I hadn’t been back to Sharp Top Mountain in nearly forty years. And leaving my family, my wife’s pleading eyes followed me out to the car, my two kids watched silently, I hated that they made it such a big deal.
That it was such a big deal.
We were only a third of the way up the mountain when it happened. At that point when your legs burn but the scenery starts to reward your efforts. I was fifteen, my father was fifty three. We went every Saturday.
Nothing about that morning was different. He was talking about woodpeckers, I think, or native plants, recycling, his usual topics on these ventures. I can’t say, I wasn’t listening until he stopped and grunted. He reached back for his water and collapsed. His head hit a rock. I can still hear the thud in the middle of the night.
Sharp Top Mountain. Elevation: 3,862 feet. A baby compared to McKinley, but for twenty-three years I had let it stand out there, jutting out to the sky. A headstone on the horizon. I was sweating before I got there.
In the car, I sat thinking that if I could get moving, just open the door, move my feet, follow the groups, fall into their laughter and normalcy–think about anything but woodpeckers–I might be okay. Nodding to nothing, eventually I stepped out, without looking up, over, anywhere…
I shut the car door…if only I’d known CPR. Tied up my boots…if I’d caught him, started for the steps…maybe told him I wanted to go fishing instead. I looked up at the wall of rock and trees, caught sight of a falcon gliding through the mountain air. For nearly forty years I’d been playing this game. Today was the day I got us up that mountain.
My own heart was letting itself be heard. A rattle in the trees. My breaths were ragged. I grabbed the railings and let some kids pass.
3,855 feet to go.
I reached for my water.
I didn’t fall.
I took a breath and started climbing.