Life is tough.

While we’re on the subject, I guess I’ll share the other mantra that I carried out of Hiram (many lessons, but just these two mantras): Life is tough.

Hiram owns an off-the-grid camp on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Classes go up there sometimes, and they have a five-day backpacking trip for first year students to kick off their college lives. It’s called Northwoods, and I was lucky enough to go there as a student for one class, a TA for another, a guide for the first year experience, and a whole summer of working there right after graduation. It’s near the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and I hiked portions of the Lakeshore Trail during those trips. One of my “bucket list” items is to hike the whole thing (around 40 miles).

One site on the Lakeshore has a tree growing on a rock. It’s hard to get the right angle to see what is going on, so I’m going to link a couple of pictures.

Called “The Lucky Tree of Chapel Rock,” the tree grows out of a rock that has a massive hole in it, a good twenty feet or more from the rest of the cliff face. A few long roots reach back to the mainland; the others wrap into that donut hole.

The hole is massive. The tree is far out there.

Rick on the beach at Chapel Rock
Rick on the beach at Chapel Rock. Pre-instagram; this was taken with a disposable camera that had a light leak, I think.

The second time I went to Northwoods, at the midpoint of a long hike, I noticed Rick just standing and staring at the tree. It is striking. I stood beside him for a long time. He had had a rough year, and I rarely knew what to say. We had worked together for a long time, though, and we were comfortable with the silence. He was churning on something, and finally, he said, “Life is tough.” He paused for effect, and pointed at the tree. “I mean, life is tough.” The living things–are tenacious. They desperately want to keep living.

Rick, not looking super tough.
Rick, not looking super tough.

Rick gave me many gifts, including an introduction to Wallace Stevens, a new appreciation of Robert Frost, support for my ambitious directing projects, careful counsel when things didn’t go perfectly. The one that comes back each time I’m feeling overwhelmed, though, is just this image of the tree, and the acknowledgement that Life is Tough.

It’s not always tough. It doesn’t always manage to keep on living. One of the girls who was with us on that trip the year before committed suicide in the fall, and I found myself wondering what Life is Tough meant in the shockwave of her death.

Allison at Northwoods, spring 2002.
Allison at Northwoods, spring 2002.

But it meant that mostly, Life keeps on Living. She died over a decade ago, and there are days–most days–when she doesn’t cross my mind. But sometimes she does, and I remember, not her death, but her life. I remember how vibrant she was and how deeply she loved the living things of this earth.

When I think of her, I think of this photograph.

northwoods-3
Allison on the beach at Chapel Rock. So tiny, and so tough.

I took it on the beach at Chapel Rock, with a borrowed disposable camera. She was collecting rocks and laying them in careful patterns, fully absorbed in her work. The water behind her gleamed turquoise. The sun shone in her dark hair. Her lines of rocks stretched into the distance.

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