Mountain hemlock trees grew along the trail like my memories; some new, others gnarled with time, and a few charred by painful fires.
Such was Yosemite for us.
We set out from Tenaya Lake early for the hike to Cloud's Rest. Jen always insisted we leave as the fore-dawn flared over the Sierras, while families of deer lingered in meadows still moist with dew.
This year the grasses were brittle and the deer were nowhere to be found.
The first time I met Jen was at 9,300 feet. I was picking my way along the narrow precipice, avoiding the 3,500 foot drop on either side. She brushed past me. All I can remember are her long tanned legs skipping from boulder to boulder, heedless of the potential slips.
It was a spectacular view.
One year later I proposed at Cloud's Rest. Our feet hung over the edge, dangling above the Yosemite River half a mile below. The golden rays of sunset ignited a solitaire as I slipped an engagement ring onto her finger. The excitement in her eyes left me breathless.
We’d returned every year, except last year.
I was still in the hospital.
Two years ago I’d insisted Timmy join us. “Come on, Jen,” I said. “He’ll do ok.”
“He’s still a baby. What if he falls?”
I slipped my hand onto the small of her back and pulled her to me. “Not with a boulder hoppin’ mom and a studly dad!”
She relented. “Okay, but you’ll be carrying him, studly Dad.”
In the end Timmy had done fine. A few extra snack breaks and a twenty minute lesson on how to urinate behind a tree became cherished memories.
I knew this journey, our second as a family along the twisting trail, would be our last.
Dry heat from the valley whistled up the mountainside filling the air with dust. I shifted Timmy’s weight on my shoulders. “Sorry, Tiger. I know this isn’t a postcard day.” I moved my hand to Jen at my side. “But it’ll have to do.”
The trees thinned. Soon I could see a monstrous wedge of beige granite that jutted into the sky. Cloud's Rest. I stopped. Despite my exertions I was terribly cold. My legs became weak and I could no longer move. I sat with Timmy and Jen in the scant shade of a red fir.
I was ill prepared to handle the depth of pain that heaved inside of me.
I rose and approached the mountain, forcing myself forward despite my urge to run away. Beneath the shadow of the peak a boulder sat among emaciated weeds.
“Look at that, Jen. It’s right where we left it.”
Somehow I didn’t think it would be.
I reached into my pack and removed two flowers. I laid them at the base of the rock that almost killed me.
The last time I had seen the thing, I was screaming. It was crashing down the slope. It impacted my chest and threw me backwards twenty feet. I landed, broken and bloodied in the gravel as my mind became a gray haze.
I woke up in the hospital room where I would spend the next sixteen months of my life.
“Hey, you guys remember where you were when it happened?” I walked to the base of the stone incline. “You were right here, Tiger. Trying to toddle your way up. And Mom was busy trying to keep you safe.” I had been watching them when the boulder fell. Maybe if I had been paying better attention—
I climbed along the ridge, my eyes blinking back tears. I paused where Jen had first brushed past me exactly nine years before. I smiled and placed my hand on her. I made my way to the summit, removed my backpack, and sat at the site of our betrothal. I dangled my feet into the emptiness—
—and emptiness consumed me.
“Well, this is it.” I swallowed hard. “I’m sorry.” I removed Timmy’s box from my backpack and Jen’s from my side-pouch. “I’m sorry that I didn’t do a better job watching out for that boulder.” My voice broke. “It was moving too fast to warn you. There was nothing I could do.”
I opened the boxes and held them into space before me.
“You guys wait for me a little while. I’ll see you on the other side.”
I poured out their ashes, watching as they mingled and floated on the breezes of Cloud's Rest.
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