I have been thinking of him since awakening. My boy. My marvelous little boy. I wonder how much he understands of his situation, how much he has imbibed of the hushed conversation that adults fancy he doesn’t hear. I tried talking to him about it, but he didn’t seem much interested; all he wanted to do was watch television.
Sunrise. I slow in front of the Indian Wells Brewery looking for the road. It must be further ahead. I find it a hundred yards north, and leave the pavement.
There are fresh tracks in the soft, wet sand. I am disappointed. This is a trip that must be undertaken in solitude. I find that people, even the best of friends, can sometimes be a distraction. I want nothing else but to be alone with my thoughts, my feelings, and the realization of a long-time, if minor, dream.
He is awake by now, probably on his second or third breakfast. He is ravenous these days. It’s a side effect of the medication.
His four year-old tummy has grown to the size of a basketball in the last two weeks. The weight gain is shocking. He eats more than I. His stomach is hard, laced with little blue veins and stretch marks. It must be painful for him. It is painful for me.
I make a wrong turn. Luckily, the tracks I have been following do not turn back as I do. I leave them behind when I locate the correct road. Tires crunch through the thick layer of ice on dirty pools of water in the road. The wind gusts. The car rocks. I park. Dry grass dotted with Big Sagebrush and the odd Piñon Pine surround the trailhead. I catch the scent of the sagebrush even before I open the door. The aroma is part of the dream.
The thought of losing him haunts my nights. I recall a day when I was seven or eight years old when suddenly I realized that all those other kids in school, my sisters, mom, dad—everyone—was an individual person just like me; each a complete world unto themselves. How perplexing and mysterious life became that day! I am no closer to understanding it now than I was then.
Sometimes he just stares at me. It makes me uncomfortable. I am reminded of the fact that, though he is surrounded by family, he is on this journey alone. I think he knows it. I want to reach across the gulf that surrounds us and comfort him, but the distance is too great.
I am quickly on my way. I adjust the volume on my MP3 player to compensate for the wind. The sign just past the trailhead quotes from the Wilderness Act of 1964:
|“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”|
It has been a long time since I believed in wilderness as a physical place. We create wilderness areas such as this by legislation, manage them as a resource, and wander through them like the large-scale parks they are. But the wilderness I believe we need, the one I crave, is a place in the heart where the spirit is free, and care is a visitor who does not remain. It is a place where the aloneness of our condition is not a burden, but liberation. Physically, it can be found anywhere. It just so happens that today I find it in the unity of music and landscape.
The trail soon leaves the open grassland for the intimate seclusion of the canyon. Interior Live Oaks startle me—I am not used to finding them in the eastern Sierra. The more familiar Ceanothus and Bitterbrush snatch at my thin nylon shell. Fremontia, another unexpected find, is all around—what a stunning place this must be come spring!
My kids would love this valley, but I will not be able to bring them here any time soon. The medicine irritates my son’s stomach and intestines. He does not travel well. My daughter would love it, but might well refuse to come without him. She has started doing that already. It is hard on her as well. She knows enough to worry, but lacks the perspective that might afford her at least the rudiments of emotional safe harbor.
In the beginning I was overwhelmed every time I looked at him. Suddenly I appreciated the fact that each moment in his presence was a blessing. I was determined to make every day special, tell him I loved him, play with him, listen to him, show him patience and, occasionally, something new. But shouldn’t that be the case regardless of his condition? Of course. But I have needs of my own. So I relax. Life goes on. Within my own limits, each day I play with him, listen to him, show him patience and, occasionally, something new. Today I am hungry for wilderness; I must eat. The trail steepens.
I know if I brought him here that he would quickly tire. Muscle atrophy is another side effect of the drugs. I was shocked when we brought him in for a checkup two weeks after it all began. He breezed through the coordination tests, but struggled to step up onto a low stool. We have no steps in our house, so we never noticed. The doctor urged us to try to get him to exercise. When we got home I asked him to show me how fast he could run down the hallway (he likes the character “Dash” in The Incredibles). Usually it is him begging me to watch, but this time I had to ask. After two slow jogs he had had enough. I suppose if I had to I could carry him up this trail, at least as far as the first running water. It wouldn’t break my back, but it might break my heart.
Paul Simon is singing.
| The rage of love turns inward |
To prayers of devotion
And these prayers are
The constant road across the wilderness.
The music conveys something of what I understand by "wilderness". It is not necessarily a place of happiness or rest. Raw joy, made bittersweet by the experience of sorrow, dominates. The song continues:
| And these streets |
Quiet as a sleeping army
Send their battered dreams to heaven, to heaven
For the mother’s restless son
Who is a witness to, who is a warrior
Who denies his urge to break and run
The words and music speak directly to my soul, as if the artist drew his inspiration from my son's plight and courage.
“Jonathan!” I cry out. “My little guy, what is happening to you?”
I have to stop and regain my composure. He has withstood sudden, brutal change with poise. If he has felt the urge the break and run, it has not shown. He is braver and stronger than I. He is in a struggle for his life. All that faces me is the need to continue to place one foot in front of the other.
I lose the trail often. For the most part, it now heads straight uphill. But sometimes it takes a devious turn through or around the scrub, forcing me to improvise. Soon I reach snow. The trail becomes even harder to follow, and the loose black talus more treacherous. Verglas covers slabs of white granite. I discover this when my foot unexpectedly zips from its hold. I bang my shin hard. It still throbs. I move slowly and deliberately. Finally, I reach recognizable trail.
A couple of days after my son’s diagnosis I called a good friend to explain what was happening. We talked about how mountaineering was good emotional training for life, especially situations such as mine: you learn to deal with uncertainty and discomfort, taking one step at a time, always keeping an eye on the mountain and readjusting strategy as new facts materialize. Of course, with mountaineering you have chosen your battle. The battle we now face is not one that anyone would chose. That adds not one, but innumerable, dimensions to the situation.
I gain the summit ridge. Below to the east is Highway 14, from which I first glimpsed this summit twenty-nine years ago. I recall that first sighting as clearly as my own face. Late afternoon in July. A van full of teenagers just returning from their first backpacking trip. Paul McCartney’s “Let’m In” playing on the radio. Me wondering if the blonde would go out with me if I asked. The magnificent Sierra slipping away as we head back to the humdrum of the city. There it was—the last of the honest mountains before the desert consumed all. I wondered what was beyond the low, dry hills, but I became so focused on the higher peaks of the Sierra, that I hardly imagined anyone would bother to climb mountains such as this. I allowed the dream to languish.
Soon I run out of mountain. For a time I forgo the formalities and just take in the view: to the east, the vast Mojave Desert; to the south the rounded summits of San Gorgonio and San Antonio; Lake Isabella, which I have never seen before, is to the west. Moving northward from there the gentle mountaintops of southern Kings Canyon National Park lead to the stark mass of the Great Western Divide. Directly north the abrupt pyramid of Olancha Peak signals the end of gentility. Behind it the hulking mass of Mount Langley segues into the dark ramparts of Mount Whitney. Although I behold but a tiny fraction of it, I can see that the world is indeed a very big place. Reading through the summit register, I see many names I recognize. The world is very small, too.
Today, on the first day of this new year, a small piece of my life has fallen into place. But wholeness has come at the price of disillusionment; knowledge has replaced mystery. What mysteries my son will lose on his journey I can hardly guess, but I hope that in the process he will earn wisdom, in with that wisdom, peace. God bless you, Jonathan. Your daddy is on his way home now.