The lady across the ticket counter wanted $215 before she would let me on the plane due to leave in an hour. I had $205 in my pocket.
This should not be happening.
I had already paid for a ticket. The airline had not said they were mailing it to me. When I had come to California one year before, I had bought my ticket over the phone and I picked it up when I got to the airport for my flight. The airline had changed their policy in the past year. Nobody had told me.
When I got to the airport in Fresno an hour before my flight, the agent asked for my ticket. When I told her I had bought the ticket over the phone and thought I was picking it up here, then she told me about the policy change.
As I had been hiking out of the Yosemite backcountry I had passed a mule train on its way up to our camp for our weekly resupply. The mail was on the mules. My ticket was probably in the mail pouch as I hiked down the trial in the opposite direction.
I explained to the agent that I was on my way to be the best man at my best friend Doug’s wedding in Wisconsin. What could I do to get on that plane?
She said the only thing she could do was to give me a new ticket for the same price I had paid for the first one. After I got back, I could return the first ticket for a refund.
The ticket price was $215. I counted all of the money I had, including the change in my pockets. $205.
I tried to argue with the agent.
“Look, your computer shows that you sold a ticket for this flight to George Parker. I’ve got ID that proves I’m George Parker. Isn’t that good enough?”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
“If you think I’m lying, I’ll even board the plane last, just in case another George Parker shows up with a ticket for this seat.”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
It never occurred to me to ask other people in line for ten bucks. I bet I could have gotten it. “Only ten dollars to get this line moving again? Deal!”
I hauled my 6400 cubic inch backpack off to the side to figure out what to do next. I wasn’t getting to the wedding, that was for sure. I only had one contact phone number for Doug, his apartment in Minneapolis. (Remember, these were the days before cell phones!) I’d tried calling it the night before from my motel room in Fresno, but he had already left for the wedding in Wisconsin. His roommate had no idea how to get a hold of him. The only other contact numbers I had were for Doug’s family in Illinois, but by now they had already left for Wisconsin, too.
So…there I was, in the Fresno airport with a week off from my trail crew. What to do?
I could go back up to Yosemite and rejoin the crew. Or…
I had seen a Greyhound bus station on the way into the airport. I wondered what a round trip ticket to the Bay Area would cost? I could go to my parent’s house for a few days. That would actually be a nice surprise for them. The next day, August 13, was my Dad’s birthday, and two days after that was my parent’s anniversary. Yep! Definitely worth a trip to their house!
It was just a short hike to the bus station, and a round trip ticket from Fresno to San Francisco was well within my budget. A few minutes examining the bus schedules told me that I had plenty of time to get home for a few days and be back to make it into camp before the following Monday.
The better part of the day saw me waiting in the Fresno Greyhound station and then on a bus headed north up the Central Valley to San Francisco. Plenty of time to read. Plenty of time to think. Plenty of time to play “What If…?”
Ten dollars had stood between me and getting on that plane. If I hadn’t bought those books when I got into Fresno the night before…I would have been on that plane. If I had asked Randy and his wife to drop me off at a motel close to the airport instead of whatever one they usually used, I wouldn’t have needed to take a cab all the way across Fresno to the airport…and I would have been on that plane. If I had bought my tickets before the season started…I would have been on that plane.
California’s Great Central Valley was filled for me that day with self-recrimination and self-loathing. Because of my lack of planning, Doug was going to be wasting a trip to the airport. He was going to have to scrounge up a new best man at the last minute, too. All my fault.
As I got closer to San Francisco, I started to think about how to get from the city out to Antioch. I knew that if I called, my Mom or Dad would come and get me. Thinking about the ‘surprise’ motif, though, led me to choose another great adventure–figuring out the mighty Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system–and just showing up on my family’s doorstep.
Deposited in downtown San Francisco, I found my way to the nearest underground BART station. I knew that the train line ended at Concord, and that I would have to take a BART bus out to Antioch.
What I had not realized was that the bus route winds its way back…and forth…and all…around…Bay Point and Pittsburg before getting to Antioch. And since I hadn’t spent much time at my parent’s new house before joining the CCC and leaving, I didn’t know what stop I needed to get off at in Antioch, so I stayed on the bus all the way to the end of the line at Hillcrest. I found out when I got off the bus that I had overshot my target by about 5 miles. Oh, well. After spending a couple of months at 10,000 feet in the mountainous High Country of Yosemite and hiking to work every day with my tools over my shoulder, five miles at sea level on flat ground and pavement was not going to be a problem.
I stopped for a burger en route, and by the time I got to my parent’s house it was about 10:30 at night. All the lights were off in the house.
This was gonna be a problem.
Making it home by curfew had been a big point of contention between my Mom and I once I was old enough to drive. If I wasn’t in before curfew, the doors were locked and I was on my own until morning. This wouldn’t have been too bad by itself, but there was always hell to pay the morning after those nights. As bad as that was, though, it still was not bad enough to totally discourage me from breaking curfew. I had spent more than one night curled up under a tree in the woods down the street from our home.
When I got to their house at 10:30 and saw the lights off, there was no way I was gonna risk Mom’s wrath. I had a sleeping bag. I was set. I went around the side of the house and rolled out my sleeping bag off the sidewalk near the garbage cans.
The next morning I woke up a little after sunrise. I was looking up at the lightening sky when I heard the front door around the corner open and somebody come outside. I remembered that it was August 13, Dad’s birthday, just as Dad came around the corner with a bag of trash.
“Happy Birthday, Dad!”
I have only seen a few people actually do a double take in real life. This was one of those times.
“What are you doing here?!”
“I had a week off, so I thought I’d come up and see you guys. Happy Birthday!” I thought the short version of my story would do for now. I could fill them in on the rest later.
“Well, thank you! Come on in!”
As I gathered up my gear, Dad said “Your Mom’s had some health stuff going on that you should probably know about.”
The last time I had called home had been when were going on the fires back in May. I hadn’t called when we finished on the fires. I hadn’t even called when we left the Front Country just before the 4th of July and left phones behind. The last time I had talked to them Mom had an odd swelling on the side of her face that she was going to get checked out by a doctor. It turned out that the swelling was caused by a tumor that was growing in a sinus.
“So she’s going to look a little startling,” Dad said as we went inside.
Mom was sitting on the couch in her robe. She slowly moved her head and looked up when I came in. It looked like there was a huge compress or other dressing on the right side of her face with some thick black lines inked across it.
Dad said “Look what the cat dragged in!”
My younger sister, Patricia was there, too. She looked exhausted.
Mom was undergoing radiation for the tumor. As we talked and Dad caught me up on where they were in the treatments, I realized I had been wrong about the dressing on Mom’s face. It wasn’t a bandage. Her cheek below her eye was bruised and swollen to the size of a softball. In fact, the swelling had pushed her eye way up into the top of its socket. Mom always had beautiful baby blue eyes, vibrant and full of life. Her right eye wasn’t that way anymore. It was stuck, pointed up toward the ceiling. The iris was dull blue. It looked dead. The lines on her cheek were marker lines drawn for aiming guidelines for the radiation treatments.
When the doctors had decided the swelling on her face was a tumor in a sinus, they were going to operate and remove it. In the process of closer examination, however, they had discovered a second tumor in a lung. A second tumor closed the door for surgical options. They decided to treat the sinus tumor with radiation.
When I was all brought up to date, we all tried to carry on the rest of the day and evening as though life were normal. It was surreal.
I spent time telling the family all of my wilderness trail stories. Dad asked a lot of questions, but I spoke mainly to Mom. She had been my encouragement to do something like the CCC and Backcountry trail crews. I told her all about the mountains, the trees, the trails, the bears, the rivers, the camps, the wildfires we had fought and the helicopter rides we had taken to get there. I told her about what it was like to sit near the lone Jeffrey pine on Sentinel Dome and watch the full moon rise over Half Dome. Mom mostly just sat and listened. Talking seemed to be painful for her. Dad said it was an effect of the radiation treatments. When she did talk and I caught a glimpse into her mouth, it looked like her teeth and gums were turning black.
The one story that I held back was the full story of how I came to be at their house on my Dad’s birthday. I didn’t see any need to tell them that they had been Plan B. And a last minute Plan B, at that. It was looking to me like God had used all of those bad decisions on my part to get me where I really needed to be. My Plan B had been His only Plan all along.
Mom had a radiation treatment the next day and I went with them. As we got out of the car, I gave Mom my arm and walked her slowly from the drop off point to the medical building.
Mom had always taken pride in her ability to roughhouse with me and my friends. She was only 5’2″, but she was a spitfire. She let us all know that she was definitely in charge. She knew pressure points and nerve centers, and if she could get a grip on a forearm, shoulder, or thigh she could drop the biggest guy in his tracks. But she was a lot of fun, too. She played volleyball and kickball with us in the yard. She was a tickle-master and the house would be filled with shrieks and laughter of kids having a great time being chased around by the tickle-monster. When I was about 9 or 10, she was chasing my friend Mitchell and I though the house as the tickle-monster. Mitch and I ducked into my bedroom and the two of us held the door closed as long as we could, and when she finally burst the door open against us we flew back from the door and scrambled under the bed. Mom reached under the bed for us and we backed up against the wall, just out of her reach. Her arm withdrew and we breathed a sigh of relief. Until the mattress flew off the bed. Then we screamed like little girls when she threw the box springs aside, too. She had us!
But today she had none of that energy. I helped her shuffle across the parking lot. I made sure she had a good grip on my arm as we stepped up onto the sidewalk. Then her fingers dug into my forearm and I found myself heading for the ground on my knees. She let up on her grip before I went all the way down. For the first time since I’d been there, I saw a twinkle in her eye and a grin turning up the corners of her mouth.
“I can still take you down.”
“Yes, you can, Mom.” She had certainly let me know that she was still The Boss! And that she was still fighting.
The last day I was home, I asked the question that had been hanging over my head since I’d found out how bad Mom’s condition was. “Do you want me to stay home and help?”
Mom’s good eye glared at me. “You started. You damn well finish.”
Dad said “There’s nothing you can do here other than wait. Go back and finish. We’ll contact you if we need to.”
Dad dropped me off at the Concord BART station and slipped me a few bucks. A BART train and a Greyhound bus and I was on my way back to Yosemite. I managed a cab ride from Fresno to Yosemite Valley from a cabbie who just really wanted to get out of the city for the day, so he only charged me the same price the bus ticket would have been. I had lunch in Yosemite Village, then started hiking through Happy Isles and up the trail along the Merced River and behind Half Dome that would take me back to our camp at Vogelsang. I got as far as Merced Lake before the sun went down and I had to stop for the night. My first night back under the stars was just like coming home.
The next day I made it into camp right before dinner at 4:00. One of the first people I saw when I came into camp was my boss, Diane.
“So…how was your week?”
I explained the airline snafu.
“I figured something like that had happened. The day you left an envelope came for you from the airline. So…what did you do for a week?”
It had never occurred to me before that moment that since I had not been where I was supposed to have been, doing what I was supposed to have been doing, that I could get into serious trouble. Diane had given me permission to go to Wisconsin for a wedding, not go home for a few days to Antioch. I could be fired right now.
“I went to my parent’s house in Antioch. Do you remember back on the fires when I found out my Mom was going to the doctor to get something checked out?
“Turned out to be cancer. She’s got two tumors. One in a sinus. One in a lung. It’s not good.”
“Do they need you at home?”
“No. Mom told me to come back and finish what I’d started.”
On our last day in the Backcountry in late September, we hiked out one last time, loaded up in the van and the pick-up, and made the drive from Tuolumne Meadows to Camp Mather for debriefing. We pulled in some time after sundown. Peter Lewis, the Backcountry program director, was there to meet us. He stuck his head in the van door before anyone could even get out and said “George Parker? You need to call your Dad right away. Sounds like something serious.”
“The radiation didn’t work. She’s not going to last long.”
“How long do they think?”
“Could be two days. Could be two hours.”
“I’m sure I can get to Stockton tonight if I need to.”
“What do you have left to do?”
“Debriefing tomorrow. Leaving the next morning. Be in Stockton by mid-morning, maybe.”
“Well, why don’t you just finish it up to the end. I’ll pick you up in Stockton the day after tomorrow.”
The CCC van convoy pulled into the Stockton Greyhound station. Corpsmembers disembarked, ready to be scattered back all around the state. I found the payphones along the back wall of the station. Roxanne, the Yosemite I C-1, was on the phone to my left. I called home and Patricia answered the phone.
Mom had died just a little bit earlier that morning.
Dad was at the hospital. Patricia would let him know that I’d called and he would come and get me.
I hung up the phone and just stood there for a few moments. I noticed the line behind me of other Corpsmembers waiting to use the phone, so I stepped aside. Roxanne was off the phone and laughing with another Corpsmember. I don’t know what I looked like, but when she saw me her smile dropped and she came over to me.
“Are you okay?”
I said nothing for several moments, and then choked out “My Mom just died.”
Roxanne folded me into one of the most necessary hugs I’ve ever had.
We talked for a while. About Mom. About her illness. About good times and good memories. Roxanne made sure I wasn’t alone and that I had transportation arranged. Chris from my crew was there and said he’d stay with me until Dad got there.
Louis L’Amour once wrote that trail dust is thicker than blood. Moments like these are what make that true.
Mom’s funeral was a few days later. Then I got back on another Greyhound bus and headed back up to Del Norte for my second year with the C’s. I didn’t take any time off. I told my bosses “Why would I take time off? So I can sit around and mope?”
I was wrong.
It’s not ‘moping’. It’s called ‘grieving’, and you can go through it now or you can go through it later…but go through it you will. I just delayed the inevitable for four or five years.
When I took time to consider it years later, there were two positives to consider. First, because of the airline foul up I got to see Mom alive one last time before she died. And second, she died knowing that I made the effort to come and see her. I think this was a big deal for her, and it was why she was so insistent that I go back and finish my job.
You see, when her mother was in a hospital dying of cancer around 1972, Mom took Patricia and I from Chicago to Oakland to be with her. My Aunt Kathy was an Army nurse at the time, and she was actually traveling through San Francisco while we were there…but Kathy never did come by to see their Mom. My mom never forgave Kathy of that for the rest of her life. Now, I don’t know all the details. I don’t know what kind of a schedule Kathy was on that might of kept her from getting to the hospital across the Bay. But as far as Mom was concerned, right or wrong, Kathy was so full of herself that she could not be bothered to cross the Bay to see her dying mother.
So I can only imagine what went through Mom’s mind when she saw me come through the door. I wasn’t due back until October. But I made the effort to travel two hundred miles by foot, bus, and train to see her in the middle of August, in the middle of her radiation treatments. I think that told her everything she needed to know about her and me.