With the first civilized weather in over six weeks stripping ice from the streets and melting the small glacier at the end of my driveway, Zeke and I tromped a bit up the side of our favorite mountain, slick trails and rivulets of snowmelt be damned. It was not an easy task pulling him away from his place on the floor, enthralled by Spongebob Squarepants as he was, but once he realized we’d soon be stomping in puddles and running beneath pines, he was more than motivated to put the toons behind him.
For those of you who have never taken a 4-year old for a walk up a 20-40% grade, there’s only so far you can go before that 4-year old’s little legs lose its seemingly infinite store of energy. Legs that can’t seem to go anywhere without running as fast as they can, sizzle out quickly when faced with a steep trail; this is my third 4-year old and I can assure you that a 4-year old’s legs are only good for about 1/10th of a mile (give or take, depending on the trail) and then “carry me, Daddy” signals the start of those last wisps of steam on the uphill trek. As I’ve traveled this road of daddyhood, I’ve tried to capture moments in my memory of developmental milestones, excited as each of my children has moved from one stage to the next with a bittersweet realization that there’s no going back – who they were is no more. However, the encumbered hike is not anything that I’ll miss.
I picked Zeke up piggyback and continued up the mountain. There was a cave I wanted to show him, a place where boulders had tumbled down the mountain to create a huge room that would have been the pride of the Flintstones. We walked another quarter-mile or so with him sitting on my shoulders until we arrived at our destination. We’d been up that trail a couple dozen times, he and the girls, but never stopped in the cave where I did mushrooms years ago and saw electric butterflies leap from a fire made of scrub oak twigs and pine branches.
Zeke stomped around in the cave, crawled up on rocks, stuck a bent stick into the eye of a raccoon skull as I caught my breath. The cool air relieved the sweaty spots where he’d sat on our way up to this place, craning my neck back and forth in the dark, musty air, checking out the graffiti and the smoke streaks up prominent bulges of granite poking out like bellies in their ninth month. I sat down in the dirt and crossed my legs, listened to my son’s voice amplified among the rocks, “daddy, this is soooooo cool, it’s a Batman cave, I have a skeleton,” balancing the animal skull on the tip of his stick. Once I found an arrowhead just outside this cave and I think that would be cooler than his find but I don’t tell him that – let him have his moment.
The seat soon turned back to cold and I returned to the sun, stepping out to listen to the water rushing beneath us, snowmelt cleaving the mountain, an inexorable folding and spilling more boulders. Zeke came out, too, still holding his stick and the skull that bobbed at the end of it, his blue jeans almost completely brown with mud. “Daddy, it’s scary in there,” he declared, “I don’t like it in there without you.”
“I don’t like it in there without you,” I thought, said, looked at him and smiled. “I don’t like going anywhere without you, mister.”
It was worth carrying him up here, seeing this place again. I’d been in here once seeking answers and though I’d had a good time, the answers I thought I’d found disappeared as soon as I walked down the mountain, dew on the windshield scraped away the moment I turned the key. There would be no carrying him down and in fact, he ran and slid, ran and slid, kicked pine cones, called me slow-poke. He was anxious to get home. When I asked what really scared him, he said without hesitation, “I was afraid the rocks would fall down.”
The creek told me he was right but I assured him that the rocks wouldn’t fall on us. Not that I’d heard that from the creek below but because my son walks away from everything, good or bad, smiling, completely enthused with the world. My lucky charm, my leprechaun, leading me down the mountain and back into the warmth of the first nice day in weeks.