Authors: Donald S. Smurthwaite
Tags: #ride, #retirement home, #cross country, #North Dakota, #family, #car, #road trip, #bountiful, #Utah, #assisted living, #graduate, #Coming of age, #heritage, #loyal, #retirement, #uncle, #adventure, #money, #nephew, #trip, #kinship
My head will swim. I will feel a little dizzy. I will remember that moment forever, like when Daisy walked into the back of that small chapel, wobbling on her high heels in her homemade dress, and Loyal, just back from a war and a mission, couldn’t take his eyes off her.
That’s when I will know what I know.
I Bag a Mountain, No Mean Feat for a Man My Age
Levi came back to the cabin, and I could tell he was very happy. Was it our trek up the stream, our expedition to the high reaches of the mountains, our glorious day of trying to net the cunning trout?
I don’t think so.
Our reasons for happiness often are subtle.
This is what you looked like when you went to church that first time and came home and kept repeating the name Daisy.
Those were my thoughts, strong and clear as Levi threw open the door to the room and piped up, “Hello, old fishing buddy.” Some moments we remember forever. I have a feeling that a conversation high in Montana’s mountains is one of those moments for Levi, as mine was the first time I saw Daisy.
I believe my great-nephew has spoken to his heartthrob, the beautiful Miss Rachel. How I know she is beautiful is this: She seems to enjoy Levi’s company. She seems to see him for his strengths, not his weaknesses. She seems to bring about the best in him. For these reasons, she must be a beautiful soul.
The rest of our day, at least the small sliver that was left of it, passes uneventfully. We stay in the cabin, eat leftover food from our fishing expedition, and stretch out and watch a baseball game on the cable television channel. It was, I confess, a treat for me. I have always enjoyed baseball, and since I had not bothered to get my television set repaired or replaced when it broke a few years ago, it was the first game I had seen in a long time.
We turn off the lights before ten, and I quickly drift off to sleep punctuated by sweet dreams of mountain meadow grass, tall, straight pine trees, and the sweet sound of a rushing mountain stream.
I awake at first light. Levi stirs. We pack our gear, pay the ebullient one, Marty, for our lodging, and head toward the red car.
“I talked with Marty a bit. He told me how to get over the mountains. He told me which road to take. He said it was crooked but spectacular. He said about halfway up we cross into Wyoming, and we can head straight south and get to Utah or drive west toward Yellowstone and come out in Idaho. Let’s just follow our nose. Let’s flip a coin, follow the sun, or play ‘eeny, meeny, miny, moe’ and figure out which way we’ll go.”
Levi had maintained his high spirits through the night. I believe him to be in love.
“Our plan of not having a plan sounds most interesting,” I tell him. “We will be feathers on the wind. We will follow our hearts and follow our instincts. We will sail with a fair breeze behind us.”
The day is, again, magnificent. Clear skies, a gentle wind, the promise of warmth in the afternoon chasing away the mild chill of the morning.
We quickly arrive at the junction of roads and turn to the south, driving up a high-walled canyon with yet another stream bubbling away toward the ocean. The Atlantic Ocean, I remind myself, or more properly, the Gulf of Mexico. We still had not crossed over to the west side of the Great Divide.
We journey up, always up, that first hour. Gradually, the canyon gave way to a high stone plateau. Trees become scarce as we cross above the timber line. Little lakes shimmer in the sun, pockmarking the high granite plain we twisted through. I wonder if sleek-sided rainbow trout hid in these blue waters.
I think this:
How did He think of it all? How did He plan it? Does He know each lake, pond, and stream? What does He call them in the Adamic tongue? What love He must have felt as He designed and breathed warm life to our earth.
Levi is quiet. The scenery is unparalleled. Even he, raised in the shadow of a mountain range, is taken aback by it. Once, his voice filled with awe, he said softly, “This place. This place seems like the roof to the world.”
And I agree with him. Were it night, I believe I could have reached out to one of my beloved stars, caressed it in my hand, tucked it in my pocket, and taken it away with me.
Ahead of us, we finally see the land break and give way, a gentle slope leaning toward a high mountain valley. A sign says we are at the crest, and the elevation is 10,900 feet. Before us, like a giant quilt, we see a patchwork of land: scrubby trees, the sparkling lakes, boulders as large as a house, the barren stone plains.
Without explanation, Levi pulls over at a small turnout next to a lake. Then he drives us across a rough and bumpy dirt road that leads away from the highway. We bounce and jostle down the road, which really is little more than two uneven tracks scratched across the land. We leave the small lake in the distance. Finally he stops, looks around, and I see a glimmer of a smile. We are, perhaps, a couple of miles away from the loopy mountain highway.
“We’re here,” he announces.
“And where is here, if I may ask?”
“Here. This is the place.”
“That sounds vaguely familiar. What place?”
“Our mountain. The mountain we will climb. You’ll bag your first peak here, Uncle Loyal.”
He nods toward a modest ridge above the road. We are on the north side of the mountain, and a few bristly trees provide us with a bit of shade as we sit in the car. Although I am a man of the plains and claim no expertise regarding mountains, the lumpy upwelling of land seems to me very much like a hill rather than a mountain. Real mountains, I could see, are on both sides of the road, farther back, craggy and pointed. They, in late August, still have pockets of snow tucked into their shadowy parts.
“We are going to climb a mountain. Remember my promise? It was the second promise. Fish first. Climb mountain second. One down, one to go. Before we get you to . . .” and here, his voice trails off. “Before we get you to wherever, Utah, whatever, we are going to take care of this. We are going to get you on top of that mountain,” he says, gesturing to the rounded ridge on the other side of the lake. “Today, we tackle this mountain, tomorrow, a new mountain, one that is taller. Next week, maybe we’ll be on the top of Everest.”
I ask, with caution and care, “Is that indeed a mountain, Levi?”
He scrunches up his face a bit. I can see that he is slightly annoyed with me.
“No doubt. It’s a mountain, Uncle Loyal. A genuine, real mountain. I bet it’s eleven thousand feet up, and that’s higher than anything east of the Mississippi and a lot of places west of it. You need to remember something, Uncle Loyal. Mountains are always steeper than you think. You look at a climb and you think, piece of cake, easy, and then you find yourself on all fours, making about fifty yards an hour, holding on to a one-inch ledge for your life and hoping that your life insurance is paid up. I know. I’ve done it. It’s a blast.
Mountains are always steeper than you first think.
A lot of people have found that out the hard way. Hiking to the top of this one will make you break a sweat. It looks easy, but it isn’t. You’ll feel that. Even a little exercise, and your heart will be beating like a drum at this elevation, and I don’t want to have to be the one to explain to Barbara that we lost you while climbing a mountain. Something tells me she wouldn’t take that news very well.”
His logic and sincerity convince me. “Let’s climb my first mountain. Eh?”
He grabs a couple of bottles of water from the backseat. He jumps out of the car and rouses around in the trunk. Just as I am getting out of the car, he hands me my sweater, and I notice him pulling on a sweatshirt with a hood.
“For when we get to the top. We’ll plan to rest up there, take a look around. At the top, the wind will be blowing, and you’ll get chilled. Wrap it around your waist now, if you want to, but you’ll be glad that you took it later on.”
“How long will it take to climb the peak?”
He spies the hill with an expert eye. “An hour. At least. Steeper than you think. This isn’t like anything you’ve seen back home. And I think there’s a little snow pillow at the top.”
So we start out. A slow, even pace, Levi in front, me behind. I must admit, he was correct about hiking at high altitudes. I become winded in the first ten minutes. Levi is most attentive, continually glancing my way, asking me how I am doing, if I am tired or short on breath. The first few times, I answer that I’m fine. Then, again I answer fine, but my head is aching and my chest heaving, and the word
comes as a gasp and a puff.
“You’re tougher than I am. I’m a little tired myself,” he says. “Let’s pull up here and sit. Couple of rocks will make a good easy chair.”
It’s a little game. I know it and he knows it. I appreciate his grace: pretending he’s the one who’s winded and worn. His ruse is to save my face and feelings. I sit down eagerly on a white rock speckled with black spots and turn to see how far we’ve come. I am surprised, even shocked, to see that we are perhaps a quarter mile away and a hundred feet above the small, bean-shaped lake that we had left behind. I can see the ripples across the lake, driven by a wind that we had not yet felt. The red car looks like a little boy’s toy on the two faint tracks of road. I think, when we look behind, it is so often beautiful. We should look behind us more than we do.
Levi uncaps his water and swigs a long drink. My mouth is also dry, and I follow his lead. He reaches into his sweatshirt pocket and brings out a package of beef jerky.
“For energy,” he says, handing it to me.
“For energy,” I say and break off a piece of the salty, chewy meat and savor it. All seemed good, all seemed right at that moment. I can’t not think of the strange events of my life that led me to this point. A great-nephew from nowhere, so eager and robust, so driven, and in part, so confused, who had whipped across the plains to pick me up. Someone who planned originally to drive straight through, then, I assume, collect a check, wish me luck, and whisk away again from my life and back into his.
But how was it that we came to this? Sitting near the top of a hill or ridge or mountain, the day after fishing. Looking down toward a dazzling jewel of a lake, under a milky-white sky. I realized many miles ago that Levi was changing before my eyes. And on this point of the journey, I realized another truth: I was changing as well. Because of the love that I felt for this bold, impetuous, bright, and impish great-nephew of mine, I also was learning new things.
Hidden treasures, hidden knowledge, hidden wisdom
, I thought. All here before me, all not so far from my home on the plains, but time and things to do got in my way, and I missed mountains and streams and, more so, people and family, Levi included.
If we take the time.
If we only take the time to learn about each other, to recognize the seeds of godliness and divinity in each of us. If we only stopped and saw the wonder that each human possesses. I suppose our theology implies that we were each, according to our measures, millions of years in the making, each of us a work so complex, so intricate, shaped with so much care, depth, and love. Why, then, do we not invest the time to understand each other better, to appreciate God’s handiwork in each of us, at every turn in our lives? It’s all there
. It’s all there.
All at our fingertips.
But we are too busy, and we get distracted and our accomplishments misplaced.
At that point, I’m not too busy, sitting on my rock, in the shadow of an unnamed ridge somewhere along the Continental Divide. I feel a regret that what I was thinking, this recognition, this way of seeing life in a different and more bold way, came to me only after eight decades plus two years.
So I had learned. I felt wise for a moment, and then that went away because it had taken me so long to learn this simple lesson with the force I then felt. It may not count toward wisdom when the most obvious of life’s lessons and patterns are finally recognized.
I hope that Levi had learned something from me on this journey across plains, down streams, up mountains, and into each other’s lives.
The wind from the lake caught up with us; it chills me. Levi had been right about that, too. His knowledge of mountains, of high places, was unerring. My rest on the rock is complete. I feel better physically, and I will always remember this stop on my upward journey as a place where I learned something. In these few moments, I had realized a peace that felt almost indescribable. I also knew, from my eighty-two years of rambling on this earth, that the peace would be fleeting. Something would always be there to nibble at its edges or crush it with sheer, brute weight.
“We’d better get moving again,” Levi says, as though he were reading my thoughts.
“Yes. You’re right. Too long here and we would both be chilled. You are right. It is steeper than it looks. These high elevations can be deceiving.”
“Here,” he says, pulling my fisherman’s hat from a pocket in his sweatshirt. “You’ll be boiled like a beet up here in this thin air. Should’ve given this to you earlier. I didn’t remember until just now. Uncle Loyal, I need to tell you this, but I think you’re man enough to take it. You don’t have much hair. No protection. I hope this does not come as a surprise to you, but you are bald, and you need your hat.”
“Well, not only a surprise, but it comes also as an offense. I didn’t know I was bald. I thought I had a full head of hair and was an extraordinarily handsome man.”
“You are, Uncle Loyal. You are proof that a man doesn’t need hair to be handsome. Think of all the men who shave their heads these days. You were just ahead of your time. And natural about the way you did it. Now put on the hat.”
“Well, if you say.”
“I say. Let’s get moving again.”
“We have a mountain to climb. Eh?”
He laughs lightly. “Yeah. Correct.”
We start upward again. Levi finds a sturdy, dead tree limb for me to use as a staff. It makes the climb much easier. We rest several times more. He was absolutely right about how I would react in the thin mountain air. Near the end of the hike, I gasp, swigging for air the way a parched man seeks liquid. Perspiration trickles down my forehead and the back of my neck. I drank most of my water. I can feel the stiffness seeping in of muscles not used in this way for many years.