Friday, January 05, 2007

Tioga Pass

Mom screamed when the road got too steep. We didn't notice her panic at first. John and I were playing in the back seat. Rocking back and forth, pretending to go over the cliff. We laughed at it all. We felt immune, sure that Dad's perfect driving wrapped us in a cocoon of safety.

Tioga Pass was just a gravel track when we all drove over it together. It had great drops just a tire width away. To city kids the mountains were like postcards, unreal just at the laws of physics couldn't possibly apply to us because we were on vacation. To my child's mind people on vacation don't crash, but then my dad couldn't possibly crash. We had total trust with dad behind the wheel. That small ribbon of water at the bottom of the canyon is behind a glass wall, we couldn't possibly tumble down there,that only happens on television.

Then mom's fear brought a new sense of reality to the situation. The road at this point squeaked around a thin corner. A truck was coming in the other direction. The truck was coming up the inside lane, safe against a sheer wall of rock. But the truck was wide, forcing us outside, closer to the precipice. Mom's fright broke right in on our game.

"Freeze! Don't move!" there was an urgent sound in mom's voice that had to be obeyed. Suddenly John and I couldn't even turn our heads to look out the window. "Move over behind your father." she whispered, Mom thought our weight on that side of the car was dangerous.

To back up her conviction mom scooted all the way over to the left in the front seat, crowding Dad's elbow. She was going to get as far away from the passenger side door as possible. She stared in his ear and began to chant Hail Mary. I hunched down in the back seat waiting for the door to fly open and eject us all into the void. We were infected with mom's terror.

"I'll turn around if I can find a place wide enough." Dad said. His voice wavered a little bit, I could tell he was trying to pacify mom, but I could also tell she was starting to get to him as well. It's not a good feeling when you know the driver has doubts. The truck passed and we crept back into the middle of the road. Grinding along in second gear we slowly descended
from the summit. Every time we came to a steep place with a big drop off, mom would cover her eyes with her hands and mumble a prayer. John and I relaxed again in the back seat, our faith in dad's driving only slightly shaken. We began to tell silly jokes to break the tension, but we didn't try to rock the car again.

After that glorious, terrifying run over Tioga Pass, the road became a legend in my mind. We'd survived an epic adventure. We'd crossed Tioga Pass and lived to tell about it! When I need to express steep, high, and squeaky places, Tioga Pass was my metaphor. I've gotten the memory mixed up with flash backs of the the Lucy & Dezi movie about the long, long trailer. Tumbling boulders, spinning wheels over the abyss. That's what happens to epic memories,
you glue drama to them for the rest of your life.

Tioga Pass was the beginning of my mild height phobia. I'd get queasy in tall buildings, uncertain in elevators, hesitant when I approached the edges of things high up. Nothing so strong that it would reduce me to jelly, no panic or terror, just enough irrational fear to make me curious about becoming a mountaineer.

I was looking for those memories again when I took Paul over Tioga Pass summer of 1973 in my beat up Land Cruiser. The Land Cruiser was a perfect vehicle in which to relive the great Tioga Pass Trek. A beat up faded red and turquoise blue truck, it shook and shimmied when I pushed it past 35. Its head gasket was blown, causing the engine to whine and miss when accelerating, and cough and choke when I down ©shifting. There were just a straps where the doors should have been, so it was easy to lean out the passenger side for a look at the really big drops.

My brother Paul was a nerdy teenager, 14 years younger than me. He was growing up in the city while I was still trying to grow up in the mountains. I'd dragged Paul up canyon trails, subjected him to sub freezing temperatures, and waved dead fish in his face. Camped above Saddlebag lake we'd spent the night in a wet tent, bombarded with lightening bolts while thunder cannoned over our heads. It had been a wild camping trip, with more weather and exposure than usual. I'd given Paul an overdose of the mountains. At this point in my life climbing had turned my fear of heights into fascination. Like most things that scared me I was compelled to look it right in the face, to gaze with narcissistic fascination at every big drop to sudden death I could find. I was certain the High Sierra was paradise and Yosemite as the center of the universe. I wanted to share all the wonder with by city raised little brother, and like older brothers everywhere, show off while scaring him a little bit too.

By this time the Tioga Pass road had been widened and 'improved' into a great, paved, highway across the spine of Yosemite. It meant effortless access to the backcountry to me, with easy and magnificent vistas on every side. We'd driven down the gravel and dirt track from Saddlebag and joined the main the highway. Everything was fresh washed from thunderstorms. The rain steamed from the asphalt. We saw a badger the size of a golden retriever scuttling across Tuoluemme Meadows.

The light was perfect for recapturing memories. I drove the wet roads with my youngest brother looking for the place where mom and dad, and John and I had been sure we were going to die. I had to show Paul my memory. I needed to find the spot where the road narrowed, next to the mile long drop down the gorge. I fully expected to find a wide rumbling truck coming in the opposite direction. Every time it got steep I pulled the wheezing Land Cruiser as close to the edge of the road as I could. I had to get that tire hanging in the air sensation that had blazed Tioga Pass in my memory. But I just couldn't find that drop off.

There were staggering steep places. Places that caused a flutter in the stomach. Spots where a wrong turn would have killed us both. But none of these paved spots on the road were steep enough or narrow enough to match my memories. Try as I might I couldn't find the place where mom had come completely unglued. The immensity of the drop in my memory just wasn't there to be found.

I have no idea how Paul reacted to all this, but I'm sure he remembers some special place as steeper than it really is, just like I did when I was a kid. The scale of things is rooted in your size. When you're a little kid you remember big and steep with personal conviction. It can even change your life.

1 comment:

Erin said...

I enjoy your stories dad....funny how your story's from before I was even a thought can spark memories of my own, as we sat in your old gray chair and listen to you tell us tails of your life....