Outside long enough, I lose the contours of my body and become part of something larger. What I watch for on a good hike are moments of permission, the times my interactions with what is beyond me provide opportunities to know the world in ways different from how I’m used to knowing it. I lose track of my own inhibitions and begin to wonder just what I might be able to do if I allowed myself the full scope of my potential. I become more willing to test my own limits in these circumstances, and I discover the particular freedom that accompanies physical accomplishment coupled with plenty of fresh air in the lungs. A good hike is an exercise in mindfulness, not just racing up and down a hill, but attending to each object passed along the way: the new goose turd on a boulder that suggests a late or aborted migration; the little patches of lichen clumped along the trail looking like discarded blood orange peels slowly drying in late-autumn sun. When I am hiking well, I marvel at everything I see and all I am able to do. A good hike takes me places I haven’t been before.

This essay is excerpted from Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History by Camille T. Dungy, published by W. W. Norton & Company in 2017. It is reprinted by permission of the author and publisher.

Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, by Camille T. Dungy

As a working mother whose livelihood as a poet-lecturer depended on travel, Camille Dungy crisscrossed America with her infant, then toddler, intensely aware of how they are seen, not just as mother and child, but as black women. With a poet’s eye, she celebrates her daughter’s acquisition of language and discoveries of the natural and human world around her. At the same time history shadows her steps everywhere she goes: from the San Francisco of settlers’ and investors’ dreams to the slave-trading ports of Ghana; from snow-white Maine to a festive, yet threatening, bonfire in the Virginia pinewoods.

Learn more about the book.

Not all hikes are good hikes. One can race up and down a hill in a state of mindlessness that attends to very little. During the portion of the November afternoon when I fractured my fibula, I wasn’t mindfully watching the path. If I had become, at some point earlier on that hike, part of something larger, I returned to an acute consciousness of my individual limits the moment I slipped on wet leaves and caught the toe of my right sneaker on a camouflaged root. The single expletive I shouted was enough to make everyone around me conscious of the contours of my body. I crumpled to the ground, said, “I just broke my ankle,” and gripped both hands around the site of the injury. If you’ve ever noticed the way a hurt animal curls around itself, pained and snarling, needing assistance but daring anyone to come near, you have a picture of what I looked like in the Adirondacks that November.

 

The day had started off on a good foot. The climb up Castle Rock had been simple and gorgeous, a meandering ascent over orange-gold beech leaves, shallow runoff pools, rocks and small boulders. It briefly occurred to me that I should have worn hiking boots, but this was the only hike I was likely to take in the Adirondacks that weekend and it seemed reasonable not to have hauled my bulky boots all the way from California. My running shoes had grip enough, and truly, this was more walk than hike, our pace mitigated by our numbers.

There were 22 of us. Our stated goal that weekend was to discuss how to write publishable explorations of the natural world within the ever-more-complicating context of the 21st century. One of our number had written a book called Sick of Nature, and one had written The Secret Knowledge of Water. One would later die in Uganda, presumably of heat exhaustion, while working on a magazine article about walking the length of the Nile. The quietest member of our group was completing a collection of natural history essays called Things That Are, and I had just published a poetry anthology called Black Nature. Most of the weekend we’d stay in the lodge, talking about writing about nature. This was our chance to walk our talk.

Matthew and Joe, some of the youngest among us, bounded ahead of the pack, Carhartt-clad legs tackling the terrain with ease. When they came to the caves recommended by Suzy, a lodge volunteer and the woman most familiar with the place, they poked around briefly, then, unwilling to be slowed, sought the trail again and seemed to spring upward out of sight.

I’d started out with these two, excited to be outside in new territory. I marked intriguing sights along the way, that goose turd, for instance, and a particularly remarkable stand of naked white beech, but the pace I kept with Matthew and Joe privileged ascent, arrival over journey. I looked, but I certainly didn’t linger.

I couldn’t keep that pace for long. I was sharing my lungs and body with a nine-week-old fetus, and my will was not the only power my body needed to heed. This was a new state of being for me. Approaching 40, I had never considered having a child before, let alone experienced the physical and often cumbersome realities of what my decision to get pregnant would mean. I’d always set my own schedule. Now waves of nausea tempered my pace. I was trying not to let discomfort slow me, but concern over how my movements jostled my belly took hold and I was reminded, as pregnancy will remind a woman, that my decisions no longer affected me alone.

As I slowed, then stopped briefly, resumed at half pace, then slowed again, most of my fellow hikers passed me. Soon I found myself walking toward the rear of the pack with the other pregnant lady in our group.

Joni seemed perfectly comfortable taking her time. The path was slippery because of leaf fall and runoff, and she didn’t want to chance a tumble. Instead, she stopped periodically and turned full circle, taking in the open blue sky and, below us, Blue Mountain Lake, its dark green water punctuated frequently by small islands and the outcroppings of its ragged shoreline.

Perhaps one day I will be confident and content even while moving slowly. But when we got to the caves, all desire to slow down vanished. The damp, mineral, mossy smell of caves reminds me of my childhood, so when Suzy showed us the passage through, I forgot all inhibitions. I climbed and contorted, grappled and gripped, as if I were a girl again, my center of gravity low and each limb pliable.

Suzy climbed ahead through the first narrow passage, offering the women who followed a hand should they need help. I declined the offer, knowing her small frame was no match for my weight, and aware I could only depend on my own strength and dexterity to pull me up, around, and over the rock face. Despite the fact that my nails had grown hand-model long thanks to my pregnancy, I found holds in the rock. Torquing my knees and ankles, pushing and pulling, and with the thoughtless ease of someone who has been doing a hard task her whole life, I climbed past each of four ever more steep and narrow passages.

Moving through and over rock like that, I come to know it, to feel its sharp points and its forgiving ones, to note what pockets might prove a den for resting creatures and which would safely provide temporary sanctuary for me. Lia, one of the women who moved through the caves behind me, said I’d found holds she’d never have seen. I didn’t necessarily see them, either. My body simply knew how to find them. I registered the caves not as a writer, intellectually cataloging the details, but as a dancer, responding physically to what presented itself. I felt like an expert, like the master of Castle Rock. I felt outstanding. I’d forgotten the nausea and bloating of early pregnancy and the trepidation that came along with them, the constant concern over whether I was moving too fast or too slowly or too much or too little for the fetus. I forgot the fetus. I had my lungs all to myself. They were full and my heart was strong.

For the remainder of the ascent I felt good. I felt fit and powerful and happy. I felt like I belonged outside.

 

The climb down should have been simple. After a short rest at the summit of Castle Rock, where we took pictures of the bright blue lake below us and of our own smiling faces atop the craggy peak, the whole party turned around for the descent. The pre-pregnant me would have been invigorated by the exhilaration of the ascent. I would have felt empowered and ready to take on anything the world threw my way. But I had overextended myself. I was tired before the descent even began, ready to be off the hill and back in the lodge by the fire. I felt pregnant again, weighed down.

I should have taken care with every step, watching for exposed roots, verifying my footing.

I should have exercised Joni’s cautious grace. Mindful of my own body and protective of my fetus, I could have paused periodically and examined leaves and lichen.

I should have exerted a little more energy and stuck with the many paddlers who peeled off the trail and kayaked back to the lodge, completing the circuit I’d started that day.

But I did none of this. I was tired and thinking about the car that could cut out the paddling component and drive us more directly back to the lodge. I chatted with my companions about environmental futures, writing conferences, children, students, the recent increase of human/black bear interactions in Colorado. I was walking in a crowd rather than solo or in a group of two or three, as I prefer to hike, and I was behaving as unconsciously as if I were walking through a park in some suburban town. I was just clomping speedily along, poorly calibrated, and inattentive.

And then I broke my ankle.

 

Kate , the woman I knew best in this group, knelt beside me to assess the damage. Kate had trained as a wilderness first responder. She knew what to do when a person was hurt. She wanted to pull down my sock, to gauge the degree of the swelling, but she could hardly pry my fingers from my leg. “I need to see it,” she said, looking in my eyes with the reassuringly authoritative gaze of a veterinarian.

“No, you don’t,” I said. Trying not to refuse her help, but refusing it nonetheless. “It’s broken. I heard it snap.”

“I heard it, too,” said Lia.

This comforted me just enough that I loosened my grip and let Kate do her work.

Lia had been walking about five feet away when I fell. If she’d heard that sound, a sound more solid and interior than any twig could make, what I thought I’d heard must be true. The rest of the way off the hill, while the guys insisted it was likely just a very bad sprain, I assured myself I was not some hysterical girl overreacting to a twisted ankle. Kate seemed worried and—I found this sustaining—Lia had heard the bone break.

As a former athlete, I had experience with both joint injuries and broken bones. I’d already undergone two reconstructive surgeries on chronically sprained or dislocated joints. During the preoperative procedures for shoulder surgery over a decade earlier, the anesthesiologist insisted I take a pregnancy test.

“I’m not pregnant,” I assured him.

“Well, I want you to take this test just to be sure.”

“I’m sure I’m not pregnant,” I insisted.

“Please, just take this test. Anesthesia is really bad for babies.”

I took his pee cup, but not before reaffirming my conviction. “Babies are really bad for Camille,” I said. I believed, then, that having a baby would slow me down, keep me from doing the things I felt were necessary for my happiness.

I remained uninterested in having a child until I met Ray, and then it was less the idea of having a child that convinced me than it was the idea of entering this new phase with Ray, my husband, in particular. I wanted to create not so much a baby as a family. The adjustments I would have to make in my life seemed more manageable with a quality partner. Still, I was concerned about the repercussions of these necessary adjustments.

Sitting on that pile of November leaves, I worried about what would happen to me and to the fetus if I needed some complicated surgery as a result of this fall. I worried because I knew that anesthesia is really bad for babies and I’d believed that babies weren’t a good idea for a woman like me. I worried that I had been right to worry about how getting pregnant would radically modify all of my decisions.

But these worries were irrelevant. I had to focus on getting off the hill.

 

We had nearly a mile to walk to the car, and I could bear no weight on my right leg. The first scheme we concocted involved my left side supported by a walking stick harvested off the trail, my right arm wrapped around Drew’s shoulder. Six-foot-three, with the build of a man in his late 30s who had played football in high school and who kept himself in decent shape, Drew was the kind of guy you might call if you needed help moving furniture. It seemed obvious that he should be the one to help me.

Unfortunately, though he might have been strong, the one-shoulder arrangement proved inefficient for moving me down the hill. Soon Chip, the next largest in our group, came to help Drew. We discarded the walking stick. The two men now supported me as I hopped slowly forward. As we progressed, the four men in the group rotated positions, Matthew and Joe taking over for Drew and Chip, Drew replacing Matthew, Chip replacing Joe in a round robin game of help haul the crippled girl off the mountain.

I tried to help as much as possible, bounding as high and far forward as I could with each push of my left leg. I lifted my weight with my arms and core so the men did not have to do all the work of hauling me upward and forward. I was self-conscious, wishing I could have been lighter, that I could bear at least a little weight on my right foot. I desperately wanted to get off the mountain as soon as possible, to make myself as light and fast as I could.

I am a big-boned girl—“Thick in all the right places,” my husband would say—and I didn’t want to be a burden on the men who helped haul me down the hill. More important, I didn’t want to appear helpless. I could play the damsel in distress by letting them be gentlemen who lent me their handkerchiefs and opened my car doors, but I weighed as much or more than most of them, and I was used to taking care of myself. The version of gender roles that rests on a woman’s daintiness and readiness to be rescued broke down with me. I think of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, delivered over 150 years ago and still reminding us that the image of women as meek and dainty was a picture of white women. Black women, to borrow Zora Neale Hurston’s early 20th century phrase, have long been treated as the mules of the world.

I have a friend, another African American woman, who is over six feet tall in heels and has the well-proportioned body to accommodate that long frame. She’s a big girl, but not fat. When the issue of body mass index comes up, she’s likely to fly into a rage. The standard BMI does not take into account muscle mass, bone density, or other, often ethnically related, considerations that might elevate a woman’s count. There are several problems with this. One is that otherwise fit women who carry a heftier muscle mass on a thicker frame could easily feel pathological even in bodies that, with appropriate adjustments to the scale, would be well within a normal range. Another dangerous side effect is that women who actually are far too heavy ignore BMI charts and other scales since even at weights that are healthy for their bodies these standards label them overweight. My friend was denied life insurance because a doctor, basing his assessment on the body mass index alone, wrote obese in her medical records. I’ve seen her run her finger across a BMI chart, read where she is positioned despite the fact she wears a perfectly reasonable size 12 dress on her five-foot-nine body, and remind anyone who will listen that for the sake of higher profits in her ancestral past, she was bred to be this big.

Most of my life, my way of dealing with the feeling that my body was outsized or out of place has been to make sure I excel at whatever I ask my body to do. If I could hike as fast, climb with as much agility, ski as competently, paddle as aggressively as the folks around me, I assumed no one would think twice about the fact that a relatively big black girl was on the mountain, lake, or trail. Outside, people only care about size if it slows them down. I tried never to be the one to slow anyone down. This pregnancy, this injury, these put my pride at the mercy of much that was beyond me, and I have a deep aversion to being at the mercy of things that are beyond my control.

The men were all at least three inches taller than I am, and Drew nearly nine, so my abdomen and upper body stretched to accommodate their shoulders as I lifted and pulled myself along the trail. I could sense the protestations of my fetus with every hop and, more than once, I had to wonder how long it would be until I could make use of a bathroom. But my left leg would land, and the men would be ready, immediately, to take another stride, so I coiled my energy and worked to spring myself forward again. This jostled the offending ankle, splinted only by Drew’s handkerchief, which Kate had wrapped around the injury site and the bottom of my running shoe.

As a five-legged cluster, we often came upon boggy points in the path. At first we tried to hop around them, worrying they’d be too slippery, but eventually we trudged straight through, trying to move as directly as possible. Kate or Lia walked ahead, telling us where the trail grew tricky and suggesting how we might proceed. We’d come to wet or rocky patches and I hopped, with the help of my companions, from one rock to another 18 inches away. The men grew tired, I was beyond exhausted, and we’d hardly moved two-tenths of a mile.

 

Everyone wanted to be off the mountain, and since the two-shoulder carry wasn’t progressing us as efficiently as we would like, Drew suggested he carry me on his back. No one had offered me a piggyback ride since my father, when I was about eight years old, told me I was too big for such nonsense. Still, what would seem illogical under normal circumstances now sounded like an option worth exploring. He squatted, and with the help of four hands, I used my tiring left leg to hop onto his back.

Drew carried me this way as far as he could. Because I had difficulty gripping with only one leg, the women followed behind, supporting my butt. “You didn’t think you’d get a butt massage as part of this bargain, did you?” asked Kate.

“Well, I was hoping at least one good thing could happen today,” I replied.

Often during this ordeal, I engaged in bouts of magical thinking in which I made no observations but those that increased the hilarity of the situation. I suppose this was my way of recalibrating the scale, focusing on what would get me through to the next moment rather than dwelling on how difficult and painful my predicament was.

Adrenaline, and my insistence on noting all possible hilarity, stocked me full of laughter. I became a best-case-scenario spinner. The fracture could have happened farther up the mountain, on the steep and boulder-laden part of the trail. I might have done this on one of my solo hikes. Then how would I have gotten off the hill? Each time Drew stripped off an article of clothing or one of his outdoorsman accessories, I joked that he was just looking for an excuse to run naked through the woods. I teased Kate each time she braved a peek at my ankle despite the knowledge I’d grown feral in my protection of the joint. I joked about my fetus and how, when it was born healthy and whole, I would play with its little arms and legs, and tell the baby I was glad its skeleton was strong, since the calcium for those bones was borrowed from Mama’s. I knew my fetus’s skeletal development, though coincident with my injury, had nothing to do with my fracture, but it was a pleasant way to involve my unborn child in our adventure.

People often talk about the survival mechanisms of fat kids, the way we frequently perfect the role of being the funniest student in class. We want to make sure people laugh with us rather than at us. The ego’s bruised a little less that way. Though I started out the hike at the head of the pack, proving I was able to keep up with the spriest among us, the realities of my new, enlarged body slowed me, and now this fracture had stopped me entirely. I’d transformed from the fit master of Castle Rock into a heavy, useless burden. I felt awful needing the men to carry me. But instinct, brought on by history and adrenaline, told me that if I couldn’t make myself useful, at least I could make us all laugh.

There was still a long trail ahead, and laughter was a better alternative than yelling or crying.

 

We moved forward in this manner maybe 50 yards. Seventy? Then it was back to the two-shoulder hobble. Then the piggyback again, before which Drew removed his birding binoculars, his glasses. Each time I climbed on his back, he walked as far as he could, then we returned to the two-shoulder hobble, letting two of the other men spell Drew as he wiped the sweat from his neck and forehead.

I couldn’t tell you how long we kept at it. The men’s speed picked up, which would have been a good thing, but for the fact that this sent my leg jostling to such a degree I had to beg them to stop.

Then I came up with the perfect solution.

I collapsed to my hands and knees and moved forward of my own volition. No more jostling ankle. Sweet relief.

“You’re going to crawl?” asked Matthew.

“This is going to work. You guys have carried me far enough. I can do the rest on my own. Look, I’m moving pretty quickly.”

For a short while no one said a thing. I was clearly set on this solution. I’d left no room for argument, and, it was true, I was moving at a clip that exceeded what we’d managed thus far.

The sun was positioned at the angle where it rests just before it races toward the horizon. All of us knew we didn’t have much time before dark.

Forward I crawled.

Chip—the man who had proposed this trip in the first place, the man who wanted to see what the new generation of American environmentalist writers valued most and so invited a group of relatively young nature writers to the Adirondacks for a confab about the future of the genre—Chip looked on at my progress with speechless horror.

He told me later he was terrified some other group of hikers would come along and discover all these white people standing around watching a black girl crawl through the woods.

Chip wasn’t entirely off base in his assessment of the situation. Part of why we treat people horribly, why we might make the one subjugated other among us crawl while the rest walk through the woods, why we damage people’s bodies, or ridicule them, why we work to break people down, is because we want another human being to give body and will over to us so we can do with it what we desire. Pain, embarrassment, hopelessness, fear: a combination of these can erase pride from a human spirit in short order. Once pride is absent, control is that much easier to command.

Those of us who are conscious of human history know the pervasiveness with which one person’s will has been pressed on another’s. And as environmentalists, we were all well aware of the ease with which people set up distinctions between themselves and anything they choose to categorize as separate from, and therefore subject to, themselves. What Chip feared was that some outsider would look at our party and assume that a play of dominance was under way. He was afraid it would look as if he were the one working to subjugate me.

Chip was silent on the mountain because his concern about the appearance of oppression was so great. Yet he was able to describe his reaction at breakfast, laughing while he did so, because by the next day the concern felt humorous, no longer a real threat.

The whole time we were working to get me off the mountain, I thought I was worried about the pain in my ankle and the burden of my weight. I realize now that my other big worry, what I feared the whole time on the hill, was that I would have to let go of my pride.

These are the ways human history cross-pollinates with all our interactions in the world. Had Joe, with his Carhartts and Jesus haircut, his Montana roots, his wife and infant child back in northern Iowa, been the one to break his ankle, this essay might have gone in a completely different direction. Or Matthew, the urban homesteader who traveled the world visiting lithium mines in Bolivia and garbage dumps in the Philippines, then returned to Brooklyn to write articles for Harper’s. What direction would this essay have taken had he been the one transported a mile off the hill? What about Amy, so fine-boned Drew could surely have draped her over one shoulder and sprinted with her to the car? What gendered nuances would this essay take on had she been the injured party? And what racial nuances, Amy being a white woman from Texas, Drew a black man from South Carolina? What do I do with the knowledge that the man I was most able to give my body over to happened to be the one other black person in our group? What if the essay were written from Drew’s perspective? The largest and strongest and blackest among us, he was the one who put in the hardest physical labor. Try as I might to lose myself to something larger, I’m always reminded of the boundaries of the body: we are bound by gender; we are bound by appearance; we are bound by race. These are ways human history cross-pollinates all my interactions.

As I was crawling along the dirt path, though, I wasn’t fretting about the ways history repeats itself. I wasn’t worrying about the suffering the world and I might cause my child. For this brief time, I wasn’t troubled by nausea or the pain around my belly. I was just crawling.

Matthew stood above me. “You can’t crawl,” he said.

“Why not? It seems to be working just fine.”

“You’ll destroy your hands and knees. Get up. We won’t let you do that to yourself.” As Matthew spoke, the other men, who seemed to have been frozen by my insistence but who heard in Matthew ’s words a distillation of their thoughts, sprang into action again, gripped my arms, and pulled me into a standing position.

 

Forced to my feet by the men, but loath to resume the uterus-stretching, ankle-jostling, pride-crushing shoulder haul, I asked for two of the walking sticks people had gathered as we progressed. For the course of perhaps four steps, I tried to crutch myself along.

The sun was beginning its rapid slide toward the horizon, and Chip would have none of my walking on my own. So the uterus-stretching, ankle-jostling, pride-crushing shoulder haul resumed.

If we were to get off the mountain before the darkness caught us entirely, I would have to give myself over to these men.

I said, so quietly I’m not sure anyone heard me over their panting, “Let go and let gods.”

I was being facetious.

I was completely earnest.

I stopped working to lighten their load, an effort that may well have been complicating matters. I revealed the full weight of my body and let the men bear it as far and as quickly as they could. I had to let them take me, and to do this I had to let go of any pretense of pride and control.

The group of people on whom I found myself dependent were relative strangers. And yet, as I was at their mercy in the wild, this was the best group I could imagine falling among. Kate, with her first responder training, kept an eye on my leg and my face, warning the men to slow down if I started to look too ashen. Chip kept a clear gauge on the sun, remaining realistic about how much light we had left and making sure our forward pace kept steady. Lia, who’d heard my bone crack and didn’t want me to be jostled any more than necessary, watched our path, guiding us so we could concentrate on smooth forward transitions.

When I asked Drew later if his upper body wasn’t sore (by the end of the weekend mine burned from the effort to lift myself as I draped my arms around the men’s high shoulders), he said he was actually pleased to discover his exercise regimen seemed to be working. He’d developed what he thought of as a practical workout, training his body to be useful in circumstances such as the one we’d encountered.

I found myself thinking about the urban students I taught at San Francisco State University, in whom I tried to instill an appreciation of the wonders of nature. Many of them were incredulous, even scared. They worried about what might happen to them out there. Mountain lions, rapists, and bears, oh my. I worried about taking my story back to them. What kind of advertisement would I make crutching into the classroom after a weekend of hiking? But I realized that the key to the story was the company I’d found myself among. These turned out to be people I could trust with my body, people who would find a way to get me off the mountain and get me the help I needed. Rather than telling a tale of fear and devastation, I could talk to my students about how affirming this experience turned out to be. I was scared, certainly, but through the journey I discovered I hadn’t needed to be.

 

Our little group seemed to be moving along fairly well. I’d given over to the process as completely as I could. Lia walked ahead, charting courses, and I would be lifted off one rock, hauled over a standing pool of muddy water, then set down on a rock several feet ahead. We were moving at a fairly rapid clip, though I did have to pause now and again to let my stretched abdomen resume its normal proportions. The men, even the fittest among them, rotated frequently to prevent themselves from growing too winded.

About six-tenths of a mile into the march, the piggyback, two-arm-carry, piggyback, two-arm-carry cycle ceased to work. Nausea hit me so hard I thought I would throw up all over Matthew and Joe’s shoulders.

I had to stop. I had to.

We’d landed in a clearing that boasted a windfall log waiting like a park bench alongside the trail. A grove of trees stood before us, some still decked out in their brightest fall foliage, most leafless for winter. I might have pulled out my camera and snapped several pictures of the idyllic grove, but I had no idea where my camera was. Immediately after the fracture someone else had donned my backpack. Lia had been feeding me water from her own stainless steel bottle. I had no idea whose back my bottle was on. A bobcat could have been walking beside us for the past quarter mile and I likely wouldn’t have noticed.

When we stopped to rest, and my nausea receded, I did have a moment to appreciate the beauty of the place. The light was autumnal, slanted in on the grove at such an inviting angle it was easy to understand the trees shifting leaves through the low-frequency stages of the prism, hoping the next shade of gold, orange, or red would effectively catch a nourishing ray. Then giving up altogether, leaves dying and shedding, trees waiting out the low-lit winter bare-branched.

The women sat by me, stroking my limbs and speaking words of comfort. They petted each arm and leg and my head until I began to feel, again, as if these might be my own—parts of my body I could recognize.

Meanwhile, the men fanned through the grove. Men on a mission, following a cue I don’t recall hearing.

We watched the men scavenge for suitable branches—fallen limbs longer than their own bodies and thick as a strong man’s arm. They whacked these branches against trees, trying to foreshorten them to appropriate lengths. They tore at them to remove jutting twigs. The women, petting and soothing me, laughed about this gendered division of labor as they all but poured unction on the pregnant woman while the four even-tempered men passed into some primal state, sweat beaded on their foreheads and eyes set on securing the best possible stick. They were on the hunt. They hauled logs out of the grove, piling them together for comparison’s sake, then held the straightest and sturdiest-seeming branches among them like rotisserie spits while Drew sat in the middle of each and bounced, trying to assess which was the strongest.

The men finally chose a seven-foot cedar pole, about four inches in diameter. Someone’s down jacket was wrapped around the center of the branch, and all four men took a position holding it—two on each side. I was brought around to the front. Arms wrapped around the men once again, I was pulled up to my seat on the jacket-padded litter.

Because the path had cleared and widened, the men could carry me this way for the remaining distance off the trail. The women walked in front and behind, checking the path as we went and making sure I didn’t slide off the back of my litter. Only once, on a log bridge, did I have to dismount and return to the shoulder-carry strategy. The rest of the time, we moved smoothly, my leg not bouncing, all four men distributing the work of bearing me. I have no idea if it was hard on the men or not. I suspect it was, though their pride in having engineered this solution might have lightened their load.

As for me, where I’d felt like a burden in those earlier, menial positions, now I felt I was being borne off the mountain with ease. It’s amazing what a change in position can do for one’s sense of self. I didn’t feel like a vulnerable stranger in the woods any longer. I didn’t feel awkward or outsized or particularly burdensome. I felt that, together, we could accomplish anything. I was reacquainting myself with a sense of comfort and security, and also my pride. I might not be master of Castle Rock but, borne on this litter, I felt like a bit of a queen.

  

    

Camille T. DungyCamille T. Dungy is the author of four collections of poetry: Trophic Cascade (Wesleyan University Press, 2017), Smith Blue (Southern Illinois University Press, 2011), Suck on the Marrow (Red Hen Press, 2010), and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (Red Hen Press, 2006). Her debut collection of personal essays is Guidebook to Relative Strangers (W. W. Norton, 2017). Dungy edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (University of Georgia Press, 2009),  co-edited the From the Fishouse poetry anthology (Persea, 2009), and served as associate editor for Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade (University of Michigan Press, 2006).

Photo of hiking boots by Pexel, courtesy Pixabay.

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons