Reader Essays: Grandpa's Lesson

William G. Godlove discovers that even a short hike can last forever.

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When I was about 12 or so, my grandfather sat me on the couch in the parlor and said, “Pistol (his name for me; never did find out why, but I always thought it was because of that song lyric my daddy was a pistol and I’m a sunuva gun), you gonna be feeling aches and pains soon in places you know darn well you shouldn’t be havin’ aches and pains in. Your mom and dad are gonna tell ya that they’re growin’ pains. Well I’m here to tell ya they ain’t.” 

I hung on every word Pap said, but he was losing me on this one. “It’s not the little pains we feel when we’re growin’ up,” he continued, “but it’s the feelins we git when we think back to a time that brings back such a memory, that we wished SO bad we could feel like that again that it hurts.”
 I nodded, sipping my Frostie root beer. He rubbed my head and we talked about other things that day. It was summer. Summers with Pap were the stuff of running and picking berries so we could have pie later that same day and cookouts and fetching the water from the spring in the woods so Pap could have his good coffee (and not use that “nasty city water,” as he called it). I didn’t know growing pains from a toothache, but I paid attention to this man.

He had raised my dad, and sat me on his knee way up until I was 10 and too heavy for the good leg, and gave me my first lessons in grilling (charcoal, not gas, of course). 
I was 13 when he passed. I had seen him that very day. The world seemed much smaller after that.
Months later, the following February, it was cold. Very cold. My best friend and I decided to go on a hike. Terry was his name. Terry O’Rourke. He and I had known each other since the third grade. We were more like brothers than our own kin. So one bitter-cold Saturday, we decided to climb to the top of Dan’s Mountain.
Dan’s Mountain is in western Maryland. It’s not much of a mountain when compared to the Rockies, or even some hills in the Blue Ridge and Lake Placid areas, for that matter.

But almost daily since we were kids, Terry and I had explored all of the trails and hunting paths that led to the mountain. Each time we explored we went a little farther. That cold February day, we decided it was time to go all the way to the top.
Adventure, that was the name of the game. We were just a couple of teenage boys looking for something to do. It had snowed the two previous nights, and a foot or so of new snow lay on the ground. We dressed in layers—we were young and adventurous, not stupid. I didn’t mind wearing four layers. Terry didn’t either. I packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, an apple, and some Fig Newtons. Terry brought some Slim Jims, a banana, and some cookies his mom had made. Along with the food, we brought walkie-talkies and I grabbed a pair of cheap binoculars.
We started early in the morning and it took us almost 10 hours.

Toward the top of the mountain, the snow had blown into piles higher than our necks. Our cheeks were deep red and a frigid wind sandblasted our faces. We had a hell of a good time. Near the summit, we found a large rock curiously shaped like the state of Texas. That was where we finally stopped to rest. 
We broke out the food. The cookies were absolutely delicious. The Fig Newtons were crumbly, but just as good. The peanut butter and jelly sandwiches looked as if they were made from hot dog buns instead of the Wonder Bread mom had gotten out for me, but they tasted fine. The apple was bruised, but sweet. The banana didn’t make it. We gave it a decent burial.
Looking down toward Glen Oaks, I was in awe. I could not fathom how far we were from my house. Terry felt it, too. We had a sense that we had traveled to this faraway place. About then, I remembered that I had brought the binoculars.

I fished them from my pack and gazed around. It was all the expected winter scenery until I spied, to the west of us, the first bear I had ever seen in the wild. It wasn’t big by bear standards, probably only a couple of years old, but just seeing it (and a month or more until spring thaw!) was more exciting than anything we’d encountered in the wild. I handed Terry the binoculars so he could take a look. 
After a couple of minutes, he began to giggle. When I asked what was so funny, he handed me back the binoculars and told me to look again. The bear shuffled like a drunk dude. Stumble a little here, sniff for a sec there, then stumble a little farther, sniff some more. Then all at once, it squatted next to an old fallen tree and took the biggest dump I had ever seen. The sight of the bear crapping in the woods made us both howl. We couldn’t stop laughing. Every time we slowed down, Terry and I would look at each other and start all over again.

Tears froze to my cheeks. I laughed so hard that my stomach nearly heaved up the lunch that we had so proudly carried and earned. 
Then, out of the blue, I had a thought: This would have been just the kind of story Pap would have loved to hear after a Sunday dinner. I could see him sitting in his red recliner, with a lit pipe in one hand and slapping his knee with the other, laughing just as hard as Terry and I were now. I wanted so badly to tell him about the bear, the Texas-shaped rock, and the banana burial. I wanted to share it with him so much, and it was painful realizing that I couldn’t. Then it came to me.

After all that time had passed, I finally knew what he meant. I wanted to talk to him so bad, it hurt. This was a growing pain.
Terry saw how quiet I had gotten. I told him about Pap and the stories he used to tell. I told him how he would have loved to hear this one. Terry slapped his hand on my shoulder. It was the closest teenage boys get to guy hugs. He knew. He understood. Then he reminded me of the bear and we started laughing all over again.
We eventually started back. After all the time it took for us to get up the mountain, the steady and constant speed of going down—and perhaps the pull of my warm basement—got us back in just over two hours. It had started getting dark. Dad greeted us at the door. He had made spaghetti. “You boys hungry?” he asked.
We answered together, “Does a bear shit in the woods?” 

Godlove lives in Cumberland, MD. Favorite hike: Dan’s Mountain, 
of course, “where Pap is always with me.”