The first hike of the year, I feared, would be Reese’s last. That early January outing was a hike in intent only.
Reese did not listen before he leapt out of the car. His attention was focused on a young golden retriever at the trailhead, but in his haste to frolic with the pup he forgot that he is 91 in dog years and that his femurs are essentially free-floating in malformed, arthritic hips. His landing lacked grace, though he made a pride-salvaging recovery, greeted the golden, and trotted in a few embarrassingly slow circles with it. By the time we were ready to hit the trail a few minutes later, however, he couldn’t hold his hind legs upright. He crawled using his forepaws, but the sight gave me flashbacks to Tod Browning’s Freaks, and neither is a vision I am eager to re-experience. Anthony ran the able-bodied dogs down the path a bit while I reloaded Reese, whose final hike I believed would amount to a brief groove in the snow.
In the months between then and now, Wyatt and I snuck out for a few weekend treks, and Reese adapted to wheelchair use. With spring in full voice and everyone in need of fresh air, we decided to test Reese’s all-terrain wheels.
We chose a lightly trafficked stretch of Pike National Forest that opens with a broad meadow and slopes to a plateau surrounded by aspen, fir and pine. The jagged peaks of the Lost Creek Wilderness cut the sky to the east while the lumpy forms of Little Baldy Mountain and Michigan Hill loomed to the west.
Reese does not know what distinguishes a hill from a mountain any more than the U.S. Geological Survey, but as we ascended this slight, unnamed rise it probably seemed to Reese to cross that hazy, undefined boundary between them. Of course, it’s all relative; what’s considered a mountain in Virginia, for example, would barely be acknowledged as a hill in Colorado, and Reese was pulling a steel-frame wheelchair and his own body weight upward largely on the strength of his front legs.
But he also reveled in the freedom. Perhaps a bit too much. He does not grasp that his wheel base is wider than his body, and his rambunctiousness led to a few rollovers.
With Reese in need of a rest, we lazed on the summit and savored spring. The faint, cool, remnant breeze of winter; the golden sun, warming up for summer; the otherwise camouflaged cacti that would have gone unnoticed were it not for their vibrant buds.
On the way back, we led Reese down a gentle grade along what appeared to be an old four-wheel-drive route. Or at least we tried to. Refreshed and having conquered what must have felt like a mountain, Reese looked down and apparently saw a mere hill; in snowsports parlance, he bombed the run.
Anthony charged after him in an effort to seize the wheelchair while I ran ahead to photograph the prospective carnage … I mean, sacrifice my well-being for the sake of my loyal, longtime companion by throwing myself in front of the breakneck apparatus. Such a heroic sacrifice, however, was not necessary. Reese reached even ground without incident, though he did fall out of the car as we packed for the homeward journey.
At Reese’s age, every hill seems a mountain and every hike could be his last. But judging by the expression on his face as he hurtled downward, I don’t think this was it.