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Linda visited Mount Rainier as a way to honor her mother and remember some of her favorite memories. Photo by Dale Slater.

Miles for Memories: Hiking to Honor a Loved One

Among the trees, rivers and wild creatures, we recalibrate and remember our place in the natural circle of life | by Cassandra Overby

For many outdoor enthusiasts, hiking is a way to remember that we’re part of something bigger. Among the trees, rivers and wild creatures, we recalibrate and remember our place in the natural circle of life. It’s an experience that can make us feel completely alive — and it’s also the perfect opportunity to honor a loved one who has died.

A memorial hiking season

Linda Roe was cleaning out her recently deceased mother’s belongings in the spring of 2016 when she came across the well-worn leather hiking hat that had been one of her mother’s most treasured possessions. Along with the hat was a striking photo of Linda’s mom in her younger days, long before she was a wife or mother, on top of Longs Peak in Colorado. To Linda, that photo captured the essence of her mother, whose first love was always the mountains.

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“She grew up in Wisconsin,” Linda said. “Her dad liked to hunt, and they took a trip out to the Northwest when she was a young teenager. She fell in love with the mountains out here. She went to college in Wisconsin, but when she graduated and started looking for grad schools, she looked at the map and applied to the ones near mountains. She ended up in Boulder, Colorado, and started hiking there.” It was in grad school that Linda’s mom met her dad. Eventually, the couple made their way to Washington, where they raised Linda and her siblings. The family spent lots of time outside. Most of Linda’s favorite childhood memories involve exploring the great outdoors with her mom.

“She was a real birder,” Linda said. “She loved the birds and the flowers. We’d go camping and she’d always have this big bag of all the guidebooks and binoculars. She was a Girl Scout leader and she’d take us all out camping and backpacking.”

Through it all, Linda’s mom sported her favorite hiking hat. Once Linda found it — and the photo — an idea started to form, one that would celebrate Linda’s favorite memories of her mom, rather than dwelling on the end of her life.

“I wanted to honor her memory,” Linda said. “I wanted to remember her out hiking and wearing the hat, not her last 4 years. I went down and got the picture laminated and pinned it on the hat. That year I hiked with her hat on all summer long. And I dedicated my Hike-a-Thon to her memory.”

As Linda hiked, she thought about her mom and their favorite memories together. “I remembered her and the times we were out in the woods and out at Mount Rainier, the times we were just hiking or her telling me all about the flowers,” Linda said.

Often as Linda hiked, people asked about the photo on the hat. It was a chance for Linda to share a little about the woman who’d meant so much to her — even if she got a little choked up.

“For the most part, I was able to hold it together,” she said.

Toward the end of summer, Linda was joined by her brother for a memorial hike at Mount Rainier. The hike was extra special because of how much their mom had loved Mount Rainier and how many happy memories they’d made there as a family.

“I wanted to honor her memory,” Linda said. “I wanted to remember her out hiking and wearing the hat"

Because Mount Rainier held such meaning, it was more emotionally difficult than the other hikes.

“One of the rangers came by and asked me about the picture on my hat and I just about lost it,” Linda said.

As difficult as it was to return to Mount Rainier without her mother, it’s an experience that Linda was ultimately grateful for.

“The Mount Rainier hike was really special,” she said. “Probably of all of the hikes I did wearing the hat with her on it, that was probably the most healing.”

Looking back on the 2016 hiking season, the healing it brought is a big reason Linda considers her hikes to honor her mom a success.

“It was a good thing to do,” she said. “It made me feel better and get through some of the grief.”

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Flowers at Mount Rainier. Photo by Linda Roe.

An annual memorial hike

Each year on Father’s Day, Judy Sea does a solo hike to honor her dad. It’s a tradition she started about 10 years ago, when she could no longer bear a traditional Father’s Day sans father.

“Father’s Day is such a big deal if you’ve lost your father,” she said. “It’s always really hard for me. I never want to do anything. This is a way to honor him. And for me to get out. Otherwise, I’d just sit at home and think about it.”

Outside is where Judy feels closest to her dad.

“He just loved being outdoors,” Judy said.

He passed that on to Judy.

“I love hiking,” she said. “It’s so peaceful. I’m constantly on the WTA app. I probably look at it 12 times a day… I’m obsessed. In My Backpack there are something like 200 hikes.”

Even though she normally hikes all sorts of trails — and with company — there’s a specific kind of trail experience that Judy seeks out for her Father’s Day hikes.

“I’m an incredible extrovert,” she said. “I love talking to everyone on hikes. I always say hi to every other person. (But on Father’s Day) I pick trails where I won’t see a lot of people. And I go early.”

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Photo by Chris Thayer.

The quiet solitude allows Judy the space she needs to process the difficult emotions that Father’s Day brings up.

“It’s a way for me to just think about my dad with no interruptions,” she said. “Laugh. Cry.”

As Judy hikes, she often replays her favorite memories of her dad.

“He was a very funny, comical man,” she said. “The funniest person I’ve ever known. He had this whole box of practical jokes. There was a store in downtown Seattle called the Trick and Puzzle Store and he used to take us there when we were kids.”

Good memories — and time on trail to think about those memories — have done wonders for Judy. Because of hiking, she ends each Father’s Day feeling much better than when she started.

“(Hiking) is the best thing I could do on Father’s Day,” she said. “It’s really good for me to get outside. It’s good therapy. I feel so good when I come back.”

Honor your loved one with a memorial bench

Many city, county, state and national parks have programs where you can purchase a memorial bench, sometimes on a trail and oftentimes with a plaque, to honor a loved one. If you’d like to purchase a memorial bench, contact the government office or organization that owns the land you’d like the bench on. Most benches cost between $1,500 and $2,500. Note: No memorial plaques or structures are allowed on national forests or in wilderness areas but the U.S. Forest Service does have a plant-a-tree program.

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Photo by Rachel Emmans.

Rules and etiquette for scattering your loved one’s ashes

Scattering your loved one’s ashes in nature — or even on a memorial hike — can be a meaningful experience. Here’s what you need to know.

1

Always ask permission, but generally you can scatter ashes on the following:

  • Private land: With permission from the land owner.
  • State trust uplands: With permission from the regional manager.
  • Public waterways under state control (including Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca, lakes, rivers and streams).
  • Ferries (water scattering): Allowed; must book at least 5 days in advance via an online form. Learn more.
  • Pacific Ocean (at least 3 miles from shore): Allowed but must report within 30 days. Learn more.
  • National parks: With permission from the chief park ranger.
  • National forests: Not allowed.
2

Make sure your gathering doesn’t block or impede the area for others.

3

Stand upwind.

4

Don’t leave ashes in a pile that people can recognize. Scatter them widely so they blend into the landscape.

5

Scatter only the contents of the urn. There’s usually a second identification label or a numbered metal disc inside the container, so be sure to remove this and dispose of it separately, along with the container.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Washington Trails magazine.  Support trails as a member WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.