It wasn’t planned. There was no phone call or interview set up. But there I was at the beginning of the Cerro Alto trail with Isaac Lindsey and his father, Michael, ready to attempt a hike to the 2,600-foot summit.
It was purely a coincidence that we were both there at the same time, but I couldn’t help but think it was something more.
Since arriving on the Central Coast last July, I have written more than 20 stories about Isaac. I’ve seen milestones, tragedy and triumph.
I was there the night of the Templeton football player’s traumatic brain injury and watched him get carted off the field, not knowing what would happen next. I watched hundreds line the streets of downtown Templeton to welcome him home. I talked to him as he prepared for a special Christmas with his family, and I saw him throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Templeton baseball game two months ago.
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I knew he was determined, too, but none of those things could prepare me for what I saw on a clear day two weeks ago.
I stood at the entrance of the Cerro Alto campgrounds a couple of Saturdays ago, stared at the signs and tried to figure out how to pay for parking. A man wearing sunglasses and a San Jose State cap stood next to me trying to do the same. I recognized him.
“Mr. Lindsey?” I asked.
“Yeah! Good to see you!” Michael responded.
We acknowledged the odd coincidence, and he asked if I was with a group of people. I was alone, so he invited me to join him and his son. I looked over to the running car where Isaac was waiting patiently in a John Deere hat and a gray sweatshirt.
“Sure!” I said.
When Isaac emerged from the car, he steadied himself.
I couldn’t help but wonder how he was going to hike to the top of one of the highest points in San Luis Obispo County. A little more than four months ago, he was in a rehab center trying to re-learn how to walk and talk and think, now he’s going to take on these difficult slopes?
We started off slowly.
As Michael and I walked ahead, Isaac shuffled along behind. Michael eventually shifted, taking his place behind Isaac. I moved to the rear before we stopped at a small waterfall.
Isaac bent down to feel the cool running water.
Tired of walking at Kennedy Club Fitness as part of his rehab, Michael and Isaac had been hiking a few trails around Atascadero last month. Isaac keeps a log tracking each one. Before this day, they had been on a couple of one- to two-mile hikes with the goal of trying to work Isaac back into shape after spending so much time in hospital beds and living rooms. This hike was by far the most ambitious.
After taking a few photos at the waterfall, Isaac walked up a bank of steps. I reached to give him a hand.
“He can do it,” Michael said.
I let go.
I saw this a few times over the next mile. Michael kept a close eye on Isaac as we navigated the winding trail, but he was sure to let him take each step on his own.
We stopped to look at the plants. Michael, who was raised in southern Georgia and clearly knows his plant life, pointed out the poison oak and California Bay laurels. Issac bent down and picked a purple lupine flower.
“I want to keep this,” Isaac said.
“We have those in the yard,” Michael said.
“I like this one,” Isaac said.
“OK,” Michael replied as he put it in his backpack.
When we reached the one-mile mark, I decided to move ahead. I wanted to pick up the pace, and like I said, I wasn’t sure Isaac and Michael would make it to the top.
They never doubted it.
“See you at the top!” they said.
Anyone who has hiked the trail knows the last mile and a half is the hardest. It’s a vertical ascent. I consider myself in pretty good shape, but I had to stop and rest three times in the last mile.
During one rest, I looked back to try and spot Isaac and his dad. There they were, making their way, their voices carrying with the wind through the open valley.
Once I made it to the top, I found a spot on a rock and took it all in. It is amazing how far you can see, from the Guadalupe Dunes to Paso Robles to Cayucos. Each of the nine sisters were laid out in plain, panoramic view.
I sat and waited. If Isaac made it to the top, I wanted to be there to see it. I walked down to join them for the last 100 yards.
“You’re almost there,” I said.
When they made it to the summit, I gave Isaac a high five. Michael and I took in the view, but Isaac’s engineering mind that he utilizes for his favorite hobby, restoring old tractors, was distracted by a couple of mountain bikers. He and Michael asked detailed questions about the gears and the tires.
To me, it was a monumental moment. Two-hundred-and-thirty-five days prior to the afternoon they decided to tackle Cerro Alto, Isaac’s parents weren’t sure he would survive. Now he was standing atop the 2,624-foot summit looking down at all of the cities and people who supported him during his road to recovery.
But to Isaac, it was just a walk in the park.
That’s what I get for doubting.
Walk to Run
“He was pretty proud of himself,” his mother Jenny Lindsey said of the hike by phone on Tuesday.
Since that day, Isaac has kept it going.
Jenny said in May, he has hiked the Jim Green Trail, Pine Mountain Loop and White Oak Trail in Atascadero.
The next goal for Isaac, along with preparing to return to school for his senior year, is to run again.
Along with his physical conditioning, Jenny said his short-term memory is starting to improve as well. Hopefully, he will always remember standing on the top of that mountain with his father on a clear day in April.
For me, the memory and the accomplishment will stretch as far as the eye can see.