The Alabama mountains look good today. The evening sun is cresting over the hillsides. I’m watching an Appalachian spring overtake the foothills beneath me.
Beside me is Otis. Otis is an athletic dog. He hikes faster than me. He is smarter than me. He can hike farther distances, too. Otis probably even knows how to do algebra.
I, on the other hand, am no athlete. I come out here and I hike in a style that would make athletes cringe. I hike slow. And I mean R-E-A-L-L-Y slow. I am DMV slow.
In my backpack, I carry all the nutrition anyone could need. I have chicken salad from Chicken Salad Chick. I have a Payday. And I have two beers. One for me. One for Otis.
You will not find any gluten-free energy bars or trail mix in my bag. You will not find lifegiving food that nourishes the arteries and feeds the limbic system. You will find food which contains bacon, and Budweiser.
Whenever I stop for lunch, I sit on a tall rock and dangle my legs off the edge, and I watch the world below me.
Otis never wants his beer. Which means that, once again, I am forced to drink it. The things I do for this dog.
And after a brief moment of repose, we are back to hiking again. We move steadily upward. My pale, shaky thighs are weak. I have unusually scrawny legs. My mother used to say I looked like a guy riding a chicken across the backyard.
But eventually, we reach the top. Whereupon I will pause to catch my breath while Otis looks at me as if to say, “You shouldn’t have drank my beer.”
And the view is arresting.
My father was a mountain lover. He was an ironworker. Local Number 10. He was a stick welder. Stick welders are real men.
My old man could climb things. Anything. Because that’s what welders do. He could scale a column, lay down a bead, then scurry back down. He moved like a monkey.
When it came to the mountains, he was obsessed with them. He worked in Colorado Springs as a young man because he was a “boomer,” which meant he went wherever work was. He lived in a camper. He welded all day. And after work, he would walk through mountains. His backpack contained beans and weenies, and cheap beer.
He loved Pikes Peak. It was his favorite place on planet earth. Which was really saying something when you consider that there is also, for instance, Dollywood.
Pikes Peak is quite a place. It was the same mountain where, in 1893, a young woman named Katharine Lee Bates once stood and was so moved by the vista she wrote a song you’ve probably heard before:
“O beautiful, for spacious skies,
“For amber waves of grain,
“For purple mountains, majesty,
“Above the fruited plains…”
I wonder if Katharine Lee Bates drank beer. If she did, she might have written a verse like this:
“O beautiful, for spacious skies,
“This altitude causes hemorrhages,
“Thank God for all these purple mountains,
“And for his malted beverages…”
As a young man, my father once told my mother that whenever he died, he wanted to be cremated and scattered on Pikes Peak. It was just a passing comment. A comment made casually. It was the kind of comment your brain forgets until the day your brain needs to remember it.
They cremated my father after his early death. He was given to us in a cardboard box. I was a little boy when we scattered him atop Pikes Peak. I was a grown man before I went back to visit him.
But when I did visit, I stood atop a mountain and observed the most incredible view on earth. And I could feel God. I can’t explain this, but it’s true.
When you’re on a 14,114-foot mountain, you’re closer to heaven. Only a few feet above your head, you have seventeen bajillion-zillion angels hovering around, looking at you from over the railing.
I remember staring at the sky, struggling to remain oxygenated. And I promised God that I would spend more time in the mountains from now on.
And at that exact moment, a storm kicked up in response.
It was the most bizarre thing. The weather changed immediately. The mountainside was engulfed in a sudden cloud. It began to snow. The wind howled. The air pressure changed. It was like God was replying to me. I could hear Him clearly.
And the Lord saith unto me: “You need beer.”
Then again, maybe it wasn’t God’s voice. Maybe it was the voice of another old friend.