Mountains don’t retreat.
They are waiting for us. To remind us, as James Earl Jones said of baseball in the movie Field of Dreams, “of all that was good and could be again.” Mountains are timeless and resolute. You don’t change.
Occasionally in the dead of winter my thoughts drift to the Blue Ridge in summer. The meandering of the streets. The hills roll like a woman’s shoulders. Thunder over Tennessee. Looks! The sun broke through at Craggy!
Cemetery and Overlook and Crabtree and Mirror. And Montreal. totems of my life.
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My son accompanies me every summer. (You may have heard.) He shares my passion for shoulders. More than 20 years ago I gave him this gift, this heirloom. He accepted it cautiously. After all, he was 14. That first year we spent three days not speaking. I came home and said to my wife Kerry, “I’m not doing this again. We spoke five words together. It was miserable.”
“He loved it,” she said. Men don’t always communicate well.
Women speak in heels, men in grunts. Kelly and I have taken this fact well into account over the years. An uh-huh is worth a thousand pictures.
We went the next year and the next and now here we are. A few decades later, an entire generation in what we know as The Montreat Trip. I can not explain. I wish I could because people asked.
It’s like explaining why sunsets matter and why you should always feed the birds. It’s the feel of your little girl’s hand in yours as she walks to the school bus on her first day of kindergarten. Kelly is getting married this weekend. He really is. It is like it is.
Moments should not be explained. This Montreat trip was a very long moment.
What does all this have to do with a career as a sports journalist?
No problem. That’s why it works.
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I guess you could throw in a few self-help words like “perspective” or “balance” or “realizing what’s really important.” That’s a good word. But the fact is that existential things need their space. Let it wander free of interpretation. The Montreat Trip means what it means.
I struggled at times with my relationship with my father. There was this invisible wall between us that blocked too much truth and understanding. Our shadow was partially but steadily dragged. big things? We haven’t talked about it. Stupid guy thing.
We didn’t have a Montreat trip. It might have made a difference.
“What hike are we doing today?” Kelly might ask.
“I checked the weather,” I say. “Today will be great, so maybe Looking Glass. Rain tomorrow, so Crabtree. We’ll leave Friday open.” And so it is, the seven miles to the top of Looking Glass Rock and back, the four miles or so to and from Crabtree Falls, where it’s completely covered with trees and foggy all the time, kinda like that Rain is hardly noticed. Then a day to find out, usually on the waterfall at Graveyard Fields.
What we take with us: Boots, backpacks and beer. ponchos. It never rains with a poncho. That’s a fact. We take an extra t-shirt for after the hike. We take an album of tunes, Richard Betts’ “Highway Call,” which we play at a certain point on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We never play it again for the rest of the year. It’s sacred.
What we don’t take: Anything else, physical or spiritual. In the three days to come knees will ache, souls will expand. You don’t need help.
We’re not exploring as much as we should. We like what we like. Time is so precious that we don’t want to waste any of it on a hike we don’t know. Every year we say we’re going to have adventures. We don’t do it every year. The heart wants what the heart wants.
At the top of Graveyard Falls, I stare into the distance and absorb the consistency. “This will be here thousands of years after we die,” I say. (False profundity is the unfortunate holdover of time spent along the Blue Ridge.)
I wonder how many years I have left to roam these mountains. Planet Fitness has me now because the time is coming when I must rampage against the dying light of Dylan Thomas and I want to be ready. I wonder if Kelly and Ruby, his bride, will have children of their own and if Kelly will present them with the heirloom. My hope is that I’ll be watching from a great, distant shoulder. And I will be happy.
“Nothing survives,” Jackson Browne mused, “except the way we live our lives.”
“These are the best three days of the year,” says Kelly every year.
Yes it is.
I am retiring. The mountains are going nowhere. Such a gift.