I don’t remember much of the rest of the trip up Pike’s Peak. Natalie, Kim, and Sam went on to songs I didn’t know, the kind they must’ve sang in church youth group. No longer able to sing, I hyperventilated and, as difficult as it is to do in that thin air, may have passed out. Mountain goats sagely stroked their beards as we passed. A one car funeral procession: three young people singing popular Christian music, a coffee can of ashes, and a fat middle aged man, his bright red head nodded out the open window, bobbing over the unguarded edge of the chasm, unconscious of the most spectacular scenery on earth.
I came to when Sam cut the engine atop the mountain. It ran on for a minute or two, sputtering a syncopated beat.
“We’re here, Dad,” announced Natalie when it stopped. “What, did you fall asleep?”
I looked around and, happy to be far from any precipitous precipice, creaked the door open and stepped out onto firm, level, blessed land. However, I must have stood up too quickly because I reeled and had to be caught before I fell.
“The altitude must be getting to you” said Kim. “We’re above fourteen thousand feet. Here, drink some water.”
I sat back down, gulped half a water bottle, and looked around. The mountaintop had an abrasive quality, not apparent when looking from below, as if we were standing on top of crumpled sandpaper, discarded after polishing the luminescent blue dome of the sky. The panorama below us was blurred, as if we were looking through a clouded window. Hundreds of peaks aspired to our height all around. Among them, a mountain lake, three shades darker blue than the sky, seemed to give access to the underworld. To one side, the Great Plains stretched out forever and the city of Colorado Springs nestled close.
I no sooner got back to my feet but the wind blew and tried to knock me down again.
“Whoa, Dad, steady there,” said Natalie, who, being thinner, was not as affected by the wind.
A train station incongruously stood at the mountain top, complete with a gift shop and restrooms. With a daughter and a daughter-in-law on both sides, and Sam, whatever he was, guarding me from behind, I made my way inside. Safely out of the wind, I studied a rack of postcards and got in the way of the discount t-shirt bin. The shop, already filled with fellow motorists and a few weary hikers, as well as my considerable bulk, went over capacity when a train pulled up and discharged its passengers.
“That’s the Cog Railway,” said Kim. “It comes up from Manitou Springs.”
“OK,” I said, feeling as claustrophobic with all the tourists in the building as I had been panicked on the mountain road. “Let’s go do what we came to do.”
We four completed our funeral march out to the edge of the parking lot on the leeward side of the mountain, where jagged rocks, swept clear of soil and vegetation, balanced at the edge of a cliff. I was not as fearful on my own two feet as I had been in Sam’s jalopy, so I stepped boldly out on the furthest rock that could support me.
I still held Paul in his coffee can. Thinking I would open the can and we would all say a few words with it open, irrationally believing that only in this way Paul could hear. I pried the lid off. No sooner had I done so, but another gust came along, blew Paul out and bore him halfway back home to Kansas. It was almost as if he couldn’t wait to be done with all these ceremonies we had devised for him. Without so much as a thank you, but I’ll be on my way, he was on his way.
“Well, goodbye, Paul,” I said.
That’s all anyone had to say.
We stood for a few moments and gazed out on a vista too misty to see. This might’ve been the perfect place for a mountaintop experience. It was, after all, a mountaintop, although no experience came along. Perhaps it was nearby, too rushed by the wind to stop. It may have called out, as it zipped by, catch up to me on the next mountain, but it was already too far away to hear.
In the end, we all shrugged and headed back to the car.
Sam couldn’t wait to get back to the treacherous highway.
“This road is awesome, man,” said Sam. “They race on it every year. They go, like sixty miles an hour through those curves. The most I can do is, like fifty and stay in the turn. But I’m getting better. Clock me on the way down.”
All of a sudden I couldn’t get enough air. My heart felt like it did at the last funeral. A flock of sparrows fought to escape my stomach. Despite the chill of the wind, I started to get hot. I sat down in the middle of the parking lot.
“Dad, are you OK?” asked Natalie.
“I’m all right,” I gasped. “Give me air.”
They stepped back and watched me. Half a trainload of tourists turned from the cloudy vista and gaped. Hikers leaned on their sticks and observed.
“Help me up.”
“Let’s go to the car and sit you down.”
The mountain started to spin. I began to say, “I’m gunna be…” but instead of the word, sick, I puked on the pavement.
“You clearly have altitude sickness,” pronounced Kim as she cleaned off my mouth. “Let’s get you down off this mountain.”
“No,” I snapped. Although I was uncertain that the building would remain in my path, I headed towards the building. I pushed my way through a crowd of tourists at the door, knocked over a display of commemorative key chains, made it to the men’s room, and retched again in the toilet.
Sam had followed me in. “Are you OK, Mr Zade?”
In time, the spinning and vomiting stopped. The sparrows may have escaped. I called from my knees, “You guys go ahead. I’ll take the train. I’ll call you when I get down.”
Almost immediately my heart slowed. Sam relayed out the door, “He said to go ahead. He’s gunna take the train.”
“I’ll wait with him. I’ll take it with him,” said Natalie.
“No, damn it” I shouted. “I just want to be alone.”
In the end, I guess I spent enough time kneeling on the men’s room floor to prove my point. By the time I washed my face and went back out, they, and Sam’s rattletrap car, had left.
So had the train.
The mist that had obscured the view had burned off. The whole world looked as though it had been scrubbed clean while I was in the men’s room.
I was feeling so good that I decided to take the trail down the mountain. I knew I was in no shape to go climbing a mountain, but I could walk down one. I had gravity on my side. How hard could it be?