By Casey Flynn
Rain pounded the steel gray waves chopping against our kayak. The thick forest on the nearby shore pulsed green through the downpour. My hands were cold, my body wet and achy. I knew my mom must be feeling the strain of the elements too, but she said nothing. She pushed through her discomfort, so I pushed through mine.
We were paddling around Point Adolphus, a major gathering region for humpback whales in Alaska’s Icy Strait. That was our roughest day on our four-day sea kayaking excursion. The worst weather, the strongest currents, the biggest waves. My mom and I came to Alaska to taste wilderness together, and we found it. Sea lions huffed and belched alongside our boats; a solitary harbor seal poked its shiny head above the surface before it slipped silently away; a bald eagles nest perched every mile along the coastline.
That was our first trip together. The first time we shared long hours of adventure in the same boat, the same tent. We never hiked or camped when I was a kid. Team sports consumed our family’s time, with my sister and me competing year-round, kicking and throwing various-shaped balls. After high school, I road tripped across the U.S., breathing in the West and the Wild. The raw mountains and rocky coastline I experienced on that journey changed me in fundamental ways. I landed in Colorado and stayed.
Unknown to me then, my road to the Rockies mirrored my mom’s. She, too, had moved to Colorado in her twenties, went rock climbing and backpacking, climbed Mount of the Holy Cross with Outward Bound. But Colorado couldn’t quite get its paws around her and she returned to New York, meeting my dad soon after. The wilderness called to her, too.
My mom is tough. I knew that from her competition in triathlon, from her willingness to shrug off hardship, to joke about misfortune. But in recent years, I had noticed a new struggle. She was growing away from old friends and felt conflicted. She said they didn’t leave space for her to be herself, a changing and developing person. Her friends were still having the same negative conversations, complaining about work and family. When my mom would interject to share her positive experiences, they wouldn’t let her finish her sentence. It was rare that they listened to the changes in her life. If they wouldn’t open an ear, how could they know what she thought and felt? They just expected her to fill the same role she always had—a role that no longer suited her.
I sympathized deeply with her pain. I also have had friends who came to know me a certain way and then expected me to stay that way. At times those expectations drove me to become the person they wanted me to be, and I lost myself in it. During a particularly active summer, I was training for a Half-Ironman triathlon and going on long alpine rock climbs in Rocky Mountain National Park. Some of my friends labeled me an extreme mountain man, an endurance junky. They were partly admiring me, but I felt pressured by their questions each Monday morning. “What were you up to this weekend? Sprinting up Longs Peak?” I felt pushed onward to impress them, for next week’s story to be more epic than the last. I valued their friendship and our shared memories but I felt that they had captured only a snapshot of me. I couldn’t be the static image they wanted me to be, but I was still reluctant to let them go.
When my mom told me of her frustrations, I wondered why she didn’t tell her friends how she was feeling. If she shared her pain, perhaps they would listen and be open to her experience. But then I reflected on myself, how I stayed bottled up, kept my discontent deep inside. How oftentimes I didn’t even realize how those presumptions were pressuring me to be a certain version of myself. I better understood that conflict, that hidden desire to meet expectations and be accepted even when it compromises our true self. Of wanting to hold onto friends when it’s time to let go.
The rain began to ease as we paddled toward shore. Jaegers, gulls, and countless other seabirds circled, swooped and dive-bombed, chittering and squawking as they hunted dinner. We hauled the fully-laden kayaks onto the rocky beach. Mom’s grip on the stern grab handle was firm, her weighted walk steady. Strong.
After we set up camp and ate dinner, my mom and I walked out to the point at low tide. We marveled at the strange sea creatures latched onto rocks and hidden amongst the tidal debris. Out in the strait, humpback whales sprayed lung-fulls of air skyward. We talked of faith and of death. Of pride and of money. Of challenges we faced. We explored conversation that could have been awkward or forced indoors, but out here we were open and unencumbered by anyone’s expectations. The wild land around us set us free.
I’d like to think I saw her for who she was, not who I wanted her to be. Not a faultless role model or a stalwart support anchor, who would be there for me unerringly. I saw her as a human being, strong and vulnerable, full of joy and compassion and love and sorrow and anger and regret. Just like me.
The weight of how the world wants us to be can feel crushing. Pressures from friends, family, and society infiltrate our minds and influence our acts. But in the wild with ones we love, we get a reminder: just be.
Read more from Boulder-based freelancer writer Casey Flynn at: clippings.me/caseyflynn.