My son and I set out for a summer hike. A steep trail, the woods deep. I’ve seen the geologist’s map, the tightly packed contour lines. A mile and a half ahead waits an old fire tower.
We forsake the main trail for a less-traveled route. The path narrower here, the shade thicker. Above, a smothering canopy, entwined branches. Below, sunless acres of mosses and ferns. Rocks everywhere. Boulders as large as cars. The gnats swarm, a maddening buzz. We don sunglasses to keep the gnats from our eyes, a further snuffing of light, an underworld’s tint on this sunny day. We share the path with July’s toads, small and brown. The trailside’s mayapples shiver with their leaping exodus.
My boy charges ahead. Today we discuss his latest obsession, the mighty Roman Empire. We shake our heads over the palace Caligula built for his horse. We talk about the battle of Cynoscephalae, the flexibility of Flamininus’s legions, the steamroller might of Philip’s phalanx. YouTube has taught my boy the centurion’s marching commands. My son strides ahead, Latin muttered under his breath, his right hand curled into a spear-grasping grip, his left arm raised as if holding a shield. He is eight, yet today I discern a maturity in his stride. He navigates the trail with assurance, his gait dictated by the path’s many rocks. Only a few months ago I had to slow my pace for him. Things have changed.
Warmth kindles in my muscles. The wonders of cellular respiration, its consumption and heat, its gifts of energy. Our afternoon lays open before us, a blurring of time in this setting where clocks matter less than the sun’s rise or a change of season.
For the last fifty yards we take a shortcut, a steep climb littered with rocks and logs. I keep my gaze down, knowing it’s a long walk to the car on a twisted ankle. My son forges ahead. I sidestep a boulder and consider the forces of nature at play: gravity, erosion, the push of water and ice and all the other elements that will outlast my years. We reach the summit’s clearing. Before us, the fire tower, a wide, concrete column seventy feet tall, a sudden apparition through the maples and oaks. My son runs ahead then pauses in the tower’s doorless entrance. “Come on, Dad!”
I enjoy hiking with my son. The expansiveness of the woods fuels our conversations. We are free to roam in body and thought. We hurl stones at trees. We catch frogs and salamanders. We talk about anything he wants. Here is my communion, the intersection of this beauty and the pulse and awareness that is mine alone. Here waits a brand of grace I seldom achieve in the workaday world—the sublime recognition of a moment’s happiness.
A series of concrete shafts honeycomb the fire tower. The shafts are fifteen feet tall, narrow spaces claimed by bolted metal ladders. At the top of each ladder waits a step-over onto a yard-square concrete slab, and atop the slab, the next ladder. Up the ladders we go, zigzagging back and forth. The landing at the foot of every other ladder offers a narrow aperture, no glass, just a slim rectangle that looks down upon the increasingly distant ground. Graffiti adorns the walls, crude offerings in black marker, naked women, scrawled curses. My son passes these, scant attention paid, his focus on the necessities of grip and footing.
He goes first. I follow, my body ready to cradle his should he fall, my hand held close to his rump as he navigates the step-over at the top of each ladder. Today I sport the fading hues of a black eye, last week’s climb highlighted by a boot heel to the face. The shafts are dim, our palms red with the ladders’ rust. Come winter, we’ll pause at the top of the ladders, our breath steaming as we study the clumps of hibernating lady bugs.
Our voices and the clanking of our boots rise up the shafts. I think of a woodwind, its columns of air and the pitches they produce. I think of my son and I, makers of a human music. My son waits at the foot of the final ladder. “Ready?”
I smile. “Ready.”
He climbs and I follow. Above, through the sheltered doorway, a dawning view of blue and white.
The subject of happiness has become a hot topic in the psychological community. This shift in perspective is welcome, a brighter light than the gloom of mental illness and Freud’s repressed drives. Research has supported what we laymen have long taken for granted. Optimists enjoy longer and healthier lives. The euphoria that accompanies the acquisition of a desired object quickly fades. There really is no place like home.
Martin Seligman is the former president of the American Psychological Association and the man many credit with popularizing this investigation into the sunnier end of the emotional spectrum. Seligman proposes happiness consists of three components—pleasure, engagement, and meaning. Of these, Seligman claims the least consequential is pleasure. A smile, after all, can mask a thousand pains. Recent studies have examined the roots of happiness. Religious people tend to possess this deeper brand of contentment. Senses of community, empowerment, and gratitude bring the kind of joy that outlives the giddiness of a new iPad.
While experts agree over the merits of happiness, they split over its proper evaluation. These are scientists after all, men and women fond of empirical data, a luxury in this soft and sunny realm. Bereft of facts, psychologists have cleaved into two distinct camps. One contingent believes happiness is an overall picture, a panoramic view of one’s life. Countering are those who contend happiness is more akin to a snapshot, an evaluation relevant only in the living, breathing moment.
Let the well-mannered debate begin!
We step onto the tower’s observation deck. July sun, brilliant and clean, a breeze unfelt below. The deck is a circle, ten feet or so in diameter. Around us, a steel cage, the chest-high stone wall I remember from my first visit now enclosed, a response to the thrill-seekers who came here to repel. My son and I catch our breath and share a sip from our water bottle.
The clearing lies directly below, a dizzying glance as we hold our faces close to the bars. The hillside’s treetop canopy slopes away. Other hills beyond, nestled farmlands between. Some of our tower days are misty, the lowlands shrouded in fog, our perch hemmed in by a dreamy white, but today is as clear as can be. In the distance, we spot the domed roof of the rink where my boy places ice hockey. To the west, the twin smokestacks of our town’s chocolate factory. Further still, the Appalachian’s hilly spine.
We sit and eat the granola bars I’ve carried in my pocket. Soon the change of seasons, autumn’s coolness, the vistas of red and gold. Then winter and the stark beauty I love best. We are alone today, just the two of us and the ghosts of park rangers long dead.
My son stands and paces the circle, stopping when the whim strikes him. He grasps the bars, his gaze fixed in the distance. I can only guess what goes through his mind. Perhaps he thinks of nothing beyond the sun and the breeze. Perhaps the valley opens like a battlefield map, the patchwork fields imagined as massed Roman legions.
A shadow passes over us, a momentary eclipse. “Look,” my boy says. Wings spread, a hawk soars above our cage, an effortless glide on warm currents. The bird passes again, close enough for us to see its talons, its spread flight feathers, the three of us the sole inhabitants of this slice of beautiful summer sky.
We stay until my son says he’d like to leave. I go first, waiting at the foot of each ladder until he steps safely onto the landing. We emerge back into the sunshine and begin our downhill hike. He asks my opinion on the Greek hoplon versus the Roman scutum. We pause to study a trail of ants, and we discuss the pheromone-scented path that leads the workers home. Back on the trail, he wields a stick like a centurion’s gladius. Ferns and leaves fly with each swipe.
The psychologists of the world can continue their debates, but perhaps it’s fitting that I can believe both are right. Happiness can be wide in scope, a breath-taking view that stretches from horizon to horizon. Or perhaps happiness may be as ephemeral as the last heartbeat to leap into my chest, an ambush of joy. Chances are my son won’t remember today. This hike will merge into a memory of all hikes. My own memories of eight are dim. Perhaps the best I can do with these days is to help provide him a touchstone, the slate upon which all stories of future happiness will be written.
Onward, little Roman soldier. The trail angles down. We pause to observe a fallen oak. My son’s gladius returns to being a stick, its tip used to flick off the crumbling bark. Beneath, a scurrying underworld, bark beetles and centipedes. I touch my son’s head, a thoughtless stroke of his sweat-curled hair. There are wonders all around us today.
Curtis Smith’s stories and essays have been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. Press 53 has released his story collections, Bad Monkey and The Species Crown. Sunnyoutside Press released his latest book, Witness, an essay collection. His next book will be a story collection from Press 53, due out next spring.