Buck Mountain, New York, 9km’s
I am driving with my father along a highway in upstate New York, to visit a Benedictine Monastery that he has been going to since 1980. This is a place of significance to him, a part of his history. I came here 15 years ago but was still in the flower of an extended and snotty youth and did not enjoy it. Now I am excited by the excitement I see in my dad as we draw closer. Excited to spend time with him and to read, write and run.
We are coming from a four-day spell in the Adirondacks. I ran up a mountain. 900m’s. A typical idiot city boy, I lacked any of the trappings a considerate hiker/trail runner might carry. I wore light running pants and only a long-sleeved sweat wicking shirt. It didn’t take long for me to realize how woefully ill equipped I was for this excursion. I had dismissed the ‘difficult’ rating on the trail guide as a warning to the unfit, not people who run daily like me. The weather was significantly cooler on the path and got colder the higher I ran. Soon I wasn’t running. I was slipping and stumbling in my silly city shoes. At times scrambling on all fours. But I am a stubborn soul and I was not going to turn around even if it meant me becoming one of those dickheads you see being rescued on reality TV shows. I persisted and I reached the top. And golly gee that was something to behold, though only after I caught my breath. A 360degree panorama of peak after peak, snow-capped to the East, Lake George in the near distance. Unfortunately, I couldn’t linger on my victory. I was covered in sweat and freezing. I staggered down the steep slope. I slipped once and almost fell head long down a cascade of boulders. I was only saved from grievous injury by my instinctual reflexes as a veteran skateboarder who knows how to take a tumble.
Some 35 years ago. My father had an episode on a mountain. We were in the Swiss Alps in a village called Betmeralp and he took my sister for a walk after lunch. Hours went by and there was no sign of them. I could see my mother growing anxious. Distracted. Then outright worry set in, not aided by the fearsome face of the Matterhorn, which we could see from our chalet. It was only as the sun was setting seven hours later that they finally ambled into sight. My mother was furious. My mum’s sister and the great aunt we were visiting were equally apoplectic. It is only in the ensuing years as my mum’s ire has subsided that the full story has come to light. A tale of dizzying heights, narrow mountain passes and of clinging to ropes left by hikers gone before them. My sister’s narrative has never changed. She had a blast.
I have the same reckless streak as my father. And the stubbornness that would not allow me to retreat despite knowing how foolish I was being is also his. But he has mellowed in his old age. I used to have to run to keep up with him and now it is he who lags behind me. Until recently it would have been him doing all the driving. At some point he adopted the slow, stiff gait of the elderly. Yesterday I watched him through the rearview mirror as he walked off to the shops and I suddenly felt very sad.
What strange creatures people are. How complex and myriad the engines of our relationships. Weighted with history and habit. We are of the same blood he and I. We can irritate each other spectacularly, have wholly differing views on some matters, but also joke and see reason. The air between us as I drive is full of things he would like to say to me, and I to him. Things maybe of great import. But there will be time enough for that. Instead we talk of times past; stories of his youth, one famous incident where at 13 he took his father’s car and on returning, smashed it up, fearful he ran home and gave the keys to his eldest brother, which is what he was meant to do in the first place, and it was Paul going to collect the car later who was blamed and bore the brunt of their father’s rage. ‘Demonju!’ My grandfather shouted in the streets of Valletta as he lunged at his son’s throat. This story has been told many times by all of my uncles, three of whom are gone now and greatly missed. But we laugh and we laugh. And the words of the founder of the monastery we are going to ring in my ears,
‘My lot has fallen unto me in lovely ways.’
After this we slip into silence for a time, with ease and without awkwardness and I realize that it is perhaps these moments that are the most profound.
The autumn leaves are beautiful, but autumn is a kind of death and it heralds a crueler season. I am as aware of this as I am of the steering wheel in my hands and of other facts, like:
I am 43.
I am driving with my father
who is almost twice my age.
A damp mist clings
to the earth like a muslin veil
On this road that rises and falls
like an ocean swell.
And it’s good to be here.
It is good to be my father’s son.