Room To Grieve: A memorial hike

By David Watts Barton, The Sacramento Bee, September 5th, 2005

When she set out to hike 200 miles of the John Muir Trail, Anne Arthur, 57, wasn’t aiming to make a statement. She just wanted to go on a hike, the kind she and her husband had planned to do.

“We’d been trying to get back to backpacking,” she says of her hiking plans with her husband of 22 years, Jeff. “It was an activity in which we both felt alive; it was something that we shared.”

But that was before Jeff, 58, died unexpectedly last November. And before Anne was forced to think about her life and her dreams in a new light.

“When you lose somebody, you start acting on your dreams,” she says at her home in midtown Sacramento. “It refocuses everything in your life, and you decide, ‘If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it now.’ Because you don’t know how you’re going to feel next year. At 57, you can’t assume you’re going to become more able to do something like this.”

Arthur is the very picture of vigorous health: Trim and energetic, she has a ready smile and a kind but no-nonsense demeanor. She’s comfortable in Teva sandals, and it’s no stretch to picture her hiking down the spine of the Sierra.

So when Arthur decided it was time to hit the trail, which stretches 222 miles from Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley south to Whitney Portal at Mount Whitney, she planned well. She enlisted the help and companionship of her son Tom, 23, who was home from college in Boulder, Colo. And, she says, once they’d decided on doing the Muir, a friend in her 50s decided she wanted to go, too. And another. And another. And that friend’s son.

“It worked out because of the support of friends,” she says. “It was not a solo journey by any means. My friend Margie DeRiggi was key to the trip; she organized the permits and the food. Without her support, it would have been so much more difficult.”

In all, nine people backpacked at least part of the trail, though altitude sickness and time limitations meant only Arthur and her son, Tom, hiked the entire distance. A few others joined for a few miles or an overnight visit.

Missing from the journey was Arthur’s younger son, Jim, 19, who is an art student in Oakland and is, as Arthur says, “not particularly interested in backpacking at this point in his life. I think his exact words were, ‘Do I have to?’

Judy Brush, 56, has been friends with Arthur for about 10 years, and Brush’s son Cory and Tom Arthur have been friends since high school.

Brush says she and Cory joined the hike because she was “wanting to be supportive of (Anne’s) efforts.” But she admits to a little self-interest.

“Anne’s a wonderful person to be with, she enjoys experiences to the fullest,” says Brush. “So I knew it would be a wonderful time.”

Though the trail starts at Happy Isles, Arthur and her group began at Tuolumne Meadows on July 14. Present were the Arthurs (mother and son), along with DeRiggi and her sister Joan and another friend, all women in their 50s. They headed south in the direction of the ultimate destination: the trail’s end at Whitney Portal.

They found “hard conditions, with a lot of snow,” says Arthur. “We were fording streams up to our midthigh; the water was very, very cold. Over the course of the trip, we went over nine passes, including Forester Pass, which is at 13,200 feet. We went up 3,000 feet and down 6,000 feet in one day.”

Arthur loved it.

“When you’re doing a backpacking trip, you get very focused,” she says. “It’s very physical; any emotions you might have are matched by the challenge. It’s simple, you’re living simply, only taking exactly what you need. You find you don’t need very much. It’s so uncluttered compared to the lives we normally live.”

And that was also true mentally, she adds.

“We were surrounded by more than you could absorb, the powerful, intricate, unimaginably delicate, inspiring surroundings,” she says. “They were pure, unadulterated things, uncomplicated by layers of frivolousness, by the different directions our minds are apt to go. For that reason, I think it makes room for other things.”

Things such as thoughts of the dear departed.

“I thought about him all the time,” she says of her late husband. “All the time. We hiked through places that he’d been, like Evolution Valley. They were places I wanted to connect with. And, I know this sounds corny, but I felt he was hiking with us, that he was present in a certain sense.”

The hikers had each brought some small remembrance of Jeff Arthur along with them. Brush’s son Cory chose to use Jeff’s backpack, Tom used various items of his dad’s, and each of them wore one of his bandanas. Says Brush, “It was nice to know that we were sharing a place that he’d been. We talked about the fact that he’d been there, how much he must have enjoyed it.”

At times, they didn’t talk. And it was in those silences, punctuated by conversation, that much healing occurred.

“When we were a group starting out, there was a fair bit of conversation,” says Anne. “Then, when it was my son and me, it was a great time to talk. It was then that I realized that there was enough room to grieve.

“There was a lot of space, especially with my son, to say anything. There were personal family dynamics that we had time to talk about, and I think it worked because you can talk about big subjects and process while you walk. Then you take some time with your thoughts, and then come back together and renew the talk again.”

“It was very meditative,” says Tom, by phone from Colorado, where he is studying political science, like his father before him. (Jeff Arthur was chief consultant for the Assembly Natural Resources Committee.)

Indeed, it was in that often silent companionship – silences that Jeff might have filled – that the Arthurs found a key to their emotional journey.

“He always did the running narrative,” recalls Tom of past family hikes. “He knew quite a bit about California history, so a lot of things I’d learned from him, I’d tell other people. I found myself stepping into that role.”

Judy Brush watched this develop during her three days hiking with the Arthurs and her son, Cory. She eventually had to leave the trip because of altitude sickness, but she loved her time with them.

“The boys were so supportive of us, and very knowledgeable,” she says. “So we saw them in a different light, which we don’t see every day, since we’re here doing their laundry. There were times when they were definitely helping us. For a mother, that’s a different situation.”

And she came to see her friend’s son in a way she hadn’t seen him before.

“I didn’t see so much of Jeff in Tom when he was younger,” she says. “But when we had to hike out, and Anne and I had gotten things reasonably well- organized, Tom came back and tore it apart and lined it up, and I’d never known him to be that detail-oriented. He was like an engineer, he did it so well.

“And I thought it was just like Jeff, Jeff was very organized, he would have done that.”

“It was fun to see. It was a delight.”

Arthur, too, saw this in her older son. And she acknowledges that, in Jeff’s absence, both she and her son had grown.

“I missed Jeff a lot,” she says. “I felt things in the pit of my stomach, I can’t imagine going any deeper. He knew a tremendous amount about what we were seeing and where we were. If I’d been with him, he would have pointed out every peak, he would have added a huge amount.

“On the other hand, when someone does all those things for you, you don’t do them for yourself,” she says. “And when you do them for yourself, there’s a different sort of resourcefulness that comes when you’re filling the gaps that someone else used to handle.”

These thoughts and others, says Arthur, meant that the trip, by the time it was finished, had “sort of rolled all these things into something ongoing and forward-looking.”

Arthur says she’d like to go backpacking again. She’s certainly willing and she hopes she’ll be able to, and it doesn’t hurt to plan ahead.

The point is to do it. Now.

“I’d love to try hiking in some other parts of the world,” she says. “We met great people on the trail and heard great stories about hiking in South America, in Europe, in the Pyrenees. … There are a lot of possibilities.”

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