Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Yes, that’s exactly what I said — or, more accurately, bugled early yesterday afternoon from atop Saddle Mountain after an arduous two-and-a-half mile hike with my wife and son through mist and fog to the rocky summit. Beginning from the mossy parking lot seven miles off the main road, the ascent is a little over 1,600 feet — a climb steep enough to defeat casual hikers, especially above the tree line where the path is steepest and held in place by a wire mesh. Even in the fifty-degree air, I was soaked with sweat to the skin. The kid, of course, nearly sprinted his way up. His mother, also in excellent condition, followed, glancing occasionally over her shoulder to see if I’d had a heart attack. During one of our rests, not far from the top, I did say that I thought Saddle Mountain would be a fine place to keel over and die. But I thought better of it because of the inconvenience involved.
We saw wild roses, ethereal birches, fallen trees and rotting stumps bearded with tender plant life. Wildflowers scented the air. The view from the top, which, on a clear day, takes in the Pacific Ocean to the west and several Cascade volcanoes to the east, was completely obscured by blowing fog. Now and again, a nearby mountaintop appeared, then disappeared, well defined in a brief glimpse of blue.
There was a simple white cross just beyond the railing where someone, apparently, had taken a fatal step. Two sweaty and puffing young women had arrived before us. And before them, a couple of young men, who were sitting at a simple wooden table. Everyone was catching their breath and hoping the fog would clear. Then we were left alone, the three of us. That’s when I uttered my cry of Fevoop! — because I’m crazy, but, more importantly, in memory of my father and his Uncle Archie, who used to refer to Dad as a wise old elk, followed by a Fevoop! that set the sternum vibrating and made all things seem possible.
And, damn it, they were possible. They still are.
And here the sweet riddle of my dedication in No Time to Cut My Hair is finally revealed:
For Archie, Kirk, Willie, and Al — wise old elks and lovers of bullfrogs
Archie being Dad’s uncle, a painter, and poet; Kirk his opera-loving brother; Willie Saroyan their famous writer-cousin; and Al, the man who taught me, among countless other things, that honesty cannot, must not be compromised.
Once upon a time, in a world long gone and ever present, Archie, Dad, and I drifted down the Kings River in our twelve-foot aluminum boat, fishing. The high banks were lined with eucalyptus, leaves from which drifted and swirled near us on the water’s surface. And from somewhere, hidden in the shade beside a deep pool, a bullfrog called. Hearing it, Archie stomped his foot against the bottom of the boat, causing the frog to jump into the water. A simple happening, yet one that immediately entered the realm of memory and lore.
I am who I am by just such manner of holy accident. I am the frog just as it lands. I am the splash. I am a puff of smoke from Archie’s cigar. I am his laugh, his curse, and his paint-stained shirt. I am the fatal step, the abyss, and the feeble wind-worn cross.
Halfway down, we met a man and his wife on their way up. The man, a little older than me and less determined, said, “Did you make it to the top?”
I said, “Why, don’t we look like it?”
He quickly studied my wet, tangled hair and beard and laughed.
They were nice people. But there was no way in hell they were going to make it. And then I thought, One step among these flowers, one caress of these ferns, one deep breath, is enough.
And I will remember them as well. Maybe not as long, maybe not in the same way, but as fellow travelers.