Lee was last with us up here -- six? seven? -- summers ago, and another week in July a year or two earlier. Back then, the tops of his and Charlie's heads barely reached my shoulders. The boys lollygagged through hikes, preferring to play on the boulders outside the cabin where my parents always stayed.
This summer, we'd no sooner arrived than they were talking about doing a major hike. Less than 36 hours later, we started out on a build-up six-miler called Twin Owls. But at just about the one-mile mark (which meant Charlie and Lee were about twice that far), we heard thunder. So I, the self-designated hike master (admittedly relieved because I could see the boys beginning to clamber up rocks) opted for a scamper down the path we had worked fairly hard to ascend.
By the time we reached the trail head, of course, the thunder was barely a faraway echo, and the sky crystal clear. But in the interest of time (my niece Julie needed to leave for the airport to pick up her boyfriend), instead of attempting Twin Owls again, we hiked to Gem Lake -- a steep, shorter, and too-familiar hike not far away.
That almost-four mile jaunt was just fine for me. The boys, though, weren't satisfied. The perceived taste of the top whetted their appetites for -- if not the Twin Owls apex -- that of a tougher, longer, steeper, above-the-treeline actuality.
That's simple to understand, really. It's like anything you come close to grasping -- then catch yourself at the cusp of letting yourself think you already have. The love you've waited for all your life, maybe. Or a perfect pesto, or that driest of martinis. If you're a surfer, maybe you can all but feel that wave of serenity under you, the one that holds you aloft while the ocean roils below.
Until -- if ever -- you truly taste on your tongue whatever you are reaching for, until you feel it on your fingertips, until you see it even when you close your eyes, it absorbs you and holds you rapt.
Charlie and Lee decided to sate their craving by climbing a mountain called Flattop. I've done that hike with each of my sisters and also with a cousin years ago, and can vouch for its breathtaking vistas, its oxygen-deprived air.
Neither of the boys slept well the night before the hike. Lee told me in the morning that he'd woken up at 2 a.m. and decided he might as well get up and make his peanut-butter sandwiches. (He also packed a baguette and a box of Twinkie knock-offs, but that's another story).
He and Charlie reached the summit -- 4.4 miles from the trail head -- in two hours and 30 minutes. Even before they glanced over their shoulders and saw that last vestige of trees, the boys said they had a hard time moving their legs because the oxygen was so thin. But what they saw -- and you know it must have been astoundingly beautiful for 19-year-olds to say this kind of thing -- made every gasped-for breath worthwhile.
Before beginning this hike, they had decided that they -- along with the three other classmates who had spent time in Colorado with us through the years -- would climb Longs Peak together the summer before their senior year of college. At 14,259 feet, Longs is the highest point in Rocky Mountain National Park. Its name evokes reverence; those who have climbed it, awe.
After ascending Flattop, the idea of Longs became more than words strung together, more a possibility than a lark, more an adult aspiration than a daydream shared between childhood friends.
The route up Longs is 6.2 miles farther than Flattop. Getting there takes 12 hours at the very least, so hikers are strongly encouraged to begin around 2 a.m. to ensure they're off the summit when afternoon thunderstorms begin. Flattop was way above the tree line, but Longs would bring them 2,000 feet closer to the sky.
Although Longs, quite honestly, holds no great appeal for wimpy me, I understand its allure; I appreciate its invisible but very real bridge that connects childhood to adulthood. Which is why, ever since they shared this with me, I'm crossing my fingers, picking pennies off the sidewalk, scanning the sky at dusk for that very first star.
My wish is a bit tangential, a sidestep off the trail leading up Longs or down Flattop. I want Charlie and Lee to remember being on top of a mountain the summer they were both 19 -- within touching distance of a thousand clouds, at the starting point of a dream. To hold close what they told each other up there where the air was almost too thin to talk, and what they promised themselves.
And in days or months or years to come, when life is crazy and Longs seems so very far away, I hope they can bring back the feeling of being on a mountaintop with a friend whose connection goes far beyond alphabetical. Of remembering what it feels like to be standing tall, high in the sky, believing with all your heart that anything is possible.