In July of 1986, I took a vacation with my Mother, grandparents (affectionately, called Granny and Grandpa) and my cousin, Percy Shields Byrnes, V, who went by the nickname, “Bo.” Bo and I were almost the same age, he being only three months my senior. Given this and the fact that I was an only child, he was something of a brother to me. Now fourteen and having, since the time we were six, spent Christmases and summer vacations together, this current trip, within the limited experience and memory of youth, was just another in our ‘long history’ together.
Our tour had us traveling and staying at various places in the Ozarks of Arkansas. I said we took a vacation but my mother and Grandpa had opened an antique shop and so the trip had something of business about it. We would stop at flea markets, junk shops and antique malls along the way to find things that they could sell. Nevertheless, in the midst of this Grandpa decided that we would stay a couple of nights in Mt. Nebo State Park. We arrived at our cottage and got settled in. It was a quaint A-frame with a charming rustic interior and providing a grand and expansive view of the valley below.
The next day my mother and grandparents dropped us off at the pool for the day as we were old enough to be left to ourselves. Though I’d studied about elevation in my science classes, being at the pool was great experiential lesson because, though in the middle of July, we were so high up, just over 1,300 feet, there was a constant breeze that made getting out of the water intolerable. So we decided to get venture out as little as possible so that by the time they came back for us some hours later our hands and feet were ‘pruned’ beyond recognition. We were informed that we could be on our own again the next day or go with them on their buying expedition. The buying expedition offer was not an appealing one but neither was the prospect of freezing at the pool for another day. We decided, instead, that we would hike the trails that ran all over the mountain. The next morning after Granny fixed us breakfast, we struck out for our adventure. The night before, after climbing into the loft for bed, we had read a park brochure to help us plan our route. It talked about a must see attraction, called Fern Lake, which we thought would be something to check out. However, the image conjured by the name was nothing like the reality. The much hoped for pristine lake of deep blue water surrounded by lush Jurassic like ferns, ended before a weed infested stagnate pool, covered by clouds of mosquitos, dragonflies, and a host of other assorted flying vermin. In obnoxious youthful fashion, which aims at humor and fails, we complained aloud to passersby about “false advertising” and demanding our money back. Looking back, what we took as their amusement at our humor was an adult’s recollection of adolescent silliness.
One of the things I can recall happening, something again, which the young are apt to do, was the adoption of a phrase, coined by Bo, that was jokingly repeated among us over the duration of the trip. At the point when we were getting ready to tear off from the so-called lake Bo shouted, “Stop!” Being surprised, I did just that and looked at him in quizzical seriousness. He looked at me, a knowing smile growing across his boyish face, gently picked, from a low hanging branch, a leaf from a Maple Oak, held it above his head for a moment and with dramatic flair, released it, letting fall lightly to the ground between us. “It’s history.” he whispered. My bewilderment gave way to laughter and continued on our furious pace ascending the trail on up the mountain, punctuating it by one of us stopping, performing some random event while reciting our new refrain: throwing a limb from the path- “It’s history.”; farting (a particular favorite of Bo’s)- “It’s history.”; urinating on a large boulder- “It’s history.”; throwing a stone at armadillo- “It’s history.”; and et cetera and et cetera.
We continued our upward trek and came to a point where just off the trail was a rocky outcropping. From this vantage point we could see a sweeping view of the valley and Lake Dardanelle up to a 100 hundred miles. We followed this outcropping until we came to a point where to go further would be an example of poor judgment. I, tending have such judgement, intended to do so until Bo reached out his hand a caught me by the shoulder saying, “You can’t do that.” I was a bit annoyed. But I relented and we sat down together on a slab of iron gray shale and took in the view. It was so breathtaking. The valley floor lay as a patchwork of verdant greens of various hues surrounding the placid blue waters of Lake Dardanelle. We sat there for a long, long while talking about everything and nothing. We were alone together with nothing to bother us but the occasional footfall of passing hiker or the distant screech of the hawk that flew before us in solitary gyre, high above the valley floor.
In my mind’s eye that day is weaved in moments spun from the everlasting gold of summer’s enchantment. It started early morning and ended it at dusk, with us pulled along, dusty and sweaty, by calls of Mother and Granny to come on back for dinner. We must have put a footprint on every square inch of those hiking trails. Certainly, the sheer natural beauty of where we were and the adventure of discovery was part of that days spell. But there was something more, which I think gave this day a sort of enthralling quality. Bo and I were at the threshold of high school. In September, we would be freshmen. Though not old by any stretch of the imagination, we all know, when thinking of ourselves, that something of a turn happens at that time. Despite being teenager’s, in our minds, we were still children, at that awkward stage where you’re too old for toys and not old enough for dating and cars. Maybe, intuitively we felt this to be our last summer to be spent together as children, for my memory recalls that day as a last prodigal burst of boyhood exuberance.
In all living things there is a primordial cycle that is followed: birth, growth, maturity, decline and death. Childhood is a pivotal and special a time that but can never be a settling place. Time continues its course and we are carried along therein. We must get on with living and maturing, hopefully into the persons that we ought to be. The passage through theses stages are marked with their own particular joys. But, in our quieter moments, we understand that that passage from childhood toward even greater maturity, a certain innocence is lost, a feeling of wellbeing, which I can only describe as being at home in the world. We get this again, vicariously, through raising our children but at the cost of experiencing the flow even more profoundly.
I now see that day as the zenith of my childhood. But the river would flow on. Within a few years Granny would be gone, and the first thread of that idyllic tapestry of childhood would be pulled away. Other threads would follow over the years until it was lost, irretrievably lost. Lost was the relationship I had with Bo, for in the coming years with the death of my grandparents and our going to college we had less occasion to see each other. For my part, I did not reach out to him at all, until several years later, a few months before my wedding, when I called him and asked him to come. Our conversation was perfunctory and he did not seemed too enthused to speak with me, probably wondering why I was reaching out to him now, after not having spoken to him in a few years. That was the last time we ever spoke to each other. The next time I heard his name uttered was when Mother called me a week after my marriage to tell me that Bo had be killed in an automobile accident.
It is early morning. Standing in my backyard I am greeted by the cooing of a legion doves that swells and recedes in space as tidal waters, near then far. From the breeze there is the light touch of coolness; a breeze freshly fragrant from the passing shower and blossoming ligustrums. There is a feeling of it being like any other morning with its mundane demands; yet, as with most Easter mornings that I can remember, there is the impression of being on the threshold of a strange newness. I say strange newness because what is celebrated on this, the highest feast for Christians, defies all logic and concrete human experience. I mean, we can all appreciate the hope represented in the newborn babe of Christmas. But what to do with the celebration of a bodily return from death of a tortured and executed man? One would almost say that this feast would be celebrated with one part wishful thinking and three parts madness.
It is then I find myself recalling Bo and that vacation together. I feel a dull ache thinking about my lost cousin. I think about the lost beauty of that day on the mountain together. I think about my departed grandparents. I think about how this life seems to be nothing more than one prolonged farewell to all that we hold dear. I find myself desperately wanting some confirmation, however small, that I what I will celebrate in a few hours is, indeed, true- that He did return and our end is not one of extinction but hope fulfilled- fulfilled beyond all telling.
With this in mind I am struck by the oddity how past events find their way back from their long absence to our conscious memory. Eudora Welty once observed,
“The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order, a timetable not necessarily- perhaps not possibly- chronological…time is a continuous thread of revelation.”
A revelation is lit from the spark of one particular memory from that trip. The memory comes back to me as it has come to me any number of times while sitting in traffic, eating alone, staring upon the grayness of a winter afternoon or in that evanescent space between sleep and waking. But the memory seems different. At this time of its resurrection, it takes on the aura of a strange newness.
I recall that it is late in the day. Bo and I have one last thing to see- the summit of the mountain. We are drenched in sweat and covered with a thin layer of grime from the dust along the trails that we have traversed all the day long. We are almost in an exhausted fury to make the summit, knowing the lateness of the day and of having missed our appointed hour to return to the cabin for supper. The summit is close as we follow the narrow trail, the promised end of which is always curved just beyond of sight. I am struck how the trail is situated between the rocky wall, extending tantalizingly toward the summit, and the steady drop off below. The path’s narrowness and our frantic haste to make the peak gives this moment a sense of intoxicating danger. We are almost there when the angry calls of Mother and Granny reach our hearing, from far behind us. We stop abruptly. I look at Bo and he looks at me. Briefly, we consider pressing on, but from their emanating tones we know that to push further would be to involve ourselves in a great deal more of misfortune. We turn face and begin, just a furiously, to make our way to those angry voices, shouting affirmatively that we are coming. From within me boils a sea of conflicting emotions as conflicted as those that attend life’s journey- the bitter frustration of a denied goal, the thrilling danger of running so recklessly along the narrow trail, the prodigal joy of the long day, and the strange giddy fear of anticipated punishment. It is then that we make a bend and the trail having been sheltered between the rocky wall and small trees opens up to display the valley below and vast horizon beyond. I stop immediately. Before me, filling the whole sky, is the most spectacular sunset that I have ever seen. It is as almost as if I have never seen such a thing until that moment. The entire vista is bathed in an indescribable radiant gold. It is so dazzling that even the sun itself seems lost in the effusive radiance. I do not move. I do not think. I do not think of the missing the summit or of the impending tongue lashing to come. I stand there not wanting to move because doing so would rupture a connection with something beyond any attempt at naming. I am only left with an impression, which expresses itself, comically, in recollecting the refrain from the song “Dust In The Wind.” I, now, think it the response to something that bordered on mystical. Whatever that beauty represented, I wanted. I wanted it all and I wanted it always even if it meant acquiescing all that I had that had and all that I could ever have. Because whatever good given up for this reality signified in this sunset could not be given up in truth, as this represented the very Goodness from which all good things flow. I am shaken from my daze from Bo calling me onward. Time resets itself and I resume my furious pace with Bo back to the cabin. He stops his run right before me and I have to spin myself to keep from running into him. He bends down and picks up a small stone and points to a hapless armadillo that is just of the path. With the grin tracing an arc across his smudged and sweaty face, he throws the stone at the animal passing harmlessly between its thin rubbery ears. “It’s history!” We laugh and continue the run reaching the cabin. Granny chides us for our lateness and is aghast at our grubbiness, shooing us to the bath before we can eat supper.
I come to myself in the backyard. I seem to be almost walking outside myself as I open the door and make my way into the house. The memory humming in my mind and the strange newness seems to press even closer. Mt. Nebo. The memory of that place, of the day spent there, my cousin have come back to me off and on over the years. Why again, on this Easter morning? Mt. Nebo. I have heard that name before. Where have I heard it? I walk to my bedroom and pick up my phone from the vanity. I open up a web page to search for it and there it is. Mt. Nebo is the place from which Moses viewed the Promised Land.
Could it be that a moment from a vacation becomes more than just a random memory, recalled at oddly random times? Could it be that our re-collected memories are not reducible to random neural firings but are signs, an existential grammar that composes some grand transcendental drama? Could it be that to read these signs we must allow, as Welty says, “…memory [to] become attached to seeing- love add[ing] itself to discovery” with regard to the past events in our life? I trust that this is so. And let us not be so ready to scoff at “trust”. Trust is an inescapable yet desirable human reality that no one may live and live well without. Our life is strewn with clues, with reoccurring themes for the one who has not become insensitive to the signs in his own life. With time, reflection, and loving hope, one may see a path, however faint, to that place which we all, in our unspoken moments known only to us, desire- an everlasting home where love comes to a full flowering that knows no fading.
Maybe you would caution me not to be a man who yields to such foolishness. That is well within your right. But I will continue to trust in this hope, for not only myself, but for you as well, asking you not become a one who yields to hopelessness.