Steph Jagger is the author of the memoir Unbound: A Story of Snow and Self-Discovery (Harper Collins in 2017). She would like you to know that, although she’s always been adventurous and relatively athletic, she’s both naive and novice when it comes to the outdoors. She lives in Bainbridge Island, Washington, and is working on her second book, from which the below essay has been pulled.
In the spring of 2016 I took a trip to Montana – a weeklong jaunt through the northeast corner of Yellowstone and up into the mountains behind. Upon return, it became clear I had unfinished business in the area. I learned of this while shampooing my hair. There was a voice in my head and it would not shut up about “the colored stone”.
At first, I thought it was referring to a small purple crystal that has been by my side for the last four years, taken everywhere - in my pocket, in my bag, in my hand - but then the voice came in a little more clearly.
Not the purple stone. The yellow one.
But I don’t have a yellow st-. I paused for a few moments, before responding. Ooooooh Yellowstone. You want me to go back to Yellowstone.
I felt the Universe nodding.
I rinsed the remaining shampoo out of my hair, wrapped myself in a towel, and walked directly into my husband’s office – he works from home.
“I’m supposed to go back.” I told him. “To Yellowstone.”
“You should do it,” he said.
This is one of the things I love about Chris. He always responds to the whims that come to me by way of a mystical channel in our shower with some variation of: “You should do it.” If I told him I wanted to wear bright red lipstick, go to a coffee shop, and stare at people all day he would say, “You totally should.” If I told him I felt the need to go to Israel in order to write for three weeks and drink a gallon or three of wine daily, I can guarantee he would say, “You should. When are you going?”
The only time this string of words doesn’t pop out of him as a response is when I tell him I’m thinking about doing something involving the stove, or cooking anything of any sort. In those cases, I get an “Are you sure?” or a flat out, “No. No. Don’t do that.” There was no food preparation involved in my potential return to Yellowstone, so he stepped forward with his go-to response. He even went so far as to add, “Yep. I think that’s a great idea.”
“I wonder if I should go with someone?” I asked aloud.
“What about Nadia?” Chris asked. “She’s from there. Or what about Claire? You love traveling with Claire.”
“No…” My brain searched for the right person. “I don’t think either of them.”
And then, as if we were going for gold in synchronized swimming, skin-colored nose plugs and all, we turned to one another, and at the exact same time: “Mom!”
To be honest, Chris said, “Your mom.” But it was just a technicality, and we still scored a 10.0 from the judges.
Not even a minute later I was FaceTiming my parents. There was no debate to be had, or at least not one I was interested in. Over the last handful of years, I’ve come to believe it’s best to take immediate action on ideas that pop into my head like drunk squirrels. And if two drunk squirrels appear at once - one in my head the other in someone else’s, (in this case Chris’) – well, we gotta do this NOW. Otherwise my brain starts in on a list of overly logical list of reasons as to why I should not do said thing. Don’t get me wrong, logic and reason have a place in the world, I just don’t believe they should live in my head demanding that a bunch of squirrels get on a hamster wheel, so I listen to the squirrels. I call this steadfast squirrel faith.
Within a few rings my parents and their rosy, springtime cheeks popped onto the screen. After a little bit of small talk, I turned to look at my mom.
“Hey mom,” I said, “the reason I’m calling is because I’m wondering if you might like to go on a trip with me.”
She stared at me blankly and then looked at my dad.
I continued, hoping to fill in the gap.
“I was thinking we could take a road trip. Rent a car, drive through some national parks and camp along the way.”
“Do what?” she asked.
My mother was slightly confused. This was partly because of the Alzheimer’s, which makes a lot of things confusing, but mostly because I was suggesting that she and I do something together, as opposed to me and my dad. Let me explain - my mom and I have always gotten along, and there was that phase in my twenties when I was living at home and we totally bonded over watching back to backs of American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance, but it’s different with my dad. He and I are two peas in a stone-cold pod. My mother loves that pod, and occasionally tiptoes into it for a day or two, but she doesn’t live there. She has a whole different pod. My dad and I love shoes, and wine, and travel. My dad and I are storytellers. My dad and I went cat skiing together, and took Spanish classes in side-by-side desks before that trip to Cuba. And when I moved to an obscure West African country for six months back in 2003, it was Dad who convinced my mom that they should come for a visit. I may be an outlier in my family, a plate rather than a bowl, but if that outlier sits near anyone, it is my dad. He would have been in on a trip like white on rice. Not the camping part though. The guy keeps a small, black hair comb tucked into the breast pocket of his button-down shirt - he would not have been in on the camping part.
“It’s a road-trip,” I said in an attempt to clarify things. “In a car. With some camping. Just you and me.”
“But where would we sleep?” she asked.
“In a tent,” I said. “We would sleep in a tent.”
She looked at my dad again. Confused.
But my Dad’s eyes were lit up. He knew this was a rare ask, and that perhaps, if Alzheimer’s weren’t part of our family’s equation, this idea wouldn’t be either. It was the sweet part in our “bitter-fucking-sweet,” which is my nice name for Alzheimer’s. I call it other things too, like a “total-fucking-nightmare,” and the “FuckMyLife part of life,” but in this case it was the sweet, and my Dad knew it.
“You’d sleep outside,” he said to my mom. Then he turned to me and said, “She’d love to.”
“I would?” she asked, before quickly shrugging her shoulders and adding, “Well, okay. It sounds weird, but okay.”
And this “okay,” along with the shrug of her shoulders, was proof of my mother’s trust. She trusted me and she trusted my dad. She trusted that we’d made a solid plan, and she was good to just go along with it. And this wasn’t her with Alzheimer’s, this was her. She’d always been like that. My mom was never one to grasp for the reins, or to hold tightly onto anything but us. She didn’t need to be the one in control, she didn’t care to cast the deciding vote. In fact, I’m not sure she liked these jobs, or wanted them, which was astounding to me because these have always been my. Favorite. Jobs. On the planet.
I spent the first 30 years of my life white-knuckling everything around me – the entire world at large could have been found somewhere inside of my tight sweaty fist. When challenges were thrown my way, I held on so tightly you’d have thought I was one of those child rodeo stars - the ones that get chucked onto the back of a sheep before the sheep really gives ‘er in the middle of some ring. That was me, a mutton buster from birth. My palmar grasp was a sight to be seen. I wanted to control everything. I wanted to hold the reins of the Universe. Basically, I wanted to be God – not necessarily of other people (although I’m sure there’s one or 15 kids I went to elementary school with who would disagree), but of my own life, for sure. I wanted to God the heck out of my own life. The only thing my mom wants to God the heck out of is plastic bags. She folds them all neatly and places them all carefully in a special drawer beside the kitchen sink – it is a drawer of her disciples.
In essence, my mom has always been superb at going with the flow of a plan created by someone else, and I’ve always been superb at appearing as if I’m going with the flow of a plan created by someone else, when in fact, it’s been me all along, in a basement somewhere, attempting to move the levers, and shepherd the sheep, and dictate the rules, and decide all the things.
My grip loosened around the age of 30, mostly because of the journey that became my first memoir, Unbound, but I was still hanging on to a lot of things tightly. My mother and I were still on very opposite ends of the Need-to-Control-Shit spectrum.
At this point in the conversation, my dad took the logistical lead, “When were you thinking, Steph?”
It was April.
“We could go as early as May,” I said, “but…don’t you have a golf trip to Scotland or something? What if we timed it around that?”
My dad’s eyes lit up even more – seriously, I watched them as they turned into actual glowworms. It was perfect. It was the Grand Poobah of kismet. He could go on his boys trip and not spend the whole time worrying about his gal, and my mom could come with me on a trip that I knew, even if she couldn’t or wouldn’t be able to articulate it, would knock her socks off - like there she’d be, the whole time, standing in a pile of empty socks.
“I don’t want to pressure you, Mom. I know this is a lot to take in. Why don’t you sleep on it and we can talk again in the morning.”
Later the next day I sent them an email:
"Mom (and Dad because I know you’ll want the details),
Hopefully you slept on the idea of taking a road trip through Montana, and you woke up this morning feeling refreshed and like you just can’t wait to dive into a few days on the road where the elk and buffalo sing." I went on, detailing out the idea of my flying into Vancouver to pick her up and then the two of us flying to Bozeman – a flight on her own at this point was out of the question. I also listed a handful of places we might want to visit: Yellowstone National Park, Bozeman, Missoula, Glacier National Park, and then maybe up to Banff and Calgary before flying home.
And then I wrote the following: "Mom, there are lots of reasons I want to do this with you. I want to have an adventure with my mom. I want to sit in piping hot, hot springs and stare at buffalo with you. I want to see how cute you look in a sleeping bag. I want to drink champagne out of camping mugs and celebrate the woman you are and the woman you are teaching me to become. And I want to learn more about who I am, including why or why not I might want to become a mom myself (and I can’t imagine a better teacher for that than you).
If you think it might be something you would enjoy, I would love to have you by my side. Also, I promise good road music."
By the time I got to the last line I was crying. Before dialing up my folks I hadn’t put much thought into the “why” of the trip because, well, I was fueled by drunk squirrel faith, and it doesn’t really allow for clarity of purpose until afterwards. Now that it was afterwards, I realized that this trip was not just a trip. If I let it, if I got out of my own way, I knew something much larger was set to unfold. And I couldn’t help but think that the thing unfolding might just be me.
Within a few minutes of pressing SEND I got an email back from my dad. “Book it,” he wrote. So that’s just what I did. I booked the trip, and then, because supplies would be needed, I promptly drove myself to REI.
Inside the store, staring at a display of buck knives and bear spray, I started to panic. Because - wait for it - I’d never really been camping before. In fact, I could count on two hands the number of nights I’d slept in a tent, and at least three of those times were sleepover parties spent in the Kerrisdale Wilderness, otherwise known as a manicured lawn in my parents’ backyard. The rest were concert venues where it was very likely that I was very drunk, and the final few remaining times, although they could be counted as actual camping, occurred with friends who took care of the actual camping part. I honestly could not recount a time in my life, not ever, not once, where I’d built an actual fire.
“I can do this,” I whispered to myself. “We can do this.”
I looked at Chris, who was standing amongst the rock climbing gear.
“Hey, Love,” I yelled, hoisting a can of bear spray in the air, “are we gonna need this? Should I get this?”
His response – “Yes. Yes, you totally should.”
Six weeks later my mom and I hit the road in some sort of Thelma and Louise meets Still Alice roadie – two totally naïve, utterly inexperienced lady campers spending two weeks in the woods kind of deal. Oh, and Alzheimer’s was there too. This was going the best trip ever, or we were all gonna to die.