Saturday, December 09, 2006


Bone weary in the wee hours, rolling west out of Colorado. I make it only as far as Green River before pulling off for a nap at the back of an abandoned gas station, easing past a sad toss of weeds and cracked concrete and rusted barrels. The rest of the night plays out to the whine of big trucks on Interstate 70: some running for Denver, others west to 1-15 and then on to California. Every so often one slows and exits, rumbles past me here on the outskirts — pausing barely long enough for a tank of fuel, maybe a microwaved burn to at the Gas-N-Go on West Main. Nearly everyone, it seems, is just passing through.

Listening to the engines in the darkness, I'm reminded of the story of an anthropologist from Boston sent west to California in the 1920s, assigned the job of chronicling the language of the Pit River Indians, even then on the verge of extinction. At one point the young researcher asks the elders their word for newcomersrecent arrivals, European descendents like himself. The men get nervous, refuse to answer. Finally, after much cajoling, they give in. The word is inalladui, one old man explains. Tramp. We can't understand how your people travel through without ever stopping long enough to learn something of the land; without ever binding a place to your heart. We think a part of you must be dead inside.

I'm up again at dawn, glad to trade the four-lane for Highway 95 — a sweet, lonely path along the San Rafael Swell. Beyond the road, the land is dappled with locoweed and purple vetch, dropseed and cheatgrass and fescue, here and there the occasional huddle of juniper or cottonwood. This was Jane's country. A wind-shorn mix of rock and wind and sky that changed her utterly, turning her at 18 from a Midwest farmer's daughter into an outdoor educator. An Outward Bound instructor. A national park ranger. "You know if something ever happens to me," she said shortly before she died, relighting a conversation we'd had years before, "I want my ashes scattered in my favorite places." Five days later she was gone, lost in a canoeing accident on the Kopka River, in the dark woods of northern Ontario.

And so I travel. Journeying across the West with a small brown pottery jar of her ashes, ultimately bound for six perfect pieces of wilderness: Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains, where 25 years ago I stood beside her in a field of camas lilies, me in my gray suit, she in her wedding dress; a certain little cabin in the pine-covered foothills of Wyoming's Absaroka Range; the heartbreakingly beautiful northern range of Yellowstone, where on

spring days she knelt beside 12-year-old kids, hearing them catch their breath at the sight of wolves; a couple of alpine gardens near home, deep in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana. And today, Capitol Reef National Park, in southern Utah.

These were the essential landscapes of our lives. And though for me right now the joy is nearly gone from them, choked by this jagged pill of grief, Jane's last wish means I cannot stay away. Later in the afternoon on the eastern edge of Capitol Reef, with the sun lighting clusters of rabbitbrush and Apache plume, I grab my pack and walk with tears streaming down my face toward the great maze of the Waterpocket Fold. Barren capes of slick rock. Slot canyons. A lone raven, his voice full of gravel. At one point a slight breeze from the east begins to rise, and that's when I open the lid and release her, watching puffs of ash drift into the upturned fringes of the fold. Even these scant vestiges of her are not long for this world. Soon they'll be disassembled into tiny jots of carbon; those, in turn, feeding the very web of life that so inspired her.

What the Pit River Indians understood that the young anthropologist from Boston likely did not, is that to stop moving, to rest on wild land, is to be nudged toward relationship. Or more specifically, toward an urge to weave the stories of relationship. Awaiting us on unfettered lands are exquisite metaphors — images to feed not so much our quest for meaning, as our hunger for place. Even for me, on this somber afternoon, there are notions of kinship. In the silence. In the faint scent of dust. In a frail and lovely patch of sumac withering in the hot sun, dropping leaves, desperate for rain.

By Gary Ferguson