How do you say good-bye to everything that’s been your world? By taking a picture with your heart.
The screen door rattled and pitched open, and a large man burst through the doorway, fumbling with his brown-and-white necktie.
“All you Johnsons who’re going to the bus station had better be ready pronto,” he shouted across the yard while fingering the tie and looking cross-eyed at the knot. “If we don’t get Sam to town on time, he’ll miss his bus, and then he’ll miss the airplane, and then the whole Missionary Training Center will be sore at the Johnson family.”
“I’m ready, Daddy,” said ten-year-old Jenny, who was sitting on the front porch swing.
“Oh, good, then we’ll send you instead,” he said. “Won’t even have to take you to the station. We’ll just put stamps on your head and drop you at the post office.”
“Just think, you’ll be the world’s first mail-order missionary!”
“Daddy, don’t be so silly! I’ll go see if Emily needs some help.”
On the second floor of the rambling, slightly rundown farmhouse, Samuel stood by the window, taking in the whole scene. It was a variation of something that happened every day around the farm—Dad teasing and one of the younger children getting flustered and all the while both of them loving every minute of it. Yet it was a little different this time, at least to Sam. Maybe because it might be the last time, for a while anyway, that he would be witness to such a little game.
He walked over to his bed and the worn, rounded leather suitcase at its edge. He sat down and looked around the room, staring at small things that until the last few days had not seemed at all important. The cracks in the plaster. The faded blue curtains. The lamp that hung from a long cord, stretching from the middle of the ceiling. The dresser, with countless scars, scratches and nicks, each of them a testament that a once-young family was just now starting to grow old, and perhaps, apart.
The words knotted Sam’s stomach yet sparked his imagination. For a week, maybe two now, old almost-lost memories had come back to him as he tried to hold on to his home and family. Maybe he was only trying to store away a few good memories for the coming two years. Sure, he’d always known leaving home was part of going on a mission. It was just one of those things, difficult but unavoidable, like skinning knees or catching the measles during the middle of summer vacation.
But now the farewell talk, the people saying good-byes—leaving home seemed to be coming just a little too soon. Where had the countless hours with his family slipped to? Sunny days in the summer that began with a heavy dew on the ground and ended with sweat on the brow after working a dozen hours in the fields. Stiff new denim jeans on the first day of school. Good harvests and lean harvests. Christmas time, with little bright packages under the tree. Mother’s lovingly made new dresses for the girls and plaid shirts for the boys. Grandma in the kitchen fussing, fixing and baking the best cinnamon rolls. Arriving at church every Sunday morning. Long shadows drawing across the emerald green valley on fresh spring evenings.
Now Dad had some gray in his hair and Grandpa couldn’t work all day anymore. And yes, Sam was 19 and on his way to Provo.
His thoughts were broken by the sound of footsteps tapping on the staircase and the clicking of high-heeled shoes coming down the hallway. His mother, short, slender and smiling, poked her head into the doorway.
“About ready, Sambo?” she asked. “Daddy’s trying to round everybody up.”
“I guess I’m about as ready as I’ll ever be, Mom,” he said softly. He picked up the suitcase and laid it on the bed. “Uumph,” he grunted as he pushed it closed. “Didn’t you say this suitcase was Dad’s?”
She stepped inside the room and smoothed her dress with her hands. “Yes, that was Daddy’s. He bought it with a little money that Grandpa and Grandma Johnson gave him when he graduated from high school.”
Sam hoisted the suitcase off the bed, paused, and looked around the room once more. His mother said nothing. Finally he turned toward the door.
“Guess it’s time,” he said simply. “Hope Steven will enjoy the room. He’ll be the oldest now. At least while I’m gone.”
He walked through the doorway following his mother down the hall and stairway toward the front door. He made the final trip through the house almost casually, trying to pretend that he was going into the mountains for an overnight fishing trip with friends. He would have pulled off his little self-deception without any emotional tugs, except for hearing Grandma tell Grandpa to hurry along or they would miss seeing their grandson off. Sam sighed inwardly and pushed through the front door.
Outside, Dad had the dusty station wagon running and all four doors wide open.
“Last call for the Ash Valley International Bus Depot, such as it may be!” he bellowed, and a surge of brothers, sisters, and grandparents appeared and headed for the car. “Let’s see now, there’s Sam and two other boys, plus two grandparents and one mother. That makes six …”
Jenny and Emily came to the car last of all.
“… and two girls adds up to eight,” Dad counted. “That means we’re missing one, according to my calculating.”
“You didn’t count yourself, Daddy,” Jenny reminded.
“Why I believe you’re right, Jenny,” he said. “All aboard!”
The family scrambled to their places in the car, a ritual perfected by years of all traveling in one vehicle. Jenny and Emily toddled over the back seat onto a mattress that Dad kept in the rear of the station wagon. Grandma and Mother took their places on the back seat on the driver’s side, with Steven and Sam squeezed in on the passenger’s side. Dad slid behind the steering wheel, with Grandpa on his right. Mother held Tommy, the youngest, on her lap.
“Two forty-five,” Dad announced. “Not bad. We ought to get Sam there right on time.”
The car circled around and moved onto the tree-lined dirt road that led to the state highway a half-mile away. The house, the yard, the cottonwood trees and the fields were all clouded and then lost in the long plume of dust sent out as the car bounced down the road. Sam wanted to look back and see all these little pieces of his life one more time, but he knew one more glance wouldn’t help much.
“You’ve got to let go some time,” he reminded himself for the hundredth time that week. “Might just as well be now.”
Dad soon broke onto the dark, oily asphalt of the country road. The kids in the back were playing, while Tommy had already fallen asleep. Mother and Grandma talked quietly about a neighbor’s daughter who would be marrying soon. Steven looked at Sam often, smiled, but said little.
After a few miles, Dad melodramatically cleared his throat and all the others immediately knew what was on hand. A speech. Dad was renowned throughout the stake for his oratorical skills.
“Ladies and gentlemen, and most of all, my esteemed son Samuel,” he began grandly. “To my way of thinking, there are only three occasions that call for a speech. When a person’s born, when they die, and when they leave home.”
Grandpa chuckled. “That’s a couple of times too many, if you ask me.”
Grandma looked at Grandpa, a trifle annoyed.
Dad continued, more seriously now.
“Now Sam, you’ve always been a good son and a good brother. You know your mother and I are proud of you, and that your brothers and sisters look up to you.
“We think it’s a fine thing that you are going to serve a mission. Things will be a lot different in Venezuela, but I know you’ll be able to handle the changes …”
Dad paused, and for a few long seconds only the clicking of the keys hanging from the ignition could be heard. Even the girls in the back of the car were quiet.
“Well shucks, Sam,” Dad started again. “I practiced all morning in my mind what I was going to say to you, but it doesn’t seem to fit now. I guess one talk on the way to a bus station isn’t going to make much difference. Besides, I think you are a fine son, and I really wouldn’t know how to change you even if I could. Take care, son,” Dad said slowly.
Grandpa put his arm on Dad’s shoulder and looked back toward Sam and nodded.
“Just keep us proud, son,” Grandpa said. “Keep us proud.”
Sam shuffled his feet on the floorboard and felt a little too warm.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be just fine,” he said quietly, his eyes fixed downward.
“And thanks. For everything, I mean.”
He lifted his head and scanned the valley, following the lines of the round-shouldered hills and dark blue mountains. His eyes fixed on a peak, noticeably taller than the other peaks, and Sam smiled.
Staley’s Butte—7,921 feet high. He knew its elevation by heart after studying an old road atlas that Grandpa had in the bookcase. And he knew the mountain because he’d climbed it right to the top.
Sam’s mind wandered back to a Friday in the fall four years earlier, just after school had started. The family was around the kitchen table, talking about lots of little things that seem to be best discussed over a warm supper. Along about dessert time, Dad abruptly brought up the subject of climbing Staley’s Butte.
“You got much planned for tomorrow, Sam?” Dad asked between bites of chocolate ice cream.
“Nothing outside of the regular chores,” he answered cautiously, wondering if his answer would lead to additional work.
“What do you think of the two of us packing a lunch and making a climb up Staley’s Butte? I don’t believe you and I have ever climbed it.”
“Sure, Dad!” Sam said. “Really? That’s a pretty hard climb isn’t it?”
“Oh, it’s a test. That’s for sure. But you’ll make it,” Dad encouraged, and then turning to Mother. “Say Ruth, did you hear Vernon Henderson sunk a new well …”
Nothing more was said about the climb, at least until five the next morning when Sam felt someone gently shaking his shoulder.
“You going with me on the hike today, Son?”
Sam was a little startled by having his sleep broken so unexpectedly. “Huh … hike? Oh yeah, Staley’s Butte,” he said groggily. “We’d better fix something to eat for when we get to the top,” he said, proud of what he felt was admirable foresight.
“Already done,” Dad reassured, smiling. “I’ve been up an hour. Breakfast is on the table, and I’ve got a pack full of sandwiches. Are you going up there in your pajamas?”
“Be right with you,” Sam said, swinging out of bed and fumbling around with some clothes.
Thirty minutes later they were turning away from the highway and onto a dirt road that led to the mountain. The morning air was clear, still, and cool. Sam leaned back in the car seat, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. The air smelled mostly like dew and juniper, with the fragrance of sage intermingled. Higher up, where the road started switching back on an upward path, he knew the fresh smell of pine would dominate.
They poked ahead for another ten miles before Dad slowed up and pulled the car over where the road flared just before a wooden bridge crossed a hard-running stream. Light had been making steady gains on the darkness, and now sunshine was reaching the tops of the trees. Sam pulled back on the door handle and jumped out into the nippy, tingling air.
“There’s a trail that runs parallel to the stream. We’ll follow it for a couple of miles,” Dad said matter-of-factly. “There’s a little draw that washes down almost from the top of the mountain. We can follow it up almost to the summit. The last stretch is tough, but I think we can lick it.”
Dad was digging through the back seat for the pack with the food in it. He fished it out and hefted it onto his back, then stopped just short of letting it rest on his shoulders.
“You know, Sam, I think it might be time to let you carry the pack. You’re about as big as I am now.”
They started off on the trail, Dad in the lead, taking long, loping strides. Gradually the trail left the streamside, climbing higher into the thick pine forest. The harsh noise of the rumbling water was slowly replaced by the sounds of the wind stirring through the tree limbs and a host of mountainside birds clucking and calling. Soon the sunshine filtered to the trail and Sam was mildly surprised to find perspiration forming on his forehead. They pushed on for an hour, not saying much, but sharing the communication that seems to come naturally for fathers and sons in the outdoors.
They hiked on for 45 minutes. The pine forests were thinning into small meadows and patches of rock. Sam noticed they were now able to look down on the tops of the lower peaks nearby.
“This is where we leave the trail,” Dad said, stopping for a rest. “The streambed should lead us almost to the top. How about some water?”
Sam took the pack off and passed a plastic jug to his father. Far below, perhaps a half-mile, the stream thrashed and twisted down the canyon. Its gurgling could only be heard during the moments when the wind died down.
Dad handed the water jug back to Sam, who took a couple of long swallows before wiping the top off and placing it back in the pack. He looked at Sam. “How about you taking the lead? I’m getting sort of tired I guess.”
“Okay, Dad, but don’t expect me to slow down on your account,” Sam teased.
“Then let’s go, Mr. Young and Arrogant.”
Sam turned and faced Staley’s Butte. It wouldn’t be an easy climb, this last stretch. The slope was steep and there was plenty of loose rock. And the top of the butte resembled a king’s crown, with tall spires that seemed to dare anyone to climb them.
They made steady progress for the next hour, zigzagging along the rocks. But the small streambed they’d been trying to follow began to narrow and steepen, finally disappearing among the upper reaches of the mountain. It wasn’t long before both father and son were using hands and feet to help them work their way to the top. Sam found himself nearly out of breath as he searched for hand holds and solid footing. Dad was right behind, and Sam could hear him breathing hard. They rose, slowly, arduously, until the terrain flattened into a small mesa two dozen feet wide with a few good-sized stones sprinkled about.
“Ready for a rest?” Sam questioned, hoping that his father would say yes.
“I think so … that was quite a climb … that last little stretch,” his father panted. “There’s some good sittin’ rocks here. Let’s take five.”
Both of them were quiet for a few moments. The water jug was passed around again.
“By the look of things, we’re going to have to grow some wings if we want to make it to the top,” Dad said, studying the steep spires above. “You still game?”
“I think we can do it, Dad,” Sam said slowly. “If we stay to the left there seem to be places between the spires where we can get some good holds.”
“That’s our best bet, no doubt about it,” Dad agreed. “You know, my foot is kind of bothering me. Blisters. Why don’t you start up, and if you make it okay, then I’ll follow you in a few minutes. I think I’d better take care of my foot,” he added with a trace of playfulness in his voice.
Sam took the challenge. “See you at the top,” he said.
The last part of the climb was the most difficult. Sam carefully crept up an opening between two of the spires, ignoring a dozen scrapes and small cuts he received as he pulled himself up. After 20 minutes, he crawled over the last ledge. He stood up and gazed at the panorama around him, then called down to his father to let him know he’d reached the top of Staley’s Butte.
“Entering Ash Valley” the sign said, and Sam’s thoughts were shifted from climbing mountains to catching the bus for Spokane. Dad pulled the car up in front of Strandberg’s Hardware Store, which doubled as the bus station. The car stopped, and the Johnson family piled out.
“Afternoon, Charles, Mrs. Johnson,” greeted Mr. Strandberg. “Today must be the day for Sam.”
“Sure is, Henry. How’s the bus running?”
“Should be right on time—about 15 minutes away,” Mr. Strandberg said.
Sam pulled the luggage from the car and started inside to buy a ticket. Grandpa pulled him aside.
“Want me to tell you a secret? When you get up on the bus, you look down at all of us and close your eyes real slow. Then as soon as your eyes are shut, picture in your mind what you’ve just seen and it will always stay there. Better than a photograph. You can never lose a picture that’s in your mind.”
Grandma was next. She rummaged through her purse until she finally found a five dollar bill.
“Buy yourself something to eat when you get to Spokane,” she instructed. “Buy some stamps and stationery and write us.”
“Oh, Grandma, I don’t need your money,” Sam protested.
“I won’t have it any other way,” Grandma said firmly. “You take it. You’ve got to learn how to receive as well as give.”
“Thanks, Grandma,” Sam said meekly, giving her a hug and kiss. “Take care of Grandpa. And yourself.”
Just then the bus roared around the corner and stopped in the parking lot.
“Early. First time in two months the bus has been early,” Mr. Strandberg said, shaking his head. “Family’s saying their good-byes and wouldn’t you know it, the bus is early.”
The family instinctively circled around Sam, and farewell hugs, kisses, and handshakes came in a blur. At last Sam turned numbly toward the bus. He stopped just before getting on. Jenny and Emily were gathered around Grandma, who was again looking into her purse.
“Six dimes is all I’ve got, but they’re yours to share because I love you,” Grandma told the girls as she handed them the change.
“Look, Sam, we’ve got six dimes from Grandma, and we’ll buy you something and send it to you in the mail!” shouted Emily.
It was then that Sam decided to slowly close his eyes. The two girls were in front, down on the ground, dividing the dimes. Grandpa had his arm around Grandma, who was wiping a handkerchief near her eyes. Steven stood on the far left and was waving good-bye. Mother was on Dad’s right side, with Tommy in her arms, her head tilted down toward her daughters. Dad stood tall, steadily gazing into Sam’s eyes, looking proud and sad and dignified all at the same time. Sam pressed the picture into his mind and discovered what Grandpa meant when he said it was better than a photograph.
Sam took his seat, the door closed, the bus driver revved the engine and pulled back onto the highway. Sam kept his eyes closed most of the way to Spokane.
Three weeks later in his room at the MTC, Sam set down his Spanish books and fumbled for the letter he’d received from Jenny. He tore open the envelope and read:
“How do you like the mission field? I hope you are okay. We are all fine here, but we miss you. After we took you to the bus station, everyone was really quiet on the way home. Daddy and Grandpa went out to the shed and worked there until way after dark. Grandma made some rolls, but we weren’t able to eat them all. She said it was because you were gone.
“Guess what happened last Saturday? Daddy and Steven got up early and climbed all the way to the top of Staley’s Butte. …”
Sam stopped reading and put the letter down. He closed his eyes, and a sweet, wonderful picture of a small knot of people standing on the side of Strandberg’s Hardware Store flashed into his mind.
And he thought about the sons he might someday have, and hoped he would be the kind of father to take them to the tops of mountains.