Hiking Clifty Falls with Cliff

A Fictional Story Drawn from Life by Altimexis

Posted December 11, 2021


The fall leaves crunched under our feet as I hiked the familiar path, my grandson at my side. My late October journey brought back memories of Sunday afternoons spent hiking these very trails with my family, back when I was a kid. My older brother Glen was autistic, and my parents had done what was usual in those days, committing him to a state institution when he was just five years old. The mere thought of it seems so cruel now, particularly with the way my brother blossomed once he was set free.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for a small boy who was upset by loud noises and crowds to be placed in a large building with loud echoes and screaming kids, forced to sleep in a large dormitory with dozens of other boys, and denied the education he clearly was capable of. It must have been horrible.

Then, in the 1970s, the state decided to empty and close its mental hospitals, and for good reason. They truly were snake pits, as they came to be called, not unlike as depicted in the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Ironically, Indiana had been making real progress in building modern, smaller facilities that were better integrated into the surrounding communities, but those were closed too. The outpatient mental health centers that were promised were never built, and many of those with mental disorders ended up on the streets, homeless and untreated.

When it came to those with developmental disabilities, they were placed in nursing homes funded by Medicaid. My mother looked into taking Glen home, but my father had passed away and she worked, and I was in college. She joined with other parents and lobbied the state legislature for zoning laws to allow neighborhood group homes to be built in ordinary neighborhoods, without the need to apply for an exception in every case. It didn’t cost the state anything, but there was a lot of opposition from folks who were fine with group homes as long as they were in someone else’s neighborhood. I was in medical school by the time we succeeded, and my brother was finally discharged to a group home, where he lives to this day.

He was enrolled in a day program with a sheltered workshop, and it turned out he did quite well there. Eventually Glen was offered a job in industry, winding armatures. The work seemed so tedious, but my brother loved it, as it involved the type of repetitive motion people with autism find comforting. He felt he was accomplishing something, and he sure liked having the opportunity to earn money, most of which went to the group home, but some of which he could spend on tangible things such as outings to restaurants and DVDs of his favorite movies.

Glen’s an old man now, and he formally retired some years ago, but I still have fond memories from childhood of our Sunday trips to Southern Indiana to visit him. We drove down from our home in Indianapolis, picked Glen up from the Muscatatuck State Hospital and Training Center, which functioned as neither, and then drove to one of several nearby state parks when the weather was nice.

Our favorite was Clifty Falls, and so we often made the drive to Madison, Indiana, a small, picturesque community right on the Ohio River. My brother really enjoyed hiking the trails in Clifty Falls State Park – the longer the hike, the better – and then we’d eat dinner at the Clifty Falls Inn. Glen would invariably order the fried chicken, and I usually ordered the veal parmigiana with spaghetti. That was long before we realized how unhealthy fried foods were or how unethical it was to eat veal.

Now, I’m here more than a half-century later with my grandson, Cliff, hiking the same trails at my favorite time of year. It’s perhaps a bit past the peak of the fall color, with more than half the leaves already on the ground, but the weather’s perfect – crisp and dry with temperatures in the fifties and sixties. It’s a great opportunity to spend time with my grandson, whom I saw so seldom when he was growing up.

My wife and I met when we were in college, and Valarie stuck with me through medical school, graduate school, residency, and a busy academic career. We raised two beautiful daughters, Melody, who’s now a fashion designer in New York, and Marcy, who followed in her father’s footsteps and is now a practicing pediatrician. While in medical school, she met Jeff, a pharmacology graduate student, and when he was hired by Eli Lily, they settled into my old hometown of Indianapolis, buying a house not far from where I grew up. Along the way, they had a son, Cliff, but with a busy career, I seldom had a chance to see him.

When we retired, Val and I moved out to Grand Junction, Colorado. The last thing we wanted to do was to spend the next thirty years or so sitting out on a beach, playing golf and partaking of early bird specials, so retiring to Florida had never appealed to us. Not only did Grand Junction offer all the amenities for retirees, but it had ready access to some of the most spectacular scenery on earth. I’d always expected Val and I would be hiking Colorado and Utah together, well into our eighties, but then she got cancer, and nothing was the same after that.

Of course, our adult children seemed to have nothing better to do than to worry about their parents, and perhaps rightly so. I’d been so active when Val was alive, and that virtually stopped after she died. Truthfully, except for doing my shopping, I rarely ventured out of the condo, and once I discovered meal kits even that came to an end. Without even thinking about it, I became homebound, and Marcy never missed an opportunity to point that out to me. I’d have probably sunk even further into my shell, but she and Jeff decided to come with Cliff for a visit in June, during their summer vacation.

Cliff was thirteen and was as rambunctious as only a young teen could be. It was great getting up to date with Marcy and Jeff, but the bond that developed between Cliff and me during those three weeks was special. We spent days together, hiking the trails in the Colorado National Monument, Canyonlands, and Arches National Parks, and even the Black Canyons Wilderness Area. Cliff’s parents always seemed to have other things to do, leaving Cliff and me to spend quality time together as I shared with him the wonder of the area’s natural beauty. I suspect that that had been part of Jeff and Marcy’s plan all along.

Hiking with Cliff had made me feel alive for the first time since Val died, but then I was alone again, and I retreated into my shell. During their visit, Marcy and Jeff kept after me to move back to Indiana, insisting that there was nothing for me in Colorado now, and in the end, I decided they were right. It took me a few months to get my affairs in order, but with a hot housing market the condo sold quickly. In the meantime, my daughter and son-in-law found a perfect place for me in an independent living center, just north of Indianapolis.

At first, I argued with myself on the idea of living in a retirement community, but it was by far the best option. Marcy and Jeff had their jobs, and Cliff had school, so what was I going to do with the rest of my time? And why in the world would I want to do my own cooking and eat alone in my apartment when I could have three gourmet meals a day and eat with people who might become my friends? Besides which, the last thing I wanted was to become a burden on my daughter’s family. I’d have my own apartment with a living room, a bedroom, a den, a kitchen, and my own washer and dryer right in the bathroom. That was very important to me, as the last thing I wanted was to spend my time in a public laundry with a bunch of old widows who were intent on finding a new husband. I’d have a large balcony that overlooked a lake, and there were a lot of hiking trails in the woods nearby. The one thing the facility didn’t have was a golf course, thank God. I decided it would be a good place to spend the rest of my life.

So, I saw the moving van off, closed on the sale of the condo, and then spent the next three days driving back to Indianapolis. In no time, my new apartment was set up and everything was unpacked and in its place, just the way I liked it. I was assigned to a table with three women at breakfast and with three different women at dinnertime, and at lunch, I sat at a table with another widower and two women. Although I’d expected to be chased by the women, it didn’t work out that way. I’d filled out a questionnaire on my arrival, and I was seated with people with similar backgrounds and interests to my own. The conversations at mealtime were amazingly lively and fun!

It was great to be able to see Marcy, Jeff, and Cliff more often, and we made it a point to get together on the weekends. However, it didn’t take me long to realize that Cliff had changed. He was now fourteen and in high school, but he was sullen and didn’t seem to be interested in anything anymore. He didn’t belong to any school clubs, of which there were many, and he didn’t play any sports, nor was he involved in drama, music, or theater. In many ways, he reminded me a lot of myself at that age, and the memories were painful. I knew why I was so troubled in my youth, but things were different now.

Marcy commented that he didn’t seem to have any friends and spent most of his time in his room, playing video games alone. It just wasn’t like him. I asked Marcy about drugs, and if she was monitoring his social media, making sure he wasn’t getting high or spending all his time on Facebook and Instagram. She assured me that he avoided parties where there might be any drugs or alcohol, and that he wasn’t at all interested in social media. That, to me, was even more concerning, given the importance of social media in most teens’ lives today.

I made numerous overtures to Cliff to do things together and even suggested going to an Indiana Pacers game, but like me, he had no interest in sports. When he rebuffed my attempts to get him to go to the Halloween dance at school, which I thought was perfect opportunity for him to socialize anonymously in costume, I decided to suggest something else. I sent him an email:

How would you like to go hiking with me this weekend, just the two of us? There’s a state park on the Ohio River where we used to go when I was a kid. There are miles of hiking trails, some of which are rigorous, and the scenery’s beautiful, especially in the fall. It takes about 2½ hours to get there, so we could leave right after school on Friday, when all the other kids are at the dance, spend all day Saturday and much of Sunday hiking, and then return home in time for you to go trick-or-treating Sunday night, if you’d still like to do that. There’s a very nice Inn, so we wouldn’t have to deal with camping, and the food there is great.

It was scarcely a minute later that I got back his reply:

I’d love to, Grandpa. That sounds like fun!

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On Friday afternoon, I stopped by my daughter’s house and picked up the duffel Cliff had packed for our trip, then I headed to his high school and picked him up. Knowing that he’d never survive the trip without food in his stomach, we stopped first at Bugambilias Mexican Cuisine, which was reasonably priced and had some of the best Mexican food in Indy. Compared to Colorado, that wasn’t saying much, but the string of five-star reviews on Yelp spoke for themselves. It was right off the Interstate, in Castleton, which meant we didn’t have to go out of the way. I had the Chicken Pipian Verde, which was a traditional Mexican dish with peppers, peanuts, sesame and pumpkin seeds, and green sauce. Cliff had the Mole Pablano, which was traditional chicken, peppers, and nuts in a chocolate mole sauce, and we shared an order of guacamole with chips. We left the restaurant stuffed – at least I did.

The drive down to Columbus, Indiana, was uneventful, but quiet. I tried to engage Cliff in conversation, but figured he needed more time before opening up to me, so I let him sit in silence. We turned off the interstate when we reached the cutoff around Columbus on U.S. 31, just past Edinburgh, and then turned onto Indiana 7. I asked Cliff if he wanted to listen to music and suggested he pick a radio station, which turned out to be the perfect conversation-starter.

“Grandpa, I wouldn’t even know what the radio stations are around here, let alone pick one. No one listens to radio anymore. We stream our music from Spotify, Apple, or Tidal.”

Chuckling, I replied, “I should’ve realized that. I have a subscription to Qobuz myself but haven’t made use of it since Grandma died. She liked to listen to chamber music, which I barely tolerated. I always liked jazz, which wasn’t her favorite, so we compromised. We listened to chamber music.”

Cliff laughed wholeheartedly at that. I continued, “Cliff, when it comes to women, it’s always good to keep in mind who’s in charge. They are. They only let us think we’re the boss.” Again, Cliff laughed, and I nearly said something about how it must be different with gay couples, but then thought better of it. He’d probably pick up on it and if he was gay, would likely clam up and shut down. I needed to ease into the topic, and we had a couple of days to do so.

“I know I could probably download music to my phone,” I continued, “but it’s so much easier to listen to my favorite satellite radio stations while driving. Cellular reception in western Colorado is spotty at best, and conventional radio reception is even worse, but satellite reception is always crystal clear. There are so many stations though, so it helps to know what you’re looking for. I have my radio programmed for mostly jazz and classical stations, but you can probably look up something you’d rather listen to on your phone, be it rap, hip-hop, pop, or even country, although I might have to use earplugs if you listen to hip-hop or country.”

Laughing, Cliff said, “I’m with you there, Grandpa. I can’t stand rap or hip-hop, nor most country, although there are some exceptions, like Willie Nelson’s Stardust, but then that’s not really country.”

I raised my eyebrows at that, as a serious interest in music wasn’t something I’d expected, and perhaps it was something I could use as a gateway to getting him to open up. I asked, “What kind of music do you like?”

“I love classical music, particularly Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler. I like classical jazz and listen to it a lot when I’m studying. Some classic rock is great too, like Steely Dan, but then Donald Fagen was a real outlier.”

“Steely Dan,” I replied. “Now you’re going back to my youth. I think I wore the grooves out in those records.”

“Do you still have them?” Cliff asked with excitement. “In the original vinyl?”

“Sorry, but like most people, I was so enthralled with the CD when it came out that I got rid of all my vinyl records. The biggest problem with vinyl is still the same – it wears out, and of course, it’s not really portable. When the iPod came out, it changed everything, but the mp3 format sounded like crap. Now, with a high-res streaming service like Qobuz and a smartphone, you can take your entire music collection with you, wherever you go… except maybe in western Colorado, where cellular reception’s worth shit.” The surprise in Cliff’s eyes at my having used a swear word with him was evident, and then he laughed wholeheartedly.

“What streaming service do you have?” I asked Cliff.

“I have a student account with Spotify. It’s what I can afford in a premium service. I’d rather have Tidal, and Qobuz is just too expensive.”

Laughing, I replied, “I used to buy a record a month when I was a teen. They cost $4.99 then, which was my weekly allowance. That’s nearly $40 in today’s dollars. Kids today gripe about spending $5 a month on a music streaming service, thinking it should all be free.

“You know, Grandma and I shared a Qobuz account, and I never got around to dropping it after she died. Why don’t I give you the password, and then you can listen for free.”

“Thanks, Grandpa. That would be fantastic!”

As we drove southward, we talked about Cliff’s interest in music, and it quickly became apparent that music was his passion. I asked him if perhaps he was interested in a career in music, but he was adamant that he wasn’t coordinated enough to play a musical instrument and could never perform in front of an audience.

I pointed out, “But you play video games, and they require incredible coordination.”

“That’s different.”

Sure it is,” I countered. “There are other roles for professionals in the field of music besides performing, such as composing, arranging, mixing, and editing. You could even be a music critic.” That thought really seemed to get his interest, as he’d never even considered those aspects of the music industry, nor considered them as career possibilities.

When we passed through North Vernon, I had Cliff look up pizza places in Madison on his phone and had him place an order for a large pizza to share when we got there. I was still full from eating at the Mexican restaurant, but figured he was already starved by then. Highway 7 ended in Madison, just a few blocks from the Ohio River. We stopped at The Red Pepperoni to pick up our pizza, along with an order of breadsticks, spinach artichoke dip, a couple bottles of root beer, and paper plates and napkins. The food smelled heavenly, even though I wasn’t hungry in the least.

We drove west on Indiana 56, but the moment it came into view, I realized that time had made me forget one little detail about the park that was hard to ignore. Not more than a hundred feet from the park entrance was an enormous coal-fired power plant with three smokestacks, the largest of which was spewing thick, white smoke. It was built right on top of Clifty creek, which was what had carved the deep gorges and cliffs that defined the park. “I’m sorry, Cliff. I have such pleasant memories of hiking here that I forgot about the Clifty Creek coal-fired power plant. At least it’s not visible from the trails.”

Nodding his head, Cliff responded, “It’s a shame it’s here. I guess it’s Indiana’s contribution to global warming. They should tear it down and build a wind farm instead.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” I replied. “Only in Indiana would one of its prime scenic wonders be marred by such a monstrosity.” But then I remembered the fight that had taken place in Utah, when an energy consortium had tried to build a mammoth coal-fired plant. “Southern Utah and northern Arizona are rich in low-sulfur coal, and there was a big push some years back to strip mine the coal and to burn it in place, rather than shipping it to California and Arizona and burning it there. The mines and the power plant would have wrecked the spectacular views from Bryce Canyon National Park and marred the wilderness landscape of what is now the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. They would have turned pristine blue skies to gray.”

“What happened, Grandpa?”

“Fortunately, the environmental movement and the native tribes were much better organized than they were a few decades earlier, when they lost the battle to save Glen Canyon from flooding by the Glen Canyon Dam. Ironically, severe drought is now draining Lake Powell and the wonders of Glen Canyon are reemerging from the mud. The coal-fired plant was never built, and the extent of the strip-mining was limited to less sensitive areas.”

When we reached the entrance station for Clifty Falls State Park, I purchased a Golden Hoosier annual pass, as I was certain we’d use it again and again, and then I drove the short distance to the inn parking lot. As Cliff and I walked to the entrance, I took a moment to surreptitiously look at him, hanging back just a bit so I could get a better look at my grandson. He was taller than I was – perhaps about six feet, with surprisingly muscular arms and hands. He was dressed from school in a plain t-shirt, cargo shorts, and sandals. I certainly hoped he’d packed hiking boots as I’d suggested, or at least sneakers. Whereas his arms were well-developed, his legs were skinny toothpicks. He had an unruly mop of dirty blond hair on his head, and I could see the barest hint of peach fuzz on his upper lip, but as light as it appeared, it would probably be at least a few more years before he needed to shave.

Entering the lodge, I guided us up to the front desk, when Cliff noticed the large black-and-white photos behind the desk. “Woah, what happened there?” he asked.

“A tornado happened,” the boy at the desk replied. “The original lodge from the 1920s was torn down and replaced with a modern one in 1964. Then in 1974, a series of tornadoes ripped through southern Indiana and northern Kentucky, and one of them leveled the lodge, so they rebuilt it as it is now.” I’d reserved a standard room with a river view and a balcony, and I asked if we could have one that didn’t overlook the smokestacks. The boy at the desk replied that we wouldn’t be able to see them unless we leaned over the balcony rail.

“A lot of people are shocked when they see the power plant,” the boy continued, “but we hafta get our electricity from somewhere, particularly since they cancelled Marble Hill.”

“I can assure you that the power plant was here long before construction began on Marble Hill, but it may have been smaller then.” Turning to Cliff, I explained. “Marble Hill was a nuclear power plant that was well underway when numerous irregularities were discovered, the most serious being cracks in the concrete, absent from the inspection reports. Obviously, payoffs were involved, but it was the customers who paid the price for building a nuclear plant that was never completed. Of course, there’d have been an even bigger price paid, had there been a reactor breach from one of those cracks.”

As we turned away from the desk, I couldn’t help but notice that Cliff’s eyes lingered on the boy behind the desk, making me certain I’d found what was troubling him, but I would need to approach the subject of his sexuality with care. He looked around at the comfortable furnishings of the lobby and the entrance to the restaurant, and then he suddenly exclaimed, “Wow! There’s a pool! Shit, I wish I’d packed my swim trunks.”

Smiling, I replied, “I had your mom throw in a pair when I thought of it on the way to picking you up.”


We headed back out to the car and grabbed our luggage, backpacks, and the pizza and headed inside, taking the elevator to the third floor, which was the top floor. Our room was at the end of the hall, and it was attractively furnished, with two queen-sized beds, a small refrigerator, a microwave, a desk, and a dresser with a TV. Sliding glass doors took up the entire end of the room, leading out to a decent balcony that overlooked the Ohio River. Indeed, the power plant wasn’t visible from inside the room and could barely be seen from the balcony by craning one’s neck over the railing. “Would you like to eat the pizza out on the balcony?” I asked.

“That would be perfect,” Cliff replied, and so I grabbed the pizza. In the meantime, Cliff kicked off his sandals, pulled off his shirt, grabbed the rest of the food, and headed out onto the balcony. I wondered if it might not be too cold to sit out on the balcony without a shirt at dusk, particularly since the sun had set nearly an hour ago, but I knew it would be utterly useless to say anything to a teenager. If Cliff decided it was too cold, he’d be free to go back inside and grab his shirt.

There were a couple of loungers on either side of a small table, so I placed the pizza box on the table, and Cliff opened the pizza box and used the lid to set out the breadsticks and dip. He handed me a plate, half the napkins, and one of the bottles of root beer, and we both sat down. I hadn’t asked Cliff what kind of pizza he’d ordered, but whatever it was, it smelled heavenly. We each took a slice onto our plates, as well as a breadstick, and we dug in.

The pizza was unlike anything I’d ever had, with chicken and a creamy white sauce. It was delicious, but I still wasn’t sure what it was, so I asked Cliff, who told me that it was obviously chicken alfredo. Of course!

I’d hoped we’d have some of the pizza left over for the morning, particularly since we’d eaten such a heavy meal before leaving Indy, but I should’ve known better. We managed to finish the pizza, with Cliff eating the lion’s share of the breadsticks. Cliff seemed to inhale his food, so little was said as we ate. After polishing off the meal, Cliff asked, “Could we go swimming?”

“Well, we just ate,” I replied, “so we should probably wait an hour first.”

Shaking his head, Cliff responded, “According to Mom, that’s an old wives’ tale, and there’s no reason to wait to swim after eating.”

“Well, she should know. Let’s put on our swimwear and head to the pool.”

After cleaning up from dinner, we opened the luggage and each got out our swimsuits. “Fuck, Mom packed speedos!” Cliff suddenly exclaimed, but then added, “Oops, sorry, I didn’t mean to use the ‘F’ word.”

Turning to look at Cliff, he was already naked and holding a pair of red speedos in his hand. From what I could tell, he was well into puberty, with an appropriate level of development for his age. “Yeah, you did  – just not with me,” I replied. “I’d like to think it means you’re comfortable around me, but it’s probably not a good idea for you to use that kind of language around other people. When it’s just you and me, you should use whatever feels comfortable to you. And as far as the speedos are concerned, I’ll be wearing them too.”

“You will? At your age?”

“I’m not that old, and I like wearing speedos,” I replied.

We both put on our speedos – mine were deep blue – and donned flip-flops and t-shirts to walk to the pool. I assumed there’d be towels in the pool area, and there were. There were a handful of people in and around the pool, including a family with small kids, and a teenage boy and girl. The girl was beautiful, with flowing ebony hair, flawless skin, and a slim body that was the essence of youth. The boy, perhaps her brother, appeared to be around Cliff’s age. He had shorter black hair, broad shoulders, and a true swimmer’s build.

Both teens were very attractive, yet I couldn’t help but notice that Cliff was staring at the boy and hardly paying any attention to the girl. He was practically drooling. Finally noticing that I was staring at him, Cliff turned toward me and blushed deeply, all over.

Hoping to diffuse the situation and maybe take advantage of it to broach the subject of his sexuality, I whispered, “He’s cute.”

Smiling weakly, Cliff responded, “Well, that wasn’t exactly the way I meant to come out to you.”

“Your parents and I have been worried about the way you seem to have retreated from life since starting high school,” I began. “In a way, it reminds me of how I felt as a teenager —”

“Not, here,” Cliff interrupted. “Not now. Maybe when we’re hiking tomorrow.”

“I’m going to hold you to that,” I replied. “By the way, the pool’s only open another twenty minutes, so if you want to go for a swim, you might want to do it now.”

“Twenty minutes?” he asked. “That applies to you too. Come on, Grandpa. Let’s go swim.” I hadn’t planned on swimming, intending to watch my grandson from the side, but with the smile on his face and the sincerity in his voice, how could I refuse? And so we swam until the lights dimmed at 10:00 PM, and then we dried ourselves, donned our shirts, and headed back up to the room.

At my suggestion, we both took quick showers to rinse off the chlorine, washed out our bathing suits, and hung them up to dry. It had been so long since I wore anything to bed that I didn’t even think of it when I brushed my teeth in the nude, but then I noticed that Cliff was doing the same. Because I had medications I needed to take, Cliff was the first in bed, and he didn’t hesitate to get under the covers to sleep in the nude. I was about to ask him if he usually slept that way but thought better of it. Instead, I marveled to myself that he felt comfortable enough that he didn’t seem at all self-conscious about being nude around me.

Before going to bed, I called the front desk and placed an order for box lunches to take with us on our hike tomorrow, plugged in my phone to charge, and set the alarm to wake us in the morning.

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The fall leaves crunched under our feet as we hiked the familiar path together. It was a nippy fall day of perhaps about fifty degrees, so I was dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt over a t-shirt, and I was wearing a light jacket. Cliff was dressed in his cargo shorts and a sweatshirt, without a jacket at all. When I saw him preparing to hike in that and sneakers, without even a windbreaker in case it rained, I asked him if he’d like to borrow something of mine. He made it quite clear that he rarely wore more than a light jacket, even in the dead of winter. Teenage boys!

We started the morning taking Trail 1 from the inn to an observation tower that was open to the public. Cliff, I think, was both surprised and impressed that I climbed several flights of stairs to the top without getting winded, when he was nearly gasping for breath. The view was well worth it, though… except for the excellent view we had of the power plant. We could see for miles along the Ohio River in both directions, and well into Kentucky. We climbed back down the tower and continued on Trail 1 until we reached the junction with Trail 2, which we took down into the canyon and crossed Clifty Creek by walking through the water. I was wearing hiking boots and, with my jeans rolled up, I didn’t get wet. I’d warned him in advance that hiking boots would be better than sneakers, as we’d be walking through icy water, but Cliff was a teenager, and he chose to bring only sneakers.

“Damn, the water’s cold,” he exclaimed as the creek water quickly seeped into his canvas uppers. Wisely, I think, I didn’t say anything in response, but I’d need to be sure he set out his sneakers to dry overnight. We climbed back up the steep embankment on the other side of the canyon via Trail 8, and then continued northward on Trail 8, along the western canyon rim. Trail 8 was the longest trail in the park, but it was isolated, being never further than a few hundred feet from the park’s western boundary and separated from the other trails by the Clifty Creek gorge.

Even though it was only in the sixties by the time we reached the top of the western rim, Cliff was sweating, and so he removed his sweatshirt and stowed it in his backpack. I removed my jacket and did the same but chose to leave my t-shirt and flannel shirt in place. For me, it was way too cold to go shirtless.

As we had the trail to ourselves, I asked Cliff, “Are you ready to talk?”

Shrugging his shoulders, he answered, “It’s as good a time as any. The shit’s gonna hit the fan soon anyway.”

“What do you mean?”

“When my parents see my report card, the gig will be up.”

“Are you having trouble with your classes at school?” I asked.

“Only with geometry,” he answered. “I’ve always been a straight-A student and in the gifted and talented program. I’m in accelerated math and had algebra last year, in eighth grade, and I’ll have pre-calculus, which combines advanced algebra and trigonometry, next year, followed by two years of AP calculus. But geometry’s turnin’ out to be nightmare. It doesn’t help that the teacher’s a fuckin’ bitch from hell. Geometry is so different from every other kinda math, and all that theorem-proof shit’s driving me insane. I’m gonna flunk out, and then what?”

“Are the other kids having trouble in the class?” I asked.

“I think a lot of them are, but the teacher’s been there forever. She looks even older than you, and she teaches like they did fifty years ago, back in the dark days before computers. She doesn’t grade on a curve either – she’d flunk us all out if she didn’t like how we did on a test. No one likes her.”

“The dark days, huh,” I said, and we both laughed.

“Undoubtedly, she has tenure, and they can’t fire her. I had a couple of teachers like that in junior high and high school. I think the schools typically assign them to teach the most advanced classes because they figure the kids in those classes are bright enough to teach themselves. At least in my day, they had mandatory retirement at sixty-five, but now that’s considered age discrimination. It’s really unfair to the students.

“I know geometry can be intimidating, but a lot of the principles of trig and calculus are related to it, and you’ll see it again and again. Besides which, learning how to prove a theorem is a skill you’ll need to use in virtually any field of math or science, so there’s no way around it. These are skills you need. Geometry can be tedious, or it can be fun. Obviously, your teacher doesn’t know how to make it fun.”

“So, what am I supposed to do, Grandpa?”

“Did you bring your homework with you?” I asked.

“You picked me up at school, so of course I have my homework with me, including my geometry homework.”

“Why don’t we do this,” I suggested. “We’ll plan to return to the room in the afternoon, and we’ll tackle the homework together. Depending on how far we get with that, we’ll spend more time on it in the morning, before we check out. Then we’ll take a final hike and head home. Maybe I can get a feel for what’s giving you trouble, and we can either arrange for tutoring at school —”

“NO! Absolutely not.”

“Or perhaps I can tutor you two or three times a week, at least until you get the hang of it.”

“You’d do that for me?” Cliff asked.

“Hey, it’d give me more time to spend with my favorite grandson.”

“I’m your only grandson, Grandpa.”

“And you’re my favorite!” Cliff rolled his eyes at that.

“High school math’s a lot better now than it used to be, but they still use a very traditional approach to teaching it. Calculus is a simple extension of algebra, and trig is nothing more than the subset of math that deals with periodic functions, but they don’t teach it that way. They teach it as if you’re all going to become architects or civil engineers. High school trig’s all about triangles, when in most fields of science, it’s about waves. Algebra, trig and calculus should all be taught together. They’re integral to each other, no pun intended.”

Shaking his head, Cliff asked, “Integral? I don’t get it.”

“There are two types of calculus, differential and integral,” I explained. “Mathematically, they’re opposites, but they’re applied to solve completely different types of problems. The relationship between the two is called the fundamental theorem of calculus and on the surface, it seems very simple. It’s treated as a given in most math courses, but the proof is one of the most difficult in mathematics, and it requires knowledge and skills not usually acquired before the Ph.D. level.”

We walked together along the winding path in silence for a while, the leaves continuing to crunch under our feet. Finally, I asked, “You mentioned that you’re gay. Initially, I thought that might have been the reason for your moodiness and isolation….”

“Not at all, Grandpa,” Cliff replied. “I realized I was gay back in the fifth grade, when I was ten, but it was no big deal. I told my best friend, and soon it was all over the school, so I’ve been out since then.”

“Does anyone give you a hard time?” I asked.

“No,” Cliff replied. “I get teased a lot, but no more than the straight kids get teased when it comes to sex. It’s totally not a big deal.”

“Do your parents know?” I asked.

“I told them as soon as I figured it out. They’ve been fine with it from the very beginning.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.

“Mom and Dad thought you might not take it so well. They said you’re old fashioned and wouldn’t understand things like that.”

“Good God, I’m going to have to have a talk with my daughter,” I responded. “I may be past retirement, but sixty-nine is not that old anymore. We may not have understood it as well when I was your age, but that was a long time ago.

“So, do you have a boyfriend or someone you like?”

Blushing furiously, Cliff replied, “I’m too chicken to go on dates, let alone have a boyfriend.”

“But there’s someone you like.”

“No comment.”

“So, we just have to figure out a way to let him know you like him.”

“No way, Grandpa. No way! End of story. Case closed.”

“But you’ll never get to know him if you don’t get to know him. That didn’t come out right, but I think you know what I mean.”

“Grandpa, this is too embarrassing. I don’t wanna talk about it anymore.”

“Oh well, there’s always tomorrow….” Rather than say anything in response, Cliff shocked me by giving me the finger. I actually liked that, as it meant once again that he saw me as much as a friend as his grandfather.

Although the trail was billed as rugged, a better term would’ve been unmaintained, frankly, as there were lots of places where erosion had washed much of the original trail bed away, leaving exposed tree roots and boulders and the like. In spite of that, we were making excellent time. We soon came to the Trail 8 spur, which led down to Clifty Creek. My original plan had been to hike the entire length of Trail 8, all the way to the north park entrance, and then take Trail 7 to see big and little Clifty falls, Trail 6 to Tunnel Falls, and then Trail 5 down to the creek bed, walking all the way back to the inn using Trail 2.

Now that we needed to save some time to hit the books, I decided we’d take the Trail 8 spur down to the creek bed instead and leave Trail 7 for tomorrow. Besides which, judging from how Cliff reacted to crossing Clifty Creek, walking the entire four-mile length of Trail 2, in the creek bed, wouldn’t be the best move, and so I nudged Cliff onto the spur and we headed down into the gorge, using a series of switchbacks. Once we reached the bottom, it was a lot cooler and shadier than it had been on the rim, and so I removed my backpack and donned my jacket.

When Cliff just waited patiently for me, I asked, “Aren’t you cold?”

What a silly question – of course he was cold, but as a teenage boy, he wasn’t about to admit it, and so he replied, “No, I’m fine, Grandpa.”

“Are you up to hiking to the bottom of Clifty Falls?” I asked. “It’s about two miles up and back, part of it hiking through the creek, but the view’s one of the nicest in the park.”

“Then let’s do it! I don’t mind getting a little wet!”

Hiking along the creek bed was slow-going, and although most of it was on dry land, there were spots where the only way through was a choice between slogging through mud and wading in the icy waters of the creek, so of course I did the latter. Cliff surprised me a bit by taking off his sneakers in those spots and walking barefoot through the mud, washing the mud off in the creek, and putting his shoes back on only when the trail became dry and rocky again. As if reading my mind, he explained, “I like the feel of the mud squishing between my toes. It feels cool.” I understood exactly what he meant, as I’d liked to do the same thing when I was a boy.

Finally, we came to the end of the trail, which was clearly marked with a wooden observation platform and a railing. Cliff and I leaned up against the railing with arms folded, enjoying the pleasant view of the water trickling over the edge of a limestone cascade before plunging sixty feet into a rocky punchbowl.

“When I was a boy, this platform wasn’t here, and people would walk right up to the falls and even walk behind the falls. We’d sit on those rocks and some people would even go swimming in the punchbowl in warmer weather, even with all the signs saying swimming was prohibited. Of course, the water was still icy – way too cold to swim in it for long, but it was refreshing on a hot day. It’s too bad we can’t still sit on those boulders. It’d be a great place to eat our lunch.”

Suddenly, Cliff dropped down and slid under the railing, jumping down to the creek bed below. “Come on, who the fuck’s gonna stop us?” he said as he extended his hand to me, intent on helping me down.

Sitting down on the platform and grabbing his hand to slide down, I said, “Why the fuck not?” and then we both laughed.

We made our way around the punchbowl and found a large flat bolder to climb up and sit on, with our legs dangling over the edge. I had fond memories of sitting in this very spot when I was a teenager. The sun was shining brightly right on us, and so I took off my backpack and then unbuttoned and took off my flannel shirt. Still warm, I did something I hadn’t done since Valarie was alive – I pulled off my t-shirt as well and enjoyed the feeling of the sun and the cool air on my skin. I didn’t look as good as I did when I was Cliff’s age, but unlike a lot of guys my age, I didn’t have a paunch. My skin belied my age, however, as there was no mistaking it for the skin of my youth.

At my suggestion, Cliff pulled off his shoes and set them out in the sun to dry. Opening my backpack, I took out the two box lunches I’d picked up at the inn that morning. It was barely 11:00 and a bit early for lunch, but I didn’t even bother asking Cliff if he was hungry. He was a teenager. He was starved. I handed him one of the boxes and then opened mine to find an apple, a pickle, a slice of Swiss cheese, a slice of what appeared to be turkey breast, two slices of whole wheat bread, some lettuce, and a carrot stick, all individually wrapped in plastic to keep them fresh. There was also a bottle of water that was still ice-cold, although Cliff and I also had our own canteens.

Unwrapping everything and taking care not to let the breeze carry away any of the plastic, I placed the lettuce, Swiss cheese, and turkey slice on one of the slices of bread, then added some mayo and some spicy brown mustard, before adding the second slice of bread. The sandwich was surprisingly good for a boxed lunch, and I enjoyed it with the pickle and carrot, and then ate the apple for dessert. Cliff, for his part, inhaled his lunch, finishing it before I’d finished unwrapping mine.

“Grandpa, when you asked if maybe my being gay was why I was acting the way I was, you said something about remembering how you felt when you were a kid. Does that mean you’re gay?”

Oops, I realized I’d slipped up, and there was no way I was going to lie. Until now, the only one who knew was Val, but now I was about to come out to my grandson. “There are a lot of excuses I could make,” I began, “but you’re smart enough to see through any of them. Besides, I’d never lie to you, Cliff.

“You have to understand that things were different then. I was a freshman at Butler when Stonewall happened, but that was in New York and I was in Indiana, and it took years for Stonewall to change attitudes. Even then, it wasn’t until friends and family members started dying of AIDS that people realized just how many of us there were, and only then did opinions start to change.”

Then looking him right in the eyes, I continued. “When I was your age, homosexuality was thought to be a mental illness, even by professionals, and homosexual acts were strictly illegal in all fifty states. There was no way a young teenage boy would dare admit to being gay, not even to themselves. When I had those feelings, I did everything I could to tamp them down and was bound and determined to be ‘normal’,” I said, making quote marks in the air with my fingers.

“So, in answer to your question, yes, I’m gay, but I did what most gay kids did back in the sixties, suppressing my natural feelings and eventually dating women. I really did love your grandma and ultimately, I did come out to her. She told me she’d known all along.”

Cliff didn’t seem to be fazed by my revelation at all and asked, “So what are you gonna do about it?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like you said, Grandpa, sixty-nine isn’t that old anymore, and you probably have another twenty years left. Maybe more. That’s a whole ’nother generation ahead of you, so what are you gonna do about finding a boyfriend?”

Scoffing, I replied, “Do you have any idea how many widows there are compared to widowers? It’s something like ten to one! With ten women chasing every man, and only five or ten percent of the men being gay, what chance do I have of finding the few gay men out there?”

“But there must be some, and it should be pretty obvious that some of the guys aren’t even trying to flirt with the women, if you pay attention.” Come to think of it, I never saw Charlie flirting with the women, which made me wonder about him. Charlie was the other guy at my lunch table. I hadn’t thought of it before, but the women tended to fawn all over the few single men among us, and most of the men ate it up and shamelessly flirted right back. Neither Charlie nor I did that, and we weren’t the only ones either. Charlie and I already shared many interests, which was why we’d been paired-up at lunch. I’d just assumed that some of us weren’t interested in playing the game, but then again….

“Of course, you could always just ask one of them if they’re gay,” Cliff continued.

“Are you out of your mind? That’s a good way to get your face bashed in!”

“I doubt that anyone packs that hard a punch at your age, Grandpa, but it’s hard to believe anyone would do that.”

“Would you just go up to a boy and ask him if he was gay?” I asked incredulously.

“Of course, I would. Why wouldn’t I? A lot of us are out these days, and no one would think anything of it.”

“Even just a few years ago, asking a straight boy if they were gay would have been taken as an insult, and even asking it was to risk serious bodily injury. A lot of men in my generation still have that kind of attitude. Even at your age, it wouldn’t be wise to ask that in certain parts of the country. Hell, it wouldn’t be wise to ask a boy here in Madison. Rural Indiana is still homophobic as far as I know.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that, Grandpa. I’m sure their parents are, but my entire generation has grown up with legalized gay marriage and these days, it’s transgender issues and critical race theory that are getting all the attention. Even then, I think it’s more the parents that object to it. There are a few transgender girls and one transgender guy at my high school, that I know of, and no one treats them any different than anyone else.”

“Differently,” I corrected him.

“That’s what I said. Different.” Then we both laughed.

Boxing up the remains of our lunch, I stowed the boxes back in my backpack, I donned my t-shirt and my flannel shirt over it, but left it unbuttoned. I stowed my jacket away in the backpack and slung it over my shoulders. Cliff and I both slid down off the rock and hiked back to the viewing platform, which Cliff climbed back onto with ease. He then extended his hand and helped me to climb up as well, and we hiked back down Trail 2, to where it came to a side canyon and the Trail 5 spur. Taking the spur, we climbed up a series of switchbacks to Trail 5, which hugged the side of the east rim.

“Woah, check this out!” Cliff exclaimed when he spotted the large hole in the wall of the gorge. “It’s a cave!”

“Actually, it’s an old railroad tunnel. Why anyone would have tried to put a rail line in a pristine canyon like this is a mystery to me, but at least it was never completed, and the only remnant is this old tunnel.”

“Can we go inside?” Cliff asked.

“We can, and in fact, it’s the best way to see Tunnel Falls. Come Monday, it’ll be closed for the rest of the season and won’t open back up until May.”

“Why do they do that, Grandpa?” Cliff asked. “Is it dangerous or something?”

“Nah, the park service just doesn’t want to be responsible for anyone being eaten by the bears that hibernate in here during the winter,” I said, doing my best to maintain a straight face. “It gets to be expensive after a while, settling all those lawsuits, you know.”

Looking at me askance, he responded, “There aren’t any bears in here. You’re pullin’ my leg.”

“Actually, it’s so the visitors won’t disturb the hibernating bats and, trust me, there are bats in there. They sleep during the day and go out to forage for humans at night.”

“Grandpa! Vampires aren’t real. Bats eat only insects and small rodents. They don’t suck blood!”

“You don’t believe in Dracula. He lives right here in this cave and comes out the weekend of Halloween, looking for a teenage boy to turn into a vampire.”

“That’s bullshit. Fuckin’ bullshit.”

“Okay, well there really is such a thing as a vampire bat, but they’re native to South and Central America. They really do suck blood and eat only blood, mostly from mammals. They can and will bite humans and can transmit rabies. They don’t turn people into vampires, however, and they definitely don’t live forever, but they can live more than twenty years. There are no vampire bats in Indiana, but fruit bats are so common here that most Hoosiers contract histoplasmosis in early childhood. It’s a fungal infection that’s endemic in the Ohio Valley and carried by bats. The symptoms are similar to those of a severe cold, but it leaves permanent scars in the lung that may be mistaken for tuberculosis in parts of the country where bats aren’t as common. You probably had it as a toddler and didn’t even know it.”

“Do we have to go in there?” Cliff asked.

“I thought you wanted to.”

“I do… It’s just that the thought of bats kinda weirds me out.”

“Don’t worry, Cliff, they’re absolutely harmless. Besides, bats are fascinating in a way. They’re virtually blind – blind as a bat – yet they can snatch insects right out of the air in the blackness of night. They navigate entirely by sound using a sophisticated sonar system. They’re asleep, though, and won’t wake up until dusk.”

“Okay, if you say so, Grandpa,” Cliff said as he headed into the blackness. The light at the other end of the tunnel was clearly visible, but inside the tunnel it was so dark that we couldn’t have seen the bats if we tried without resorting to using a flashlight. The air was dank, and it was noticeably cooler, with a constant dripping of icy water from the ceiling that landed on my head and body every few seconds. Wishing I’d taken the time to put on my jacket, I quickly buttoned up my flannel shirt.

Noticing that Cliff had wrapped his arms tightly around his torso and was shivering, I asked, “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather put your sweatshirt on?”

“Nah, it’d only get wet, and then I’d have a damp sweatshirt to deal with.”

“Would you like my jacket?”

“Nah. Besides, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.” However, the tunnel was at least a quarter-mile long and in the darkness with the wet footing, we had to take our time. Cliff literally gasped when he saw the view of the falls ahead of us, framed by the tunnel entrance.

Exiting the tunnel, we continued up Trail 5 to Tunnel Falls, which is actually the tallest waterfall in the park, falling eighty-three feet from its rocky rim.

“Woah, that’s beautiful,” Cliff exclaimed.

“You should see it in the spring, when it’s full from the melting snow. This is a mere trickle compared to the way it is then.”

“Can we come to see Clifty Falls next spring, Grandpa?”

“Of course we can, and we will,” I responded. “I love hiking with you. Perhaps you’ll have a boyfriend to bring with you the next time.”

“Grandpa!” Cliff practically shouted, but then he got a devilish look on his face and added, “Perhaps you’ll have a boyfriend to bring with us next time. I’ll make a deal with you – I’ll bring my boyfriend if you bring yours.”

“That’s a pretty hard promise to make,” I replied, “but I’m willing to try to get a boyfriend if you’ll do the same.” What the hell had I just gotten myself into?

“You’ve got a deal, Grandpa. Now there’s no excuse. We both promised to try, and I’m gonna hold you to it.” I could hardly argue with my grandson about that.

Rather than continuing up Trail 5 to the trailhead parking lot, we doubled back, bypassing the tunnel this time. We hiked along the rim until we reached Trail 4, which we took along the Hoffman Branch to Hoffman Falls, which were also quite beautiful. Realizing that Cliff was probably quite hungry by now, I handed him a granola bar from my backpack, which he quickly devoured. We crossed over the top of Hoffman Falls and then descended on Trail 3 partway into the gorge, following the east rim back, all the way to the inn.

When we got back to the room, I suggested, “Why don’t we go for a swim before dinner, and then we can spend the evening working on your geometry homework. Depending on how that works out, we can spend some more time on it and the rest of your homework in the morning, then check out at noon, grab some lunch, and hike Trail 7 in the afternoon, seeing the upper portion of Clifty Falls as well as Little Clifty Falls, before returning home.”

“Swimming sounds good. Doin’ my geometry homework? Not so much, but I really appreciate your taking the time to help me with it, Grandpa, and I really appreciate you bringing me here.”

“The pleasure’s mine, and I meant what I said about tutoring you if you need it.”

<> <> <>

“Woah, would you look at that!” Robin said as Tower Falls came into view.

“And you were afraid of a few bats,” Cliff chided his boyfriend, as they walked ahead of us, holding hands. It was Memorial Day weekend and we’d escaped all the hoopla surrounding the Indy 500 by taking a trip to Clifty Falls State Park. Glen was with us too, and he kept up amazingly well on the trails, even though he was pushing eighty.

We were renting one of the Riverview Suites at the inn, which consisted of a living room with a sleeper sofa, a dining area, a bedroom with a king-size bed, and a master bath with a six-headed walk-in shower and a whirlpool tub. Charlie and I were sleeping in the bedroom and the boys were using the sleeper sofa in the living room. For Glen, there was a rollaway.

A lot had happened since the last time I’d been here with Cliff. With my help, he’s now getting all A’s in geometry, and he switched his schedule around for the spring semester, so he could take a music class, which was how he got together with Robin. In the meantime, when I mentioned at lunch about how I’d gone hiking with Cliff and how he’d come out to me, Charlie commented on how much easier gay kids had it now than when we were kids.

I readily agreed with him, and then afterward, we started talking. We ended up spending more and more time together, including some nights, and have even been talking about moving in together, but that might be more trouble than it’s worth. Consolidating two lives at our age isn’t easy, but with our apartments being in the same pod, spending the nights together is no big deal.

What a crazy path my life has taken, but how great it is that Cliff and I are able to fulfill our promise to come back with our boyfriends.

<> <> <>

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Although the story is entirely fictional, the backstory is not. I really do have an older brother who’s autistic, and we visited him on Sundays, traveling two hours each way to North Vernon, to the Muscatatuck State School. There, my brother was taught the alphabet but nothing more, yet it’s now clear to me he could’ve easily learned to read and learned basic arithmetic. As it is, he taught himself to recognize common words and he does simple addition and subtraction in his head. He also predicts the weather, with uncanny accuracy.

Clifty Falls State Park is a real place, and the hiking trails are pretty much as described. The gorges, grottos, and waterfalls are quite beautiful, except for the presence of the power plant. I have many pleasant memories of hiking there as a child and as a young teen, but my brother really blossomed once he was discharged from Muscatatuck. He loved to travel, and my mom and I took him hiking in the national parks, all over America, well into my own adulthood.

The treatment of kids with developmental disabilities has improved dramatically since the 1950s, with most children living at home and mainstreamed in public schools. For those that can’t be mainstreamed, there are special schools, and all children have access to specialized services. Once they age out of the public school system, non-profit organizations often step in, providing education, day programs and sheltered workshops. My brother would have had a very different life had he grown up today.

I’ll never forget a time when I was perhaps nine years old, though, when the tragedy of my brother’s autism suddenly hit me from out of the blue. I cried like a baby. I don’t feel that way anymore. He is who he is, and he’s happy.

The author gratefully acknowledges the invaluable assistance of David of Hope in editing my stories, as well as Awesome Dude, Codey’s World and Gay Authors for hosting them. This story was first published as part of the Gay Authors 2021 Fall Anthology – A Winding Path.

Disclaimer: This story is a fictional account involving gay teenage boys. Although there are references to gay sex no sexual activity involving underage boys takes place in this story. However, anyone who is uncomfortable with this type of story obviously should not be reading it. Although based in part on the author’s history of growing up with an autistic brother who was institutionalized, all characters are fictional and any resemblance to real people is otherwise purely coincidental. The author retains full copyright.