The Legacy of Camelback

By Bruce Baker

The day was beautiful in a way that only an early spring day can be. I had just finished packing for a conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, and was to leave the following day. This trip was exceptional because my wife and youngest son would be joining me for a mini-vacation at the end of the conference.  

I had just settled down in my chair with the paper when Lewis, my son, popped his head around the corner. 

“Hey, Dad!” he shouted, “I just found something amazing we could do together in Scottsdale!” 

“Hmm Hmm,” I replied, still focused on the news. 

“Want to hear about it?”

“Hmm Hmm.”

“There’s this mountain right outside of the resort. Supposed to be a moderate climb. Interested?”

“Hmm Hmm.”

At this point, something in my subconscious tried to raise the alarm and tell me to pay attention to what Lewis was saying. I ignored it.

“Great! I’ll set everything up, and we can go Thursday morning, OK?”

“Hmm Hmm.”

I should reiterate that at this point I had no idea that I had agreed to anything. I should also state that my fear of heights is legendary. I can’t stand on a step stool without getting vertigo. My last venture to the roof of our house was horrendous. I required two hours to get the courage to detach myself from the chimney to come down. Even then, if my wife had not threatened to call the fire department, I might still be up there. Now, it appeared that I had unwittingly agreed to climb a mountain. What could go wrong?

Flash forward to Wednesday afternoon. I picked up my wife and son at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. We had situated ourselves in the car and had begun the short drive to the resort when Lewis piped up.

“I got you covered, Dad.”

“Great, son. How do you have me covered?”

“I checked your closet before we left and noticed you had forgotten your hiking boots. Stuffed them into my bag for you.”

“OK…”

My brain began wracking itself for answers. Slowly, I played back my memories.

I pulled over to the side of the road and stomped on the brakes.

“Son?”

“Yes, dad.”

“What do we need hiking boots for?”

He smiled, pointed out the window, and said, “That.”

I follow his finger out the window, across the desert wasteland, past the foothills, to the largest mountain I had ever seen. OK. That was a lie. I had seen taller mountains from the safe vantage point of a hotel bar, but never once was said mountain used in the same sentence as hiking boots. My heart stopped. I was a dead man driving.

As we went from the parking lot to our room at the resort, we passed the pool area filled with pretty high school girls on spring break. My hopes soared when I saw my son stop to talk to a couple, saying he would follow us in a bit. Nothing like a girl in a bikini to get a teenage boy out of the hiking mood, I thought. Later in the room, he told me that he had arranged to meet them at noon tomorrow. 

Yes! My prayers had been answered!

Then, almost in the same breath, he added, “Better get a good night’s sleep, Dad. Have to hit the mountain early in the morning.” 

Now, I think of early as 9-ish, so I asked him, “How are you going to meet the girls at noon if we start climbing at 10?”  

He laughed.  

“You are such a kidder! The best views from the top are at sunrise. We need to start at 4:30!”  

I felt my soul begin to die.

The next day, 4:30 found Lewis and me at the trailhead. The parking lot was full, but there were no other people in sight. Having had no coffee to jump-start the day, I stumbled along on the freshly graveled trail. The slope was slight, and there was a cool breeze. I thought to myself, “Hey, this might not be so bad. I can do this for an hour or so.”  Then we turned the corner.

“Alright!” The word seemed to explode from my son’s mouth.

My mouth, however, stayed sealed as I appraised what had appeared before me. Ahead, I saw a near-vertical slope rising close to a hundred feet, ending at a small ledge. As a hiking “aid,” the park department had generously placed a cable from the top to the bottom. I was still contemplating my approach when my son decided to defy gravity, hopping from spot to spot to the top in a matter of seconds. I, on the other hand, carefully pulled myself hand over hand, inch by inch along the cable—all while sweating profusely in the cool morning air. Other hikers blew past me, some muttering words of encouragement and a smile, and some just muttering with a frown and an occasional hand gesture. Worst of all, the last hiker had his dog with him. A basset hound—an old basset hound—an ancient basset hound which may or may not have had only three legs. I swear the dog laughed as he scampered by me.

“Dad?”

“Yes, son,” I huffed.

“You are really embarrassing me here. People keep asking me if you’re OK or if they should call the paramedics.”

“I am fine, son.”

“Really, Dad? That last guy was a cardiologist, and he said…”

“I AM FINE, SON.”

“OK.”

Finally, with my son’s disapproval still echoing in my ears, I crawled onto the ledge only twenty or so minutes after he did. Then he trotted on ahead.

I earnestly prayed that this was the worst I would have to face, but God had other plans. There were two similar climbs—one immediately after the other that I had to face alone. After the second one, I sat there with clothes torn, body bruised, dirty, out of breath. As I greedily lapped up the last few drops from my water bottle, my son stood up.

“Hey, this stopping all the time is wearing me out,” he said. “I’m just going to run up to the top and wait for you there, OK?”

He didn’t give me a chance to reply before he sped away. I tried to shout a “Goodbye and Godspeed” to him, but Lewis had already skipped out of voice range by the time I managed to suck in enough air to let out a whisper.  

After a brief respite, I pushed on. This adventure had become a matter of pride now. A few minutes later, I again sat in the dirt, gasping for air. Then I came face to face with the old man. He had to be eighty years old if he was a day, and his dry brown skin looked more like leather than flesh. This relic of a human being was coming DOWN the mountain! He stopped and asked me, “Are you Bruce?” I said I was. “Your boy told me to keep a lookout for you. Said if you weren’t at the top in twenty minutes, he would meet you on the way down.” He smiled and waved, maybe chuckled a little, as he hopped past me down the path. 

Finally, after over three hours of climbing, sliding, and cursing, with blisters covering my hands and feet and a nauseous stomach caused by looking down at an inopportune time, I made the summit. At last, I stood—far, far from the edge—at the top of Camelback.  

The apex of the mountain was breathtaking. Seriously, I couldn’t breathe. Long ragged gasps rattled my rib cage as I struggled to draw even a partial breath. My vision, clouded by lack of oxygen, gradually cleared to reveal a view that will stay with me until the day I die. Lewis, standing tall and lean, without a hair out of place, clothes amazingly clean, looking more like a god than a man with his back to the sun hanging in an empty sky, smiled.

“Hey, Dad! You OK?

“hmm…hmm.”

“Glad you made it! Isn’t the view great?”

“hmm…hmm.”

“Wish you had been here an hour ago; the view was amazing then.”

I felt my arms rise up into a strangling position. I started calling him names that no father should ever say to his son, but only “grahahha” came out. I thought of killing him right then and there, but there were too many witnesses, and the exertion of raising my arms caused me to collapse instead.

Later, when I had banished filicide from my conscious thought, I took a good look around. The view was truly spectacular. Here I stood (more or less), against all odds, my fear of heights, and my Pillsbury Doughboy physique. I had conquered Camelback.  

Later, as we descended, Lewis going slower now that I had reminded him I had the keys to the car, I met the old man again, this time coming up. I asked him, “What are you doing? You just came DOWN!”  He replied, “Oh, I do the Camel to keep in shape. Do it three times a day, three times a week. This here is my third trip today. After this, I’ll go down and have me some breakfast!” 

I was mortified beyond words. 

As the old man continued his climb, I noticed that he wasn’t even breaking a sweat. If my depression and humiliation were not complete then, they were later, when he passed us a short time later—coming down once again.

We made it back down safely. Lewis connected with his newfound friends at the pool while I died in the hot tub with a tall glass of Jack in my hand, after pointedly advising the bartender that I really didn’t care what time it was. Several years have now passed since that day. Lewis went to university, then on to his doctorate, and now lives in Denver. I believe he still tries to climb when he finds time. 

I don’t.  

My rose-colored glasses work only well enough to relish the time we shared on a mountain called Camelback.   

After retiring from a career in information systems, Bruce Baker taught English Literature and Writing to middle school students, primarily first and second generation Hispanic immigrants. He is also an accomplished photographer and has won awards for his work at the State Fair of Oklahoma. He has published op-ed pieces in the Daily Oklahoman as well as short stories in a local church publication. His first major work is The Chance: The True Story of One Girl’s Journey to Freedom, a biography of a young girl’s escape from Vietnam in 1979. Mr. Baker has three adult children and currently lives with his wife Deborah in Oklahoma City.

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