I leave home today to take another long walk in high places. I’ve been climbing to the tops of things since I was in high school, and now I’m in my sixties. I’ve topped off 45 of our 50 states, but this time I’m headed out to do a long stretch of North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail. The quiet path promises thinner air and clearer thoughts. I’m eager to start.
When I head out on my hikes, I often think of an old Durham High School friend, Scott Wilkinson. Scott was a strange young man, but he wasn’t an outcast. He connected with people around the edges, enjoying company but getting close to no one. Tall and skinny, he dressed in black and carried a satchel filled with ropes, flashlights and tools.
Scott took me climbing into a high place three times, and it was always an adventure. Imagine, if you can, a rope ladder, the dead of night, and a silent climb to the roof and back down through a hatch into Northgate Theater. This was in the ’60s, when Northgate Mall was just a strip of stores that ended in that one screen. I hid behind the curtain in the lobby watching for security patrols while Scott settled a grudge with management through some kind of wizardry on their phone lines. The last time I saw Scott, our climb involved Mount Tamalpais in California in the ’70s, a Model T, a group of strangers, July 4th fireworks, failed brakes, a crash and a long walk home.
But the absolute pinnacle came the night that Scott told me to meet him on the Duke Chapel steps at midnight. I was in my senior year at Durham High. “Bring a flashlight,” he’d said.
Scott’s father was the chaplain at Duke, so this had the potential to be interesting. In true Scott fashion, it was: When he met me on the chapel steps, he held a large picnic basket in one hand, a big ring of keys in the other.
He unlocked a side door, and we slipped into the empty chapel. Quietly, by the guidance of our flashlights, we climbed a very long, tight spiral staircase up to the top of the tower. And not just the bell-tower top, but beyond that: We went through another little door and up a small staircase to the very top of the chapel. With the chapel’s four spires within reach, Scott proceeded to lay out a tablecloth, candlesticks and a gorgeous spread of wine, cheese, French bread and other treats on a small section of flat roof. We spent several hours up there, enjoying the quiet, the stars, the height, the food and wine, friendship and the uniqueness of it all.
Scott died a few years back. I still live in Durham and pass Duke Chapel almost daily, so I hold a unique remembrance of him: one that involves candles and a lovely, covert supper in a very high place.