When we reached the camp, he put the tackle box in the back of the truck and dangled the bundle of fish into the truck’s tool box, closing them inside. Now that was a clever idea – why hadn’t I thought of that?
“I thought we were having dinner.”
“We’ll eat when we get back. Bring your flashlight.” I looked up. It wasn’t dark, but the sun slipped behind the tree tops. I guess we would be gone a little while. I should have brought an apple when we went fishing, and maybe I should bring one now. I wanted the lantern, but I couldn’t remember where I last left it, so I pulled the small flashlight from out of my tent and forgot about the food. At least I remembered my backpack.
I followed him again, not walking next to him, which I still didn’t quite understand. In most places the path was wide enough for us to be side by side. Maybe walking alone was his default style, but with his long gait I might have trouble keeping pace next to him. I hiked quickly to keep up anyway. We were climbing up hill and we nearly passed my hole in the ground. I thought about stopping, but I did sweat out most of the water I consumed throughout the afternoon, and I figured I could make it a little while longer.
When we reached the top of the hill we were climbing, he stopped and when I caught up the final four steps, I witnessed a view unrivaled in the forest. Another lower ridge of trees ran in front of us, and beyond that, in the distance, the layered formations of the western canyons. The sun gleamed above them all, but already changing into shades of orange. The clouds arcing above us included thin, wispy high ones and small clusters of their puffy friends, formerly white but now basked in their evening pinks. The colors were luminous.
“Come sit down.” A low, flat rock, just a few inches above the ground, but wide enough for him to sit with his legs outstretched, leaning back on his palms and still have room to spare became the perfect spot to sit and watch the sun’s retreat and the splendor of color that it offered.
“This is my favorite place to unwind when I am here,” he continued. “I try to watch the weather forecasts and avoid coming when it is raining because this view of the sunset is worth all the hard work.”
I couldn’t speak. I was in awe of the scenery at this amazingly special place where he brought me. The fact that sitting and enjoying this experience was part of his regular routine, that he appreciated the glory and brilliance of a Wyoming sunset even if he’d seen them for years, made we want to add this particular facet of his personality to the “like” column. And he was right about the sunset; there wasn’t a color between vibrant pink and soft blue to electric orange that didn’t blend together in this sky in front of us.
“Thank you. This is…” The pallet left me silent, and completely beyond words.
“Yes it is.” He answered without my even locating the unfinished thought. “You have a beautiful forest.” For a moment, I forgot I worked here, that this was indeed my forest. Lucky me!
“This is your forest, too.” I tried not to be too selfish.
The sun still retained a good twenty minutes to entangle us in its final rays, and I turned slightly so I could enjoy the beauty without it blinding me directly. I turned toward my peculiar Lumberjack and watched the colors illuminate his eyes and his hair. Even his cowboy hat brightened.
He bounced gently off his palms and leaned forward bringing us even closer together.
“I don’t want to complain.” He spoke so softly, I could barely hear him.
I looked back at the sun and the continually changing colors. “I don’t think you have anything to complain about. This is definitely the good life right here.”
“You said I could complain and be angry and I don’t want to do either.” I looked back at him. His words were not about the sunset.
“Are you angry?” If this is what anger looked like, it resembled nothing I knew in my previous life.
He looked away from the hued horizon and directly at me.
“No.” Whew. He was silent as he continued looking at me and I tried to smile, but I was still wondering where this discussion was leading. He looked back at the sunset. “How fortunate am I that I returned home? That I get to be here to see this? I feel as though I shouldn’t complain. I don’t have that right.”
“You have more of a right than the people who thank you for your service and go about their business without having walked in your shoes.” Perhaps that was a better way of making the point I tried to make this afternoon. He chewed on the thought for a while as was his tendency. Perhaps he connected it to what I said earlier, or compared it to experiences with others. I expect many people didn’t thank him anymore, if they were anything like my co worker. They probably didn’t speak to him at all.
“So many soldiers left pieces of themselves, of their bodies – arms, eyes, feet – in Iraq. Or their lives. I have no right to be angry or complain.”
“But didn’t you leave some pieces of yourself – your youth, your compassion, your understanding and expectations of the situation versus the reality of the war? Don’t you think it is possible you lost something or left something behind?”
“I’m still compassionate.”
“Of course you are!” I impulsively touched his knee. I didn’t mean to imply he wasn’t. Never had I known a man who showed as much compassion to me as he showed, even to strangers. “But don’t you think what makes you compassionate – what touches you and influences you and compels you to do good – has changed? And maybe it has changed you for the better, but I expect it definitely changed.”
“So why be angry? Why complain?” I think he was wondering why he should feel this way, what right he had to feel these emotions. He did say he was angry and that he didn’t want to complain, but maybe inside he was holding onto anger and frustration with no way to unravel it, which wouldn’t surprise me. I knew I didn’t want to shy away from it or from him.
“Because it has changed you and somewhere a little piece of who you were and what you believed stayed there. It’s a part of you – or at least part of the person you were – that I will never know unless you share it with me. Or, you know, share it with others.” I corrected myself; I didn’t want this to be about me.
“It’s okay to be angry that you’ve lost that part of you, or that it was taken away from you. It’s okay to complain about how you feel having to live with those losses. It’s okay to not want to feel that way, not wanting to be angry, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling that way anyway.” I ought to heed my own advice.
He listened so intently. The brilliance of the colors from the sky seemed to amplify with each passing moment changing the color of his skin, his hair, and perhaps seeping into his thoughts to blend with the questions he was asking and the possibilities I was offering. The colors above us and beyond us were advancing more swiftly than his response. I could imagine his mind blending the logic and emotion together, attempting to transition seamlessly from one to the other just as the sky transitioned from lavender to peach to gold, and with as many bits and pieces in his head as there were hues in the sky.