Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Carry Me

Part 1.

What I remember most about that morning in 1968 is the cold blanket of fog covering the Ecuadorian páramo, and how my dad disappeared from view just a few feet ahead of me on the trail into Lake San Marcos. I was ten years old.

We had spent the previous night in Cayambe, a mountain town at the base of a massive snow-capped volcano by the same name, and then at dawn headed out on foot from the trailhead--me, my brother Tod, his friend Jim, our dad, Dad’s friend Mr. Allpress, and Victor Chicaiza.

Victor was a stout Quichua man hired to carry our camping gear, including tents and food supplies and our dad’s inflatable rubber boat for trout fishing. Victor planned to leave us at the lake and hike back out alone once he got us down there with all this stuff.

Dad suggested at first that we stay together on the trail, but it didn’t happen. Tod and Jim ran on ahead, eager to slip the surly bonds of adult supervision. Next went plodding Victor Chicaiza, slowed by his massive burden but still outpacing Mr. Allpress, Dad, and finally me.

About a half-hour into the hike, Dad disappeared in the fog. I called for him to wait for me, but he didn’t answer. I started to run with my knapsack, lost my footing in the mud, and fell headlong. I smacked my shinbone with full force on a branch that had fallen over the trail.

Lying there in the mud and the mist, with my leg throbbing in the moments after I’d fallen, I screamed for Dad. I screamed first in pain and then in panic when he didn’t come.

In retrospect, I now imagine Dad had been chatting with Mr. Allpress on the trail and failed to notice that the boy wasn’t following behind him. Eventually, of course, he realized that I wasn’t there and he turned around and came back for me. Mr. Allpress walked on.

By the time I saw Dad emerge from the cloud up ahead, I was crying. But then I felt ashamed of my fear and the tears and I blamed it all on the hurt leg. Dad checked the bruise on my shin, gave due regard to my agony, and set forth a provisional diagnosis: “You might just have a little fracture of your tibia there, Ol’Buddy,” Dad said. “You probably shouldn’t walk on it, in any case. Tell you what, let’s find a spot for you to sit for awhile and I’ll go get Victor to carry you down.”

Dad helped me up out of the mud, then crouched and told me to climb on his back. He carried me until he found a flat place, then sat me down in the páramo grass. “Now just wait here, Ol’ Buddy,” he said. Then Dad gathered up his gear and my knapsack, too, and took off down the trail to Lake San Marcos.

It seemed like hours, sitting out there alone on the mountainside. The fog begat a cold drizzle. I wondered if Dad had forgotten where he’d left me. Then he and Victor Chicaiza showed up, and they were a welcome sight. Dad said Victor would carry me all the way down to the lake. Then he said Victor was going out to Cayambe and he’d bring back some plaster bandages so Dad could set my leg in a cast. (He, Dad, would just heat up some water on the campfire to soften the plaster--no problem.) Finally, he said Victor was going to bring in a horse from Cayambe on the day we would leave, so I could ride out and Victor wouldn’t have to carry both me and the boat.

By that time, my leg was actually feeling quite a bit better, but I wasn’t about to say so. And then . . . the more I thought about that cast coming in from Cayambe and the horse and all, my leg started to feel plenty bad again.

The truth is, I ended up having a pretty good time for a kid on a fishing trip with an implausibly broken leg. I hopped gamely down to the lakeshore on my “good leg” and caught my share of rainbow trout. In the evenings, we grilled the fish over the campfire and Dad and Mr. Allpress talked and told stories into the night.

Henry Allpress, Esquire, was a distinguished-looking, avuncular gentleman who worked for USAID in Quito. He was the epitome of what I thought of admiringly as an “American Colony man.” He had two lovely daughters who went to our school--much older than my brother and me--but he didn’t have any boys of his own. Mr. Allpress loved to fish, and to talk about fishing, and it seemed nice that Dad had a friend.

After we’d camped out there at Lake San Marcos for several days, Victor showed up with the horse, just as Dad had asked him to, but the horse had no saddle or bridle--just a blanket and a rope. Victor steadied the horse while Dad and Mr. Allpress lifted me onto his back. The horse tried to throw me off at first, but Dad and Mr. Allpress held on to me and Victor reprimanded the horse. Victor then tossed the inflatable rubber boat and sundry camping gear over his shoulders and led the horse and me straight up the mountain.

By the time I was fully evacuated to Quito, my leg was pretty well healed. As for the guilt, I’ve still got that.

Part 2.

I remember it was a sweltering afternoon in North Carolina that day I pushed Angela’s wheelchair up the wooded trail to the waterfall at Chimney Rock. It must have been the summer of 1993; she was just a little girl.

Chimney Rock is a place of magnificent natural beauty. You gaze across rolling valleys of forest to the horizon, and then to the tiny wildflowers close at hand--the Jack-in-the-pulpit and Solomon’s seal. It’s where they filmed The Last of the Mohicans. But on this day, my eyes were glued to the trail, as I maneuvered Angela’s chair around rocks and roots.

I struggled and sweated for a couple of hours and then Hickory Nut Falls splashed into view--a splendid white veil tumbling four-hundred feet over a sheer cliff. I couldn’t push the chair quite close enough, and so I carried Angela in my arms the last few yards into a cool and thundering mist.

That night I had the dream again. In the first part, I see Angela walking. She’s at the end of a dark hall and I don’t recognize her at first. Then she laughs and says, “Hey Dad, it’s me! It’s Angela.” She’s tall and graceful and walking. And then there’s the second part, where I’m sitting in a wheelchair myself, surrounded by walking people. Somewhere deep in the dream, I know it’s a sham--that I really can walk, after all, but I can't admit that I'm malingering. And then I fall and I’m lying on the ground. Somehow I know, once again, that I am able to get up and climb back into the chair, but I can't will myself to do it. Nobody suspects my secret. Nobody comes to help me, either. So I just lie there on the floor by the chair. Then I wake up in a sweat.

This dream used to visit me often, but it’s been a long time now.

Part 3.

It’s March, 2010, and Matt and I are headed out on a father-son backpacking adventure in the Virginia high country. The trip is Matt’s idea and I’m honored that he wants to spend his Spring Break with me, instead of with his buddies at Arizona State.

We set out on the trail into the wilderness and quickly realize we’re ill prepared for something: deep snow. Matt is wearing sneakers. By the time we camp the first night, his feet are numb. We get a fire going and he warms up.

As the fire burns down, I feel like telling my son a story. “Matt, did I ever tell you about the time I went backpacking with Grandpa and Uncle Tod in the mountains of Ecuador and I hurt my leg?

I recount for Matt the tale of the trip to San Marcos and Victor Chicaiza and the horse.

In the morning, the fog has mostly cleared and we’re treated to an ethereal orange sunrise glinting off snow-covered conifers and boulders and icy fields in the valley below.

After a second day of hiking through snow, Matt can’t feel his feet again. Late in the afternoon we lose the trail; it seems to disappear at an impassable rock face. We decide to camp where we are, in a wind-swept meadow with no source of moving water but plenty of snow to melt.

Try as we might, we can’t keep a fire going that night. Everything is wet. Matt’s feet are still numb. Temperatures fall into the mid-twenties. The two of us wrap up in every piece of dry clothing we have, and we lie in our sleeping bags--not warm enough--as the wind whips through the tent and our watches seem stuck between two and three in the morning.

When dawn arrives, we decide to head home early. We’re just too cold and we’ve used up most of the propane to melt snow. Retracing our path, we find another route out.

Traversing one more deep snowfield, I step through the icy crust past my knee and twist my right ankle. I don’t say anything at first, but the more I walk on it, the more it hurts. Near the end of the day, I mention it to Matt. I’m moving pretty slowly.

By late afternoon we’re back to the road, just a half-mile from the backpackers' parking lot. “Dad, you stay here and I’ll go down and get the car,” Matt says. “I'll pick you up.

“No, I can walk it, man,” I say.

“Dad. Just stay here. I don’t want you to walk with a sprained ankle. I’ll be right back up with the car. It’s just over there. . .”

I rest on my pack and wait for my son. I gaze back up the mountain from which we've come. I don't want this to end. Then my mind wanders, and I'm waiting on the páramo. Waiting for Dad and Victor Chicaiza to come and carry me through the mist.

Twenty minutes later Matt shows up with the car and I'm shaken out of my reverie. It's time to go home. He peels off his wet shoes and socks and drives barefoot with the heater blasting through the floor vents. We cross into North Carolina and he says, “You know, Dad, I was actually worried last night that I might lose my toes and never be able to play basketball again.”

“That really happened to a guy who went to my college,” I reply. “Why did you think I was blowing on the fire so hard last night, just trying to get it going?”

By the time we pull into Chapel Hill, my sprained ankle is pretty well healed. As for the guilt . . .

* * *


Tod calls on my birthday. I tell him about the adventure with Matt, and then we’re reminiscing about our days growing up in Ecuador. I recount my memory of that trip to Lake San Marcos. He hasn’t thought about it in a long time, and he remembers things a bit differently. “It’s funny how you recall some things and not others,” Tod says. “It’s just your perspective at the time.”

“That’s so true,” I agree. “What I remember most is hurting my leg and Dad leaving me up there in the fog on the páramo, and Victor and the horse.”

“I hardly remember any of that,” Tod says. He remembers shooting some waterfowl off the lakeshore with his shotgun, and then swimming in to retrieve it, and Dad getting mad and looking at him with this certain look of searing disapproval. And then Tod says, “Do you remember Henry Allpress?”

Now it’s Friday afternoon and I’m winding up to leave the office. On a whim, I Google this name I’ve hardly thought of in over forty years: Henry Allpress. His 2008 obituary pops up in a newspaper from Hilton Head, SC. He was ninety-four.

I quickly do the math and figure out that Mr. Allpress was the same age I am now in 1968 when we trekked into San Marcos. The obituary says he was a lawyer with the State Department and served several tours with USAID in Latin America; that he was from Nebraska and a lifelong Methodist; and that he loved fishing and made several long canoe trips into the Canadian wilderness, "despite Cottie's objections."

I learn that Mr. Alpress is survived by, among others, his daughters Margaret and Marilyn and his granddaughter, Maria Paloulias Wood, Esquire, an attorney in Raleigh, NC. I Google Maria Wood's law firm and find her e-mail address and write to her.

Maria writes back and says it’s a wonderful surprise to hear from someone who knew her grandfather in the 1960s. She’s heard many stories of his days in Ecuador. She describes a loving grandfather who “lived to fish” but was “always there” for her--teaching her to drive, taking her to freshman orientation in college, and coming to her first law office to take picture after picture. She says she might like to name her first son Henry.

I hope somebody takes young Henry fishing. And if he can't walk for any reason, don't wonder why, just carry him--that's what I say.

* * *

Short video of the backpacking trip:

"Appalachian Spring (Not Quite)"

1 comment:

GuyMuse said...

Love your stories Jeff. Keep writing. If you're ever down our way (Guayaquil) give us a ring. We'd love to have you over for a meal.