by Kate Washington

A post in our Milestones series from past contributor Kate Washington.


From the meadow, we turn toward the rushing sound of Butte Creek, looking for carefully balanced rocks on the velvety forest floor. This cairn marks a rim trail we call the springs hike, not shown even on topo maps, skirting a shallow, V-shaped canyon. We first followed these cairns when our girls were eight and four and the scant mile and a half that felt long to our daughters’ short legs.

My husband and I have marked years and seasons at our cabin by our girls’ ability to range. Our first visit was the Labor Day weekend before the elder started kindergarten. She was five, her younger sister could not yet walk, and we stuck close to our fence line, with short meadow forays. Now they are eleven and seven. We have gone a little farther every year, finding hidden springs, coaxing them atop boulders, scaling pinnacles at an overlook on the nearby Pacific Crest Trail.

That first time we took the springs hike, it was June, and many cairns had fallen during the winter. We repaired them, carefully balancing stones unearthed from trail dust. It’s all about rock selection; the right rock will perch on another at an angle that looks impossible, and yet it stands, squat yet graceful.

The trail winds east, natural cairns dotting the landscape too: glacier-abandoned boulders cantilever over the trail, their crevices carved by millennia of freezes and thaws. A mile in comes a wide, loose rock fall where it’s easy to lose the trail’s thin thread. Here cairns are both harder and easier to spot: they are surrounded by stone, but their unnatural, snowman orderliness jumps out from the jagged, angular jumble of porous dark-gray lava and blocky pale granite. This spot is a seam between two mountain ranges, volcanic Cascades to the north (Mount Lassen, not far away, last rumbled to life a bare century ago) and massive granite Sierras to the south.

Then we arrived at the vast, magical complex of springs, gathering water as they jet down to the creek they swell. Willows and grasses turn a wedge of hillside shocking green. The clear water is hardly warmer than ice. We stuck hands into tiny mossy, gushing caverns, and we like to follow the water down to the deep creek, but the hill was too steep and willows too thick for small legs. And so after energy bars and goldfish crackers, after luxurious drinks of water straight from the ground, after soaking hot feet and squeezing wet bandannas over hot heads, we turned and trudged back. The tired four-year-old stumbled and rode on her father’s shoulders.

Those shoulders were not available this summer, even if the child were not too tall to ride them. My husband is recovering from lymphoma and a near-deadly bone marrow transplant. At the beginning of summer he could not walk a city block, much less hike a mile and a half or travel to a mountain cabin far from his physicians. Nor could he travel last summer, when he was undergoing chemo. He missed the springs hike, missed marking the girls’ height on the cabin doorjamb, missed so many little rituals. By this Labor Day, he had grown just strong enough to revisit the cabin, but there were no cairn-led hikes; a short, slow, cane-assisted walk along the road was accomplishment, and reason for celebration, enough.

I have been a full-time caregiver and solo parent for more than a year, and I am exhausted all the time. But earlier this summer, for July 4, I arranged home nursing care for my husband, packed up the car, and took our girls to the cabin for our every-summer respite. We set out one morning for the springs hike. This year, suddenly, the distance seemed short. Eleven-year-old legs set a fast pace, and we reached the springs before anyone even stopped to ask for snacks. We pushed all the way to an icy swimming hole we’d heard about farther up canyon, and then up and over a manzanita-covered ridge that loops west to our cabin.

The ridge section of this hike, like all hikes, was a little too long for our younger girl. She stumbled. I told her to climb up a boulder and budged her firmly piggyback. There would be no doubling back on this hike, nor in our lives; however much we might like to, we cannot retrace the milestones we have already passed. And so,
shoulders squared under a new burden, I scanned the trail ahead for the improbably balanced cairns that marked our precarious, contingent way forward to the place our family loves best.

Kate Washington’s creative nonfiction and freelance work has appeared in such publications as Brain, Child; Bellingham Review; Under the Gum Tree; The Washington Post; Sunset Magazine; Yoga Journal; and more.