We are two pairs of lovers in the late Alaskan winter, setting out for the source of the river, as the sun hints at a pale warmth. We follow a trickle of water through neighborhoods and ponder the wisdom of our choice of footwear, trudging alternately through mounds of snow and washes of mud. Yard dogs assert their boundaries but still ultimately come in for a friendly scratch behind the ears–winter coat clinging to our fingertips as we wave goodbye.
Ahead of us, the river bed is wide, where machinery has moved it this way and that to prepare for spring floods. Each time the sun retreats behind a cloud, the world goes gray–a steel sky, bleeding down cliff and tree into slate stone and sand. The water–a ribbon of tinsel–calls us up the canyon. We laugh and snack; trying to keep our feet dry as long as possible.
Eventually, the river bed narrows between tall canyon walls and we spend time in shadow. Here, the water is more of a force; silty froth spills over boulders.
Gravelly slopes force us higher for a time, where we scramble across loose stone and around exposed root, to gain surer footing. We descend back to the water’s edge, where the canyon takes a sharp curve to the left. We must cross the river to keep going. There will be no dry feet to follow.
The gentlemen in our crew survey the various routes across, as I approach. I know they are talking, but can’t hear them above the rush of the water. Before I arrive, Chad has rolled up his pants and trudged through the current to the other side. He is the tallest, with the sturdiest build, sure of foot and not one to hesitate. Zach, sturdy in his own frame, follows not far behind him, choosing a slightly different route through the pool–the water washing a bit higher above his knee. But, he presses on, a smile lingering with his progress through the current. I look back at Kara and wonder what she sees.
This is no technical crossing, but I am also no stranger to the force of water. A slip under could mean, at the very least, a slightly hypothermic walk home.
I consider my route for a little while, exchange encouraging words with Zach, then go for it. Kara is not far behind, having chosen the route most comfortable for her. We continue up the canyon, until we meet steeper, more formidable walls where the water spills down. There, we are once again in the sun and spring flowers bloom in bowls carved by the journey of the river.
We will eventually turn back for home and cross the water again, without incident.
Honestly, I don’t remember my route across the river and I don’t consider this the greatest challenge I’ve faced, by any means, but in that moment, the water gave me a reply to a question that came much earlier and bubbled up again, much later.
After more than 20 years of hiking, climbing, skiing and riding in the mountains, I know there is no set formula for getting somewhere. I am a different person than I was in my 20s, when thoughts of tomorrow did not determine how hard I grip stone, 200 feet above earth. I am a different woman than I was when I spent time with a man who bullied me into skiing lines that terrified me. My landscape changes as much as the landscapes I spend my time in. I am no different than most.
On this day, each of us chose our own way across the water, in some way asking it which way we should go. While we all encouraged each other and shared thoughts, not one of us told the other what to do. I attribute that in part, to a hard-earned confidence in our own abilities and judgments.
Though we may share journeys in life with each other, even a similar experience will never be exactly the same for any one person. And often, we have no experience to draw from that even remotely parallels someone else’s experience.
That’s easy enough to say, but it’s more important to remember.
Sometimes my heart aches so deeply for the capacity to fully understand the journey of my loved ones. Sometimes, I overreach because I want so desperately to have the answer to ease someone’s suffering or protect them from the what-ifs.
Yet, empathy isn’t about knowing exactly what another’s experience is. It’s about just being there, with them, through the journey. Sure, we can share what we’ve learned, but we must understand that what worked for us, may not work for them. If I’d followed Chad’s footsteps across the river that day, I would have surely felt the river snatch my breath from me as I slid below the gray surface.
That piercing shock of a thought is what reminds me to love others in the space they occupy, not from the space I want them to be.