I stared down at the small rectangular screen with confusion and mounting frustration. Using the arrow keys, I scrolled to the last number dialed and tried again.
Still nothing. I tried a third time. And a fourth time. But ultimately, each attempt ended with the same result.
“Why isn’t it working?” I asked my mother, my voice undoubtedly pitching with the distinctive whine of a 9-year-old not getting his way.
“I guess there just isn’t a strong enough signal up here,” she replied. Terms like “signal” and “bars,” “sim card” and “ringtone” were still very new to me at that time, as they were to most people in 1997.
“But get a load of that view!” she said, gesturing with a sweeping arm motion to the expansive vista before us, obviously trying to change the subject. “Hey, let’s take a picture.”
But I was unmoved by the panorama of hills and trees, the mighty Arkansas River flowing by. In that moment, I had only one thing on my mind.
“You said we would be able to call Dad from the top,” I protested, still looking down at the little blue Nokia.
We’d talked about it the whole way up the mountain’s West Summit Trail. It was my first time climbing Pinnacle, and I was thrilled by the idea of summiting the peak with the other boys from my Cub Scout pack. I’d never climbed a mountain before, never even considered it as a possibility. Would I even be able to do it? Mountains were craggy, snow-capped things I’d really only experienced through my science textbooks or Encyclopedia Britannica, maybe Sylvester Stallone’s Cliffhanger—and I remembered what happened to Sly’s climber friend in the opening of that movie. My entire relationship with Pinnacle Mountain before that day was limited to seeing it off in the distance from the Interstate-430 bridge whenever my family went into “town” from our home in Maumelle. Honestly, I always thought it might be a volcano, with its profile of perfectly sloping sides and flat peak.
So when my mom suggested we try using her new cellphone to call my dad from the top, my mind started racing. Although we’d had our usual Saturday breakfast of fried eggs, bacon and toast just that morning, I still couldn’t wait to hear Dad’s voice coming to me from the comfort of his blue Sears armchair in the living room of our house. I’d fill him in on all the dramatic details of our ascent as I took in the vista, having conquered the mass of rock beneath my feet. On top of that, I was already rehearsing how I was going to regale my school chums, not only with my chronicle of our adventure, but with my account of the mountaintop phone call as well.
The idea of making a call from anywhere that didn’t require the tether of a phone line was still a very new concept in 1997, and an exciting one. Sure, my family had had a cordless phone for years by that point, but the range on it only went so far, the bottom of the driveway, maybe. And my grandparents had a car phone in a bag in their Toyota minivan, but it was only for emergencies, and I’m not even sure I ever saw it get used.
In fact, my mom’s new cellphone was the first one I had ever seen in real life, the first one I had gotten to use myself. I didn’t even know of anyone else who had one yet. Of course, our family only had the one, and it was used sparingly to conserve our monthly allotted minutes. However, Mom still let my siblings and I each take a turn on it—getting to know the menus, listening to midi versions of the “William Tell Overture” and Mozart’s “Symphony No. 40 in G Minor”—but mostly we just played “Snake.”
But in that particular moment up on the mountain, with nothing but dead air at the end of the line, I experienced my first (but certainly not last) irritation with a piece of cellular technology. I was so annoyed, I wanted to chuck the thing off the top of the mountain, an act that would’ve surely resulted with me being grounded until my 87th birthday. (Though, in retrospect, I feel fairly certain that little blue brick would’ve survived the fall with barely a scratch.)
Unbeknownst to me, as I continued to fiddle with the phone, my mom handed off her camera to another parent. In a simultaneous motion, she pulled the Nokia out of my hands and threw one arm around my shoulders, pulling me in tight.
“Say cheese!” she said with the sugary tone she lovingly used to annoy us kids when we were pouting.
Rebellious and insubordinate, I promptly crossed my arms in front of my navy Cub Scout uniform and put on the most sullen frown I could muster.
Almost 20 years later, I find myself in the same spot—on top of Pinnacle Mountain, posing for a photo with my mom. Honestly, it’s probably a little too hot to be out on the trail today, but luckily, the route is mostly shaded by trees, and the splendor of the near-cloudless, brilliant blue sky almost makes the heat worth it, if you ask me. (Though if you ask my mom, she might not agree.)
We do our best to look presentable for the camera, wiping the sweat from our brows and fixing our hair. Striving for authenticity, I’ve brought along a navy-blue button-up as a stand in for the Cub Scout uniform shirt I wore on the original hike, having grown out of it years ago. In place of the North Little Rock School District T-Shirt she wore that day in ’97—now a relic left over from her 30 years as a teacher—my mom has opted for a University of Central Arkansas T-shirt, a garment-based update representing her current position as director of Tutoring Services.
A lot has certainly changed in the 20 years that have passed. The list is practically endless, but a few highlights for me: I graduated from college, moved to Atlanta and back, moved to Tulsa and back, got married, bought a house, landed a dream job.
However, I lost something over the course of that 20 years as well. In 2012, my father died after a year-long battle with Non-Hodgkins lymphoma. I think about him every day, and I particularly wish he was around to see me now. But I know he’d be proud of the man I’ve become, even in the four short years since his death. I say as much to my mom during one of our rest breaks on the West Summit Trail this second time around, and she wholeheartedly agrees.
I always keep reminders of him with me, though, and I even bring a couple to Pinnacle with us. The Case Stockman pocket knife he always carried in the right-hand pocket of his jeans throughout the 23 years we shared on this Earth rests securely in the same side pocket of my shorts. Even the wedding ring my wife slipped onto my finger this past June originally belonged to my father. Vickie to Wallace is still inscribed inside the band.
Looking off in the distance from the mountaintop, I can see a dozen spires of various heights sprouting up from a hillside, and I assume a good number of those are likely cellphone towers. I would wager quite a bit that every single person on the mountain today owns some sort of cellphone, and most of those people probably brought them along on their trek as well. I watch as several hikers take selfies to capture their accomplishments and presumably upload the photos to social media immediately. I look down at my iPhone 6 to check my reception—four out of five bars.
Unfortunately, despite the advances in cellular technology, I’m not able to call my dad from the mountaintop on this trip, either. But I can still call someone who loves me just as much as he did and whom he cared about very much as well. I take a moment to soak in the view that I was too preoccupied to enjoy that initial go-round—the rocks, the river, the setting sun. The scenery playing out before my eyes combined with the comforting weight of my father’s knife in my pocket almost overwhelms me, to say the least.
When I look back down at the phone in my hand, I find my wife’s name at the top of my favorites list and tap it.