Sunday, July 04, 2010

Closer to home

I think it was Wednesday afternoon when I first found out about the holiday weekend. "Holiday? What is this thing you call a holiday?" Newspapers don't have holidays. We worked midnights, weekends, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and we especially worked on July 4, a day when their tends to be a lot of news opportunities between parades and fireworks and inebriated revelers. But nonprofit organizations are not like newspapers - they seem to think that people should celebrate America's independence by not coming into work. Which is just crazy talk, really, but this announcement brought up a new urgency to figure out what to do with my three-day weekend.

A quick search of Google maps revealed that Salt Lake City is a mere 500 miles from Missoula. Since my new location suddenly puts me "close" to home, I decided a trip to see the fam was in order. A July trip meant I could do some hiking with my dad, gorge on my mom's cooking and visit my sister and nephew - who has nearly doubled his size since I saw him last, and at 4 months weighs nearly 20 pounds. It also would give me an opportunity to visit my grandpa, who has dealt with a string of struggles recently, and, not to put it too delicately, probably won't be alive the next time I see him. These opportunities in life never come twice.

When people ask me where I got my adventure spirit, I always reply, "My Dad." It's not that my sisters and I grew up doing crazy outdoor adventures. In fact, I still find myself joining in the commiseration when they bring up that time he dragged us on an "insane death march hike" that was actually a mere six miles through a burnt-out forest in Yellowstone. But my dad has always been athletic and has always loved the outdoors. When I was 15, he began inviting me on his longer hikes in the Wasatch Mountains. My first big one was Mount Timpanogos. We walked 18 miles, through aspen groves, flower-carpeted meadows and high-alpine moonscapes to a wind-pummeled weather tower in the sky. If I had to pinpoint a day I fell in love with the outdoors, that was probably it.

I still love to get out with my dad whenever the opportunity arises. At age 57, he's as strong as he ever was. He and his friend, Tom, were already planning to spend Saturday hiking to the Twin Peaks when I called to let him know I was driving down for the weekend. He actually brought an ice ax for the occasion. Although he's an avid hiker, he usually just does the sensible thing and waits for the snow to melt before he heads high. Still, the window of no snow is a small one in the high country, and he's looking to expand it.

My dad has always been my mentor and teacher in the outdoors, so it was an interesting experience to stand on the other side of the divide - the one where I'm a bit more comfortable and experienced than him at something. In this case, trekking on steep snow terrain. Not that I'm all that experienced. I just bought my first ax last October. But the experience is there. Tom and I explained the self-arrest and glissading techniques. I tried to stay out in front, but around 10,000 feet, I started to struggle. My lungs just couldn't keep up with my legs, so every 50 steps or so, I found myself gasping for oxygen that just wasn't there, and I had to stop moving until I could breathe normally again. It was as though the mountain was sucking fitness right out of my body. I surrendered to slowing down, concentrating on my breathing, and absorbing the stark beauty of my high-altitude surroundings.

Around 11,000 feet, we came to the crux move of the route. As we expected, the 60-degree couloir was filled in entirely with snow. The snow was crusty and hard. Dad and Tom talked it over and decided they weren't comfortable continuing up terrain that steep. I felt more insistent. I offered to forge ahead and cut individual steps in the snow with my ax. They pointed out that climbing a couple hundred feet that way would take a fair chunk out of an afternoon that was already growing short. I finally agreed that it wasn't realistic with our equipment and experience, but it's funny how disappointed I felt about it. After all, I came to Salt Lake to hike with my dad, not climb the Twin Peaks. I have to remind myself about that - it's about the journey, not the goal.

We had a fantastic hike just the same, beautiful and challenging, and the elevation - both climbing and altitude - left me feeling sufficiently downtrodden by the time we geared up to see the local fireworks show (in Utah, most communities celebrate Independence Day on July 3 when July 4 falls on the Sunday. Yeah, it's funny. But it's my home.) I went to see my grandpa today. He was in good spirits, but it's still difficult to witness firsthand what the end of life often means - that it's slow and painful and strips away a person's vibrancy and even personality before it finally takes their body. I feel even more grateful that I can live my life now, doing the things I love, with the people I love. Thanks, Dad.