I was fat, forty-four, and in the market for a vasectomy. My mortgage was half gone, but so was my hair. Crabgrass bugged me.
After sixteen years of marriage, my wife and I completed each other's sentences. Most were about our boys. We had three, though they sounded louder. Because Merrill traveled for her job, and I stayed home for mine, my three sons saw a lot of me. I changed their diapers, cooked their meals, coached their soccer, and harped about their homework. I was around so much that when our three-year-old woke in the middle of the night, he usually screamed for me. Our pubescent twelve-year-old, however, usually screamed at me. The eight-year-old could go either way.
It was a chaotic life, but a fun life, and I knew how to live it -- until an emergency phone call rocked my world.
"Dad," our twelve-year-old said from his Colorado summer camp, "they're taking me to the hospital."
Turns out Cass and a bunch of camp buddies were climbing Pikes Peak, elevation 14,115 feet, when he tripped and slashed open his shin to the bone. Now I was the one screaming.
"Dad," he said, "calm down. I summited. It was amazing. I saw the sunrise from the top of the mountain. I slipped on the way down, but I made it to the top -- two-and-a-half miles above sea level."
"How bad does it hurt?"
"I summited, Dad. I summited."
With ten surgical staples in his leg, Cass actually let me hug him in front of his friends. He even hugged me back. Then we did something more surprising: We talked.
He told me that mountains over 14,000 feet were called Fourteeners, and that Colorado had a bunch of them. He asked if I knew anything about them.
Our home state has fifty-four peaks higher than 14,000 feet -- more than any other state or province in North America. Every year more than 500,000 people try to climb a Fourteener, but fewer than 1,300 people have ever reported standing atop them all. Colorado's Fourteeners have been summited by skiers and snowboarders, racers and amputees, dogs, cats, cockatiels, monkeys, and horses, people as young as one and as old as eighty-one. One Texan spent three weeks pushing a peanut to the summit of one peak with his nose. There have been gunfights and cannibalism, avalanches and helicopter crashes. Hundreds have died and thousands have been maimed.
One blond boy even survived America's most famous Fourteener with a Frankenstein scar on his leg.
Nice one, Dad, he said, but how do you know all this?
Once upon a time, before I was a husband or a father -- back in the days when my inseam had more inches than my waistline -- I somehow managed to climb a few Fourteeners.
My son was shocked. For a fleeting millisecond, he even looked at me as if I were almost not embarrassing. Teetering on the edge of a truly touching father-and-son moment, I was ready for another hug, but he was overcome by another surge of testosterone.
Dad, how about if we climb a Fourteener together?
Well, when I was climbing mountains -- that was a lifetime ago, back when I liked to exercise. These days I like to eat. I've packed so much on my hips it would be like climbing with a pony keg of beer in my fanny pack. Imagine lugging all that extra weight up the 1,860 steps of the Empire State Building, four times, and doing it in high altitude air with about a third less oxygen than Manhattan. All that work would be just one Fourteener.
He looked at me. I looked at him.
My mind was racing: Could I do it? Was it even possible for me to try? Back when I was in shape, those five Fourteener summits were still about the hardest sport I'd ever taken on -- harder than two-a-day football practices as a high school punk, harder than week-long bike tours that sent me, an alleged adult, four hundred miles over and around the mountain ranges of Colorado. Still, the beauty of the Fourteeners was something to remember. Standing on the roof of the Rockies, high above the trees and the clouds and the everyday worries, always made me feel like I was halfway to heaven. Now I'm forty-four, and my life is halfway there too.
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