Romance in the Stone

Below  is a short explanation of what brought me to carry, on foot a five pound rock from Canada to Mexico
in 2007.  It is a story of beast of burden, romance in the stone, sacrifice, and yielding a great surprise.  Interesting enough,
 the advents after this hike take a strange and unpredictable turn, but thats is a whole other story. 
This piece was originally written for Backpacker Magazine.  Enjoy.
Rue McKenrick

The Chinese Wall in Montana, that’s right I said Montana not China. Is a large rock escarpment forming the Continental Divide in the Bob Marshal Wilderness. It was early morning and the heavy precipitation from the previous evening still clung to the surrounding vegetation. A glance at the wall gave way to third dimensional manifestations of faces of medieval knights all cluttered together. The effects of the geological event known as the Lewis Up Thrust left the eye following the twist and folds in the rock. This caused a non-drug induced psychedelic visual. The awe of the Wall put Donna and I into a contemplative trance.
Just a week earlier Donna and I had begun the three thousand mile thru-hike of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. The sun soaked into our porous bodies. I trekked just behind Donna as I always do. She stopped and turned with a frozen expression on her face. I said, “ What is it darling?” With a half smile she said, “Well this might be a deal breaker but I want to get married.” See, in our seven and a half years Donna had only mentioned marriage a handful of times. Mostly to reiterate how marriage was not important to her. We both knew how much we loved each other and no piece of paper was as important as our personal commitment. Before I could say anything she said, “Wait there is more.” Maybe she was going to tell me that she had discovered that in fact she was a lesbian. She looked at me almost ashamed of her misjudgment. “I think I want to have children.” Now I was truly shocked. A very uncomfortable feeling came over me. Donna had always been adamant that she absolutely loved working with children but that she did not want to have children of her own. Still shocked I stared back into her eyes hard. She finally asked what my thoughts were. Before I could answer she turned back toward the trail and said, “ Well just tell me by the end of the trail.”  I responded, “ Okay darling we will talk at the end of the trail.” We did not speak for the next couple of hours. I kept asking myself, where the heck did that come from. We were having such a nice morning, but life is not always just “nice.” There comes a time to be serious…a time to evaluate our existence and the future of that existence. I thought about the prospects as we walked but could not make any ground. My feet headed south but my head headed in circles. Wait; let me say the word head one more time. Head. Please do not think badly of me but I really did not want children or anything really. I liked my life just the way it was. It was painful to imagine life without Donna, my number one gal pal.
My feet became heavy as well as my heart. It was becoming difficult to push on. I could not in good conscious marry this girl if I did not intend on committing myself fully. And she was not a girl at all. No she was a fully mature woman. Suddenly I felt as a child, as a young boy free of responsibility. That could not be further from the truth. I was a focused young man that had sacrificed everything to complete several long- distance backpacking trails. I tried to visualize myself as a husband and a father. I could not. The next day we hiked with two other backpackers. The morning was quiet but soon became eventful. While hiking far in the rear, I heard a thrashing through the forest. I thought to myself, oh great it is Grizzly time! I turned sharply to see it’s brown coat charging directly for me. I got out of the way and screamed at the top of my lungs for Donna and the others to get out of the way. It (what I realized was a pack horse) ran straight for them but then veered off into the forest. It was horrifying watching the horse charge through branches and brush at full tilt. Certainly it had sliced and injured itself badly. I was terrified at the thought of losing Donna to the powerful animal.
We ascended all afternoon following the Straight Creek Drainage. At last by dark we reached the top. There were thousands of acres of charred forest. It appeared that not one tree had survived the fire, yet the area was quite majestic. The scenenary moved me with great emotion. The sound of Donna’s voice echoed in my head softly. I stared into the headwaters and was suddenly struck with inspiration. I saw a rock on the margin of Straight Creek. I picked it up, looked it over for a minute, and then placed it into my pack. At that moment I made a vow silently to myself. I would carry this five-pound rock the whole way and give it to her when I asked her to marry me. If in time I got tired of carrying the heavy rock, I would throw it away and not ask Donna to marry me. The rock would be a symbol, a test, and a reminder. It was symbolic because it represented the strong bond between us. It would act as a test constantly challenging me not to chuck it into oblivion. In other words “for better or for worse.” Finally it would serve as a reminder. It was  the proverbial string tied around one’s finger in order to remind me to concentrate on the future.
A month and a half passed. We left Togowtee Pass Area in an attempt to cut around the Hardscrabble Fire. We made it just a couple of miles from the road when we saw huge plumes of smoke. It cannot be the same fire. The Hardscrabble Fire must be at least fifteen miles from here. In fact, a new fire had just broken out blocking our alternate route. We did our best to make our way around this new fire. We were terrified as we watched the crowns of the evergreens around us bursting. We made it to safety but the next few days of bushwhacking were more than unkind. Not only that, but a large pool of water soaked us while we tried to sleep. Our supplies were dwindling and we still had a week until resupply. Additionally,  we had just taken five days off due to health problems and now we were getting even further behind. It stormed violently everyday now and this formed large clumps of earth on our shoes, making it almost impossible to walk.
It was then that I decide that I must marry Donna. It was also then that I decided that I needed to give Donna a more attractive token of our engagement. Hey, if I was not going to give her a pretty diamond ring the least I could do was present her with some other small, rough yet precious stone. I looked down at my feet and saw a stone that resembled a shiny, serrated piece of glass. Perfect. I scooped it up, wrapped it in toilet paper and placed with the rock in my pack.
I could not believe Donna’s strength and resolve. I admired her will in the face of adversity. That same day Donna told me that she wanted to leave the trail. She was absolutely exhausted. It was like when you hear the stories of famous people getting burned out from the road. She was stressed about the prospect of not making it through the snows of Colorado in time. The exhaustion and stress were whittling their way into her psyche. Donna was concerned about how her leaving the trail would affect our relationship. Of course I was not worried because I was still going to ask her to be my wife.   She did not know that yet, because I was trying desperately to keep it a secret.
After a couple days of consideration she realized it was impossible to miss this amazing experience. She learned to relax more and just focus on short-term goals. The immensity of a thru-hike can be more than overwhelming. I learned to stop making the two of us stressed out by always pushing too hard and focusing too much on our progress. The only good thing that would come of Donna leaving was that I would not have to carry these heavy rocks anymore. I could send them with her when she left. How selfish is that? Donna is one of the toughest people I have ever met.
I kept the rock and stone concealed in an inside pocket of my Granite Gear, Vapor Trails Backpack. The pocket held them secure by a drawl cord so they would not accidentally fall out into view. Even with this I still had to be protective of my pack. When Donna would ask for an item from my pack, I would quickly drop what I was doing and run over and retrieve it for her. Other times I would see her going into my pack and I would try to ask calmly that she not do that. She noticed this overprotection and would ask me what my problem was. I would try to dispel her concern by saying that I just did not want her to rearrange my gear. Essentially, I had certain items in my backpack that I wished to remain accessible and her moving these items could cause them to become well, inaccessible.   I would be left having to repack the whole thing. Donna felt this was a bit obsessive yet she was compassionate and did not bother me about it.   
Then there were nights when we could not manage to get the tarp stakes into the ground. I would say that she was going to have to fetch us a rock. She would start looking about, usually in the dark, but there were no rocks to be found. I would sneak into my pack and grab the large engagement hammer stone. Before she knew it I was pounding in all of the stakes. She would say, “Hey! Where did you find that rock?” I would reply “Well, it was sitting right there in front of you. At other times I would say things to other backpackers like “My pack is so heavy someone must have put rocks in it.” This was not my way of getting my kicks, but rather a way of coping with the burden. Fact is that Donna saw the stone on numerous occasions. For instance, I used it most nights to prop our stove and cook pot against as a spill guard. Though Donna often saw it, the trick was to only let her touch it or see it at nighttime when it was impossible to identify.
Then there was the burden that I mentioned. On days when Donna would become discouraged with me or vice versa, I would want to chuck the rock off the mountain or into the drink, but rarely. I remember the mantra that held me so close and connected to the trail and Donna.  For better or for worse. One day after beginning our daily hike I had an unusual feeling. I thought to myself “Gee, my pack feels light”. Instantly I felt a sharp shock in my heart. Oh no, I had left the rock at camp. See, I hid the large rock under our ground cloth at night because every evening I slept on top of my backpack. This added extra comfort and insulation. I quickly retrieved them and Donna was not the wiser.
We were approaching the Mexican Border, marking the end of our journey. I began to feel self-conscious of my decision to carry the rock and stone. What if she just didn’t get it? What if I could not put into words what it meant to give her these rocks and why? What if she thought the whole idea was ridiculous. Why would someone weigh themselves down so much, intentionally? Then I assured myself of her understanding. She would think this is the most wonderful thing in the world. I still was not sure.
On November 7 we hiked into Mexico, completing the Continental Divide Trail. I decided not to ask her at the border. We were celebrating with other people and I wanted it to just be the two of us. Besides, finishing the CDT is enough excitement for one day. I knew that Donna and I were going to spend a couple of days at some hot springs on the Gila River. This would be the perfect romantic place to surprise her.
It was a cold and clear night. We both warmed ourselves by a fire that I had built. Donna was totally relaxed and peaceful. I on the other hand was becoming nervous. I had tried to call her father to ask for her hand in marriage. I could never get away from Donna to sneak around and successfully connect with him on the phone. Sorry Pops, but I could not miss this perfect moment. The stars cast a light onto the cliffs rising above the Gila River beside us. The fire smelled wonderful and shone on her beautiful face.
I retrieved the rock and stone from their hiding place. Finally after all these months, the time had come. I exhaled deeply and sat beside her and the flames. I began to tell her the story of the rock and the stone. It turned out that I did not have to re- explain anything. She understood completely why I had done this and why she was getting a rock instead of a diamond ring and she was loving it! She was in total disbelief, the good kind. She assured me that this meant so much to her. The tears were streaming down both of our faces as we laughed and embraced. She said YES!