Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Missing the Point of Fire Point

As the days of this year have grown colder and filled with fewer hours of daylight, I have felt an undeniable pull to Northeast Iowa, particularly the limestone bluffs that shape the majesty of the Upper Mississippi River Valley. I wanted to stand, once again, on a overlook that never fails to make me feel connected to a greater sense of life and my smaller-than-minute place within it: Fire Point at Effigy Mounds National Monument.

Effigy Mounds is a protected burial site regarded as the sacred resting place of Native Americans who made this gorgeous land their home more than 1,000 years before the birth of Christ. These woodland people are known as Effigy Moundbuilders, as their culture seemed centered around the construction of burial mounds whose shapes and contents remain largely mysterious. I have been fascinated by these ancient land formations crafted by ancient people since my first visits to the mounds as a child. I visited on school field trips and with my parents and sister.

In 2007 I took Mark and our boys there; our hike marked the first time I was able to stand at Fire Point with them. My sense of triumph as a mother was born of accomplishment despite adversity. People with wheelchairs do not typically hike the paths at Effigy Mounds to enjoy the view from Fire Point. Instead, they take satisfaction in the scenery along a beautiful boardwalk built near the edge of the Yellow River Forest.

Yet I had wanted both my sons – the one who moves using his legs and the one who moves using his wheelchair – to see Fire Point, and because the National Park Service found a way to accommodate the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act while preserving the integrity of this sacred land, our family’s Fire Point hike had been possible. The park service had provided us with a gate opener that year, along with a detailed map to a maintenance road where we could park at the top of the bluff. From there, we easily joined a well-maintained part of the trail much closer to our destination. Mark and I had then alternated between pushing or pulling Stross in his wheelchair. We shoved through cedar chips and over twigs and patches of small rocks until we reached the vista of Fire Point.

I wanted, maybe even needed, that sense of familial accomplishment again. So much of life has felt overwhelming in recent months that I hoped to find spiritual renewal atop a bluff where I had sensed it before. Our family has often thrived despite unexpected adversity. The controlled adversity of a hike to Fire Point held the promise of renewed hope. I had wanted to get there so badly, that seeing a friend’s Facebook photo of a fall hike she had taken to a strikingly similar Mississippi bluff brought me to tears when I saw it last week. I simply could not let more fall weather disappear before taking my family back to Fire Point.

The weekends of our fall calendar have been full of high school events significant to our youngest son, now in his final year of high school. Of course I wanted to take him on the trip. I wanted to squeeze in yet one more fall memory for the four of us before he moves away and makes another city his second home, but he explained why that couldn’t be – at least not this fall. Maybe in the spring, he offered.

I needed to go this fall. I needed to refresh and renew during a time of decay. So this past Sunday, the remaining three of us awoke at sunrise with a plan to head to the river and then be back before sunset. The sky was a crisp, brilliant blue; the air temperature was unseasonably cool yet refreshing. The drive was absolutely beautiful with autumn colors painted on forested hillsides, through water-shaped coulees and across rolling fields in various stages of harvest. I was happy.

After stopping at various farmer’s markets and food stands along the way, we made it to Effigy Mounds. We did not make it to Fire Point.

Since our visit in 2007, the park service modified the visitation policy for persons with disabilities who wanted access to Fire Point. A ranger explained that it was now necessary to call ahead to request a personal escort. That ranger then would be required to accompany us on our hike. This new provision had become necessary after a group traveling with a recreational vehicle had used the access point but neglected to park their vehicle. Instead, they had driven on the hiking trail with their RV and had gotten stuck somewhere on the grounds of the sacred site.

Because we had not called ahead, no ranger was available.

Mark broke the news to me without awareness of its devastating impact. While he and Stross began exploring the visitor’s center, I remained near the entrance. I asked the ranger at the desk if what Mark had told me was true. He affirmed it, and repeated his offer to Mark to schedule a future date for our family; yet I needed that day.

Weary of life as I have recently known it, I wanted the empowerment of a redo. I needed Mark and me to conquer something challenging together. I needed our family to again prove that limitations were not always insurmountable, and I wanted to rest at a vantage point that native peoples had stood and looked across thousands of years before I breathed life.

I wanted to see the majestic Mississippi River from Fire Point; but that would not be. I soon became inconsolable.

Other people were returning from hikes while new groups began fresh climbs. No other wheelchair was in sight. Stross was chattering about Native Americans and making plans to tell his history professor about what he saw on our trip and asking me how much he could spend in the gift shop and telling Mark that his Boy Scout meeting time had been changed for that evening and wheeling in circles of excitement about the raptor demonstration taking place in the center’s auditorium and wondering aloud about the one set of small mounds just outside the center that he could get to and asking when we were going to head out on the boardwalk and if that walk could count as his exercise for the day.

It was all too much for me. It was all so identical to what my days are normally like. I had wanted something more. I had wanted something I was told I could not have that day, but I had planned for that day to be different.

Why had we gotten up so early and driven so far? Why had I been so happy moments earlier but near despondent now? Why did I have to be reminded that my life’s opportunities would forever be tied to my oldest son’s circumstances? Why was I still dealing with a brand of disappointment that was 21 years old on a day I had planned for personal renewal?

And why didn’t Mark automatically give my disappointment a voice? We used to communicate with one glance and instantly take residence in the same emotional space. Now I had to fight for words when I didn’t want to open my mouth. Speaking meant truth telling. Truth telling brought tears. Tears betrayed me to my son – and my husband.

Maybe what I had really wanted was to run away for just a bit. Mark offered that.

“I’ll stay here with Stross while you hike to Fire Point,” he said.

Sob. “No, I don’t want to be there without you.”

“Stross can wait in the car and be perfectly content watching a movie. We can probably be there and back in an hour,” he offered next.

“No!” I cried and then got angry. “I will not leave my son alone in a car. I can’t believe you even suggested it. No.”

Mark had known that wasn’t really an option. Stross cannot get out of our van independently, nor can he make wise decisions should a stranger knock on his van’s door. Mark just wanted to fix things and make them better.

“If you really want to get up there, I’ll try to help you push Stross up to Fire Point. The ranger said the first half-mile is the steepest.” Mark’s voice was reluctantly accommodating.

Now Stross was paying attention. “No!” he practically shouted and began to rally a mature pout. Then, embarrassed to potentially be the focus of attention on a tenuous trek, he proclaimed with great force, “I don’t want to go. You can’t make me.”

Stross is a 21-year-old man in a wheelchair yet in possession of a child’s mind. We can try to make him do things he does not want to, but we should not. I know that.

It was my turn to pout. I again said, “no.”

Mark was frustrated with my behavior more than Stross’. “Joy, it just won’t work today.”

We all waited for me to speak through tears.

“I know,” I said, then turned from them both. “Just leave me alone for a bit.”

Mark now had two children in his charge: one easily distracted and eager to continue the excitement of the day and one crushed by life’s relentless inequity.

I would like to report on some new epiphany birthed by this disappointment or hope that my grownup meltdown on Sunday held a redemptive power equivalent to my desired spiritual renewal. Nothing. I have nothing to report or proclaim.

There is this: I was still crying when I awoke Monday. My husband held me while I cried and offered to call Effigy Mounds to make reservations for a visit to Fire Point on Tuesday, or to find someone to serve as respite for Stross while he and I made the trek alone. It is supposed to rain on Tuesday. I don’t want to stand on Fire Point, crying in the rain.

More than that: I don’t want to be reduced to tears because I am unexpectedly reminded that life doesn’t always turn out as planned. I thought I had learned that lesson decades ago.

Is it spiritual renewal I am in search of or a life reset button? I have never wanted to hit reset before; I don’t really think that’s what it is now.

I have walked where ancient people once walked; I have yet to go where they dared to go, but I will get there in time.

What my life is remains a mystery. I can only hope for ample time during a brilliant autumn to enjoy beautiful scenery with the ones I love most. That happened on Sunday. What more should I want?

. . .

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