Excerpt from Hot Flashes: The Kindness of Strangers at Altitude
Her lungs were about to burst.
She never had trouble with the altitude in the mountains as a kid. Ellyn wasn’t a kid anymore, though, and the 9,450 foot elevation had become a pulmonary function challenge. Walking this easy, mostly flat trail around Bear Lake shouldn’t be such a strain, she thought, between huffing and puffing like the big bad wolf.
The trail never used to be so crowded, either. Busloads of foreign tourists -- from the sound of their loud conversations in languages she didn’t know -- were also out on the trail this morning, disturbing the peacefulness of the alpine lake. Ellyn resented their intrusion into what used to be her sanctuary.
“Are you okay, lady?” asked a tall boy in a rainbow striped sweater and a gold ring on the fourth finger of his left hand, who looked around 14 and was probably 35. People kept getting younger and younger lately, Ellyn noticed, standing still for a moment, her heart pounding in her lungs’ fight to get enough oxygen.
Apparently now walking around the lake was something of a forced march. The clumps of families, couples, and other visitors pushed onward like getting back to the trailhead was the whole purpose of being there. Pausing on the trail to catch her breath, Ellyn was an obstacle to their progress.
“Yes,” breath, “fine,” breath, “Thank you,” breath. “I’m just old.” She smiled to reinforce her assurance. Although her struggle for air made her confidence less than convincing, the young man moved on.
Up the trail probably 20 feet she saw a woman about her age sitting on a boulder, clutching a child sized daypack. Good idea, sitting, her thoughts even pausing for a breath, and headed towards it.
“May I,” breath, “join you?”
“Please.” The woman’s eyes were watery as if she was trying not to cry.
Ellyn rarely felt compelled to chat up strangers, for she herself preferred to be left alone with her own thoughts. But something about this woman’s sadness felt in need of conversation.
“That’s a cute little daypack,” Ellyn remarked, her heart not pounding as much.
“It’s my husband,” the woman said with a slight accent, a tear escaping down her cheek.
Penguins on a pink background seemed an odd choice for grown man, Ellyn thought. “I see,” she said. “He must have a wonderful sense of humor.”
“Yes, he did. He bought this for his art supplies, for our sketch hikes.”
“Is he somewhere sketching right now?”
“In a sense, I hope so,” the woman cried softly. “He’s here,” she patted the daypack. “I’m going to scatter his ashes at one of his favorite places just up from the trail.”
“I didn’t know that was allowed in a national park.” Ellyn liked the idea.
“Oh yes, I checked. You can do it if it’s 200 feet from a trailhead or from water. Herb’s spot is a little more than 200 feet.” Ellyn nodded at this information, and then silence fell between the women for a few moments while a big noisy family and their dog walked by them.
Ellyn sensed the widow’s hesitance in parting with her husband’s ashes. “That must be a very hard thing to do alone.”
“It is. I’ve been sitting here for an hour trying to take the final steps.”
“I’m sorry I intruded. I’ll leave you now,” Ellyn offered.
“No, please, would you mind coming with me? I think it would help me let go.”
The women took advantage of a lull in the parade of hikers to walk up the trail. Reaching the remnants of a tree that had burned from a lightning strike years ago, they took a nearly hidden path off the main trail. The path climbed up the mountainside, winding between the aspen and pines, coming to an end at a fallen log. They took it slow, each still struggling with the altitude.
As the widow took the box with her husband’s ashes out of the penguin daypack, Ellyn tried to gasp for air as quietly as possible. She watched as the widow poured the ashes along the backside of the fallen log, then fell to her knees and wept.
Not knowing what to do – whether to leave the woman to weep or to try to comfort her – Ellyn suddenly remembered a few lines from a famous poem, and spoke them softly, “Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there, I do not sleep.”
The widow knew the poem, and said the rest of it like a prayer. Then, looking up at Ellyn, said, “Thank you for that. I had forgotten that Herb wanted that poem read. You helped me complete this ritual just the way he wanted it.”
“I’m so glad,“ Ellyn said. “Would you like to be alone with him now?”
The widow nodded, and reached out her hand to Ellyn who took it and gave a little good bye good luck squeeze before going back to the lake trail to complete her perambulation.