Memory, You Sly Dog

I write from memory.  This section, written on a January morning in 2010, is as much fueled by the woodstove, the coffee, and the gift of a Saturday morning alone as it is about the hike up Kaaterskill High Peak on Easter Monday in 2007.  Memory is always fiction, intentionally or not.  In my work as a therapist, at times I refer to patients as “unreliable reporters.”  To cut to the chase, they lie.  They lie, embellish, drag red herrings across their narratives, and allow the snow to fall on their tracks, for as many reasons as I can invent.  Memory, too, is an unreliable reporter.

To write a memoir is to turn my life into a “piece.”  Given the right author, my life could read like a backstory or a character sketch from the TV show Lost: the character they decided to cut because she was just a little too improbable.  But I have to somehow contain the elements of this improbable fiction, to hold them all and find a way to make sense of them. Sometimes it feels like I need to crop the ugly bits out or reframe the whole thing to present it as a piece, but then that effort is disappointing: it is the living organic unfolding that makes it tolerable. And yet there is the temptation – seduction, really – to allow memory to team up with the production department and create a sanitized piece that is “presentable” if not true.

And yet, to honor the truth can really kill readability.  The soldiers boarded the bus, yelled at us in Punjabi, pointed the AK-47 at my head and then… I don’t really remember what happened next.  That might have been the time when the bus driver yelled back “get off my bus you sister-fuckers.”  It was all a very long time ago and I honestly don’t remember clearly.  So to write the story with religious devotion to the truth would mean a giant question mark would adorn the cover.  Here’s what I think happened, but I’m not sure.

My mother and my sister remember things differently.  Recently my sister offered that perhaps some of my mid-life physical complaints might be hereditary: “Y’know Grandma died of stomach cancer.”  Now wait a minute; I was twelve, my sister fifteen when Grandma died.  She died of lymphoma, a cancer totally unrelated to her many and varied digestive issues.  How could we remember something factual, concrete, real so differently?  While in this case there is an objective reality, apparently for the past thirty-five years or so my sister and I did not share that reality.  Her understanding of the facts surrounding my grandmother’s death fundamentally differed from mine.  It’s not about being right; it’s about the unreliability of memory as a source of information.

My husband and I laugh and fight about memory.  We can plan the day over breakfast: which peak, from which trailhead, via which route, and then hop in the truck and he inevitably turns to me and says “Where are we going?” And if I answer with the name of a peak, it’s fifty-fifty as to whether or not he says “Where’s that?”  I am the one who holds the details in both short term and long term memory.

He remembers moments.  He remembers incidents and interactions.  He remembers the warm sunny viewspot fifteen paces off Mount Sherrill’s summit.  He remembers the man with the injured dog, and the woman who insulted me on Kaaterskill High Peak.  I, for good or ill, remember it all (or so I think, which is really my point).  I remember discovering blue cohosh on the way up Camels’ Hump, the ginseng on Ashokan High Point, the deep peace I felt on the summit of Black Dome, and the endlessness of ascending Plateau, no matter which approach I tried.  I remember individual rocks, blazes, trees, tree stumps, the song I had stuck in my head that day… I remember it all.

But memory is a treacherous double agent, I realize, as I find myself lost, disoriented, in completely unfamiliar woods, wondering how I could have remembered Table as a child-friendly gradual ascent.  In four feet of loose powdery snow, Table is a beast, a monster, brutal and cruel and endless.  And Peekamoose from the Rondout has been called one of the most demoralizing ascents in the Catskills: first time up I couldn’t have agreed more.  Second time on that trail it may as well have been a different mountain.  I had remembered much worse.

Memory, for me at least, is holistic, anchored in a gestalt of time and place. The sunny spot on Sherrill held a magic for Tom that I didn’t share.  He brought to that spot a sum total of experience in the moment that added up to attributing that spot with magic and thus he remembers it so.  I remember Becker Hollow or Diamond Notch as “not that bad” while Stony Clove gets my vote as beastly.  In reality they’re pretty similar.  But the Heatherhiker of the day: energy level, company, mood, or whatever else may have been on my mind colored the memory.

Before officially beginning the project of hiking the 35, I started hiking in the Catskills.  I had done chunks of the Appalachian Trail, wandered around the Hudson Highlands, and hiked the length of the South Taconic Trail.  The Catskills beckoned.  They seemed wilder, more remote, more intimidating, and more enticing than all the other areas I’d been exploring.  Wittenberg was my first.

I hiked with a man, my lover.  It was June, maybe 2004 or ‘05.  We got a late start, hitting the trailhead well after noon and summitted in freezing drizzle.  No one was on the rocky open summit (anyone who knows the mountain knows how unusual this is on a June weekend).  It was too late to go on and grab Cornell, half an hour or so away.  I remember being happy and so excited to finally taste the Catskills.  I remember talking about the Escarpment Trail running race, marveling and considering just what sort of conditioning that would require.  I remember being breathless at the upper reaches of the trail, hefting the dogs up the bouldery climbs and gushing over how cool the trail had become – quite literally as ice and snow still packed the crevices.  My lover remembered being jealous about an old high school friend of mine, misinterpreting my comments, and finding fuel to feed his ever-growing fire of mistrust.

We broke up, emphasis on the broke part.  Years later, when I decided to hike the 35 with my new husband, we both decided to start over, despite each having done a handful of peaks prior to meeting each other.  On those repeat hikes, ghosts followed me up the mountain, whispering about betrayal all the way.  I plan to layer over those voices with enough other experiences to drown them out, to render them impotent minority memories.

I wish I had never hiked in the Catskills with him; I wish there were no memories of him here, in this place.

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