In The Mountains
John was with his dad on a camping trip in the Sierra Nevada, and the two were perched on a boulder overlooking a steep ravine covered in pine trees. It was a clean day with the bright blue sky overhead and the sun shining down upon them. John lay on his back, daydreaming while he tried to discern the message in the white clouds above. The air was cool and dry and John thought it was a perfect mountain day.
Walt loaded the bolt-action air rifle with a pellet and pumped it eight times. John knew it was eight, because Walt calibrated the sights of the air rifle to be accurate to eight pumps. Prior to hunting, Walt would always remind John that it was eight pumps. “Eight pumps exactly,” he’d say.
“Well, she’s loaded and ready. Now it’s just time for a bird or a squirrel to come our way, right John?”
“Say, when I was a kid I would have died to go hunting with my dad. But he was too busy for this kind of thing. He was a mechanical engineer, you know. Even when he had time off he didn’t spend it with us kids. He would go off on his grand hiking trips with his buddies. Even went off with them and hiked the Himalayas and to the top of Everest. And he didn’t like hunting birds or squirrels much, felt they were too small to hunt, I guess.” Walt shook his head.
A sparrow with a blue-spotted chest came into view as it flew into a tree within shooting distance. The sparrow fluttered its wings and cleaned itself as Walt took aim. John thought it was a good-looking bird, all right, and he imagined it was a proud bird. I bet that bird never wished he were anything but a bird, he thought. Yeah, that’s a good bird. John heard a pop of air beside him and the bird fell from the tree. John looked at the bird as he lay there dead, and he thought he still looked like a good bird.
“You want the next one?”
John shook his head no.
“It sure is fun to be out here shooting,” Walt said. “When I was a kid I would spend hours every day out with my dog shooting all the birds and squirrels I could find. It was a little lonely though. I always wished my dad would come. It’s funny how much my dad liked to work. He sure loved being an engineer, tinkering the way he did all the time. I don’t like work one bit, you know. Riley is always trying to give away my best territories to his favorite guy. It’s all politics. And the expense reports are never-ending. Enjoy being a kid, John. I wish I could go back and do it again. I’d have practiced my sports more and really taken it all in, knowing then what I know now. Yeah, it sure would be good being a kid again.”
John thought about his dead grandpa and wished he were alive and that he knew the man. He sounded like he was a good one, all right. John often thought about his grandpa’s adventures and he wondered if he too would get to hike the Himalayas or to the top of Everest, or whether he would like his job. John sure hoped he would. He wanted to be a good one like his grandpa because he saw what it was like being a bad one.
“Say, what are you over there daydreaming about?” Walt asked.
“Nothing,” John said. “Just thinking.”
“Well if you are stressed, let me tell you a secret,” Walt said seriously. “Family is the most important thing in life. I always regretted not having a strong family growing up, because family is number one. They are the ones that will be there for you no matter what. All that other stuff, like where you work, what you are good at, the kind of trips you take, what you do every day, how much money you have, that’s just stuff.” Walt waved his hand in disgust. “You hear me? It’s important you know that, you know.” Walt looked even more serious then and his voice dripped with sincerity. “You, you don’t ever have to worry about not having a family, and that should put your mind at ease. I’ll always be your dad and I would even walk through fire for you,” he said the last part emphatically.
John felt badly that Walt had worked himself up about it all. John knew Walt thought himself sincere, but John could not take Walt seriously, as Walt had taken to telling every member of the family that he would walk through fire for them. John himself must have heard Walt say it at least a dozen times. When someone says something often enough it doesn’t sound true anymore, John thought. The more serious the matter, the less it should be spoken of, and if it’s too serious, it shouldn’t be talked about at all, John decided.
“Sure,” John said. “I know.”
Later that day John and Walt began the hike back to their camp situated some seven miles up the ravine. They kicked up dirt clouds as they walked along the trail, coating their pants with it, turning their denim deep brown. But John didn’t mind. It made him feel like he belonged here in the wild, out hiking around. He felt good then as he plodded along the rocky path and he began whistling as he picked up his pace and he enjoyed the sounds of the forest, not thinking about anything in particular.
Walt started talking again. “You sure are quiet. You need to talk more. God gave you a mouth for talking, you know. Say, how’s that baseball team going?”
“Oh, it’s all right. But I’m batting a little late in the lineup and I wish I was playing infield instead of stuck out there in right field where the ball never comes.”
“It’s all politics,” Walt told him, as if it were a common fact. “You better get used to it too, because that’s the way the world works. Take my job with Riley. It’s the same as your problem, all right.” Walt was shaking his head and John could tell he had worked himself up again. “No, it just isn’t right,” Walt said.
Hearing Walt put it that way knocked John out of his element and he slowed his pace and lost his sense of ease. He suddenly felt like he didn’t belong in the forest, like maybe he didn’t belong anywhere. A strong desire grew in him to erase what he had told Walt, but he couldn’t take it back.
About the author:
M.E. Kane is an attorney and writer living in Utah.