Today I joined a couple of old friends for a hike up to Mount Aeneas, a minor peak overlooking the Flathead Valley on one side and Jewel Basin on the other.
It’s a six-mile round trip with a view at the top that makes you think you’re pretty fit for an older man — until you encounter a half-dozen or so 8-year-olds running up to the same peak with their moms in tow. Oh, well. The point is, it was a good walk on a pleasant day, and the biting wind at the top is a memory I’m going to keep at hand when I get back to Florida next week.
When I say “old friends,” I mean that in two senses: I’ve known them nearly all my adult life and, yes, we’re all getting up there, agewise. Once, decades ago, we were hiking through the Bob Marshall Wilderness and were overtaken by a dramatic storm. When three men pass a night in a two-man tent, a tent laid flat by horizontal rain and gale-force winds, you get to know the other guys pretty well. Somehow, we remained friends.
These guys are both retired pilots. They are both rational and methodical and mechanically adept. In short, they are nothing like me. On the way up and back they talked about various flying mishaps and crashes, pilots they’d known who had come to grief through judgment lapses great and small. They talked of stupid things they’d done themselves, years ago. Fascinating stories, every one. There wasn’t much I could add. I found myself contemplating my own career in newspapers, where any lapse in judgment could be negated by a correction the next day.
One of these friends taught me to fly in the mid-70s. The other gave me some night-flying instruction, and flew me to my first real newspaper job interview. I got a pilot’s license and loved to fly, but early on I realized it was not all about soaring freely in the heavens. To attain the status of retired pilot, as opposed to dead pilot, you have to be rational, and methodical, and possess at least a passing familiarity with the myriad mechanical systems that keep an airplane aloft.
Frankly, all I cared about was soaring freely in the heavens, or banking over a schoolyard far below to watch the little figures run out for recess. I just liked the view.
Eventually I let the license lapse. Flying is serious business, best left to the pros. I still like altitude, though, and still like a good view. Best for a guy like me to get it the old-fashioned way: walking up a trail as high as it goes. You’d think a couple of retired pilots might find that tedious after a lifetime aloft. But they’re always up for a hike. I guess that’s one of the reasons we’re still friends.