Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2020  Vol. 19 No. 1
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Warren had last hiked the crest trail in his midfifties, when his body could still navigate the cables and wooden ladders fixed along the steepest chutes. By then, he had suffered the vertigo attacks that accompanied his Ménière’s disease for almost a decade, and his knees had become aching indicators of barometric pressure shifts, but he considered himself strong, his long limbs trusty. He had managed the climb well, he recalled now, though he had traversed several sections on all fours, afraid his six-foot-five frame might yield to the force of the wind. His youngest boy had coaxed him rung by rung up the final two ladders, and the pair had remained at the summit, determining through dense cloud cover the approximate locations of Asheville and Johnson City and Charlotte, until the quiver in Warren’s legs had subsided. That was going on thirty years ago, and, based on the glossy map he held in front of him, the trail was as technically demanding as he remembered.

“The wind is strong up there,” he told his granddaughter. She was Lucy like her mother and her grandmother. Not Lucinda or Lucille, just plain Lucy. This one preferred to go by Lu, but he didn’t often oblige. He referred to each of them as Lucy or, when he spoke of them collectively, his Lucys. All sturdy, green-eyed redheads, they favored each other physically, though not temperamentally. His daughter had her mother’s straight nose and generous smile, but she was less dreamy, more practical, more like Warren. His granddaughter had acquired her own father’s impatience, a trait that concerned him in this moment. “Go slow when you need to,” Warren told her. “Hand over hand. Use the cables.”

The girl promised she would do these things, and Warren hoped she was not simply placating an old man, though he sensed this was her angle. After his last fall delivered him from his two-bedroom apartment into a single room in the assisted-living sector of his retirement home, he noticed that his granddaughter’s conversational skills began to falter. Just last Christmas, she had regaled him with tales of her semester at Oxford and the English boy who had turned out to be a creep (her words). But, on this visit to his daughter’s home in Valle Crucis, his third without his wife, Warren’s granddaughter had seemed interested only in how he felt and whether he had slept all right and could he see this or that bird perched at the feeder. When he remarked that the square footage of his new living quarters probably matched that of her college dorm room, she had not laughed but, instead, patted his hand and said, “I’m sorry you had to move, Granddaddy, but isn’t your room pretty now that we’ve hung your pictures?” It was, of course. A few framed photographs gave the place a cozier feel, but that hadn’t been his point. And, the evening before, while he worked on the top portion of a jigsaw puzzle, his granddaughter had sat across from him identifying the pieces inked in fiery shades and inching them closer to his line of vision. “Concentrate on the boats,” he had barked. “I’ll handle the sunset.” Together they had finished the puzzle. He had watched her place the final piece, satisfied that it completed the hull of one of her boats.

“The hike’s only a few miles from the bridge parking lot, Granddaddy.” Lucy was reassuring Warren as he studied the map, saying she would turn back if she felt unsafe and that plenty of other hikers would be there, ascending the ridge alongside her. She wore a whistle around her neck, she told him. “I’ll use it if I get lost.”

He was not concerned that his granddaughter would lose her way. The trail was marked well enough, and she was right that others would be climbing on a day like this. But he was alarmed by her casual decision to hike the mountain’s crest. The idea had only come to her that morning. At the breakfast table she had weighed her aerobic options: a dance class at the Y or one of the more challenging day hikes east of the Mississippi. Her mother had encouraged the latter, and Warren had spent the past half hour sifting through his memories of the trail and orienting them along a thin gray line snaking across the park-issued topographic map.

“Right here, see, a hundred feet or so beyond Calloway Peak, you need to spend some time poking around the forest.” Warren pressed his finger to a point on the map just below a crown-shaped symbol marking the mountain’s highest outcropping. “It’s a Canadian fir zone at that elevation, so it’ll be cold—maybe fifteen or twenty degrees cooler than it is where we are. There’s the remains of a plane crash that’s worth seeing. The pilot wasn’t instrument rated and flew into the side of the mountain during a storm.” Last he’d heard, which was not too long ago, that plane was still in several pieces on the forest floor. It would be a shame for Lucy to miss it.

“Daddy,” his daughter called from the kitchen. “Let Lu get going. She said she’ll be careful.”

“That’s fine.” He raised his voice to reach the adjoining room. “But she’s never hiked this trail on her own. She needs to know what to expect.” He refolded the map hastily and handed it to his granddaughter who creased it once more and slid it into the back pocket of her shorts. At least she has a map, he thought. But he was frustrated, now. He considered himself a planner; and he supposed he had always been, even at Lucy’s age, the type to know where he was going and what he would do when he got there. To Warren’s mind, appreciating the mountain required an understanding of its landscape. He wanted his granddaughter to express an appropriate amount of reverence for a Canadian ecosystem in western North Carolina or, at the very least, to share his interest in a demolished 1970s Cessna. Six months ago, he thought, she would have asked him to explain instrument rating in aviation.

“You need to take a jacket,” he told his granddaughter. “It’ll be cold as it is, and the weather can change fast up there.”

“It’s July,” she said. “The sky is totally blue.”

“You can take mine. Tie it around your waist or stow it in your knapsack.” Warren gripped the arms of the chair he tended to occupy when he visited his daughter’s home. From this post, he could see the old Mast farmhouse, and, if he slid open the glass door to the sundeck, he could hear the Watauga River flowing. He glanced at his feet and squared them beneath his knees before pressing himself to a standing position. His footwork was most reliable in the morning, and he felt sure he could reach the coat closet and retrieve his windbreaker without the aid of his walker. It was this variety of morning exercise, he reasoned, that would help him eliminate the walker from his routine. Just a few sure steps on his own each day. He wouldn’t mind using a cane. He had a nice one, carved nearly two centuries ago by one of his wife’s relatives out in Person County. It was more of a walking stick, really, and he wouldn’t mind using that; but he was not yet ready to concede his mobility permanently to the walker.

“No, Granddaddy, it’s OK. You sit. I have a jacket I can pack.” Warren sat, and the girl bounced up the staircase. She returned seconds later and made a show of cramming a pink fleece jacket into her daypack. “I’ll only be gone a few hours,” she said. “When I get back we can split a beer and I’ll show you the pictures I take of the dead plane.”

“Good, gal. That’ll be nice,” he said, his voice gentle now that he knew Lucy would follow at least one of his sightseeing tips. She would be fascinated by that old wreck, just as he had been.


When his granddaughter had gone, Warren’s daughter emerged from the kitchen and began tidying the living area. She had spent her morning cooking and cleaning up. The house still smelled of bacon. He figured she would spend the next hour walking her large yellow dog, which would allow him time to shave and dress properly. “Daddy,” she said, “what do you want to do today?” His daughter had collected him from the retirement home on Thursday afternoon, and, both days that had passed since, she had exhausted him by suppertime. This was not a complaint. Most of their activities had been his idea. They had driven the Linn Cove Viaduct and dined at the Old Hampton Store and stood at the center of the Mile High Swinging Bridge and perused an exhibition of Hugh Morton photographs. Warren’s walker had come along for all of it, his daughter easing it into her hatchback at the start of each adventure. These were, he felt, adventures. They had sparked in him what he thought was joy and alleviated, temporarily, his boredom with his daily program, which had lately been marked by the meals he shared with a grouchy but with-it group of women (few men seemed to have made it as far as the assisted-living facility) and visits to his wife’s memory-care ward.

And yet, as he considered his daughter’s question, watched her fluff and straighten two throw pillows he had called beautiful when he first saw them accenting her clean white sofa—new, he noticed, since her divorce—he thought that he wouldn’t mind a day without excursions. His daughter could walk her yellow dog and cross a few items off the shopping list he had spotted on her kitchen counter. He could start another jigsaw puzzle, enjoy the view from his favorite chair or the sundeck, and listen to the river run. Maybe he would sneak in a nap before Lucy returned from her hike. For lunch, he would let his daughter fix him a sandwich, make sure she felt useful, like a good host, which she was.

“Gee, honey, I’m enjoying myself right here,” Warren said. He proposed his plan for the day to his daughter, suggesting that, with the weather as nice as it was, she take the dog on a long walk. Soon they agreed that she would drive out to Price Lake—get both her and the dog some real exercise—and stop for groceries on her way back into Valle Crucis. She would be home by early afternoon, in time for a late lunch of tomato sandwiches. Warren was pleased with this arrangement, eager even, to dress himself for these few quiet hours of leisure.

Before his daughter left him alone, he asked her to select for him a puzzle from her stash of several, most still wrapped in plastic, he knew, having peered into the game cabinet on the evening he arrived. She chose a complicated one: five hundred pieces that would converge into a series of images representing all sixty national parks. Warren thought it was the one he would have picked himself. He kissed his daughter’s cheek when she leaned toward him and urged her to have fun at the lake. “I’ll keep out of trouble here,” he said, and she laughed as he hoped she would at his familiar line.

It was a silly joke he shared with his daughter, or, he supposed, what now passed for a joke between them. She would call to enquire about his health and his mood, and he would say, “I’m keeping out of trouble.” When she kissed him goodbye after her twice-weekly visits to the retirement home, he repeated it. He had said it once, shortly after the bad fall, his worst, and his daughter had laughed, seemingly relieved by Warren’s blithe acknowledgment of his lessening agility. But she must have known the weight of the phrase, how its playfulness veiled thinly his circumscribed sense of independence. In those first weeks of recovery, while he nursed three broken ribs and a black eye, “keeping out of trouble” was code for allowing a revolving door of CNAs to muscle him out of bed or up from the toilet. Mercifully, he had regained strength enough to manage his bathroom affairs on his own. Now the phrase was a promise that he would rely on his walker—a promise he usually broke in the day’s early hours, when he knew his legs could support the rest of him—and that he would avoid, generally, the kind of hip-shattering spill that would mean slow death to a man his age.


When he was alone, Warren stood. He wore his pajamas, still, and the sneakers he had slipped on upon waking. The tread of his size 13 ASICS steadied his gait, but he reached for his walker nonetheless. He thought it best to keep the thing nearby, let it accompany him to his daughter’s guest room and linger as he shaved and brushed his teeth and dressed.

He stepped deliberately toward the start of his day, completing his hygienic matters on his own two feet as he intended. The guest bedroom at his daughter’s house offered more space than he needed, with two closets and a bureau still awaiting the contents of his small duffel bag. He had not thought it necessary to unpack when he had brought with him so little. He had deposited his hat and windbreaker in the hallway closet, and he had placed his Dopp kit by the sink in the bathroom; but he had kept his unworn clothes folded inside his duffel and his dirty ones slung over a chairback, where he knew his daughter would find them for washing.

He sat on the edge of the bed and changed from his pajamas into a fresh set of underclothes, leaning forward to remove his sneakers before beginning the operation. He felt the cracked skin of his bare feet catch carpet fibers as he buttoned the shirt he had selected, a soft blue plaid. He worked his legs into his trousers and stood slightly to draw them to his waist, but he sat to tuck his shirttail and buckle his belt. Dressing while seated had become Warren’s custom, and this did not bother him. He had begun this cautious routine well before the bad fall, and he had streamlined his process. Again, he bent forward, slid a clean sock over each foot, and laced up his ASICS.

“Work, feet,” Warren said aloud, as he sometimes did when he was alone and readying his legs to move, as if the verbal command would seal the fissure between his brain and body. His first steps felt heavy. His sneakers seemed to adhere to the carpeted floor as he approached the walker he had stationed like a blockade before the bedroom door. His stride was short, little more than a shuffle, and he estimated ten or twelve such paces would carry him to his target. When he felt his legs give, his body sway, he quickened his small steps and veered right, which was the direction of the bureau, the nearest thing that would support his weight and aid his descent. He sensed that he was falling slowly then, that gravity was taking him in stages as it does a ribbon loosed from a child’s braid. His forearm caught the bureau’s edge, and he pressed down hard, softening the impact to his knees.

Carefully, he brought his palms to the ground, and, on all fours, he assessed himself for injury. His arm would bruise, of that he was sure. Possibly his elbow. Otherwise, he found himself physically intact, if emotionally shaken. He felt his cheeks warm and his back begin to sweat, symptoms of a sprained ego or the excitement of the fall. Using the bureau to pull himself up would prove too difficult, tall as it was, so he determined that he would crawl to his walker. The thing was equipped with a fold-down seat low enough to offer the leverage he needed to stand.

He stared at the carpeted space between his hands, and, as he began to inch his body forward, he thought of his granddaughter. Lucy was hiking the trail that had, on his final ascent and several before it, bent him into this very shape. He wondered if she would drop to her knees, press herself close against the rock face at the culmination of each wooden ladder, as he had. She would if the wind was blowing, he thought. He imagined her flanked by Catawba rhododendrons and mountain laurels and wild azaleas, her strong hands gripping tree roots and boulder edges as she guided herself to MacRae Peak or Attic Window or, if she had moved fast at the trailhead, Calloway Gap. He hoped she would rest at each overlook, photograph the views, and study the wildflower varieties blooming at varying elevations. Lucy was the oldest of Warren’s three grandchildren, already twelve when he and his wife moved from their home and its sprawling garden. He had exposed her to the same botany lessons his own children had loved. If she was paying attention on that mountain, she would spot yellow lady slippers and bluets. Away from other hikers, she could snap the leaf from a flowering bloodroot and use its stem to paint her skin.

At one time or another, Warren had seen and done these things on the mountain, and those memories were more vibrant now than they had been in his thirty years away from its trails. Crawling still, he felt his own hands clutch rugged earth, then smooth wet roots that signified sheltered ground and urged him forward. He reached for a low boulder before him and curled his fingers around a sturdy hold his legs could trust. The sky was cloudless, and he could see a hundred miles of rolling green as he raised himself with a great and satisfying growl.

Holding the rails of his walker, waiting for his breath to slow, he blinked away the phantom vista and considered the tastefully appointed bedroom in which he stood. One after the other, he brushed his quaking palms against his shirtfront, wiping away the damp soil that existed only in his mind’s eye. The grand windows facing him framed a pond ringed with milkweed and daylilies, and he gazed at this view long enough to assure himself that it was real. He felt jarringly alert, as if he had been tasked with detailing the minutiae of the scene—paint chipped from the white window frame, a breeze, barely perceptible, swaying what grew beside the shallow pool. Warren could not remember if he had told his daughter to maintain the milkweed, important as it was to monarch migration through the area. Even if he had, he would remind her. He liked showing her that he had more to discuss than the state of his aging body, that his mind remained occupied by a healthful man’s experiences. He would certainly tell his daughter about the importance of fostering the milkweed, he thought. But he would not mention this minor tumble or the strange force of memory that had transported him to mountainous terrain and compelled him to his feet. She would narrow her eyes and wrinkle her forehead and ask him to repeat himself. She would doubt his mental stability. More than anything, Warren feared this.

But his cognitive functions were strong, he reminded himself. He could still teach his grandchildren and counsel his children. He could still listen to their problems and recommend solutions or praise their decisions. It was Warren who had advised his daughter to divorce her husband, young Lucy’s father, who had cheated and drunk his way through their twenty-five-year marriage. But she, like his sons, seemed disinclined, lately, to subject him to the matters of her personal life. His children worried about him, he knew, so he had attempted to reassure them with wit, prove to them the fitness of his mind. “I suffer from a degenerative condition called A-G-E,” he told each of them after the bad fall. “But I’m sharp as ever.” This self-assessment contrasted with his wife’s predicament. She was aggressively mobile—the wanderer of her ward—and yet, quick though her body was, her mind had fled from it. Twenty months had passed since she had recognized any of her four children, fewer since she had stopped knowing Warren. He wanted his children to trust that they would not lose him the way they had lost their mother. He would not sow doubt about his mental faculties by telling his daughter how completely he had believed he was on the mountain, how certain he had been of wood and stone and leaves and dirt, as he crawled across her fine wool carpet.


Warren tested his feet, lifting one, then the other. To his surprise, they felt light and steady. This discovery energized him. He opened the bedroom door and pushed his walker into his daughter’s living room. He considered the jigsaw puzzle, still in its box on a card table that had once belonged to his father, but he was no longer inspired by the idea of it. The view beyond the sliding glass door beckoned him more urgently than anything in this silent room. So he decided that he would venture onto the sundeck and relax there until his daughter returned. With a facility that startled him, he followed the short hallway to the closet that held his windbreaker and his hat, and he put them on. The same effortlessness carried him outdoors, where he paused, still gripping the handles of his walker, and surveyed the setting.

He could hear the faint rush of the river, and, through a forest of birch and hickory and pine trees, he could see the metal roof of the old farmhouse gleaming green in the sun. His daughter had outfitted the space with four cushioned chairs arranged around a small table; a built-in wooden bench spanned the length of the deck’s rail. He pondered the view he might enjoy from each perch and had nearly settled on a spot at the far corner of the bench, when his eyes traveled to the staircase spiraling upward to a smaller deck, barely six feet in length, extending from his granddaughter’s bedroom. Lucy stayed in what was essentially a finished attic. This deck and the connecting stairway had been her idea bowed to by her mother only after the divorce. Warren had never climbed to the top.

On the high deck, he spotted a pair of iron chairs that appeared suitable for an hour or two of sitting. He worked through the logistics in his mind. He could not bring his walker, of course, and, when he reached the tiny seating area, he would need to stay there until his daughter returned to supervise his descent. Going down, he knew, would be trickier than climbing up. His daughter would insist that Warren return to the main floor using the home’s interior stairway, a wide and straight shot. Briefly, he thought about taking this route to Lucy’s bedroom, entering the tiny outdoor roost from inside. But he was intrigued by the newfound lightness in his feet, the sturdiness of his stride, and the steepness of the spiraling steps.

There were twelve, he counted now. Plenty, though not enough to dissuade him. He situated his walker at the base of the staircase and began to climb slowly, rhythmically. He allowed his feet to meet on each step and alternated his working leg, but his thighs burned. At the midpoint, where the staircase curved and his body shifted to face the forested view, Warren rested. He wished for a sip of water but remained sure of his strength. He could see farther already, near down to the rocky riverbed that, moments earlier, had been obscured by a sheer hill. He wondered what else he had missed in all the time he had spent contemplating this landscape from the ground floor. His curiosity spurred him to continue, and, when he stepped onto the small deck, he followed its wooden rail to the center and stood tall.

For all its familiar aspects—pastureland carved by worn fences, a smattering of homes and rusty-roofed barns—the panorama before him was grander than Warren had imagined. Through breaks in the treetops, he traced the slope of an adjacent mountain. Below, he tracked pink rhododendron blossoms all the way to the Watauga River, now fully in view. The brim of his hat shielded his eyes from the sun’s glare, and several clouds had congregated in the still-blue sky, casting welcome shadows.

He lost little of this new perspective when he finally sat. He studied it closely from his chair, passing time by naming nearby trees and shrubs. For what seemed like a long while, he debated whether or not the boulders dappling a grassy hillside were idle cows. Warren’s eyes offered other illusions when his mind wandered again to Lucy and the high peaks she hiked. He imagined sitting beside her at the mountain’s summit, tired and thirsty and proud of them both. He had felt this way each time he had climbed with his own children. Always, they had been eager for Warren’s conversation at the top, and he had entertained their musings and answered their questions until they could think of no more to ask. Now, the landscape unfurled before him as it had on so many of those ascents. Where the green-gabled farmhouse had stood, a distant lake now shimmered. Weathered outbuildings became craggy cliffs. The far-off flash of a car passing was a flame azalea revealed in the wind. Narrow mountain roads replaced fences, and small fields grew to the size of counties. He longed to hear his granddaughter’s voice then, the sound of wonder or exuberance or love. Three thousand feet below his memory, Warren listened.  

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