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Let's Stop Here, Dad
By Judd Pillot

Karen bought our ten-year-old son, Nick, brand new hiking boots for our trip to Yosemite. He was really excited about them (and the trip). Now, there must be a thousand makes and styles of hiking boots. Mine have taken me to some of the most beautiful spots on the planet. They're beaten up and frayed and fit like a second skin. The boots are size nine Nevados -- light brown suede with forest green trim. I thought it was funny then, when I opened the box in Nick's room and pulled out a pair of size five Nevados, light brown suede with forest green trim.

Karen had no idea she'd gotten Nick my boots. We were all entertained by the coincidence. Nick was blown away.

"I can't believe we got the same ones, Dad. This is so awesome, Dad." He looked down at his, looked at mine... kicked dirt on his to get the new sparkle off, get that worn in look like mine. "This is so cool, Dad. They're like identical!"

I guess it was a coincidence. But "coincidence" just seems too ordinary a term for the extraordinary results.

A father/son hike is a cliché. And for good reason. It's like the backyard catch, the car wash/soapy water fight, the fishing trip. I've often fantasized about living in a Norman Rockwell painting, and I'm never happier than when one of Norman's images presents itself to me (or I somehow orchestrate it).

It was in those matching Nevado 9's and 5's that we set out on our expedition to Yosemite falls.

Nick's been my walking buddy since, well, since he could walk. One of my favorite pictures of us was taken in Grass Valley, in the gold country of Northern California. He's about five, and we're hiking through the redwoods. Actually, he's on my shoulders, pooped, our backs to the camera, as the late afternoon sun shoots perfect beams into the forest like a flashlight aimed through a colander.

Now, the guidebook calls the loop to Yosemite Falls an all-day, "strenuous" hike. It's about five miles round trip, nearly a thousand feet up via a series of tight switchbacks and rock ledges to some of the most awe inspiring vistas you can imagine...the Yosemite Valley sprawled below, majestic Half-Dome mountain looming ahead, and our faces so close to the falls we'd be covered in mist. There will be no "pooped" shoulder rides home.

We filled our backpacks with granola bars, a few precious oranges, water, sunscreen. But for Nick, the real preparation was scuffing his boots and grinding enough dirt in to get them to look like he's had 'em as long as I've had mine. He got close.

The first leg of the journey was pretty easy... a shuttle bus ride to the trail head. We sat with our backpacks on our laps, and our walking sticks at our sides. A few passengers nearly tripped over them, so we adjusted. From time to time I'd look down at the floor at our four matching hiking boots. I'd look over at Nick who was sneaking a peek too, and smiling.

The trail begins in woods so thick, it's almost dark. A narrow path with intricate rock walls on either side leads the way up. And up, and up. Nick practically bounded ahead of me, the concept of pace eluding him.

I'd watch him go, like a rabbit in new boots, this strong, exuberant kid just celebrating with every step. My whole body was smiling and proud. And just a little out of breath.

An hour or so into the hike, we broke out of the dappled darkness and found ourselves clinging to the side of a mountain. Well not clinging, but on a trail so thin and steep that if Karen had seen it she would not have been pleased. The Yosemite Valley rolled out beneath us, and the sound of the falls could be heard off in the distance, like the crowd at Yankee Stadium in a constant home run cheer.

People who'd already been to the falls passed us on their way back. We'd ask, "How long?" and they'd reply, "'Bout an hour, but it's worth it!" They seemed to us like astronauts who'd been to Mars. Their smiles were our inspiration.

Water seeps down the rock face in little trickles. It's as though it can't wait to pour out of the top, so it squeezes its way out wherever possible. We splashed through little puddles and ankle deep bowls. We walked through stretches of searing, sandy gravel, baking in the sun, and moist loamy soil, perpetually damp under the shade of hundred year-old pines.

We walked over solid stone floors, some as hot as skillets, some slick and cool from the run-off.

And we talked. We talked about dinosaurs and we talked about baseball and we talked about dinner. We talked about family, and we talked about grown-ups... we talked about girls, and how they can drive guys crazy in so many ways. And sometimes we just walked.

We listened to the sound of our footfalls on pebbles, on leaves, on twigs. We listened to the mountain bluebirds, and the falls getting closer, and the wind as it swept across the cold face of the mountain and chilled the sweat on our necks.

With every new turn in the trail, we wondered about hikers who'd been here before. These trees sure had seen a lot of people amble by. We ran our hands up the twisted bark, and guessed how long the trees had been there... how long would they remain? A hundred years, a million?

We pressed on saying "hi" to every hiker who passed us on their return trip. The man from Denmark. The couple from France. The Japanese family. The lady who's country we couldn't identify because of her funny accent. We settled on Tonsilvania. They were all different, but all the same. All drenched from their journey to the falls, all smiling, all feeling the same thing we'd soon feel.

When you approach a waterfall as powerful as Yosemite, the ground starts doing something weird. There's a hum that comes up through the mountain and goes right into your boots. We knew we were getting closer. The buzz in our feet grew to a rumble... and the Yankee fans were getting louder and louder.

Nick asked me about some of the other hikes I'd been on. I told him about Acadia National Park in Maine, and the twenty-two mile canoe trip on a lake where I never saw a ripple. I told him about the Everglades where I had to wait for the alligator with the diamond eyes to cross the road, and the Rockies where I'd hiked in shorts, in August, to the snow.

I told him about Ecuador, the time I flew from sea level, up, up, up through the clouds, landed in Quito... then watched as the plane flew back down through the clouds! I hiked the Andes alongside llamas and alpacas. Mt. Snowden in Wales. Bryce Canyon, Wyoming. Big Sur, California. The Blue Ridge Mountains. Sedona, Arizona.

I gave him details from every journey...smells, sounds, animals, plants, blisters, sprains, sunsets, icy plunges in mountain pools, dizzying, dazzling views from granite balconies. He asked me how I could remember so much. I told him every hike was like a movie I could play whenever I wanted. He said he was making a movie of this hike.

As we spoke I realized our voices were getting louder and louder. We rounded a corner, and there it was. And it took our breath away. Water just exploding out of the top of this mountain with so much force you think the rock walls can't hold it back. That at any moment, the sculpted, massive stone will just crumble, and an entire lake will fly out in one wet slab.

The cascade creates rainbows so thick with color you can practically climb them. And the spray, ice cold and delicious -- energizing and narcotic at the same time.


We just stood there for a moment, watching, listening, hearts pounding, feet humming. I was transfixed by the falls, and then glanced over at Nick, transfixed himself. I was looking at two natural wonders: The falls, and my little boy's face illuminated by beauty, respect, and awe. I wanted to ask him what he thought, but then I realized I knew.

He wasn't thinking. He was filling up his soul. Just being... making his movie. I've never seen him look at anything quite that way. I kept silent, wondering how long this moment would last.

The late afternoon sun bounced off some eternally soaked angle of stone, and produced a gold I had never seen before. The color seemed to come from somewhere deep inside the earth, filtered and amplified by minerals and gasses and oils, and heated by the molten history of the ages. This golden sparkle hit my eye, breaking the spell. The sun was going down, and it was time to start back.

We passed a few latecomers on their way to the falls. "How much further?" they asked. "About an hour," Nick replied, beaming. "But it's worth it." Now we'd been to Mars. We were reporting back.

We hiked in silence for a long time. I asked Nick if he wanted a rest, but he said he'd rather keep going. I knew he was tired, but he wouldn't let on. I had no problem letting on. I was ready for a beer and a foot rub.

Just before we entered the last set of switchbacks, that pretzel maze of rock-walled paths through the thick woods, Nick looked back at me and said, "Let's stop here, Dad." I said, "Yeah, buddy, let's stop here."

We sat down under the tree that would be our gateway to the last leg of this journey. I leaned against the trunk, my feet throbbing inside my tired boots. Nick sat inside my legs, using my chest as a back rest. He knocked his hiking boots against mine occasionally, just a tap here and there. We opened a backpack, found the last orange, and tore into it.

We were looking at the Yosemite Valley, mesmerized. It was fiery in that fading golden light. The river was a platinum necklace, strewn carelessly across the valley floor. The clouds over Half Dome were roiling... with the wisps along their bottoms orangey pink, and their ominous ceilings draining from blue to black into the night. And the falls -- though we could no longer see it, we could still hear it cheering in the distance. Or was the sound just lingering inside us?

Under that tree, we sat in blissful exhaustion. I felt the weight of Nick's head against my chest... warm over my heart. My mind was swirling with a thousand thoughts. And then one thought rose above the others and became as clear as a single droplet of water: When Nick said, "Let's stop here, Dad" he meant, "Let's stop here for an orange and a granola bar." When I said, "Yeah, buddy, let's stop here" I meant, "Let's stop here forever."

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