* Editor’s note: Marion is taking the day off. This column first ran in 2007.
Some people go all mushy over a special meal (ratatouille, in a memorable movie), an old photograph, or a remembered tune. For me, a word can do it.
A few years ago, I’d never seen the word. Now I know that a marmot is a burrowing mammal, related to the woodchuck, that looks like an over-sized, big-eyed guinea pig.
The word “marmot” makes me go all mushy in a Mom sort of way. It brings me to the memory of our family trip to Alaska in 1999, one of our last before my daughter entered college.
My husband, my kids, and I were clambering up an intriguing small rock mountain in Denali National Park when something large and furry scurried ahead. It settled on a rock above us.
We stared at it. It stared at us. Quietly poking each other and pointing, we stared some more. We couldn’t put a name on the animal, because we’d never seen one, but we were full of curiosity and wonder.
It was one of those magic moments of family when you come together over something that every person loves.
At the Visitors Center, we identified our new friend as a marmot, and for the rest of the trip we exclaimed over our luck in seeing him. When we got home, a backpacker told me that marmots can be found right here in the Sierra. Having no plans to take up backpacking, I doubted I’d see one.
Perhaps that’s why I got excited three weeks ago, when my husband and I drove into Sequoia National Forest, and the handout we received mentioned marmots. They were mixed in with bears, coyotes, deer, and eagles–a list of animals we might see–as if they were nothing special.
But my heart fluttered a bit.
We stayed at Sequoia High Camp where we were told that the “must do” hike was three miles to Mitchell Peak at 10,500 feet.
Like backpacking, climbing is something I’ve never tried.
We spent the first day acclimating to 8,500 feet and studying the topo map. Why were there so many squiggly lines around Mitchell Peak? If I normally walk three miles in an hour, why did people say the round trip would take all day?
Finally, we started off, with a vague idea that the hike would be steep.
Using a new hiking pole, I trotted up the initial switchbacks with relative ease. My breath was noisy, but not heavy — yet.
After a brief period of flatness, the trail turned steep and rugged. The faces of backpackers I’ve known started passing through my mind as I remembered their remarks about heavy packs, long loops in the forest, and long treks to camp.
How do they do it? Why? I’m only carrying a daypack, but my legs are leaden and my breath is louder than a freight train. Will my husband understand if I ask to turn around?
Looking pale himself, he suggests a rest. I suggest the next one. A pattern emerges. Climb for five minutes. Rest for five minutes. I’m happy that we’re the first ones on the mountain: no one can see us act so darn old.
Meanwhile, looking up, I see our destination. Trees end. Rocks begin. We’ve been promised a fabulous view of surrounding peaks. If it’s not heaven, it will be close.
So I trudge on, my mind suddenly full of Mt. Everest. How do people climb at 29,000 feet wearing heavy clothes, fighting snow, breathing oxygen from tanks? Why do they do it? People perish on Everest all the time, sometimes left to die by other climbers. My chest hurts. My legs feel like jelly. If I stop too long, I might not continue.
“Bob,” I call to my husband. “If we pass any dying people, let’s just keep going.”
He laughs, but looks at me a little funny.
Suddenly, the trees drop away and we are on the rock face. Now we’re scrambling more than walking, and the path is no longer clear. But I can see the top of the mountain. My breath is as loud as a cannon, and I catch my foot on a rock when Bob turns to me and gestures for me to pass him the camera.
“I think I see a marmot,” he says.
Come on, now. Life is never that neat. Climb a mountain and get your secret wish? But something moved up there. Something furry and brown.
With extreme quiet and caution, suppressing all loud breathing, Bob and I pull ourselves to the very top. We glance in all directions, looking carefully among the rocks. After a while, we give up on the animal and take in the larger view, snapping photos of the stunning adjoining peaks. We pull out our lunch.
As if we had sounded a bell, company arrives. By the time he comes completely in sight, I’m shaky, I’m tearful. I’ve been given a gift, a moment of magic from the universe.
Actually, 10 minutes of magic.
The marmot comes close, studies a coke can, nibbles crumbs from my sandwich, inspects Bob’s shoe. I snap photos, anticipating our children’s delight as if they were standing in front of me.
Later we learn that none of the other hikers on Mitchell Peak that day or the next day saw a marmot.
He was ours.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org