Friday, October 29, 2004


When I was younger I had this odd feeling of being special because I had two "famous" relatives (in name only). I had an Auntie Em which made me feel all Wizard of Ozzy, and I had an Uncle Albert, who was the subject of a cool old Paul McCartney song, even though I never really understood why we were so sorry for him and why we were going to rain.

My Uncle Albert was actually my Great Uncle Albert. My Auntie Em was at least one -great, if not two. My lasting memory of Auntie Em is sitting on the living room floor working together on a puzzle while we were surrounded by hundreds of tiny pieces. Oh -- and she was 88 years old at the time.

Uncle Albert lived in a cabin in the San Bernardino mountains. It may have appeared rustic on the outside, but inside it was filled with beautiful artwork, musical instruments and countless artifacts from his different collections. Based on the cabin's fairly simple exterior, you would have never guessed what treasures awaited inside.

Because we lived on the other side of the country, we weren't able to visit often. I can't say that I discovered many answers to the secrets of the cabin, but I did learn that my Great Grandmother napped at 1 pm on the porch swing, breakfast was always an overflowing cereal bowl, known as an Albert Special, and Happy Hour was promptly at 4 pm. Knowing those few things seemed to be enough for me.

One summer when we visited the Greats in the cabin, GramTuna, LittleBrotherTuna and myself decided to hike to San Bernardino Peak. My Uncle Albert -- an avid hiker -- had made the trip many times himself, but wasn't going to do the hike with us. He talked us through the route and told us we'd be fine. Then he reminded us that Happy Hour was promptly at 4 pm and would not wait.

So off we went. LBTuna was about 10 years old (I'm guessing a little), I was about 16 years old, and GramTuna was, well never you mind. She was a mother hiking up a mountain with her two youngest children, so I suppose she might have been insane. But with an Albert Special in our bellies, some supplies for a picnic lunch halfway up, and the promise of a 4 pm Happy Hour, we felt pretty sure of ourselves.

The first part of the climb was fairly steep through a heavily forested area. Having long legs and a longer stride, I took the lead and would walk for awhile until I found a good stopping place to wait for the others. Halfway up the mountain we made it to the first destination Uncle Albert described: Manzanita Flats.

It was a beautifully lush meadow complete with rivulets, wildflowers, manzanita and soakers -- invisible puddles that surprised us more often than we would have liked. We stopped here and had some lunch, and gave thanks for a stretch of flat ground.

From this point on, Uncle Albert's instructions were to follow the path to the top. It seemed simple enough, so off we went.

The landscape for the second half of the journey was much different than the first half and the trail was more difficult. There were a lot fewer trees and a lot more neck-breaking mountain-falling down rocky cliffs along the steep zig-zagging passes. As we continued our trek, the conversation dwindled to next to nothing and LBTuna began to get tired and cranky. At this point, the inevitable How Much Farther How Much Farther How Much Farther How Much Farther How Much Farther How Much Farther and When Are We Going to Get There kicked in full-throttle.

Logically, I understood he was tired. Intellectually I knew that he was just a little squirt. But realistically, I wanted him to hit him with a shut-up stick. The bigger problem was, neither GramTuna nor I had any idea HOW much longer it would be. So, in light of anything better to say, we came up with the best answer we could.

It's just around the next switchback.

It was the answer of the hour.

And the next hour.

And the hour after that.

Because we just didn't know.

Eventually, even the "switchback" line just didn't cut it, and we were worried that we had absolutely no idea how much more hiking was ahead and if we would be able to make it back before dark. In a fit of tiredness, I was elected to walk ahead and see if I could find the peak. LBTuna and Gram would sit and rest. Did I know where I was going? Nope. I just followed the path.

And followed the path.

And followed the path.

And followed the snow where I guessed there might be a path.

And then saw some disturbed snow leading up.

And found the peak.

I started yelling "I found it! I found it!" in the hopes that my voice would travel the twenty minutes I had been walking and would magic carpetly bring the rest of the expedition to me. I wasn't so lucky, but soon enough we were all standing at the top of the San Bernardino Peak, staring out over the summit.


San Bernardino Peak

Elevation 10,691 feet

We practically ran down the mountain, partly due to our friend gravity, partly because we were so hyped from finding the top and not giving up, and partly because the 4 pm Happy Hour was looming. We made it down the mountain safely and we made it to Happy Hour on time -- exhausted, but happy. My recollection is that Uncle Albert was proud, but didn't make a big deal out of it one way or another. He knew the path and he knew we were smart and would know how to follow it. He had a lot of faith in a bunch of rookies from The Mitten.

On Wednesday, at the age of 91, my Uncle Albert began a new journey. Of all the paths he wandered and all the summits he reached, he never made a big deal out it. Perhaps his hardest hike was the one he made only a week ago, as he accompanied his sister down the hall and around the corner to visit another relative, this one, nearly 100 years old. He didn't make a big deal out of the fact that the walk must have been excruciatingly hard for his failing body. He had always been a hiker, and wanted to show he could still walk. And so he did.

To my Great Uncle Albert who embodied the love of the outdoors, the love of beautiful art and music, the yumminess of a morning bowl of granola overflowing with nuts and fruits, and the importance of a 4 pm happy hour spent with family and friends -- you're free to explore new paths and reach new summits once again. I won't be hiking with you this time, but I have faith.

I'll see you around the next switchback.


TV Junkie said...

Aww, Tuna. That was a beautiful memory. Thanks for sharing. My thoughts are with your Uncle Albert. And, hey, I'm so sorry.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing that with us. Memories are a wonderful thing to tell, it keeps us connected to the ones waiting for us. IshKabibil

mensch71 said...

*sniff* Let's hope that there are mountains for him to climb in heaven as on earth.

Gary said...

Thanks for sharing the memory, Tuna, and I'm sorry about the loss. It sounds like he had a rich, full life though.

And by the sounds of it and the picture, I may have to add San Bernandino Peak to my "to do" list..