The Tom Morrisey File:
In High Places by
For Patrick Nolan, every climb tells a story. And now maybe it's his own …. He's right at the rim, staring over the cliff's knife edge and wondering how things went wrong so quickly.
It all started after arriving home from a weekend climbing trip with his father, Kevin. That's when word reached them. In a silent moment, they'd lost the person most important to them—her death raising unanswerable questions and dangerous doubts.
Launching a new life in a new town to escape their pain, son and father find themselves in danger of being torn apart forever. As his father seeks a route to solace on the dangerous high face of the rock, Patrick finds a path to hope with the unlikeliest of allies—a pastor's daughter. Together they must discover the one answer that can bring Patrick and Kevin back from the brink of the precipice
"Used extensively throughout much of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, the soft iron piton was extremely malleable and conformed well to irregular fissures, but it was also extremely friable and could crack or deform if not driven with care."
--The Eastern Cragman's Guide to Climbing Anchors
It was not the rock—it was never the rock; it was the air. Air: gusts and threads of it, rustling my hair at the edge of my faded red rugby shirt collar. Air: swaying the thin red climbing rope that dropped beneath me in a single, brief, pendulous loop. Air all around me and above me and behind me, open and empty and unsubstantial, drying the sweat on my dread-paled, beardless face, an entire sea of air, an ocean of it, lying vacantly beneath my jutting, quaking heels.
By fingertips and the thin toes of my shoes, I hung over a deep pool of nothing, a drop one could pass through for an eternity before being swallowed by the bright green, spring-leafed treetops of the Monongahela National Forest.
The Gendarme was an exceptionally airy place, a thirty-foot, twenty-ton, top-heavy block of Tuscarora quartzite, perched tenuously upon the soaring, thin, cloud-feathered notched ridge that joined the twin summits of Seneca Rocks.
From the valley floor, hundreds of feet below, it seemed very nearly insubstantial, a blip in the naked stone skyline, the slightest thin twig of stone. But from its base, it was a gray, orange-lichened obelisk, a tower, soaring high into the stark, blue West Virginia sky.
You didn't step onto the Gendarme; you boarded it, a stretching traverse to the initial foothold, a tentative and overbalanced tiptoe, like stepping into an empty canoe.
Only the Gendarme was built to repel boarders—just fifteen slim degrees of westward tilt separated it from dead vertical. And that very first step left you open and exposed, as hung-out on the rock as one would be after a rope-pitch or two of straight-up conventional climbing.
Still, I felt absolutely ridiculous.
There I was, the sixteen-year-old who'd won four column-inches of praise from the Toledo Blade for his junior-varsity football heroics, the cocky kid who'd waltzed up the considerably more challenging Thais face just the afternoon before. I'd climbed much harder routes than this; I'd styled much harder routes than this. Yet on this fine, early spring morning, I was clinging to the rock with all the urgency of a terrified primate. My rubber-soled shoes and my two clammy hands were smeared against the climb's rain-worn holds, trying vainly to become one with the rock. I was gripped: frozen into immobility. And I was both of these things less than six feet away from my father.
I could actually turn my head and look him in his calm, brown, crow's-foot-flanked eyes, see the raccoon-in-negative whiteness left there by his sunglasses. Grinning, showing me a row of even, white teeth, he nodded encouragement, his beard brown and blond-streaked and close-trimmed, a bright red bandanna cinched over his hair in the fashion of some time-traveling pirate. Lean and wiry, he clasped the tag end of the rope with all four fingers of his callused and suntanned right hand, ready to lock the belay plate shut and catch me if I slipped so much as an inch.
The Gendarme was a 5.4, a middlingly rated route on the elegantly named Yosemite Decimal System, just three short steps above the Old Ladies' Route that had been my introduction to Seneca Rocks climbing, two long springs and two golden autumns before. Only a 5.4, and only twenty-five feet to the top, but for the way that I felt, it may as well have been twenty-five thousand.
"Take a breath," my father whispered. He whispered it, and I heard each word: heard it despite the gusting wind, despite the clinking carabiners on my runner, despite the shrill, distant shrieks of eagles as they rose on towering thermals from the valley floor behind us. "Take a breath and blow it out, shake it off. You're just psyched, a little freaked out, that's all. Come on, Patrick. You can do this."
I could do this.
I knew that he was right. I thought about climbing back at Whipps Ledges, in Ohio, top-roping the route they called White Pebble. A boulder problem, White Pebble was a bobbing, liquid dance in which the key was to never stop moving. You had to glide up the rock, shifting weight and transferring onto contours so slight that they could be felt, but not quite seen. That was much harder than this; it was graduate-school climbing. But if you fell from White Pebble, it was a four-foot drop onto soft sand, and if you slipped from the Gendarme, well ...
"Breathe," my father told me again, not whispering now.
I breathed. Closing my eyes, I inhaled slowly, drawing the clean mountain air in through my nose in one long, cooling draught, and then exhaling, my lips pursed. I pictured a candle flame flickering there before my eyes and blew hard enough to move it, but not hard enough to put it out.
I took another breath in exactly the same fashion, the deliberate, yogic breathing that my father had taught me when we'd first gone to the Rocks together, he and my mother and I. Then I did it one more time, and when the breath was all out of me, the exhale squeezed to its dregs, I opened my eyes, and the rock was still there, but the airiness around me was gone.
It was like climbing in a bubble, or a circle of light; like being the escapee in an old-fashioned prison movie, with the searchlight picking out everything within my reach, but blanking all beyond it into nothingness. "The Zone," my father called it, and I was there now, ready to address the task before me.
Legs first. Ignoring the instinct to reach, I stepped up and then stood, straightening my knees until the old handholds were level with my ribs, and only then reaching up for the next.
Moving. I was moving. Moving was good.
I inched up farther, got to a bellying bulge and came to the first bolt, its angled steel hanger in excellent condition. Clipping a carabiner onto my rope, I lifted it to the hanger, slowed, and then stopped.
* * *
Its exposure—that overwhelming feeling of airiness on the climb—was not the sole distinguishing feature of the Gendarme. The ridge that it sat upon wasn't wider than the average city sidewalk. And, tilted as it was, narrow at the base and lumpy at the top, the tall block of stone looked absolutely temporary, like a child's building block set on its end, just waiting to topple.
Then there was the icing on the cake, the story that Judd Horton, owner of the general store and gas station down in the village, had told about a moonshiner trying to blast the rock formation off the ridge with dynamite, an act of defiance committed for reasons that became more obscure with each recounting. The story would have been easy to dismiss—most of the "information" that the local people shared about the Rocks took about a ninety-degree departure from reality—except for the fact that the base of the Gendarme, the part that actually sat on the ridge, had cracks running through it that made the Liberty Bell look sound.
Aware that every inch I moved up the rock magnified the stress being placed upon that base—"increased the moment," as my mechanical-engineer father would say—I was hesitant to commit myself by clipping off to the rock. Everybody said that the Gendarme was going to fall someday. It was only a matter of time. And if today was the day, the prospect of going down with it, with the option of leaping clear, was frightening enough. To be forced to ride it into the trees below, fastened to the ancient rock like some berserk and reluctant surfer, sounded all too graphically fatal.
"Go on," my father told me from below. "Clip in. Trust me. You'll feel better."
I moved the carabiner closer. Stopped.
"Patrick," he warned. "You've got twelve feet of rope out. If you don't clip some protection, and you slip, that's a twenty-four foot fall."
Fall to my death or be pulled, I thought. Which sounds better?
The fall. Absolutely, the fall.
A muted sound, like a small engine turning over but failing to start, drifted up from the belay station.
Laughter. My father was laughing at me. I took a breath, thought about saying something I'd later regret, realized I'd later regret it, and swallowed the comment unspoken.
"Let me guess," he said. "You're worried about the whole climb taking a bomber, am I right?"
The breeze picked up, rocking me. I hesitated.
"And this rock has been sitting here for about what, four hundred million years?" I glanced down and saw my father shaking his head, the red bandanna yawing right, then left, then right again. "But you think that out of all those years, March 28, 1976, is the day it's going to pick to crater? Sport, trust me, it'll never happen. Clip off."
The breeze picked up again. Fifteen feet below, deep within its base, the rock groaned.
"Never mind that. It does that all the time," my father assured me. "Every time I climbed it, at least. Come on, Sport. We've got a long drive ahead of us. Let's top this one off so we can get going, okay? Clip it."
Enough with the "Sport," I thought, but I swallowed that, too. I shook my right hand to coax the blood back into it.
Taking another breath, I thumbed open the gate on the carabiner, clipped it into the bolt hanger, and then flipped the 'biner around so the rope wouldn't open the gate.
"There you go," my father said.
Now I had a reason to climb quickly. I moved up smoothly, keeping three points of contact with the rock at all times, zigzagging slightly across the driveway-wide face as I moved, coming to the next bolt and—in for a penny, in for a pound—clipping off on that, as well. I was beginning to hear noises, the soughing of wind through a nation of distant leaves, a thin susurrus coming from the tree-thick hollow on the far side of the rock. Looking up, I saw why: the summit had come even with my head.
The summit, if you could call it that, was no wider than a dinner plate: tiny and rounded. Eons of thunderstorms had pelted it with their fullest fury, making certain that, at the peak of this pillar of rock, not a single flat plane remained.
But we'd talked about this when I'd proposed the climb over breakfast at the 4U that morning—a short "flash" climb just to get in an hour on the cliffs, and have something to dazzle my mother with when we got back home. I would climb the Gendarme. But even though I'd touched the summit, I hadn't climbed it; not yet, because the climbers who frequented Seneca Rocks had a tradition about the Gendarme.
Just touching the top wasn't enough to complete the climb. Neither was sitting on the bowling-ball-like surface.
You had to stand.
The wind gusted again. If I waited, it would just pick up further.
Not even bothering to clip into the webbing-festooned rappel ring atop the rock, I put both hands on the summit and, like a swimmer raising himself up out of a pool, mantled my way over it.
Glad that we'd stretched before starting, I straightened my arms, brought my right knee up next to my ear, and carefully planted that foot next to my hands. I walked my palms over, set my left foot as flat as the round surface would let me and then, slowly, with both arms out for balance, I stood. Like some tuxedoed maestro finishing his post-performance bow, I straightened up.
Done. The top of the Gendarme was overhung, so I saw no rock, no ledge beneath my summit, just treetops dropping down to a broad, green, wind-brushed valley, far, far beneath my fragile stone perch.
It was like flying.
A patter of applause drifted down from the South Summit, to my left. I looked up and saw some middle-aged folks in flannel shirts—Potomac Appalachian Trail Club members who'd taken any of a dozen or more routes to the rock's true summit. They smiled down at me, gave me thumbs-ups of approval.
Waving back, I bobbled, fought my way back to equilibrium, and felt my face creep red. I looked down at the little five-building village of Mouth of Seneca, at the North Fork wending its way bluely alongside State Route 33, nine hundred feet and then some below. Blue-green mountaintops marched off into the dark, shadowed distance.
"Good climb, Patrick," my father called up. "You styled it. Classy ascent."
"Thanks," I called down. "And, Dad?"
"From now on, it's not a summit unless you do this."
Arms out to the side, I drew my right foot up until it rested on my knee, and then stood there, one-legged, crane-fashion.
Fresh applause drifted down from the South Summit.
"Showboat," my father said. He raised his little black Nikkormat one-handed and Kodachromed the moment for posterity.
* * *
"That you fellas up there a-climbin' on the Chimbly?" Judd Horton asked. Red-nosed and perennially in need of a shave, he wore his regular uniform of blue jeans, work boots, a once-white T-shirt stretched over his ample belly, and red clip suspenders, the whole outfit topped by a green and yellow John Deere cap. Judd turned the crank that pumped gasoline up into the graduated glass cylinders atop the pumps. His gas pumps, a pair of Texaco antiques, had already been anachronisms for several decades, even back in 1976.
"The Gendarme?" I asked.
"'The John-darm,'" Judd mimicked. "The 'John-darm.' Pfft."
He spat a viscous brown arc of tobacco that joined the stains of earlier expectorations at the base of the general-store steps. Judd punctuated his sentences with dollops of chewing tobacco, messy mouth-oyster periods at the conclusion of each breath.
"Boy, do you see you any Frenchmen a-walkin' around here? Pfft. That there was the Chimbly back before I was borned. That, or the sight to the Gunsight Notch. Or maybe Princess Snowbird, if you want to listen to the Injuns, 'ceptin' there ain't none of them what live 'round here no more. Pfft. That there's the Chimbly, and then there's the Old Man, and the Sleeping Bear, and the Rabbit. 'Cept all you city boys have got to come down here and ignore all that wisdom and give 'em your own prissy little names. How would you like it if I was to come up to where you all are from, to Chicago—"
"Toll-ee-doh, Shee-caw-go. Pfft. Same difference. How'd you like it if I was to come myself up there and started givin' all your-all's streets brand-new names?"
"Well, you get to name it if you were the first to climb it, and—"
"First to climb it? Boy, don't you know nothin'? My granddaddy, my very own flesh and blood, was the very first human being ever to set foot up on top of them ol' rocks. Pfft. Why he did it, ain't nobody knows. It's for certain that he didn't never lose nothin' up there, but—"
"We filled up yet, Judd?" My father stepped gingerly down the steps, balancing two cold cans of Coke and a grocery bag full of chips and Twinkies.
"Filled up." Judd looked at the gas, still gleaming like gold in the pump's glass cylinder. He shifted his chew to the other cheek, and picked up the hose, walking around to the side of my father's Volkswagen Alpine. "Why, that boy of yours has been standin' here a-talkin' my ear off. Don't you never let him talk at home?"
"Talking his ear off, huh?" My father grinned at me.
"You know me," I told him, nodding. "Absolutely nothing but gab."
* * *
I opened the Coke and dropped the pop-top inside, something that would have invited a lecture had my mother been along, but didn't raise so much as an eyebrow from my father. He rested his arms on the VW's big truck-style steering wheel, taking us north on State Highway 28. When I'd been younger, we'd come to Seneca together two, maybe three times a year, usually once in spring and a couple of times in late autumn, because my mother liked the leaves. But now that I could drive, the weekend-warrior excursions had increased to at least once a month, winter included, as long as the forecast didn't call for snow. My father would take us up past the state line, where we'd switch, so the Pennsylvania and Ohio turnpikes—five hours including a stop for burgers and restroom and gas—would be all mine.
"Pretty good weekend, huh?" He looked over at me and smiled. He was wearing his sunglasses, mirrored Ray-Ban Aviators.
"Yeah." I put my stockinged feet up on the VW's rounded metal dash. "I wish Mom could have been here to see the Gendarme."
The little four-cylinder engine in back putted through the following silence, muted by piles of tarps, the tent, two ropes, the rucksacks, and our goose-down jackets and sleeping bags.
"Me, too," my father finally said.
Off to the right, we could see Champe Rocks, stark tan fins of Tuscarora quartzite, the same stone as Seneca, marching halfway up a steep, green hill. We both turned to watch them, running beside us behind the roadside trees. We'd gone there and climbed a few times on holiday weekends, when the big clubs from Cleveland and Pittsburgh brought beginners along and rained loose rock down every pitch at Seneca. Mom had been with us once. I figured I was probably the only teenager in Toledo with a mother who could lead a 5.7 on sight.
We rounded a curve and Champe faded from view.
"You know, I'm not a little kid anymore."
"Absolutely. Not with the leads you were cranking out this weekend."
He turned, the mirrored glasses reflecting twin images of me, of the window and the rolling countryside behind me.
"You know," I said. "What about you and Mom?"
"What about us?"
"Dad." I shook my head. "You know what." I wanted to shoot him a look, but couldn't bring myself to look at him as I said, "I just want to know if things are going to be okay between the two of you. That's all."
My father straightened up gradually and the VW slowed.
"Man." He tapped the big steering wheel twice. "Of all the things that you could worry about when you're sixteen years old, that should so not be one of them." He shook his head. "What have we done, your mother and I?"
He pulled us off onto an overlook and stopped the van.
"We're going to be fine," he told me, slipping the tall, skinny shifter into neutral, letting the engine idle. He turned my way, sunglasses still hiding his eyes. "It's not what you think, Sport. Really. I know she's out of sorts lately, but it's not anything between her and me. Well, not really."
"Then what is it?"
He looked out the window.
"It's the school stuff," he said. "Or not so much the school stuff, per se, as the fact that she's still there now, in school, just finishing her bachelor's, and all the friends she started out with back when she was a freshman are doctors and tenured professors by now. Doing life, instead of school. That's what she's always wanted, you know. She's not one of those people who make a career out of being a student. She wants to write criticism, to teach. But something happened back when we were both undergrads, and only one of us could finish up with college right away, so I did that, so I could get a good job, support us, and she had to wait. Then I had the chance to do night school up at Michigan for my master's, and that meant a pay raise when I finished, so she waited again."
"The thing that happened," I said, the tightness in my temples coming out as a stiffness in my voice. "It was me, wasn't it?"
Involuntarily, I squinted, my eyes going hot. Hot and damp.
"It was. Don't make up some story. You know it was."
A subtle metamorphosis came over my father. He seemed to stiffen. But he seemed to shrink, as well. And he said nothing.
"So why have me?" My voice was much too loud for a conversation at front-seat distance. "Why? They had abortions back then, didn't they?" The words just ran out of me, like a spill. Like a gush.
My father gazed at me, straightened back up.
"Yeah, they had them." He turned, facing the view. "But you had to go out of state, to New York, to get one, and even then it was kind of shady, you know? And I'll level with you, Sport. I wanted her to get one. Wow. I hate myself for having wanted it, but I did. I mean, I was twenty, she was nineteen, and pretty and young, straight blond hair, and beautiful, and I wanted her to stay that way. Not forever, but for a while longer. I was selfish; I wanted someone for me, not someone for a family. But then she asked me, 'What if this is our only chance?' And you know what? She was right."
I sat there, tossing words back and forth in my head, like loose change, like cards: I wanted her to get one.
"And even if she hadn't been," he said, turning back to me and taking off the Ray-Bans, his brown eyes moist. "What are the chances that we'd get anybody halfway near as cool as you the second time around? I mean, most of the guys I work with, they can't even talk to their kids. But you ...man. Talk about great karma. Patrick, your mother loves you. Loves you like crazy. So do I."
I nodded, my lips tight. As in every case in which I had blown up at my father, my mother, I wanted to call my hot words back. But I couldn't. They were gone, like the distant wind ruffling the treetops.
My father put the glasses back on.
"That's the biggest part of it," he said. "There's a her-me part, as well; you're right there. I'm spending too much time at work. I'm probably spending too much time down here. Not giving her the attention she deserves. Like that patio. I promised it would be ready by what? Easter? And it's not finished yet. Hittin' the rocks instead of layin' the bricks. That doesn't help any. That's for sure."
I drew a breath in through my nose, held it, and let it out slowly, calming myself. Trying not to be obvious about it.
"Next weekend," I finally said.
"Next weekend. You and me. We'll build her that patio. Have it ready two weeks early."
My father looked at me, eyebrows arched.
"Sport, you're sixteen years old," he said. "Don't you have friends to hang out with?"
"I do." I nodded. "But next weekend, if they want to hang out with me, they're going to be over at our house, laying bricks. Because that's where I'll be. Deal?"
"Okay," he said. "Deal." And we shook on it. "And then, the weekend after next, we'll come back down here. The three of us: you, your mom and I. She can bring her books if she wants to, but she's coming along. I don't want her to just hear about you and the Gendarme. I want her to see it. Agreed?"
* * *
But it never did happen that way. Because we never came back to the Rocks together.
Not the three of us.
Not with my mother.
In High Places by Tom Morrisey
Copyright © 2007; ISBN-13 9780764203466
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.