The twelve of us gathered outside Lake McDonald Lodge for introductions, a circle of female faces that would surely shift on the trail from strangers to friends. It was a Monday morning in late July, the first day of my women’s hiking trip to Glacier National Park.
“I’m a burned out corporate lawyer from the flat Midwest,” I said when it was my turn. Everybody laughed, but the empty well within was no joke. I’d taken calls from headhunters about upward moves and signing bonuses, but hadn’t had a real vacation in three years. I needed a dose of mountains. I needed to hike the stress out of my body.
Mostly, I needed to remember who I was.
We headed into the restaurant for our first breakfast together. A red-haired accountant from Illinois sat to my left.
“I have four dogs at home,” she said. “Buster, Rascal, Scooter, and Hound.”
She described each of them while I had a bowl of oatmeal and tried not to look at the moose head on the wall. After ten minutes – was it only ten minutes? – I knew their breeds, ages, and medical conditions. I acted interested, but inside, I wondered how I’d endure this a week.
The woman on my right touched my elbow. “My name’s Nancy. What’s yours again?”
I turned. “Laura. From Chicago.”
“You’re the lawyer?” she asked.
“Laura the lawyer. I think I can remember that. I’m a retired English teacher. Can you pass the sugar?”
I handed her a glass bowl and felt a rush of hope. We’d enjoy long conversations about The Catcher in the Rye and The Color Purple. I wouldn’t have to listen to dog talk all week.
I poured myself more coffee.
“Who are your favorite novelists?” I tried to guess who she’d name. Someone British, like Ian McEwan or Julian Barnes? Maybe she preferred contemporary authors. Tayari Jones, or —
“I hate fiction,” she said. Nancy looked at me and frowned. “I never read the stuff.”
I set down my coffee cup so abruptly it spilled. “Really?” I dabbed the tablecloth with my napkin. “But you taught English.”
“I had to teach my students fiction, but I never liked reading it,” Nancy replied. She looked at her watch. “We’re still here? It’s almost nine. Why aren’t we on the bus yet?”
Nancy stood and said she was going to find Sarah, our guide, and find out why we were already running late.
There’s one in every group I’ve joined, every place I’ve worked. The person who is always disappointed by the world, or by other people, or by simply by fate.
But an English teacher who didn’t like novels? I tried to imagine a violinist who didn’t love classical music, or a baseball pitcher who didn’t like throwing the ball. I remembered Miss Johnson and Mr. Van Hee, and the worlds they’d opened up through stories they assigned in high school. When home got too crazy, those worlds became my world. English teachers and fiction kept me alive.
Breakfast over, we gathered in the morning sun before the two vans that would carry us to the trailhead for our first hike. My mission was to soak in nature and avoid negativity. I waited until Nancy boarded one vehicle, then climbed into the other.
That day, we hiked seven miles along the Highline Trail, overlooking Going to the Sun Highway. The trail had opened up only two days earlier because of late spring snow. I picked my way across an ice field using walking poles, staying well behind Nancy. Her voice carried, though, and I could hear her as we hiked.
“You can see the highway from the trail,” I heard her say to Sarah. “This was supposed to be a wilderness route.”
After lunch at Logan’s Pass, I hiked back with Ellen, a friend of Nancy’s who’d signed up for the trip at the last minute. Ellen taught botany at a community college, and she identified wildflowers as we walked: bear grass, wild lilies, Indian paintbrush.
“I don’t like group hiking,” Ellen told me as we reached the trailhead. “I don’t think I’ll take another trip like this.”
“It’s only the first day,” I said. “You ought to give it a chance before you decide.”
She looked at me and shook her head.
The group moved to a different lodge that night, and my new room opened onto a view of Grinnell Point. Jen was a fifty-year-old nurse from California who ran half marathons in her spare time. We lay awake in our twin beds after we turned off the lights. Jen told me about her divorce and attempts at a second chance at love. The moon shone through the open window. I slept through the night for the first time in weeks.
Glacier National Park is a vast wilderness, with over a million acres of ancient rocky peaks and turquoise blue lakes. As the days passed, I felt myself opening to the big sky overhead. Stress in my neck and shoulders dissolved, and my corporate existence seemed further and further away. I was getting to know the other hikers. I was getting to know myself again. The fresh mountain air was working its magic.
But for Nancy, something was always wrong. One morning at breakfast, she ordered a frosted roll. “There’s not enough cinnamon,” she said, setting her knife down. “It’s not warm on the inside, the way the menu said.”
Her parents had owned an Italian restaurant in Chicago.
“I know my wines, she said. “There’s nothing drinkable on this list.”
There was something wrong with each hike, too. “I don’t want to cross that stream.” She stood with her hands on her hips. “I’m tired.”
Avoiding Nancy’s complaining became a game. At dinner, I’d rush to seat myself at the opposite end of the table as soon as she found a place. I slowed my hiking pace to avoid walking with her. Eventually, it became obvious the other women were doing the same thing. Even Sarah, our guide, grumbled about her. Nancy sat by herself at meals, or at a table alone with Ellen. By the middle of the trip, evading Nancy had become a focus for the entire group.
The day we hiked to Iceberg Lake, Ellen confided in me on the trail. Nancy didn’t understand the reaction other people had to her.
“She feels people don’t understand her, that they’re not receptive,” Ellen said.
We stopped under a white pine for a drink of water. I wiped the sweat off my neck with my blue bandana, unsure how to respond. I was surprised, and a little ashamed, that Nancy was so aware of our reactions. Here we were in a virtual paradise, a bunch of middle-aged, middle-class women, wearing our over-priced REI hiking gear and searching for transcendence, or our lost youth, or at least a good camera angle. But we were acting like a bunch of middle schoolers.
“I don’t understand it either,” Ellen said then. “Maybe because we’ve been friends for so long. I wish other people could see Nancy the way I do.”
The day we hiked to Grinnell Glacier, I purposely lagged behind. The group stopped for lunch at a clearing with a view of Grinnell Lake two thousand feet below. On a boulder a way off, I ate my hummus and cucumber sandwich alone. Grinnell Lake’s water gleamed deep alpine blue, the product of melting glaciers. Above it, exposed rock over a billion years old jutted toward the sky.
I took my boots and socks off and dangled my feet in a nearby stream. I was high on a mountain, looking down at the prettiest place on earth I’d ever seen. A billion years was so long, and a human life so small.
If I were back in my office, I’d be making calls to other unhappy lawyers, answering their e-mails and writing demand letters and —
“Hey, Laura.” Jen slid next to me. “You’ve found the best seat in the house, but your head is someplace else. What’s wrong?”
The next day, we switched gears from hiking to whitewater rafting, setting up camp along the Flathead River. We joked quietly, taking bets on what Nancy would complain about the most — the tents, sleeping on the ground, or the “groover,” our portable john in the woods.
Nancy went into her tent right after dinner. We sat around the campfire clasping mugs of hot chocolate, waiting for the sun to set and the stars to come out. While the rest of the group told stories about their lives back home, I thought about Nancy.
It was uncomfortable spending a week with someone who could not accept the imperfection of things. Yet in a way, Nancy held up a mirror to ourselves. All of us, even our guide Sarah, complained about Nancy behind her back, the same way that Nancy complained about everything else. That first breakfast, I had judged Nancy for not liking aspects of her teaching job.
I didn’t like my job, either. I needed to let go of it. I needed a new direction. The big spaces of Montana had given me a glimpse of how I wanted to feel.
One by one, the women in the group crawled into their tents. I fixed another cup of hot chocolate and threw another log on the campfire. The flames crackled and jumped higher out of the pit.
Jenny and I settled into camp chairs and watched the fire. I wondered what was underneath Nancy’s unhappiness. And I suppose I wanted to fix her as much as I wanted to fix myself. I wanted Nancy to see the universe as a place with more beauty than pain. To feel part of something alive and vast.
Jenny listened as I sketched out an idea.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“Let’s do it.”
It was one in the morning, the only sounds the river rushing against the rocks and the tree branches swaying. The moon had set, and the sky was covered with more stars than I had ever seen. Stars aren’t static. They move; they glimmer; they sometimes fly across the darkness. We crept to the tent Nancy and Ellen shared, and slowly unzipped it.
“Now!” Jenny said.
We poked Nancy’s feet.
“Wake up,” I whispered. “Nancy, you’ve got to come out here. There’s something you need to see.”
She rolled over and covered her ears with her hands. “Go away,” she mumbled.
“Sarah says you have to get up.”
Jen reached into the tent and tugged her sleeping bag.
“All right. Get your hands off me,” Nancy said. “I’m coming.”
We scrambled out of the tent and walked Nancy toward the fire. The three of us lay down on blankets Jen and I had spread on the ground.
“Look up at the sky,” I said.