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!"
it was a coincidence. But "coincidence" just seems too
ordinary a term for the extraordinary results.
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).
was in those matching Nevado 9's and 5's that we set out on our
expedition to Yosemite falls.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
walked over solid stone floors, some as hot as skillets, some slick
and cool from the run-off.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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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