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A Memory from Mom

As Mother’s Day draws close this year, I made plans of my own for a unique celebration of my mom. Too many times we fail to remember the hard work moms put forth to plan special events for their children. I have a vague memory of one trip to the mountains that Mom planned with my adopted aunt and uncle, really her two best friends. We had no family in Arizona other than my immediate family, so Elsie and Al became my aunt and uncle and also my godparents.

On this particular trip, we were going to the White Mountains in Arizona. We rented a cabin and Mom planned to include some hiking and fishing. I loved fishing the mountain lakes and caught my first fish when I was only five years old. Now I was ten, or close to it, and the anticipation was overwhelming. I liked everything about the mountains: the cool weather, the wind rushing through the pines, the smell of damp rotting leaves, and the wildlife I always managed to locate, despite my mother’s watchful eye. I was drawn to water and loved watching the fish jump on the lake as the morning sun warmed the water.

Mom’s weekend excursion was everything I imagined it would be. We were out all day exploring the woods, returning to the small cabin at nightfall to prepare a family meal, light a fire, and talk about the day’s events. My parents would never know what this weekend would mean to me.

The very next year I begged them to buy a mountain cabin. Two years passed and my dream became a reality. I continued to relish my moments in the woods, wandering old logging trails, discovering the bleached bones of creatures long since gone, learning the names of all the birds in the trees and clinging to memories of working alongside my father on the cabin he built. My fondest memory of him is nailing on a new roof as we watched the sun pass behind the mountain. He was pretty old fashioned and to think he would let his daughter help him build our home was a huge win for me.

Some time later when I was away at college, the cabin was sold. I was heartbroken. I would never speak to them about the trip we took with my godparents and the mysterious vision I continued to have about a lake that no one seemed to know about. I retained a shrouded memory of standing on the shore with my family next to me as we gazed out over the water. I was certain it was the most beautiful lake I had ever seen. It was rumored to be home to a rainbow trout over forty inches long. I couldn’t even imagine a fish that big but I never wanted anyone to catch him or her.

Dad died in 2000 and mom passed twelve years later. Half a century whisked by and still, I thought about the lake. It was my happy place when I was anxious, allowing my mind to escape reality. I started wondering if it was even real. Had this happened or was it my imagination? While the years rolled by it became evident that I needed to find this lake, so the quest began.

For two years, I searched, unable to locate it on a map. Here, I will refrain from using the name of the lake as I remembered it. As my state has grown in population, finding wilderness is nearly impossible. But the Native Americans get it. They know what was taken away and that once it passes, it’s gone forever. The lake was somewhere in their mountains. Then one spring, I found directions to a lake with the very name I remembered.

If I were to return to the lake, my timing had to be right. Snow, ice, and mud often lingered in the higher elevations. I printed maps, contacted the forest service, and researched the reservation permits I would need. Our new vehicle finally arrived, an SUV that would replace our other car. Now I was certain to make it through the backroads. I reserved a room in a nearby town for a three day stay. I wanted to share my adventure with my husband so I told him to block out the dates on the calendar. My defining moment was near.

Hours from departure, Joe announced he was sick. His sure sign was a sore throat and his was raging. Not quite sure what came over me, I abandoned my role as caregiver and decided to go alone. He knew better than to try and discourage me to go wandering in the wilderness by myself. I was prone to these types of jaunts. I had come too far to relinquish my quest.

Looking back, I wonder if it wasn’t supposed to happen that way, that this pilgrimage and the obstacles thrown in front of me were supposed to ensure a solitary experience. I would have loved sharing it with another, but maybe I was meant to share it with my mom, the one who had planned it decades before. This personal experience would reassure me it was a real moment with my family before the responsibilities of a husband and children of my own. I would make my way alone.

If it was possible, I wanted to fish this elusive lake. Times had changed, but I learned about a sportsman’s store near the Indian casino. I entered and it was several minutes before a man appeared behind the counter. I told him about my quest and a need for a permit to enter Indian land.

“Oh, I dunno if you can get to that area.” He circled a spot on the map with his finger. Are you a member?”

“You mean a tribal member?” I wanted to laugh. Many times, I had been asked if I was an Apache. My round face, my olive colored, Sicilian skin tanned dark brown in the summer convincing strangers that I was an Indian. “No,” I shook my head.

“But I was there once.” I was emphatic. “It’s been fifty years or more. I have to see if it’s real.”

He looked at me as if to question my sanity. I wasn’t so sure myself. Doubting himself, he made a phone call. Few words were exchanged. He hung up the receiver deep in thought. “Yeah, you can go there. You just need your permit. But the roads will be rough, might be some trees down. And it’s been raining all day.” On top of everything else a freakish, late spring storm had made temperatures drop fifteen degrees below normal. I wasn’t backing down.

I reassured him. “I have a good vehicle. I think the lake was accessible from somewhere near the fish hatchery.” He pulled out his book of permits and reluctantly sold me a one-day permit and a map of the Rez. At least I’ll have a memento of this adventure, I thought to myself. In tiny, tiny print on the map I saw the name of the lake.

By ten the next morning two inches of snow had collected on my SUV. I had two coats, a backpack, plenty of water, food, bear spray, a taser and a sharp knife. It was an odd collection of tools and I laughed at my suggestion that I could shock a wild animal into submission. Later I would discover I didn’t have anything to start a fire with the daytime temperature dropping to 37 degrees. At my age I should have known better.

My first attempt failed. Despite my GPS, I ended up at a hatchery that had been closed for some time. I saw no other humans, but I did stop for a horse crossing the road and a stray reservation dog. I was enchanted with the red cliffs that surrounded me and the rolling river nearby. I had entered another world. It was the wilderness I remembered.

I stayed long enough to stretch my legs and use an outhouse on the abandoned property. I returned to the main road, studying the map. There was no husband to question about my theory for my next attempt. I headed for another abandoned site, this time, a logging town that had closed shop in the eighties. Now all that remained were a few homes, a couple of churches and a neglected public park.

The red cliff overlooking the lake.

Sleet splattered my windshield. The GPS told me to turn off the main highway onto a mud road the width of one car. Obediently I started off into the woods, but as the SUV started slipping in the mud, I reconsidered and turned around. I felt defeated.

A shy reservation horse crossed my path.

I returned to the Indian casino to sit in the parking lot and consider my options. I plugged the name of the lake into my GPS. This time I got different directions. Apparently, there was a second hatchery nearby. My hope stirred. Third time’s a charm, I mumbled to myself. I noted the road was paved most of the way. That would make sense. My mother wasn’t much of an outdoorsman- or woman. It was about four miles off the highway. I started out again.

The paved road was heavily damaged in some spots. It was used for logging and hadn’t been repaired since winter. I could see where fallen trees had been removed. I maneuvered around broken pavement.

Then I saw signs for the hatchery. As luck would have it, it was open on Saturday. And there, beyond the visitor parking was a human being holding a net and working the hatchery fish tank.

I walked toward him. “A human being!” I exclaimed. He looked up with a smile. I explained my situation, and my quest. He recognized the name of the lake and pointed south. “But I’m not sure how to get there. Ben might know. I’ll see if he’s around.”

Ben knew about the lake but hadn’t seen it. “There really isn’t a trail,” and for the second time on this trip a man discouraged me from my objective. “I think it’s a mile in. Keep bearing right,” he advised. “We close the gates at 3:30. If you’re not back by three, I’ll assume you’re lost.” I looked at the darkening sky and then my watch. I had two hours.

Alone, I made my way into the trees. Blessed with an excellent sense of direction, I still chose to mark my trail. This was not a hike my mother and aunt would have made. Was I wrong? Or was it two men, my father and uncle that went with me the first time?

An ancient ponderosa pine guided my path into the woods.

Adrenaline was all that kept me going. The uphill climb and elevation left me short of breath. I was amazed that my GPS was working. It appeared I was right on top of the lake. Technology be damned, I was going to listen to what it was telling me.

At the top of the hill, I saw a clearing past the pines to bare deciduous trees and a sheer cliff. I felt a fresh surge of energy. Then, I saw the blue water. I was back.

In fifty years, the lake had dropped eight feet. Reeds rose from the center and one little duck near the opposite shore eyed me suspiciously. The lake had looked bigger when I was a kid. Tears streamed down my face. “I made it guys,” I said aloud. “I know you’re here with me. I guess I’m not crazy after all.”

As the sun emerged, the lake turned turquoise blue.

I didn’t stay long. It started snowing and I watched the flakes imprint circles on the water. As the sun emerged, I watched the lake change color to a turquoise blue, my favorite color. This was the lake that started my love of the mountains and the wilderness. This little pond rumored to have an enormous trout that would live forever in my mind. Such a simple thing. Had my mother ever known how she influenced my life? Could I do the same for my children and grandchildren? I took pictures knowing I might not see it again.

Still, I wanted to return with my family. It would be our little secret, our wilderness preserved in my mind over fifty years. It was a wilderness the Indians shared with me, and potentially could be another generation’s healing place.

The Arizona wilderness, may it live forever.

“Happy Mother’s Day,” I whispered out loud, and made my way down the mountain with a smile. Cold tears streamed down my face, but my heart was warm and healed.

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