In 2004, my beloved Uncle Tom, the man who made me a backpacker and a mountain climber, passed away after battling cancer for seven years. My sister took charge of the memorial service for my aunt and my three cousins. At the funeral home we filled his hiking boots and his signature external framepack with flowers.
My sister collected photos of Tom with the people from his life. Tom and my mom at the lake. Tom and his wife before they had kids. Tom and his kids. Tom and his best friend Marv in the camping. Big multi-generational family portraits at family gatherings at church or on vacation.
Slowly it became clear to us that something was missing. Why wasn’t there a photo of just Tom and me?
Invariably, my life would be interrupted like this, just as it was on this Tuesday twenty years ago:
After I drove home from my afternoon college classes, my mom would tell me her brother called for me and wanted to know if I was free that weekend. I would go to the kitchen and pull the wireless phone off the wall hoping it was sufficiently charged. Uncle Tom was an environmental engineer for a chemical company in Niagara Falls, and for whatever reason he was home that afternoon. Without explanation, he said he wanted to “do” Mount Gothics and see if we could “bag” Saddleback and the Moose Jaws too. All were peaks in the Adirondack Mountains and on his tick list to becoming a “46r,” a person who climbed all 46 peaks over 4,000-feet in the park.
I was in; I was always in. I was never moved to be a 46r, but I liked that Uncle Tom’s tick list kept him going back, and more importantly, inviting me to go with him.
This particular weekend was different. We wouldn’t be back by Sunday morning for church. And I had a college math exam on Monday morning. I was pushing the limits on what was proper. I felt guilty. But I also had no doubt that I had to go.
Friday morning came and I was in math class. I wore some unusual for typical day at school: a button-down moisture-wicking shirt and pants that unzipped to become shorts. This wasn’t something that was done in Buffalo. Afterward, I drove straight home and met Uncle Tom. Tom had wiry hair, glasses that were out of style by a decade, and an old external frameback from REI when REI was something exotic on the east coast. My mom gave me a hug, before I buckled into Tom’s Mazda, and we drove away, with the Beach Boys blaring, down 90 East toward Syracuse before heading north and over the Blue Line, a fabled demarcation between the everyday and the Adirondacks.
We hiked in the dark to the nearest campsite. We were passed by hikers older than me much much younger than my Uncle Tom. We were quite the pair ourselves, about 35 years apart.
At the trailhead we focused on the map and going out to find a rhythm that suited us, as a team, despite our differences in age. At camp, we worked together to use our shared stove to make a hearty dinner of pasta and spicy sausage. On some trips, I would ask Uncle Tom to take my photo by lean-to or snap a shot of him cooking on the towering stove apparatus. On the trail, we got back into our rhythm; sometimes I would get farther ahead and then wait. We agreed to stick together. We’d take out our cameras at vistas and at the summits.
At the top, we used our own cameras to each record a photo of the summit marker from placed there by the US Geologic Survey. Usually after that, I always handed my camera to Tom to take my photo at the top with a dramatic background. I’d take a photo of him.
I admired my older brother, to my envy, became an squad leader in the Marine Corps. He taught me to make a Marine smile in photos, which was really a stoic face. Uncle Tom fixed that; “Smile!” He’d say sternly. “You don’t want people to think you’re miserable out here or your mother or one day your wife won’t let you go.”
No more tough guy. In my photos, especially the one’s Tom snapped of me on the trail, I was authentic, from the inside out, from that point on.
I started making photo albums of the trips during college and updating them almost immediately after returning from the trip. Everything was on film back then. I even started carrying two recyclable cameras; one traditional rectangular frame and one panoramic. Around the time of Tom’s memorial service preparations, I had pictures of him, but I realized I never asked anyone to snap one of the two of us. And neither did he. Ever.
Earlier this year, I started taking all of my photos out of the albums to start making a proper scrapbook. I planned to include the photos, captions, parts of maps, and summit badges where I had them. I asked my mother whether she had any photos to share that I might have missed. The next time I saw her she handed me an envelope with about twenty photos I didn’t have and one of them was from the top of Mount Jo before I really started hiking. It was just Tom and me with the Algonquin Range in the background. It wasn’t the perfect shot, but there we were together.
My scrapbook had plenty of photos of vistas and peaks I’d been atop and valleys I’ve scampered through. I could share photos of cobalt blue sky days and stormy scenes. I could show you my favorite trees covered in snow or basking in summer sunshine. But the scenes didn’t tell the story of how I got there or why I was there. It illustrated the results of my Uncle Tom’s influence on my life, but didn’t let me show you how joyful my uncle and I were together during those trips.
My advice today is that you take the photos that really matter. Don’t overtake pictures of the view. Remember to take the selfie with your climbing or hiking partner or have someone else snap the shot. Looking back 20 years, those are the photos I want most. If I had mine with Tom, it would be on my desk next to me where I write.
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