By Jimmy Patterson
Since Mama died last January, Daddy has left Irving once to attend a stamp show competition in nearby Grapevine. (A show at which he won several honors, I might add). It’s been hard for Dad to get away. He hasn’t wanted to get too far from the house he and Mama lived in since 1965. He’s made plans several times over the last several months to go on trips, but when the day would come to leave, he would not feel like going. And we all understand.
So when Dad told us he wanted to visit Big Bend again, we all looked forward to it with the appropriate amount of skepticism. That would be great, we all thought. And then we didn’t give it much more thought.
But then last week came and not even the notion of 3-5 inches of snow in Big Bend could scare him away. My brother told me that Dad woke up one day before the trip in December and something in him had changed; apparently nothing would stop him from making the grueling 600 mile, one-way trip from his suburban Dallas doorstep to a nice warm bed in the Chisos Mountains.
Last Thursday, he and my sister Claudia showed up at our Midland home at 5. Even though they called when they were in Stanton, to see them actually standing there was still almost unbelievable. Daddy hadn’t been to Midland to visit us since our oldest graduated in 2004.
My dad, sister, son and I landed in Big Bend, following some at-times perilous road reports that never materialized. We made it. Daddy made it.
But that was only the half of it really. Certainly such a long car trip would be hard enough. But Dad had in mind to do more than just survive a long car trip. He wanted to hike into Santa Elena Canyon.
The walk into that canyon is by most Big Bend trail standards not particularly difficult. When you’re 82, and 83 is just around the corner, and your legs have seen better days and your back hurts every morning along with most every other bone in your body, walking into Santa Elena is more than just a stroll in the park.
It’s maybe equivalent to walking up 8 or 10 flights of stairs to complete the elevation change going into the canyon. Again, for most, not terribly difficult. For the older among us, though, it can be fairly strenuous.
Dad would not be turned away though. He held on to me the whole way, and, in fact I would stumble over more rocks and small stumps than he would. I’m sure glad I had him along to help me walk.
Watching my dad make it through the brush, through the squishy Terlingua Creekbed, then up all those steps so he could get maybe one final good look into one of God’s truly magnificent wonders was an inspiration to watch. My sister kept wondering if he might not be over-exerting himself, going too far. He heard her concerns. But he just kept going.
We reached what amounts to the trail summit, which is about a half-mile into the walk. We could go no higher, although the trail itself goes on for another quarter mile or more as it descends to the river. Daddy, The Boy, Claudia and I sat there for almost an hour, looking into the canyon, listening to an angry bird squawk as it tried to reach its prey, which was tucked inside a hole in the canyon walls far above us. Mostly we just listened to the stillness and marveled at a beauty I’m convinced may not be equaled.
My sister continued her walk down to the river and my Dad and son and I sat and talked, sparingly, until she returned.
I was inspired at the fact that Daddy had come so far in so many ways. Both literally and symbolically.
I finally asked him something that I had hoped to ask him for several weeks.
“Why? Why did you want to come back here?”
He looked at me and thought for a moment, drawing his response out in a lengthy pause as he often does.
“Well, I’m not searching for myself or anything,” he said.
I smiled a little, wondering what was next.
“I tried searching for myself a long time ago and couldn’t find anything, so I stopped looking.”
OK. So, not the inspirational response I was hoping for, but humor’s good, too. At this point, laughter is inspirational in its own way.
Dad went home that following Monday, a survivor of one more journey in life. He goes home from a trip that proves he is capable of doing whatever he sets his mind to. Just like he always taught us when we were growing up. And is still teaching us now.
Jimmy Patterson is editor of the West Texas Angelus