My friend doctor Erlich is a big man with curly red hair and by sharp contrast, a black beard. He’s stolid, muscled, and speaks with a faint E. European Yiddish accent that adds a patina of culture and history to his persona. A very organized man, he religiously leaves the Bay Area twice a month to make a weekend California mountain-top pilgrimage. He often goes alone; sometimes I accompany him. This time, however he plans to introduce his young son to mythic Yosemite Half Dome. He knows I had introduced all my children to the mountains at a very young age. At best (or at worst) I led my four year old son by the hand on a long slow 22 mile three day hike into Emigrant Basin; now my sons return the favor. In retrospect, maybe Dr. Erlich suspected that sort of challenge would be of a different order than simply dominating a resentful if inert mountain. In any event, he called, and I agreed to go along.
Eleven year old Josh has been a gifted child since long before conception, and remains so today. No one, including Josh, has much doubt he will be a gifted man as well. Like his father he is, and artful, sometimes deadly, intellectual, and fearfully energetic. Unlike Dr Erlich he is, at least for now, slender and rather delicate looking.
Not the least of the joys of hiking with a child or with friends is that time moves slowly, but uninterruptedly, allowing enjoyment of an aspect of that living seems scarce: idle conversation. Ordinarily there is no purpose to such talk, but of course, when an intellectual and ambitious father and son are together, that may change. So we often speak about B S: Big Stuff, like politics and government. Erlich suggests-
“In an ordered society, only government can freely act in ways illegal for the rest of us.” Josh responds:
“In wartime wouldn’t it better to flee to the enemy, so one can be accorded special privileges there as a dissenter?” Erlich replies-or evades- Josh’s comment,
“That depends on what country and what war. But I think if one is a citizen of the country of God or of Time/Space, one’s duty is to survive as long as possible.” I risk weakly,
“To survive in WWII Poland it might have been necessary to abandon dogma and loyalty by siding with either Russians or the Germans at different times.” Erlich agrees:
“ Right. Josh’s grandfather was a skilled mechanic in Poland during The War. In the Soviet-German division of Poland, he was conscripted to work on Russian military motorized equipment. When Hitler took ‘the Soviet half’ of Poland he worked for them; and when suspected of being Jewish he escaped to Russia, was imprisoned in Siberia, but escaped the holocaust, and was allowed to emigrate to the US later. That is why Josh and I are here today.”
“It’s is almost mathematically impossible that any one of us be collected from the dust of gazillions of dead stars, accrete here on earth, and actually become a single survivor among trillions of gametes.” I thought,
‘Eleven? It’s a lie. When I was eleven I had an argument with a friend where I claimed women had cloacas like birds; ( Josh would have said, ‘no, cloacae!’)’ So that’s how it went. Erlich and I are very libertarian-conservative, if there is such a thing, and Josh is- well, from Berkeley; we avoid that sort of politics. In desperation I cleverly begin to point out different trees and shrubs and flowers, trying to make the presentation almost academic, with some success.
From the outset we make frequent rest stops, to the visible but unspoken dismay of the Doctor. As the morning grows short our pace slows even more. Erlich becomes rather more disillusioned when an octogenarian grandmother hobbles by at one of our rest stops with a clutch of her descendents. We can’t be sure she will fail to reach the top of Half Dome but vaguely hope so; but she claims she has been climbing Half Dome every few years- forever. Bummer, Granny, as they say.
Ex-and-now-again-Governor Jerry Brown passes us at the million dollar half way toilet above the long series of giant steps leading to NevadaFalls. There solar panels fuel an underground pump that sucks noxious all -too-human fumes down past the seated guest and deposits them somewhere only Wiki-leaks knows. Sitting or standing there with fresh mountain air whistling down the hole makes one suspect that occasionally an ‘investment’ of taxes might be defensible; even though the pipe could end in someone’s back yard. Preferably it would go to Yucca Mountain.
A few hours later, we are still quite a way from the long series of high rock steps that lead to the infamous metal cable on the face of Half Dome; many people are going by in the opposite direction: returning. Maybe it is mainly because of our situation, but we notice and speak with a significant number of father-son pairs, who dejectedly confess they have not made the top of Half Dome, and are out of sorts with one another. Usually the effort has failed because of exhaustion, or a plain and simple child’s deep seated fear of the steep open rock face and cable.
Erlich himself now starts to complain frequently of the need to rest- which makes no sense to me, knowing him to be a man-mountain lion. But I keep it to myself. It becomes very clear that we will not reach the top of Half Dome, so the Doctor suggests they eat lunch and I simply go on ahead, and meet them at the base of the cable, or somewhere else on the way down; he apologizes profusely for being too tired to continue.
In short order I reach the cable. There I proudly pass the grandma, rush up to the top, eat my snack, chat with the folks nearby, walk the dome, survey the view, and descend. Late in the day, back at Happy Isles Nature Center, I find Josh and Dr. Erlich waiting. Both are energized, animated, and exhilarated. They are talking BS and planning other climbs. The Dr. has completely recovered from his exhaustion. Josh relates the details of their day eagerly.
I have never climbed a mountain without hearing its voice telling some unsuspected timeless truth. On that day, on that mountain, beside the Merced (Mercy) River, my strongest and fondest memory is of that father and that son, who acted together in a living parable about family values; about fathers and sons.