I knew this would be the trip. It would have to be.
I was twenty-eight years old and my childish insecurities about what my Dad might say (or not say) had been clouding my desire to make things right for too long.
I am an adult, I thought. This should be easy now.
But it wasn’t, because all I could think about was standing on the sidelines wearing my helmet and shoulder pads and wondering if my Dad might show up. I remembered the way the field lights only lit the areas where my team practiced. They never lit the parking lot or the bus stop out on the street where my Dad might be coming from.
During the first part of the hike I didn’t bring anything up.
My brother, my dad, my dog and I climbed through groves of California Oak, and we rounded switchback after switchback and scaled forty-degree inclines. Too strenuous and too burdensome to bring it up now, I thought.
Our legs moved slow and methodically, our feet deeply imprinting the dirt with the logos of our old running shoes.
The wind swam through the valley below and curled up over the ridge where we decided to camp. The three of us, along with the dog, were wedged elbow to elbow in my two-man tent, passing around cold cans of chili into which we dipped beef jerky.
And again I wondered, now?
The timing would be ideal; we were a foot away from each other. We stared at the roof of the tent in silence. We watched the dome-like structure waver and flail like palm leaves in the wind.
Fear lay quietly inside my chest like a rock. He wouldn’t understand, I thought. He won’t get what being there alone felt like, and what watching the other boy’s Dads standing around and talking to each other looked like to me. He won’t know how having nobody to brag to after practice felt.
We climbed the next morning, our trail opening up to a spine-like ridge with steep gravel slopes on either side.
We stepped across the barren pass, and a gust of wind suddenly forced us to teeter along the spine. The old, green fedora my brother wore was snatched up and fell forty feet below, landing upon the branch of a fallen tree.
I was further up the trail and would have insisted to be the one to get it, but before I could make my way back, my Dad was on all fours, stepping backward down the incline until he was within reach of the hat. One slip would have created a small avalanche of rocks and pebbles, but with care, he reached out, removed the hat from the tree, and eased his way back up the incline.
He handed it to my brother and dusted himself off. Bravery seeped from his shoulders like thin waves of heat, which, like the wind, also took me by surprise.
Instead of the busy man I thought I always knew, I observed a man who stood and sacrificed for the sake of his family.
Years of working long days and late nights, now symbolized in the mere retrieval of a hat.
Then, I remembered the first day of my bike trip across America. I remembered my jitters and all of my questioning. I remembered wondering if I was being an idiot, and at which point along the ride I would decide to turn around and face humiliation back home. As I saddled up that day my Dad pulled his bike up alongside mine. He looked at me as if to say he understood, and on that first day he rode as far east with me as he could.
At the summit, my Dad and I sat for a few minutes peering out at the Inland Empire.
Few things are ascertainable from the peak of a mountain. Shapes and structures like buildings and roads lie vaguely at the bottom, but specifics like words, signs, and people’s faces are essentially nonexistent.
It would take a long time to see and to know it all, I thought.
Then I looked at my Dad and knew I’d have to try to come down from my proverbial mountain if I ever wanted clarity and closure. As we began the descent, moving closer to the Inland Empire, I knew it was time to try.
“Dad,” I said, dragging my feet through the dirt below.
“When I was a kid it was weird not having you around much, like when I played sports. It was weird being the kid without a Dad around.”
I peered over to him, caught my breath, and went on. “But don’t get me wrong. I know today that you were doing what you had to do for our family. I knew you had to work, and I’ve accepted that.”
He was quiet.
“Dad, remember the day I left on that bike trip from the Pacific Coast?”
“Well, when it came time for you to turn around and head home to continue to do what you knew you had to do, that was the day that I understood how much I meant to you,” I said.
“Thanks, son,” he said, silently nodding and looking at me.
As we drove out of the valley and into the Inland Empire that night, the roads, houses, businesses, and hillsides had far more color than I ever remembered. They were bright, vivid, and full of detail, and I could see real cracks in the roads and the way tree roots bulged from underneath sidewalks.
I could see scars and smiles alike on people’s faces as they waited for street signals to change.
The Inland Empire was closer now, and it was clearer, and as I looked over at my Dad as I drove us home, I knew our relationship was too.
[phtot: Aron Stansvik , Creative Commons]