As a child, my family vacation destinations were never somewhere I’d enjoy like Tokyo or New York City, but places like Vail, places where the activities consist of: eating expensive food, buying t-shirts with the city’s name on them, and wandering aimlessly in the woods. These are meaningless activities to me. There’s nothing in the woods; just trees, grass, and then maybe a deer, which you can see at a zoo or on the internet. I remember my dad saying to me, “This hotel’s prices are so low over the summer! It’s such a deal!” and I thought, ‘There’s no snow in Vail over the summer, hence no skiing, hence no activities, hence low prices.’ How can you be enriched by a vacation without exciting activities? How can you purge yourself of black energy while shopping for antiques? Ah, what a brat.
One day, my dad decided to drive us all to the top of Pike’s Peak, a Colorado mountain that rises 14,000 feet above sea level. I think he felt a weird sense of ownership, being named Pike, though unrelated to its actual namesake, Zebulon Pike, obscure American explorer/alien hybrid. When it came into view, he said, “Look, this is our mountain. We own it. I have the deed in the glove compartment. Look at those cars, driving up the side, trespassing all over our mountain. We should call the police.” Very seriously, I thought: ‘I own a mountain.’ Based on the exciting descriptions in the brochure, I thought there must be a theme park or carnival ride at the top. Why else would people drive all the way up there?
As we ascended, a gray pall fell over us. The pine trees nestled against the road disappeared, leaving only the bottomless abyss in view out the right side. Intermittently, I’d see a pitiful little railing, but most of the way, there was no barrier to prevent our minivan sailing off the mountain like the bus from Speed, certainly not the driving proficiency of my dad. I’d often crouched down in the passenger seat of his Eclipse, whispering, “Please… please… please stop…” while he sped down the highway, and now, pressed against the window, I couldn’t even see the edge of the muddy road, only the drop.
“Has anyone famous ever driven off a cliff?” asked my mom.
“Tons,” said dad. “Grace Kelly, Johnny Carson’s son… so many. People drive off cliffs all the time.”
My younger brother, who has severe autism, emitted a squeal like a police siren, an oscillating, mind numbing, mournful wail that went on and on. He couldn’t speak, but this was the correct reaction, conveying my feelings precisely.
At ten years old, I’d never felt death so close. Rain and sleet poured down on us, and the road grew muddier, less steady, with fog so thick we stopped following the road and started following the tail lights of cars ahead of us. Lightning forked the sky. I pictured my death over and over: sailing into the void, in slow motion of course, our faces contorted in pure animal terror, snack cakes and nickels floating by, thinking, ‘This can’t be real. I can’t die. Death is something that only happens in movies. It’s something that happens to other people, in foreign countries, far away.’
“Hey,” said dad. “Look at that hawk way, way down there.” He took his eyes off the road and pointed at a tiny black dot, a hawk circling far below us.
“Please… please stop talking,” I said.
“It’s fine,” he said.
“It won’t be fair if I die because I’m not driving, you’re driving, it’s out of my control, and you are not taking this seriously.”
“And look at that,” said my dad, pointing at a sign that said, “FALLING ROCKS” above a cartoon of a gigantic boulder crushing a car. “Heh heh.”
“You think we can’t die, but we can. Even talking about it won’t prevent it.”
“Oh, come on.”
“Please, can we return to ground level?” I felt if I expressed my personal preference, I could die knowing I’d done all I could under the circumstances to save our lives, and this would comfort me, the fatalism of it, the inevitability. I could conceptualize our ascent as a Universal Studios ride, totally outside my control, and therefore, not worth stressing over. It would be my dad’s fault, and God would punish him for being a terrible father with terrible vacation ideas.
The car suddenly swerved before righting itself, and my mom quietly put a blanket over her head for the subsequent duration. I could hear her muffled sobs.
Finally, we reached the peak, a flat expanse of dirt submerged in a thick gray raincloud. With only a couple feet of visibility in any direction, it was a vision of purgatory or possibly The Further from Insidious, with no restaurants or carnival rides in sight. We got out of the car to stretch our legs. No one spoke, but in the air, unspoken, a single thought: no way was this worth it. After a few moments of standing there in the rain, my dad dashed out into the fog and was gone for several minutes. When he returned, he held out his hand to me.
“I brought you this.” In his hand was a rock.
“This is a rock,” I said.
“This is a rock,” I repeated.
“It’s a rock from the top of a mountain,” he said. “That makes it special.”
“I see. Thank you.” Reverently, I took the rock from him. When he got in the car, I tossed it on the ground and wiped my hands on my shirt.