Thirty miles and forty pounds. Thirty miles planned, the Continental Divide Trail through Rocky Mountain National Park. Forty pounds, the weight of my pack, bear can with food and four-season tent. Three of us, three years running now, backpacking together the same week each year. Monsoon season in the Rockies, rain guaranteed, lightning always a threat, fear knocking on the gate waiting to pounce at any moment.
Karie, our leader and organizer, lover of the outdoors, hiker extraordinaire, always awaiting an adventure. Ready and able for anything.
Becky, kind-hearted, compassionate, easy-going but definite. A reassuring presence, usually thinking of others, offering regular assistance.
Me, typically along for the ride, rising to the occasion, uber-focused on contingency plans if we need to make a quick escape. My biggest desires on the trail: a dry tent before packing, a good #2 in the morning, strong coffee and a moment to enjoy.
The expedition did not disappoint. We were entertained by a mother moose and her baby, multiple elk — men, women and children, fellow backpackers, honeymooners, interesting tracks, stunning vistas, rain, thunderstorms, afternoon naps, blistered toes, bruised hips and collarbones, marmots and other rodent-folk, cold rivers and waterfalls, mountaintop lakes. Most of all, pride, pride in our accomplishment, pride in what we worked out on the trail, pride in what was overcome to get to the trail. Pride in ourselves, a trio of suburban women, roughing it on our own, making it happen, enjoying the beauty, the majesty, the reward. Risking.
The beauty of our band is our care of one another. We are only as good as our weakest member, and three-years-running…this shifts. We lighten the load, we re-distribute, we even out depending on the needs, the burdens. This work is just as important as what happens on the trail.
Upon my re-entry, I returned, somewhat unwillingly, to the land of social media. In my Twitter feed I learned the story of Sandra Bland from Naperville, IL. While in Texas, en route to her alma mater, Prairie View A&M, she was stopped by police for failing to use her turn signal. Forcibly removed from the car, she was slammed to the ground, injured road-side. Taken into custody, she procured the bail money and awaited release. Three days later, she was found dead in her jail cell, apparently hanged by a plastic trash bag, suicide the ruling.
There are many inconsistencies with this particular story, many impossibilities and questions arising from the black community and her family. Regardless of her death, she was stopped for a turn signal infraction and injured because she stood up for herself and fought back. Would this have happened to me? White, fair-skinned, average height and weight? Possible but improbable.
Who are the people in our communities, on our streets, in our schools and churches, across our counties, states and nation that need some of the burden alleviated? We really aren’t much without one another. It is our collective work to be cognizant of the weight others are lugging. Some are obvious: disabilities, skin color, illness, socioeconomic. Some are subtle, requiring us to dig in, get to know, seek to understand, separate from safety: sexuality, mental illness, grief, physical pain, abuse.
Our community is only as good as our empathy. Our community is only as strong as the ability to love through seeking to understand another. Our nation and world can only be at peace when we lay down the weapons of hate and ignorance and entitlement.
We can’t know the weight of someone’s backpack. We can see, they may be suffering a terrible load. And just because someone appears to be able to bear the weight of the pack, doesn’t justify the burden. When Karie offered to take my tent for the last three miles, I felt I could fly. The additional weight I had been bearing was more than I realized. I just assumed she and I had similar weighted packs, that I needed to be the one to make adjustments. But it wasn’t until she bore part of my burden, through seeking to walk in my proverbial shoes, that she could understand.
I can never know what it means to be gay, or transgender, or black, or disabled, or mentally ill. But I can develop skills involving listening, understanding, learning. Until we do this collective work, until we recognize the burden our privilege puts on those who can never obtain it, the disparity will continue. It will thrive. It will multiply. The division will further grow.
We owe our fellow humans hope. We owe one another kindness, authenticity, and a hand.
This woman, Sandra, we owe her memory justice.
The burden carried by our marginalized is more than I can fathom. It’s more than I can fully understand. It’s more than I often want to understand. My privilege enables my children, me, Eric opportunities to seek dreams, fulfill desires, live in comfort. The freedom offered by our privilege, our lighter packs, need to extend to the burdened, the hurting, the oppressed in our neighborhoods.
How do I come alongside someone and say, Hey, I’ve got this, let me have some of your load for awhile? Maybe it isn’t my job, nor is it my story. But I can work to understand how my white privilege, my heterosexuality, my health, my marital status, my socioeconomics might put an additional weight in the backpack of my fellow brothers and sisters. My chosen ignorance, my chosen comfort to have what I want when I want it, my chosen blinders only perpetuate the problems rather than contribute to the solutions.
I don’t have the answers. I don’t even know the burdens. I’m always given a choice…to see, to choose sight or choose blindness. Do I take a risk, embark on the path, commit to the journey with someone else’s pain? Or do I pretend I don’t see?
The answer is Yes. I am equally capable and guilty of both. I do know, however, the joy is sweeter when the accomplishment is shared with another. The long, arduous climb, the body-jarring downhill, the blisters, the numbness…all of it is better with my friends as we trudge together, alternating who goes first, who picks the line. Sometimes, all I can manage is to hang on the heels of someone else, someone I love and trust. Someone who, I know loves me in return and holds my hope for me, when I cannot hold it myself.