The Mountains of Thompson Park
SUNY Jefferson
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The Mountains of Thompson Park

Michael L. Keck

Author’s Note: Thompson Park is located in the city of Watertown, New York. It sits at an elevation of 755 feet, with two summits. The park was developed in or around 1916, from a design by Frederick Law Olmsted, the same firm that designed Central Park in New York City.

      It got so that Loretta used him as her guide for going to school. She would be dressed, have her breakfast, and watch out of the living room window as he parked his car on one of the Park Circle streets and began walking uphill. He was there on most days. On most mornings. He was like the sun to her. When he was there, it meant that the day was going to be alright, already, and that she could go about hers. Her mother watched her.

      “Loretta, it is time to be going.”

      “I know mom. I just wanted to know if he would be here today. There is something about him. It is like a mystery.”

      “Would you like to talk to him?”

      “Do you think I could? You wouldn’t be mad would you?”

       “Let me see what I can do.”

      When she saw him, she smiled and sang and began to fasten the straps to the long brace that held her shriveled up leg. Standing, it creaked to life. She believed that it had a life of its own. That one day, it would decide to walk off by itself. She would watch it leave. Wave goodbye and then skip off to school on her own. She had never learned how to skip. It looked like fun. It was simple. The other girls did it at recess. Her mother told her that she had done it when she was young but since then, did not feel like it anymore. Loretta had wondered about that. How can a person leave alone a thing that they enjoy, as if never looking back on it ever again?

      Her mom looked out the window at an old man. He was not even halfway up the first hill and stopping to take off a hoody. He wrapped it around his waist, took a sip from the water bottle that he carried and moved on. The footing appeared good this morning. Instead of leaning into the cane, he carried it in his other hand, checked the sky and moved on.

      She looked at her daughter, at the dishes, at the notes on the refrigerator door, at the cars moving past her house on their way to work, thinking, ‘he had nothing to do today but walk in the park’ He has a good car. Almost new. He wears good clothes but he is always alone.

      She found him sitting on a bench almost to the top of the hill, on a curve in the road. There was an entrance to the zoo nearby but it was gated and locked from traffic, cars or people. He was watching out over the horizon towards the east. The morning wind blew straight into his face. It was red. He had almost no hair but a beard. A white beard. As she walked up the hill, it came to her that she might startle him. She paused. It became long enough for him to notice her there on a sidewalk, that even in winter, the city crews had cleared of snow. He had turned towards her, holding her with blue eyes.

      “My daughter wants to talk to you. I want to know that it will be okay. That you’re not some weirdo.”

      He laughed. “I can be weird but I am harmless. How old is your daughter?”

      “Ten. She watches you each day. It has become like a ritual for her as she gets ready to walk to school. You almost always make her sing.”

      “I know ten. I used to be a teacher. That is a good age. For a teacher, the kids are just learning what a smirk means. They have all of the necessary imagination to make a story come to life. They can still be kidded with but will not become upset or see it as being picked on. They are still kind. My name is Michael. Tell your daughter that I am ‘Mr. Mike.’ If you like, I can write down my address, phone number, and give you the name of my nephew who watches out for me. He is a cop here in Watertown.”

      “No, that won’t be necessary. I have all that I need. Have a nice day now.”

      “What is your daughter’s name?”


      “Get back.”

      “I know, right? She doesn’t get it.”

      “You tell Miss Loretta that I will be here Saturday morning, starting my climb at ten.”

      The sunlight still had a few leaves of fall to peer down through as he climbed. Near the first top, he would sit on the bench, near where the park people had planted new trees, fenced in to keep the deer from eating off the tiny branches. He took a sip, wiped his forehead and watched his breath moving out into the cold. Just a tiny cloud, he thought. But one more breathe. One more was good enough. Before moving on, he put his hoody back on. The wind would be next to greet him. He turned, it was away from the morning sun, towards the next rise. From the west, the wind struck him full into the face but he smiled. He always smiled. He bent into it and walked west across the flats, feeling how it etched his face, how it made his eyes tear up, how it pushed back at him. Where was he today? Mt. Guyot in Maine where the first blizzard found him? Or on Mt. Rogers in southwest Virginia, where he was lost in another for four days? As he walked, he decided which one, living there again.

      He had been younger. Stronger. It seemed like such a simple task. He left in September, moving south from Maine, along the Appalachian Trail, hiking solo. That is where his memories began now. These creep forward in our lives as we live trying to find them. They seem to drift along in places where we found the largest parts of our lives.

      He told his mother that it was just a hike, like others that he had been on, but when it was over and she saw how much weight he had lost, as he hobbled into her house on two broke feet, she cried. “This was not what you told me about.”

      He would put his hoody back on, dig his hands into the pockets, watching sky. He liked how the storms grew out of the horizon, where the great lake lived. He pretended that they were coming for him. He wanted to be ready. So he sat, even if it meant that he shivered. That was where the little girl found him. She sat on her end of the bench.

      “Mr. Mike?”

      If you have ever been a teacher, the sound of a child’s voice sings inside your head forever. It has an innocence to it. Perhaps it is the wonder that is attached to it. There is a promise of hope. As he turned towards her, he was already smiling.

      “Yes Loretta!”

      “How do you know my name?”

      “Your mom told me to expect you. Should you be talking to a stranger?”

      “I know, right? It is one of the rules. I couldn’t go out the door alone until I knew these. Want to hear what they are?”

      “Sure.” That is when she saw it. A smirk. He was holding back.

      “No talking to strangers. Do not take anything from them. Never get in their car. Don’t leave with them. If they smell funny or smoke or grab, leave yelling. Use my whistle. My mother made me repeat these until I could say these on my own. She told me that I couldn’t go off on my own until I could say these out loud.”

      “But don’t you think that I am a stranger?”

      “No. My mom says that there is a difference between being strange and a stranger. We know you. You are Mr. Mike. But why do you come to the park as often as you do?”

      “I am looking for someone. I am looking for what is left of me. I come here to hike up these hills to help me think back on my life, wondering what it has all been about. Wondering if I did the right sorts of things in it.”

      “Well, did you?”

      “No, not always. Do you hear that?”

      “Yes, but I don’t know what it is.”

      “Those are the wolves in the zoo calling out to others of their kind. It is an ancient sound. It is the sound of wilderness. When I hear them and find the wind in my face, it takes me back to my times in other wilderness locations, when I was younger. This is what the old people do. We go back on ourselves to relive who we were, making as good a use of our memories as we can find.”


      “We seem to believe that it is all that we can do. As we get older, we have to give up those things, like climbing mountains, because our bodies can no longer go on. We become tired. Like the wolves, we lose others of our kind and must go on without them. But then, one day, a child comes along and begins speaking to us, like you have. That takes me back also, when I used to be a teacher. Now I’m cold. I have to get moving. How about if I go first down the hill? You can walk a ways behind me to practice being alone. I will wait for you at the bottom to make certain that you cross the street and get back inside your home.”

      “Alright but why do I have to practice being alone?”

      “Because one day, you will be and there will be no other choice left for you.”