At last I gave up on the bedbugs putting me out of my misery and I got dressed and went down to the lobby for coffee. The night man, watching the clock with baggy eyes, gave me a distracted nod. One insomniac middle aged man lurked by the coffee pot. I hoped he wasn’t in a chatty mood. I needed to think about how to handle my daughter and where I might trade her in for someone I liked better.
No one is up the mornings at motels but we middle aged men, and the night staff, of course. We were both obese, as is suitable for our station, and balding, although that fact would not the first thing you notice about me. Then an exception jogged through the automatic doors, having finished his run. He passed by the coffee and continental pastries and went right for the juice. He called out a hearty good morning to all of us who before had been silently sipping in communal solitude. He resembled an uncommonly fit patient that had come into my emergency room.
“I’m a forty-sixer,” said the patient, and so did his baseball cap. 46 was stitched on the front.
“Do you mean a forty-niner?” I asked, thinking he panned for gold or played football in San Francisco.
No, it was forty-six. He explained the number referred to the forty-six Adirondack peaks over four thousand feet. He had climbed them all. He went on to clarify that there was actually forty-seven but, by the time the altitude of the last was determined, the phrase forty-sixer had already been in use.
“I climbed that one, too,” he said; “even though I didn’t need to.”
“Do you have to climb any of them?” I asked.
It took him a long time to consider, but finally he answered, “Well, yes. I think I do.”
He continued, “I don’t know why I think I have to climb mountains. I just do, and I feel great whenever I’m there. It’s like something tells me to go to the mountains. If I was religious, I’d say it was the voice of God, but it’s not a voice and I don’t know if it’s God. It just says go and I go, but it doesn’t even really say anything. When I get there I know this is where I belong; it’s my place and those mountains are more kin to me than my family.”
I hoped he knew what chances he was taking talking so crazy in a psychiatric emergency room. Such talk can get you a rousing applause at a Sierra Club dinner, but here, it can get you committed. Trouble is, he didn’t look crazy to me, and I can spot `em, believe me. I’ve seen it all.
He had kept his 46 hat on despite having shed all his other clothes in compliance with hospital policy. Even psych patients must wear those silly hospital gowns, but there’s no real reason to. I guess we want to humiliate them and transform them from people into patients. Well, he wasn’t having it. He was staying who he was.
In some ways, he reminded me of Brian, another emergency room patient who would frequently come in for no other perceived purpose but to show us his report card from the sixth grade. He had gotten an A in math, the greatest achievement of his life. He would unfold the document carefully so as not to tear it anymore than it was and make everyone marvel at it. I once offered to take it and get it laminated for him, but he wouldn’t let it go.
The forty-sixer was no Brian, however. He had a clear eyed, I-can-make-camp-and-catch-a-trout-and-fry-it-before-you-take-the-pack-off-your-back manner. I would follow him anywhere, even up a mountain; but I wouldn’t get far. However, I also recognized he was puzzled, as if he had just discovered he had brought the wrong topographical map, the trail had ended in a bramble thicket, and all the streams were running uphill.
I asked him what was wrong.
I could never get my son to climb with me,” he said. “Oh, we did Blue Mountain when he was young, but as soon as he became a teenager, he had better things to do. He liked video games better.
“I finally talked him into doing Algonquin as a kind of farewell-I’m going-to-college thing. At first he said he’d do it; but he cancelled at the last minute. Then, the guilt finally got to him, I guess, that and freshman homesickness, and we went up during Thanksgiving break.”
The forty-sixer’s tanned legs, all tendons and bug bites, protruded from the gown. His translucently white bare feet swung freely.
Algonquin is the perfect peak to start on, even though there are easier ones. I’d done it before. It’s short enough for the attention deficit, but high enough to be impressive. It can be difficult, but it’s not a technical climb and the difficulty is all at the top, where there’s no turning back. Enough others are on the trail to encourage even the most reluctant. I knew that no young adult male would give up when others were pressing on.
“The first mile of trail is muddy. Real hikers will just trudge through the slop because getting dirty is part of the fun, but my son had just gotten new pair of sneakers. He tried to pick his way around the mud and, when he couldn’t, he would stop afterwards to carefully scrape it off and touch his sneakers up with a can of sneaker paint he kept in his pack.
“`Wait till we’re done before painting them,’ I said. ‘The mud’ll just stick to the paint and make them look worse.’
“`I want to keep them looking good, Dad,’ he said; but he didn’t stop to paint them again.”
It’s unusual for psych patients to tell their stories so carefully and take pains with details. They are usually all tragedy and angst, indefinite pronouns and mislaid information. Impatient to get to the point they, nonetheless lose track of it and take you around the barn a dozen times trying to catch up. Dangling, they never connect their participles. They neglect imagery and blend metaphors in unappetizing combinations. They fail to pause at appropriate times to give you a chance to assemble your imagery. They don’t pay attention to whether you are lost or still following and go on and on and on without you. Listening to psych patients tell their stories is hard work, but that’s why we get the big bucks, I guess. I’m convinced that sometimes all we counselors really do is help people tell their stories. We’re kind of a psychic rewrite desk, polishing our patient’s prose before they set it out on the dinner table for their families. Making comprehensible what appears to be chaotic.
In the second mile, the grade increases and the mud has all been washed away, leaving behind boulders that’ll turn your ankle if you’re not careful. Here my son pulls out his cell phone, probably telling his friends can you believe what my Dad is making me do. I lost my temper and barked at him to put the damn thing away, watch were he’s going, and appreciate nature for once.”
“What’d he say?” I asked.
`Whatever;’ he said, `Whatever’,
“I can’t begin to describe the fury I felt when he used that dismissive word: whatever. I didn’t say anything, though. I kept it to myself and tried to analyze why he got me so upset.”
“What’d you come up with?”
I don’t know. I love the mountains. I really do, and I wanted to share them with him. He wasn’t interested in them, and that got to me, but there’s more. It’s like he wasn’t worthy of them, and that was a reflection on me. It’s almost like I was ashamed of him and didn’t want to let the mountain know he was my son.”
The forty-sixer looked down at his cream-colored feet. I wondered if he was thinking what I was thinking. Marveling how we can love a pile of rocks better than our own flesh and blood.
In the third mile the grade steepens some more and even the boulders are washed away. All that’s left on the trail is a smooth rock face, and it’s colder, so ice is forming. We buckle on crampons and I try to show him how to use the crevices for support, but he just charges up the rock, showing off to some girls that were nearby. Of course he doesn’t make it, so he slides back down and the fool girls are giggling at him. He’s OK and he even keeps his pride in front of the girls because he makes out like he’s just goofing off. That gets to me, too. It’s like he doesn’t have respect for the mountain.
“The voice came back to me then. That voice I was talking about, only this time I heard it loud and clear, like God was climbing up the trail next to me.”
Why is it that everyone seems to hear God but me? I don’t get any encouragement, no stone tablets, no instruction, nothing; not even a bolt of lightning.
“What’d it say?” I asked.
“`Kill him,’ it said. `Kill him.’
“It said, `When you get to the top, push him off. If you love the mountains, kill him.’”