Bonding with My Brother at 1,700 Feet
I was suspended on a mountain ridge, 1,700 feet in the air. My breath surged inside of me. I was lightheaded and dizzy and I kept imagining my foot landing just a little too far to the left. One slight misstep, one careless move, and I would plunge to my death.
I tried to focus on my brother, Marc, a few strides ahead of me. He was slouched to one side under the weight of all the foolish provisions we had packed. Only once we were on the trail did we realize that a bag full of cans of rice and beans was not a wise choice for a back-country backpacking trip. This turned out to be just one of many poor decisions we’d made. The bag had become too heavy for me a few miles back, so once we reached Boulder Trail, Marc swapped and handed me the lighter bag.
Two months earlier, standing on a train platform on a sunny Chicago afternoon in June, Marc and I decided it would be a great “brother-sister experience” to hike Glacier National Park in Montana. He turned to me and said, “you know this is pretty serious, right? You know we could, like, get eaten by bears or something?”
We laughed about it then, as we stood amid the steel and concrete of the city. But as the trip grew closer, there was a pinching anxiety inside of me. We really had no idea what we were doing.
My family had never been the type to go camping. Our parents opted for nice hotels. The extent of my own camping experience was one overnight trip in Vermont, and Marc’s experience was no greater than mine. But there was something about the idea of experiencing the wilderness that made us both giddy. So, in spite of the impending danger and the fact that we weren’t prepared at all, we decided to go.
As kids, Marc and I never got along. He is three years older than me, closer to my age than my other two siblings. Marc and I are the second and third children out of four and the two of us were stuck in the middle, fighting constantly. Our sibling rivalry was belligerent. It wasn’t until he moved out to attend NYU that we finally started talking and getting along. Distance allowed us to build up a new relationship. We started talking on the phone and sharing a lot with one another, but even so, when it was time to hang up, it was rare for either of us to close the phone call with a “love you!”
Six days before I left to meet Marc in West Glacier, Montana, I got sick. But I couldn’t tell Marc, not even after I’d gone through two bottles of Robitussin and spent whole days in bed. I didn’t even tell him when he met me at the train station. As I watched him trace his finger on the trail map demonstrating the journey we were about to take, my stomach tightened and I wondered how I could possibly do this. But even then, I didn’t tell him.
I didn’t tell him until the next day, when we were out on the trail. We were ten miles into our hike and still had seven more steep miles ahead of us. Eight hours down, four more to go. At this point, the lines between my illness and my fear began to blur, and I couldn’t tell if it was my physical body or my mind that was making me so anxious. I told him had a head cold and that I was lightheaded and fatigued and that I had been sick the whole week.
“What? Why wouldn’t you tell me that before we got out here?” He seemed angry, upset.
“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “I didn’t want to ruin anything.”
When we stopped at Boulder Trail to swap our supplies, Marc looked worried. I tried to smile at him and pretend my stomach wasn’t churning, but I knew he could see straight through me.
We hardly spoke as we made our way through the trees, up through the mountain pass. The hot, August sun was unrelenting. My vision was fuzzy. I could feel each muscle and bone in my body straining and grinding against each other. I was getting desperate and I asked what would happen if we didn’t make it to the campsite.
“We will,” he said, fighting back against my fears.
Climbing the steep, rocky trail, I had to stop every five minutes. I was embarrassed and ashamed that I couldn’t keep up, but Marc remained patient and reminded me to drink more water. Even in trying circumstances, Marc is the practical one, the calm one who can reel me back in. When I fell off my bike as a kid and cut open my chin, he was there to console me. When got dumped and needed a shoulder to cry on, he was there to listen. Marc is always able to stay cool and collected.
Once we were on the mountainside, I felt like I couldn’t trust my body. Everything I thought I knew of exhaustion was false because this was the first time I’d ever experienced such intense fatigue, such pain in each bone of my body. At each turn of the trail, I hoped we’d discover our campsite. There were no mile markers and I had no idea how far we had gone, how much further we had to go. My ears popped and I could hear each of my jagged breaths, as if they were being whispered into a microphone and projected through a static-y amplifier.
I looked out over the ledge and pictured myself toppling over. I imagined what it would be like if I blacked out for just an instant, falling and disappearing into the brush like so many backpackers before us. I imagined Marc’s reaction. I tried to picture his face the moment he realized I was gone. The expression I imagined was enough to keep me moving.
When we finally arrived, there was a waterfall that tumbled down from the mountaintop, cutting right through the campsite. To this day, Marc laughs at how I deliriously asked the three Canadian women who were also camped out there, “where’s the water source?”
We made those rice and beans, but I couldn’t eat. I took two bites and shook my head. Again, Marc looked worried, almost angry. He reminded me that I hadn’t eaten all day and I had gone through this intense physical experience and I had to eat something now. I tried to take another bite, but the food turned to glue in my mouth and I couldn’t swallow. I was literally too exhausted to eat.
The night was cold, and my sleeping bag was as thin as a bed sheet. All I could think about was being stranded out in the wilderness. We still had six more days to go and every limb and muscle and ligament inside of me was throbbing. I scooted closer to Marc and tried to steal some of his body heat.
The next morning, everything hurt even more. It took me a long while to sit up, to put on my shoes, to pack up the tent. After a few hours on the trail, Marc forced me to eat half a Cliff Bar, and threatened that we couldn’t move on till I ate the whole thing.
He told me he was going to re-route our hike so that we could stop at a closer campsite where we could remap our journey, because our efforts just couldn’t match our ambition. I put up some protest, telling him that I could make it, that we could keep going. But even as I said it, I knew that it was a lie.
I felt defeated. When we got to Goat Haunt, Marc went to find a park ranger and I sat by Waterton Lake and cried. When Marc came back he sat with me and told me that it would be okay, that there was a boat from Canada and it could take us out of the park.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Shut up,” he said.
We took a ferry across Waterton Lake into Canada. From there, we took a shuttle back into the boundaries of Glacier, to one of the front country sites, where people camped out in RVs that ran generators all through the night. “They’re not even camping,” Marc complained. I agreed.
We hitched a ride to another campsite and then took the bus down Going-To-The-Sun Road back to West Glacier to a home of a friend-of-a-friend. When we got there, I let Marc take the first shower. It was my small gesture of gratitude, my way of saying “thank you. I really appreciate what you did for me, and I don’t know if I could have done this without you.”
I’m not sure if I would have made it through this trip without Marc. If I had been with a friend instead, I imagine that they would have grown impatient and overwhelmed with me. My attitude would have trumped their motivation. My fear would have beat their confidence.
But Marc has been compromising for me since we were kids. Granted, a lot of the compromising was ceasing to play the violent childhood games that would leave me injured and crying, but regardless, he’s always had an eye out for me, even if sibling rivalry got the best of us, and I know this is a trend that will continue for the rest of our lives. He tailored our grand backpacking trip to fit my needs. I’m not sure how many others would do that for me.
Marc and I talk about our trip frequently. We talk about the heat and the mountains. We talk about all of the people we met along the way who shared bits of wisdom with us. We talk about the black bear that we saw in the brush, just fifteen feet from us. But we don’t talk about all the sentimental stuff, like how grateful I am to have shared such a struggle with him. Or how this trip enabled me to get to know him in an environment that no one else could, and that it allowed me to recognize his unfaltering determination. That kind of talk is too mushy for us.