I wake with the moonlight shining on the tent and a silence that steals the wind. In my mind I count: How many girls? How many fires? How many times did I tell them to listen?
I pull my sneakers on and face the moon, almost full, on my walk to the bathroom, five hundred yards up the mountain. I carry a small battery-operated lantern that just makes the shadows scarier, so I change my light to moonlight only. My ghost-white guide carries my soul, my remorse, up the slope and into the bright fluorescence.
This could have been a much darker night. There could have been clouds, or rainfall, or hovering smoke from California fires. There could have been searchlights, and fear, and loss.
Now, at 2 a.m., the quiet peace of a mountain moon mocks me. My hands still shake, my stomach still rumbles, and I wonder if I will be capable of settling in to sleep.
We are brave, the girls and us. We light fires and jump off cliffs into questionable swimming holes; we explore mountainsides at dusk and flippantly toss our worry to the wind.
We have raised them this way: free range parenting. It’s a catchphrase tossed around too often, and today it got tossed around too sharply in my mind, in my hurried steps up and down a trail into the wilderness, the sun chasing the moon across the peaks in a silvery pink dance of beauty that could never be captured in the same moment of terror.
Yet, I captured it anyway. I took out my phone, snapped the pic, and hoped with everything inside of me that we were just on a hike. That it wasn’t almost dark. That they were safe.
Because sometimes a sunset is what we need to stay rational. Sometimes we need a midnight awakening in the pale light of the moon, a phone call at twilight, a faith in ourselves and our ability to forgive.
As I make my way back to the camp under the silvery shadows of the moon, I sneak down to their tent. All seven of them are in balls of sleeping bag exhaustion, the weight of our adventure heavy enough to allow them a deep sleep well into the morning. They are not chattering away on the picnic table as they did last night, stuffy noses from colds keeping them awake, their midnight jubilance keeping the rest of us up. They are as soundly asleep as I have ever seen, the terror of just hours before incomprehensible to their subconscious.
They are ours. Hers and mine, theirs and… ours. Safe, under the lilting light of an almost-full moon, ready for the sun to rise again. Ready for another sunset over these mountains, for another adventure, for a gap that next time we will fill with songs and shouts and working phones and paths that lead to… somewhere.
I follow the light of the moon back to my tent. And just like I tried to when I was sixteen, I almost catch it.
But, like their footsteps too far forward on the trail, its shifting light cannot be captured. Its translucent beauty can only guide my footsteps, one at a time, until the light of day can let us all begin again.