To Jonathan, with Love

Page Type
Trip Report
California, United States, North America
Date Climbed/Hiked:
Jan 1, 2006
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73.06% Score
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To Jonathan, with Love
Created On: Jan 8, 2006
Last Edited On: Mar 6, 2006

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.



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Viewing: 1-18 of 18
R Pollard

R Pollard - Jan 8, 2006 3:03 pm - Hasn't voted

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That is a moving story. As the parent of two young boys, its hard not to be touched by it. I hope your trip made your bigger journey easier to deal with. Good luck to you and your son.


rhyang - Jan 9, 2006 12:55 am - Hasn't voted

Trip Report Comment

I only just saw this Steve. I guess there isn't much I can say that hasn't been said in email. Good wishes.


Nelson - Jan 9, 2006 9:02 am - Hasn't voted

Trip Report Comment

A heart-wrenching story, Steve, written with grace, wisdom, fear and hope. Keep us posted from time to time, OK? Good luck.


Carbo - Jan 9, 2006 12:42 pm - Hasn't voted

Trip Report Comment

Very moving. I can't even imagine what you must be going through. Best wishes for a speedy recovery for your son.

Dave Dinnell

Dave Dinnell - Jan 9, 2006 6:34 pm - Hasn't voted

Trip Report Comment

Lovingly and well written. Being the father of a four year old and an almost seven year old (and having made a few trips to the ER) your story strikes close to home. There can be no greater feeling of helplessness when our little ones are faced with a tough stretch of trail that can't be walked for them. Hang in there and my most heartfelt best wishes for a positive outcome.


cftbq - Jan 9, 2006 7:56 pm - Hasn't voted

Trip Report Comment

Beautiful, Steve. Thank you. I can thank the universe, once again, that my kids are grown and healthy, but this is part of why I climb, too. Hang in there...


magellan - Jan 9, 2006 11:46 pm - Hasn't voted

Trip Report Comment

Thank you, Steve. I am praying for your son, Jonathan. He is blessed to have you for a dad.

Noah (Oregon)

Noah (Oregon) - Jan 10, 2006 12:20 am - Hasn't voted

Trip Report Comment

Thanks for writing. We all grow from knowing more about the human condition. I am right with you on this one (We've done 5 weeks in the NICU ourselves).

Chad Couch

Chad Couch - Jan 10, 2006 3:10 pm - Hasn't voted

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Your son and your family are in my prayers. I don't know what else to say but "Thank you." Thank you for posting this.


Scott - Jan 10, 2006 4:25 pm - Hasn't voted

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May the grace of God be with you and your son.


steeleman - Jan 11, 2006 1:12 am - Hasn't voted

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wow steve, that moved me to tears. very nicely written and i feel privileged that you have chosen to share this experience with us.


tomi - Jan 11, 2006 12:02 pm - Hasn't voted

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Thank you Steve for so emotionally written story. Anything connected to the kids is heartbreaking. It hit me reading between the lines. I wish you all the best.


gahmann - Jan 13, 2006 12:23 am - Hasn't voted

Trip Report Comment

God bless you Steve and your family. Children are a blessing and a gift. Hang in there and thank you for your beautiful words that moved me to tears thinking of my 2nd daughter who is hiking in heaven.

Foxy Long Bottoms

Foxy Long Bottoms - Jan 14, 2006 8:11 pm - Hasn't voted

Trip Report Comment

Great story. I have 2 boys myself and often think of mine and their mortality and how lucky I am. Not only is your kiddo brave and stron but you are too.


oldsnowy - Jan 16, 2006 1:47 pm - Hasn't voted

Trip Report Comment

Wow, how we love the mountains where we can reflect and find peace. And how we love our children where we find joy. This story has touched my heart. God bless both father and son.


Misha - Jan 18, 2006 3:27 am - Hasn't voted

Trip Report Comment

Steve, I finally gathered the courage to read this story and reflect on it alone. My heart is breaking for you and yours. I am so tempted to jump in my car and drive hundreds of miles that separate us to just give you a big hug and tell you over and over again that things will get better. And they will! Don't you ever doubt that. Hang in there, my dear friend. Etsuko and I are sending you our love and thoughts.

Amy G

Amy G - Jan 18, 2006 10:24 pm - Hasn't voted

Trip Report Comment

Steve, Just read your trip report. When I ran into you that day I remember a sense of almost palpable of thoughts radiating from you and nearly asked, " is there something you wanted to say?" And so you have. I wish for you and your family abundant love, peace and support.


Vladislav - Feb 7, 2006 5:17 pm - Hasn't voted

Trip Report Comment

When mysteries are gone, hope is not lost. My thoughts are with Jonathan. Keep fighting, little guy.

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To Jonathan, with Love

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