Of Mountains and Men
This shortened version of a piece from a travel writing course I took while studying abroad in Rome in pursuit of my undergrad degree from Iowa State University.
The small screen illuminates our faces, imitating the senseless small specs millions of miles away. With each flick and twist of the wrist appears a new shape outlined on the screen, the result of an endless game of connect the dots in the visionary mind of some ancient Greek or Roman or caveman. I hold the virtual sky in my hand, lifted high for all to see as we lie side-by-side, five-wide, on a cramped sleeping bag in the middle of a deserted green, staring at the screen as the screen works to make sense of the enigmatic expanse.
The air at 8,200 feet is placid, despite the altitude-induced belabored breathing and increased heart rate. It’s a cool night in mid-August, much cooler in the absence of the sun that baked the valley town below hours ago, and the sky is clear. Tonight is the peak of the annual Perseid Meteor Shower and tonight, atop a mountain in Edwards, Colorado, nothing stands between us and the twinkling sky. My mother rests her head on the curve of my left elbow, my two sisters, one my senior, one my junior, on either side. Dad went to bed hours ago, coaxed to sleep by a stiff Scotch.
We are all in this one place, side-by-side, watching the same night sky from the same city for the first time in months. I took the frequency of these moments for granted as a child. We watched the same night sky from the hot tub on a roof in North Carolina, from the hood of the Suburban on a desolate country road, ice cream in hand. The moments grew fewer and farther between as the miles between us grew greater. But on this mountain, in this moment, with my mother and sisters, we are together for one last night.
There’s a photograph of my grandfather and I sitting in the kitchen of the old farmhouse in which my father grew up. I’m around four years old, my favorite pair of Disney lions on my turtleneck and my hair cut in the shape of a bowl. My grandpa sits beside me, wearing his trusty overalls and blue zip-up hoodie he didn’t go a day without. We’re rolling out cookie dough—oatmeal and M&M, our favorite—on the kitchen table between walls checkered in lemon and lime.
When I think back far enough, count back the years of slow demise, before the diagnosis and wheelchair and loss of the ability to communicate, I remember a cheerful, loving man. He was the king of slapjack, but then I started winning. His quick reflexes were the first to go. We used to pile into the back of his white pickup truck and travel down the gravel road to the farm where we’d feed the barn cats and wrangle the cows. His motor skills slowly slipped away and he was confined to a wheelchair. Instead we sat in the living room and watched Seinfeld in silence. We no longer baked our favorite cookies or swung on the tire swing in the backyard or played hide-and-seek. Our visits became shorter and there was less to say. In the final cruel years the disease took even his voice.
It devoured him for ten years. It took the man I had such little time to know one chilly morning in November of 2008. My mother and father had taken my sisters and I to Chicago, like we did every Thanksgiving break. We were sitting at a table at Gino’s East pizzeria, sharing a plate of mozzarella sticks when my dad’s phone rang.
He was on a plane home within the hour. He had just enough time to say goodbye.
I think he is the reason we are here today, nearly five years later, in the valley town of Vail, Colorado. After the death of my grandfather, my grandmother broke almost every tradition that reminded her of him. Once an avid Iowa State Cyclones fan who attended every football and basketball game, she now declined when we invited her along. She rarely went back to Menlo, to the house with the lemon and lime checkered kitchen, since they had moved to an accessible ranch-style on a patch of land they owned near Des Moines in the final years. She picked up a part-time job at Yonkers to pass her time and still had a Saint Bernard named Annie to look after. She kept busy.
And then on Easter day, with the entire extended family gathered around the table in her painted- blue kitchen, she invited us all to Vail. And now we are here, in the quaint town in a valley of green enclosed by jagged towers of gray, where my father and his father and mother and brother and sisters came when they needed an escape. The town more closely resembles a Disney recreation of Scandinavia than anything from the real world. Stucco buildings framed by Dutch Tudor-style wood line the pedestrian paths that weave throughout the town. Perfectly pruned and potted flowers of all colors and genus give life to the brick streets. One hundred miles west of Denver and fifty years ago, Vail was founded as the largest ski area in North America. But we didn’t come here to ski. It’s August. We came to relive the past with my grandmother, who planned out every detail down to the locations and times for ice cream breaks.
We pulled up to the rustic Mountain Haus lodge—mom and dad and Rachel and Hannah and I— the same one from my dad’s childhood. It was late, ten o’clock at night, and the town was sleepy. It was quiet except for the babbling creek a few meters away. And then a shrill laugh cut through the crisp night and a familiar head of red hair appeared in front of the car. “No one make any sudden movements,” Rachel warned.
Welcome to the Gilman family reunion vacation.
We rode the gondola—a beautiful and slightly terrifying half hour—halfway up Vail Mountain, and now we’re here, staring at the massive statures of the horses as they stare back at us. I think they’re sizing us up, weeding out the weak links with their marble eyes. It works. They manage to spook half the group and instill unease in the remaining half.
Getting on a horse is no easy task. Being on a horse requires slightly more caliber. And being on a horse with an English vocabulary of three words and selective hearing on the top of a mountain is even less relaxing than it sounds. Roxy and I are already in the middle of a power struggle and we haven’t even left the corral yet.
A majestic beast with hindquarters reaching well above my shoulders, she wins most of the battles. We finally come to an understanding and fall in line to start our trot up the gravel trail. The air is slightly cooler, but at 10,500 feet we’re still too low for snow. Lodgepole pines pierce the overcast sky, thinning enough in spots to frame the snowcapped mountains that rise around us. Roxy wanders to the edge of the path to snack on the purple and blue wild flowers growing among the weeds.
The views up here are worth the terror and uncertainty that comes with being atop such a powerful beast. The vistas of nature are the main draw of the region. Vail doesn’t feel like the real world. It’s a storybook safe haven escape. Chill out in the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens along the clear Gore Creek. Take a Sunday stroll down East Meadow Drive through more than 130 vendor tents at the Vail Farmer’s Market and Art Show. Test your physical limits on the snaking switchbacks of the Gore Creek hike and bike trail.
We did everything grandma wanted to do. We sat on the porch of the Ore House under the pale blue sky and ate our first family meal since the days of checkered lemon and lime. We celebrated my and grandma’s mutual birthday with cake and candles like we used to in a small park outside Menlo. And somewhere between the third and fourth game at the town’s sole bowling alley we figured out how to act like a functional family.
Roxy and company back in the corral, we hop in the gondola and descend back down to the base of the mountain for dinner at a Mexican restaurant grandma remembers as being delicious.
He’s at this final dinner with the rest of the family. He can’t taste the food or feel the rain as it drizzles down from the heavens, but he can hear the conversation and laughter resound the length of the table.