'One January Sunday, after a long thaw had melted the snow, and a hard freeze followed, he took me for a long walk with him along the north side of a mountain. (I was about eleven at the time, I think, and Jesse was still too little for a long hike.) The oak leaves, where they collected in little ravines and stream beds, were thick and brown and crunchy, and we avoided stepping into them. We tried to keep to rocky ground to minimize our noise, hoping to come upon a herd of does, or maybe even a buck who had lasted through the hunting season. Mountain laurel bushes made little canopies over flat places on the side of the ridge, where the ground had been scraped bare and worn smooth by the sleeping bodies of the deer. Beside the game trails grew mosses in a mosaic of greens, some moss deep and feathery, a dark green with tiny brown tendrils raised above it, some the palest minty green with a short, tough feel, and every green color in between. Tall oaks rose above the laurel, still holding onto this year's brown leaves. The beeches were not so tall, and the few leaves that clung to them rattled and scraped with the breeze that now and then moved the chill air. We stopped and caught our breath every fifty yards or so, listening for the scuffle-scuffle sound that would betray a deer's approach, and turning our heads to try to track the gray squirrels that scritched through the trees to keep an eye on us. The clouds of our breath gave us grey haloes around our orange furry hunter's hats.
'If I had been by myself, I would have crept under the sloping branches of the evergreen hemlocks and curled up on their deep, soft carpet of needles to dream of living in the forest. I loved the hemlocks with their dark, flat, shiny needle-leaves in tiny rows along the twigs. Unlike the spruces and pines, the hemlock was gentle and soft, not resinous and prickly. The hemlocks grew apart from the laurels, in their own communities where the ground dipped into bowls and you could frequently find little mountain springs.
'We paused for a breather in a cluster of young white pines. They have long needles with characteristic white stripe (I peered at them to see the mark of their breed, amazed as always that any natural stripe could be that thin and fine) giving them a hazy, relaxed look. The wind obligingly picked up a little so that we could savor the sound of the pines swishing, like the sound of the surf before you get over the top of the dunes at the beach. Then Dad led on, downwards now, to a wondrous sight in a scooped out section on the side of the mountain, a little dell, the floor of which was almost level.
'The gray rocks that we'd used as step stones were still scattered on the hillside, and the moss and the laurel and the oaks, but added to the landscape were boulders higher than our heads. They were like planets, like monuments, and we walked between them, Dad admiring them, I in utter wonder. So still and cold. So inanimate, and yet ... there was something about them that spoke of a deep, long life beside which our little lives seemed like the quick hum of a mosquito, there and gone in an instant, while these monoliths watched and listened through the centuries. I pulled off a glove and laid my hand against the stone, to try to feel that deeper life, and snatched my hand back, so cold it felt burned. On the north side of a ridge, not much sunlight would warm these rocks in the winter. Their inner life would be one of cold and darkness and silence. "These are the bones of the earth, Sully," my father said, his voice barely above a whisper. And we moved slowly on, down through this hollow, between the great boulders, looking up to see their profiles against the pewter winter sky, gray upon gray, until we reached the lower shoulder of the mountain, where the trees grew thicker, and the laurel was replaced by bramble. We turned away west again, and as the afternoon grew late, we struck our original path and headed for the car.
'As a teen I was too busy to try to pester Dad to take us back there (Jesse never did get to go), and then we moved to California. I asked Dad once or twice when I visited him and Mom where that place with the huge boulders was. He gave the name of some remote valley or other, but it was no name that I could recognize. He hedged a bit, saying that they were always changing the names of those valleys depending on who you talked to, anyway. And now he was gone, and the secret place might as well have disappeared with him. But I remember him best gliding silently in long steps amid the oaks and laurel, standing quietly at peace beside the bones of the earth, like they were old friends.'
There really was such a place. Wednesday was my dad's birthday, May 25th, and I've been thinking about him a lot the last couple days. He was a big man, six foot two, but not bulky. He could slink along in the woods like a ghost, making almost no sound at all, in contrast to his laughter, which exploded in eldritch cackles, sometimes making his dentures slide loose.
One of the things that made him laugh helplessly over and over again was reading Thorne Smith's book Turnabout. Dad loved the turns of phrase and stretches of language in it. I loved them, too, still do, and have been re-reading the novel the last few days since I found it online.
The river picture? That's the Juniata River in central Pennsylvania. My dad swam in it, waded in it, fished in it -- it was a part of his life when he was young, not as a sportsman, but as a youth for whom the river was part of the medium of life.
The older I get, the more things I wish that I could talk about with him. I dream about him now and then, and I'm always madly happy to see him when I do.
No tears here ... just a big grin remembering him.