There are a million ways to try to hold on to things. We close our eyes, we narrate, we imagine, we recreate, we pinch our fingers, we clench our fists, we stare and stare and stare. We clutch and we grab and we cling, trying to keep what has already passed. We seem to be programmed to resist the shift, resist the transformation of things ending. To ease the ache we often try to create physical artifacts of what has slipped away, of what we have left behind us.
Photographs turn memory to public property, turn moments into something stiff and unnaturally glossy. When there is a photographic representation of a moment, it suddenly becomes the signifier, the primary representation of that moment. Perhaps as time goes on we begin to remember the photograph instead of the moment itself. Those moments you can hold in your flattened palm. What you have to hold differently are the moments that live only inside your head, the ones the camera didn’t catch, the ones that you maybe can’t see, but you can feel. Those require cradling, require cupped fingers.
In New Zealand we took pictures at the top of peaks, we took pictures when the sun was out, we took pictures when we turned a corner and were stalled by the expanse of scenery before us. Those moments too are memories. Those moments were beautiful and important. But the moments that I’ll cradle, the moments that I’ll cup my sunburned fingers around are different ones, are ones that I can feel more strongly than I can see. All of us standing in the driving rain at the top of a leafy ridge, thoroughly soaked through our neoprene, looking out at the ocean, waiting for a window to make the final paddles of a journey. The way the light came through the yellow tent ceiling as we sang Ingrid Michaelson’s “You & I” after I ran through the thick silent snow to get there, realizing I had remembered the words. The inexplicable, warm calm that came over me as I sat up in the middle of the tent through the night, bracing it against roaring winds funneling themselves in over craggy mountaintops. The hugeness of the silence the morning we climbed up a ridge guided by headlamps to watch the sun emerge. The freezing, electric jolt to our entire energy when we flung ourselves into an alpine lake still cased with ice. The tumbling inertia of laughter it took only a look to set off. The feeling of fleeting togetherness as we sat on top of box containers watching the sun go down for the last time, the strains of the guitar Colt held in his hands filling the atmosphere. These were the things that lived only inside us, that we would have to hold closer to keep, or perhaps hold in a different way.
The last day out in the field we moved slowly. We took longer to pick up our feet, we chose routes that led us out of the way, we stood longer contemplating where to cross a river. We took breaks even though we weren’t tired, we baked a pie on the side of a hill in our sleeping bags, we spent hours huddled against our backpacks, hiding from the wind, watching the rising sun burn the bottoms of the clouds red. We did all these things and yet we still came to the finish, we still popped up over the last hill and saw the way out, the way to the end. No matter what measures we took to prolong it, the end continued to loom, waiting for us to arrive. We stopped on a wide, flat hilltop and shrugged off our packs, quiet. Justine suggested we do cardinal acknowledgements, a sort of Maori yoga practice we had learned that brings you closer to the earth—acknowledging north, south, east, and west, sky, self, and earth, that allows you to push out all the curling black smoke within you and gather in all the incandescent white light of your surroundings. The five of us stood in a line, spread out across the hilltop, and repeated the motions facing north, south, east and west. We opened our arms up to the sky, brought them down close to our chests, bent low and grazed the grass with our fingertips. We pushed out the fear and the sadness and the negativity, we pulled in the power of the mountains, the freshness of the air, the warmth of the sun, the calm of the sky. We faced each direction and said thank you, and at the end we turned in toward each other and said Namaste, the light in me acknowledges the light in you, and then it was time. We all stared down at the patch of beech trees winding through the valley toward the road beyond it, knowing that there was a sort of bittersweet inexorability bringing us toward it. Each step we took contained the thousands of other steps we had taken over the previous months—sidesteps across swift, murky rivers, lunging leaps from one boulder to the next, plunging steps deep into mushy snow, careful steps along narrow footpaths, triumphant steps up the last few meters of elevation gain. These steps were the same as thousands of others, and yet they were different because they were the last ones. Because when we set our packs down it would be for the last time, when we pulled our boots and gaiters off and laid our socks out to dry, it would be for the last time, when we did everything we had been doing for months, it would be the last time. The magic, the spell of perpetual skin-tingling awe that had wrapped itself around the entire expedition would be broken. But no matter how languid we allowed our cadence to become, no matter how many times we paused, the only direction in which we could move was forward.
John Muir wrote, “These beautiful days must enrich all my life. They do not exist as mere pictures—maps hung upon the walls of memory—but they saturate themselves into every part of my body and live always.”
The way we hold on to things is not through two dimensional snapshots or even written words. It is not through retelling, through mentally recreating, through nostalgic daydreaming. Even when we must walk away we can hold on by reaching out our arms and gathering it all into our chests, by carrying the muscle memory of all of our footfalls with us as we take our next steps. By letting the sun seep into our skin, by letting the mountains press themselves up against us, by letting the air fill our chests, by keeping the electricity buzzing through our veins. The way to truly hold on to things is not to attempt to preserve memories that immediately begin to fade and curl at the edges, but to allow the experience to inform every step we take afterward, to evoke the spirit, the energy, the essence of it all in everything we do. The actual expedition may have been over, but it would be palpable in everything we did next.
One of the principles we were taught in our Leave No Trace training was “Leave What You Find.” But we hadn’t. We couldn’t. Every incline we had panted up, every shoreline we had washed our dishes at, every scree field we had sidehilled, every sunrise we’d snuck out of the tent early to watch, every spot we had wandered off to to just sit and look, every patch of matagouri we’d hurled ourselves through, every gust of wind we’d stayed up bracing the tent against was now an indelible part of us, glowing through our ribcages and out the tips of our fingers. We couldn’t have left what we’d found if we’d wanted to. And while we stretched out our arms on the hillside at the end and tried to hold on to everything that had happened, it became clear that it would also be holding on to us.