on the drive.

“I think I forgot my water bottle. Maybe we should skip it for today. Get ice cream instead.”

Exiting the car, she yawned and commenced, at a slug’s speed, her flat-footed stride. She slumped and groaned, determined to fall as far behind me as she could, bent on controlling our pace, trying to not be with me. I pointed out a sprig of flowering salal, common and exquisite, with a deep pink stem holding a line of white, bell-shaped blossoms—and she glared. But when I asked if she wanted to turn around and go home, she said no.

We made many stops for water, but when we reached the flatter Wildwood Trail, the car now far away, we had a long view of impossibly tall trunks and the jewel-green canopy, cottonwood fluff drifting down like June snow.

“I feel like we’re in a Miyazaki movie,” she said. “Like we’re in Totoro.”

“That’s what I love about this place. I used to come here all the time before you were born.”

“How come you stopped?”

I explained the period where she was too little to walk far on her own but wouldn’t ride in a backpack, and how after a while I just stopped thinking of it. Before too long, we were always tired on the weekend, me from working and mom-ing and writing, her dad from working and dad-ing and  lupus. We got in the habit of doing other things.

After some silence, she said, “Do you know why I started wearing all black?” And what she’d been holding in began to unfurl, in self-aware, fully formed sentences, not tentative but synthesized and certain. She talked about the ways she’d changed during our months indoors, about wanting to visually signify it for others when she returned to school. She spoke of how adults—especially her teachers—had let her and her friends down with casual insults and arbitrary punishments and feeling disliked by them for the first time in her life. She talked about the fine-grained choices involved in joining a group of friends while remaining yourself.

She grew quiet again, but it was a peaceful quiet. Her complaining took on a hint of irony. She began playing the role of reluctant hiker rather than actually being one.

In the car on the way home, I thought about how I craved conversations with my mom when I was eleven, how I gravitated toward her when she was cooking dinner. I thought about how much time we spent in the car together on long drives across a flat prairie for necessities. All the time spent waiting, when we had no other options but each other.

And how different it was now, with my own children, when we ordered everything we could online, when for so long, we’d avoided leaving the house at all costs. There were no waiting rooms to sit in, very few drives. The pandemic had forced us to do everything—school, work, play, shopping, exercise, processing, problem-solving, planning, grieving, raging—inside the house, together, at once, and we’d each carved out our escapes, our own moments of privacy. We were with each other, but we had screens, phones, jobs, school, and chores. We had a million little exits from the present. We always had other options.

We’d grown spaces in this unprecedented togetherness. But on the trail, after a while, there were no other options. My daughter and I were each other’s captive audience, and we opened.

When the next week dawned, she said, “We should probably do our hike soon.”

“Do you want to go hiking?”

“No. I don’t want to go hiking. But I think we should probably get it over with.” She grinned slyly as she walked away.

Over the summer, our hikes got longer and farther from the city. She insisted on no hills and I did my best to oblige. Sometimes she was cranky. Sometimes I was. But sooner or later, we’d reach a point where we were far from anything but each other, and she’d divulge, and so would I.

Maybe you saw us in late July on the Warrior Rock Lighthouse trail, a 6-mile out-and-back hike to the tip of an island soon to regain its original name, Wapato. Maybe you saw a woman and a girl, heading back to the parking lot after having swum in the Columbia and lazed on a warm blanket for hours, now carrying branches to beat away the swarms of mosquitos they hadn’t planned for. The girl walking along briskly, having learned there’s sometimes no other option but to find ways to enjoy the present, even through bugs and heat. The girl pausing, looking out on the creamy blue river and observing, quietly, “Wow. That’s beautiful.”


Conversation, Family, Outdoor


1 comments have been posted.

A beautifully written essay on a common experience of many of us mothers and grandmothers and our children/grandchildren. Johnson captures the pathos, ambiguity, and normal tension that exists in our relationships, with such a clear, poignant, and insightful understanding of our pandemic and post-pandemic lives. Sharing it with everyone I know.

Catherine Al-Meten Meyers | March 2023 | Astoria/Svensen, Oregon

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