On Tuesday, I received the call that I had been expecting, the call that I had been hoping for but also dreading.
“Your grandfather has decided to go on hospice,” my Mom told me as I ducked outside the office with my cell phone.
“And his treatments?”
“Those are going to end,” she said.
It meant my grandfather had made the most difficult decision of his life, the decision that meant his life. It meant that one thing that none of us were willing to voice, but we could say enough to acknowledge that there wasn’t much time. It meant that weekend plans and a few tanks of gas didn’t matter so much. I wrapped up my work at the office and hit the road Friday evening.
In my memory, my Grandpa Homer will always be a robust 60-year-old, swinging an ax in front of a massive pile of logs. I admit I cannot recognize him at 80, pale and gaunt, with scabbed skin stretched across his bones as he struggles to sit up in his chair. Disease stole his strength but not his spirit. I still see it in his eyes, sparkling with the peace of acceptance, but also flecked with fears for the unknown. My grandfather lived a good life, but a good life can never be complete. He reaches out and lets me wrap my arms around his thin shoulders. I’m so happy his pain has subsided enough that I can hug him, perhaps for the last time.
Grandpa Homer owned property in the mountains. As a child I would skulk through the aspen groves and marvel that my grandpa could actually own a place as wild as this. At camp he built massive fires. He doused a giant stack of logs with gasoline and ignited the inferno with the flick of a match. The 10-foot-high flames filled me with wonder, and a tinge of pride, because going big was the Homer Way.
On Sunday, asleep in my old bedroom, I don’t want to wake up. My mind swims with memories — some wistful, others sad. The alarm goes off 7 a.m., and again at 8, and then again at 9. At 10:20 I finally roll out of bed. I open the front door to a chilly blast of wind and look bleary-eyed at the towering massif that looms over my childhood home, the most prominent feature of a hundred memories of walking to school — Lone Peak. The previous night, I had thought a lot about climbing that mountain, but my late start precluded what promised to be a daylong adventure. Still, I think I can hike part of the trail. Perhaps to a cabin near the halfway point.
I drive two miles to what can best be considered a trailhead — a park located on the edge of the city of Draper, but still in town, elevation 4,500 feet. Far above the park, at a distance so close it can’t be seen from the bottom, the 11,250-foot peak rises like a giant startled from a long sleep — abruptly and angrily. I follow a trail that cuts a deeply eroded scar up the hillside. Charcoaled skeletons of scrub oak rise from the yellow grass; they’re all that remains of a forest recently scoured by fire. Absent trees, the trail is washed in views. I glance over my shoulder and take note of the many pieces of my past — there’s Indian Hills Middle School. There’s the building that used to be the Albertson’s where I bagged groceries. There’s the grassy bluff we used to tumble down after school. I glance at my watch. 11:35 a.m. I really should be home by six because my sister is coming to dinner, but perhaps … perhaps. I push harder, taking faster, longer steps up the slope. My heart rate skyrockets and my head spins. I’m completely maxed out, moving as fast as I physically can, even though I’m still walking. Between ragged breaths I catch glimpses of the Salt Lake Valley, with the pieces of my past fading into the abstraction of distance.
From the seat of his idling motorcycle, Grandpa Homer scooped me up off the ground with one arm and plopped me down in front of him. “Keep your feet away from the engine,” he told me, and I held my bare legs like rigid poles in front of me. Grandpa gunned the throttle and motorcycle's wheels spun forward in a cloud of dust and gravel. The aspen groves blurred beside us as we rocketed toward the sky. I grinned and sharp wind needled through my missing teeth until it pierced my throat. The sensation tickled and I squealed uncontrollably, because I knew, really knew, what it felt like to fly.
The elevation disappears behind me. My leg muscles throb with acid and hot blood, but I feel so strong and alive that I can’t imagine slowing down. I come to a trail junction and turn left, dropping into a cool, forested canyon. About three quarters of a mile down the trail, I meet a man who tells me I won’t find the Outlaw Cabin in the canyon, so I turn around and return to the open hillside. I cut my own route because the only other way is down. I crest a broad knoll and the granite spires of Lone Peak suddenly rise into view.
My parents went out of town for a week and my sisters and I went to stay with my grandparents. I came down with the flu, so sick I couldn’t even stand to go to the bathroom, and I writhed on the couch with sweat-crusted hair stuck to my cheeks. Grandpa brought me a glass of Sprite. “Is it medicine?” I asked him. “It’s better than medicine,” he replied, “because it tastes like candy and will make you feel better.” I took a tiny sip and felt the cold liquid crackle in my throat. Grandpa was right.
I start jogging toward the mountain, taking thick breaths full of yearning. I have no idea how much time it will really take to reach the peak. It looks close enough to touch, and far enough to be a jet in the sky. The trail butts up against a granite wall and fades in the rocks. I follow scattered cairns along the rocky drainage, but lose track of them amid a sea of stones. I keep my eye on the peak and head straight toward it. There's no route like the most direct one. I scramble up a tiered pile of massive boulders — a staircase fit for a sleeping giant.
I hoist myself up the final pitch and crawl into the giant's shadow. I have climbed thousands of feet and it's still as massive as ever, more massive than ever, blotting out half the sky. In front of me, the cirque is filled to the brim with jumbled boulders. Some are the size of houses, with crevices that could swallow a human whole, never to be found. I groan. This is clearly not the right way. I begin scrambling across the boulder field like a clumsy spider, rolling my ankle on razor-sharp rock edges and creeping around the human-eating crevices. At this point, I'm just looking for a way out, but there's not one in sight — only the towering fortress and its minefield of obstacles. "Why do I always have to get myself lost?" I grumble. "Why am I so completely inept?"
I have to climb over a couple of minor ridges, but I finally reach the base of the mountain at 3 p.m. I try not to think about the time. Even if I turn around now, it's still unlikely I'll make it home by 6, but I'm so close now, so close. "I can run down," I justify. I launch myself up the wall as fast as my arms can lift me. My biceps burn from an afternoon already full of scrambling, but at least this final scramble was expected. I've been breathing so hard for so long that my throat burns, and it hurts to swallow, and the air is getting mighty thin, but I'm so close now. Closer than I ever expected to be. Endorphins course through my veins and my heart sings. I am free, independent and strong. I never feel so alive as I do when I am alone and elated.
The wind that has been howling all day hits gale force at the ridge. Gusts up to 50 mph tear around me and I drop to my hands, moving like a monkey over the narrow knife-edged ledge. Fear starts to gurgle up. I scramble up the final ramp rock and barely touch the table-sized peak before scrambling back down. I scoot along the exposed ledge as my heart beats louder and louder. My head spins faster, my vision begins to blur and the edges turn black. My breaths become short and a wave of nausea sweeps over me. I drop to my knees, clutching at nothing on the smooth face of a chair-sized rock and staring in horror over the precipice. The sea of boulders appears to be churning in the cirque, a thousand feet directly below. I can't move. I'm paralyzed. Vertigo. "Not now," I whisper. "Not now." I try to recapture my breath. I remind myself this fear is irrational. I appeal to humor, that I certainly didn't inherit my vertigo from the Homer side of the family. Grandpa used to say, "When it's too tough for everyone else, it's just right for the Homers." I scramble a few tentative feet, then a few more, until my back is pressed up against the chimney-sized spire of the false summit.
I was 12 when Grandpa built his cabin. He started from nothing, dug a foundation, poured the concrete, erected the framing. My grandpa could do everything, and never asked anybody for anything. My aunts and uncles had to practically beg him to let us help. I went up one day to help lay the floor. He showed me how to use a caulking gun. I vowed that one day, I would learn how to build a house. I hoped my grandpa would teach me.
Tears fill my eyes. I know the worst is over, but I can't help myself. I never feel so lonely as I do when I'm alone and afraid. I just want to see somebody, anybody, just so I know I'm not the only person perched on this wind-blasted vertical moonscape. But it's 4 p.m. and no one is left on the peak. I haven't seen anybody for hours. I think about the notepad in my backpack. I carry it with me sometimes to write down thoughts. I take it out and rip a corner off a sheet of paper. On the scrap, I write a note to my grandpa.
"Dear Grandpa Homer,
Thank you for your love, your example and your kindness. Thank you for everything you've done for me. I love you. ...
I stick the pen in my mouth and in nervousness chew the end right off. Then I remember to add, "Please don't be afraid.
I muster up the courage to stand and face the full brunt of the wind. It roars in my face as I hold the note to my side and release it to the gale. I turn around quickly but I don't see it go.
Grandpa Homer comes from a long tradition of fierce independence. His parents toiled in the fields of Cache Valley during the Depression. One set of grandparents crossed the Atlantic from Sweden; others before them walked across the Great Plains when there was nothing on the other side. Grandpa started working at age 11; he had a high standing in his church, raised six children, cultivated a large garden, rebuilt motors, raised cows. He had several dozen grandchildren and treated us all like we were special, like we were somebody, like we could grow up to be anything we wanted to be. I never really imagined what it would be like, the day my grandpa stopped being Superman. I wonder if he ever imagined what it would be like, himself.
It's after 4 p.m. when I start making my way down. I realize losing more than 7,000 feet of pure elevation in less than two hours is a near-impossibility, but I have to try. I scuttle down the ridge using the small, quick, feather-weight steps I've been trying to practice, and increase my stride to a loping jog in the cirque. I find the right drainage and plunge down a smooth granite chute. I remember my Dad's stories about dropping too low too soon and do everything I can to hug the wall, scrambling over and down minor ridges. I see a faint trail and follow it along a ridge until it begins dropping into the next canyon. The wrong canyon. Gaaa! I don't know where I am. Was I supposed to drop sooner? How much sooner? How will I hook up with the right drainage? What if I end up in American Fork, in the entirely wrong county? Why am I always getting lost? Why am I so completely helpless when left to my own devices? I start sprinting down the rock slope. I suck in erratic gulps of air. I can't help it. I hate being lost. I run and run, and every time I hit the mildest of upward inclines, my heart shoots to the redline. I am becoming very tired. Very worn down. I was too ambitious. Too selfish. But I can't stop now.
It's too hard now, not to think about the end. I can believe that my grandpa isn't afraid, but I have to admit that I am. Everything that makes me who I am is wrapped up in the people, and the moments, that all seem to slip away before I'm ready. Life sometimes moves in fast-forward motion, spinning in a blur of color and noise. In my dizziness I look to the past for clarity, only to acknowledge that those moments are gone.
I bee-line in my preferred direction until I find a trail, and take it until I find familiar landmarks. Back on known ground, everything that was holding my effort together seems to disintegrate. I climbed too hard, too fast, for too long, and I didn't eat enough, and I didn't drink enough, and now my body no longer wants to listen to me. I eat a Honey Stinger bar and slow back to a walk. The Salt Lake Valley is bathed in golden evening light, and behind me dark clouds gather around Lone Peak. The wind finally sputters and fades, and the air becomes eerily calm. It's 6:45 as I approach Draper City - late but hopefully not too late to see my sister. My iPod clicks over to a sad song. I feel a tear gathering beneath my eye. I think about letting it go, but as soon as I notice it, there's nothing left. I left it all on the mountain.