Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Coming to Terms

Morning on Kelly Creek in the Clearwater National Forest
"There are strange things done 'neath the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold..."
The Cremation of Sam McGee, by Robert Service, my father's favorite poet.

When Dad first asked me to sprinkle his ashes in the Bitterroot mountains of Idaho, I didn't wan't to talk about it.  Fear of death, the unapproachable subject.  It was an odd moment we two were sitting around the table; it came out of the blue, or so I thought.  Maybe he had long been working up to this request; all I remember is that the topic of his passing hadn't been broached, and he didn't even intimate that his health was failing until a few years later when it was written quite plainly on his withered frame.
     So it was that I put it quite out of my mind, and this summer, fully two years after he left his body on the floor of that house, it was with some dread that I approached this task that I had been clearly appointed to.  It's not as if I don't like hiking and camping:  I adore them, and this was clearly the reason I had been chosen.  It's just that there was something of facing up to myself; because although the concept of death was not the focus here, but rather what we make of our lives when a significant influence- in this case, a crutch for my weakness of character, I'd always felt- is suddenly removed.
     At first I must confess I felt a little threatened when all of my siblings and even their families wanted to get involved with this project.  I felt I had been singled out by him to do this, as an honor and also as the sole adjudicator of this part of his verbal will.  At that point I couldn't see all the positives in the form of support and reinforcement that such group participation would bring; I just looked at it as some form of annoying 'horning in on my thing'.
     It was the first time I had been forced to rethink the very nature of this project.  From the time after the funeral when I lifted the cardboard box of ashes - so much heavier than I had imagined - my mental picture of this adventure began to change, and evolved over the next two years as various plans hatched and faded away.
     I'm not sure what it was, but something told me that this summer had to be the one.  As a sugar coating to what by now was seeming like a bitter pill to me, I promised myself a bike trip to sandwich this experience with positive feeling.  Things began to happen almost as soon as I landed.  An older friend, and more experienced than myself with death and dying, told me I was in for a treat, that it was one of the better hiking locations in North America (which proved to be true).  Another friend who also had said goodbye to four people in the last three years reminded me to be mindful when I performed the act, not to let the act be meaningless or hollow, since it was as much for me as for the person I had promised to do it for.
     Then my brother pulled out, which actually made it a much smaller and more easily managed operation, since three less people would be involved.  Two nephews and a niece had expressed strong interest in the project, and another nephew was added around the time of my brother's cancellation, making us a merry band of five hobbits setting off into the forest.  I was a little uneasy at the last change, since I felt I didn't know this last nephew very well at all.  But so much had changed and transmogrified in just the last week that it seemed that one needed to go with the flow if one was to ever leave Bag-end at all, to paraphrase Tolkien.
My new crew: Nephews Joe, Arlen, and John Michael
     I arrived in the hometown, after a brisk drive from the Portland airport to the hometown (Pendleton) with two of the nephews, one of whom I hadn't seen since before the funeral.  The remaining nephew was mustered; the niece having been banned by her brothers for lack of a proper babysitter for her two year old; and suddenly and almost miraculously we were on the road, thankfully not forgetting the ashes behind us.
Mornings at 3500 feet tended to the chilly side
     Even from the first few hours, it was obvious that this journey would not be one of massive contemplation, solitudinous pensiveness or inner reflection.  An old hiker turned green by city living, accompanied by three young men eager for experience were setting out for the mountains, and the weight of this factor shaped our experience more than any custom or social expectation of ash ceremony could possibly have.
We did what a normal group of men would normally do in such circumstances.  We did not form a solemn procession with the ashes in a special bier.  We played Texas Holdem  and swatted tenacious horseflies off each other; we sipped rum and chuffed Cuban cigars around the campfire, which blazed away under a sky afire with starlight, the likes of which none of us had seen in quite some time.
     I did not escape completely from any meaningful contemplation, however.  It occurred to me, almost from the first step of so many along that gentle, smooth trail along the side of Kelly creek, that this 'mission' was not a mission at all- but rather a set of instructions to follow, a formula for a certain kind of experience which was guaranteed to bring about or unlock an insight.  Dad was guiding me to discover a hidden secret- in these mountains and in the experience they were sure to bring, was a side of him I had never seen.  I was rediscovering the father of his youth - not mine- and was granted a feeling of what it must have been like to be him, before fatherhood, before marriage and responsibility chained him to a desk in an unpleasant office far removed from these emerald walls of paradise.
     I could not help feeling that surely my father would have traded stories around this very campfire, would have shared the rum, would have dealt the cards and even chuffed the stogie.  None of these things, in fact, were things I had really done before with any panache, and yet they felt natural- and enjoyable- to all of us, as if we were born to do these things.  This feeling of near-possession didn't stop with our outdoorsy woodsman behavior; it also became evident when we came to the question of the remains.
     My original understanding is that I was to go to Kelly's thumb and 'sprinkle' the ashes there.  When Dad had told me about the mission in the first place, we were in the living room, where a painting of the mountain in question had hung for nearly two decades.  So it was manifest to me for many years that I had to find the place 'of the painting' or 'in the painting' and put it there.
     We carried a digital copy of the painting, and showed it to the nice lady at the reception of the Ranger Station in Orofino nearby.  She recognized the mount, and even expressed admiration for the painting (I later resolved to donate the painting to the station, since she would make sure it hung in a nice, prominent place).  When we rounded a bend in the trail two days after that, we came upon a very similar version of that viewpoint.  We stopped and began to compare our picture with the vista, and concluded that the picture must have been painted from a closer (impossible, since it would be a point in space) and higher-up point of view.  The way up the mountainside was blocked by new growth pine trees, and severely dense undergrowth.  My conclusion was that the painter must have been here when the present mountain (next to the one in the painting) was bald , perhaps during a forest fire, and that he was in that position whilst either fighting a fire , or resting at one of the lookout towers which must have dotted the landscape back then (many of them have been replaced by electronic gadgets or made obsolete by satellite, I'm guessing).
I started to see the beauty around me
     So it began that the original idea, of some special place to put the ashes, began to degrade, and while we spilled a good portion of them on that exact spot, it became really clear to me that what father actually meant by 'Kelly's Thumb' was not the peak, nor the mountain, nor even the painting, but the experience itself..the whole experience of camping in this forest was what he meant, for it was this experience was what brought us close to his 'salad days' of hiking and working these forests, these pleasant green vistas that brought a feeling of peace and beauty to any and all who were lucky enough to see them.
     We began to distribute his remains all over this park, concentrating on the experience instead of a more left-brained idea of what 'location' entails.  We sprinkled him in the beautiful, clear , Kelly creek (was I named for this? I remember he told me he had a friend that he named me for...).  We found an amazing orchard of huckleberries, a fruit so magical that surely it must be the fruit of the faeries and the forest folk...so some of the remains went to nourish the future crops.
an old fashioned campaign tent
We found, at the foot of Kelly's thumb itself, a peaceful and inviting mountain meadow, so pure and aboriginal, that we all felt surely that Grandpa (as my nephews called him) would have been at home and in his element, whether it was the settled and sedentary later-years Grandpa, or the early young-and-restless Grandpa that we never truly knew.  Near the meadows was also a seasonal camp setup, the old-timey kind with the cotton canvas tents, compleat with pot belly stove and real beds (cots, but they look like beds when you've been sleeping on the ground)...that sort of seemed like the camps of Grandpa's stories of the early days.
the meadow at confluence of Kelly Creek and Bear Cub Creek-
over the ridge is Montana and the waters that flow to the Atlantic Ocean
    This idea of Grandpa was a little bit of a new one for me, as well.  Not only was I sharing the mission I thought was mine and mine alone, I soon discovered that I had been sharing my Dad with others for whom he was Gramps- and they had a whole trove of stories of interactions with him that soon had me feeling a twinge of jealousy- in fact, my father had gone on to love an entire another generation of youngsters besides me, a fact I simply had to accept under the rubric of maturity.  Not only was I connecting with pre-me Grandpa, but also another version corresponding to the post-me after I had grown.
     At the end of the road was the realization that we had come here to this green alpine valley, not in search of a final resting place, but in search of a part of ourselves that we barely knew was there.  Guiding and helping us to get there were the last instructions of this man that we shared in common; the recipe was as simple as waking up in the morning, packing your bag, and trudging upward, ever upward, to greener and more pristine vistas, cleaner and cleaner air, less humans and more animals and plants.  If this isn't an ascent toward heaven, then I don't know what is.