In the blink of an eye, summer has left us. The maples are turning red below South Peak, the aspens are on the cusp. The mornings are cold and crisp. The most poignant and melancholy and lovely time of the year has arrived in all its mystical Autumnal glory
It seems like only yesterday that I was complaining about the heat and the no-see-ums. Time just isn’t what it used to be.
A few weeks ago, I stepped outside at 3 AM and saw, in the eastern sky, the constellation Orion, rising again after a four month absence. It is a portent of shorter days and long nights and cold weather.
For better or worse, my life is steeped in tradition and hopeless sentimentality, and the fall always aggravates that condition. Everything I do triggers some distant memory and almost every date on the calendar is an “anniversary,” a commemoration of some event that is utterly meaningless to anyone but me…
I remember when and where I drank my first Dr. Pepper (traveling to Florida with my family on our first ‘big vacation.’ We’d stopped for gas near Nashville. I was seven)
I own a small jewelry box that belonged to my grandfather that was given to me after he died. Decades later, it still contains the same piece of Dentyne gum that he put there a few days before he passed away.
When Bill Benge died, almost six years ago, he’d just given me a pot of his famous shrimp remoulade…I still can’t bring myself to finish what remains in my freezer.
A 1963 Volvo that I bought in 1981 and which was, for years, my only mode of transportation, still resides in the back yard. It is slowly rotting into the ground and has become home to living entities I normally set traps for. But I can’t seem to part with the old car. It’s a familiar and needed component of my comfort view shed.
I save gasoline receipts from 1973 and I have a champagne bottle cap that a girl who I was hopelessly and secretly in love with stuck on my thumb at a college dance.
For better or worse, I seem to remember the most trivial details of a life that has had its ups and downs, but which has never been dull. My life is full of mementoes and memories.
Every summer I make the hike to the summit of my favorite mountain. I scribble an addendum to the cluster of notes I have hidden in a film can, 17 paces from the register box. I ponder the magnificent view for a while—it is an unobstructed panorama that stretches a hundred miles or more in all directions. I eat my traditional artichoke hearts and sip a bottle of Dr. Pepper. Finally, reluctantly, I head back down to the pass–it’s easier going down than up.
I’ve made twenty-eight trips to the top since that first hike on September 3, 1985, with a friend who died just four months later. This year I returned, exactly 24 years to the hour. Remarkably, it hasn’t changed much from year to year. Even my lungs and legs functioned almost as well as they did so long ago, for which I am most grateful.
Though a few of my friends know the destination of my annual pilgrimage, I can guarantee this…it’s NOT Abajo Peak.
I visited that summit last month as well, though the experience is not quite the same.
No walking is required; a two wheel drive gravel road hugs the flanks of the Blue Mountains, just west of Monticello, winds around the base of South Peak and finally approaches the summit from the west side. The view is partially obstructed by a stunning array of radio and tv towers, microwave dishes, concrete bunker buildings and an assorted selection of warning signs that tell the “peak bagger” of this particular mountain that touching just about anything on this mountaintop is a federal crime.
The view is still spectacular, but very different from my anonymous summit, where even at night, it’s almost impossible to see signs of civilization. Besides the communications jungle, the land below Abajo Peak is more developed. I can see Monticello, of course, though to its credit, it has changed very little (so far). I credit its timeless nature to the complete absence of bars, brew pubs and bike shops and that its biggest tourist attraction is the Mormon mini-temple.
The land to the east was once called The Great Sage Plain; now it’s mostly agricultural, dominated by pinto beans and winter wheat and alfalfa. The giant sage is mostly a memory. Looking north I can spot some of the new SITLA residential developments, and at night, the glow of Cortez, Colorado and even Moab 55 miles to the north, is clearly visible.
But for me, within this panorama is where most of my life has played out. For years, my Abajo Peak view was my dream and my ultimate destination, a place I obsessed over from the distant green trenches of Louisville Kentucky. It was down there that I met Ed Abbey and many of the people I still treasure as friends today. It’s where my beloved dogs lived out their lives chasing jackrabbits and ground squirrels (in violation of federal regulations) and where they died old and happy. And it’s where my cats were born and where they lived into ancient age, sleeping and eating and living a life most of us can only envy. One of them still hangs on, at 100, still doing nothing at an undisclosed location.
A few years ago, convinced I was moving into the final chapters of my life, I penned much of this, thinking there would be little to add as the calendar spun relentlessly forward. Expecting a future that was more introspective and sentimental than dynamic and changing, my expectations failed to appreciate the unexpected. And then came Tonya and a life I would never have imagined, just a few years before. I am grateful beyond my ability to express it.
Down there is much of my life. And somewhere, from another peak, is yours as well. Wherever the future takes us, we will all have our memories. From this vista, on a crisp autumn afternoon, they seem particularly clear.
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