Despite the similarity that I am driving and he is my passenger and that today is Sunday, in comparison to the first time I drove home with him on Interstate Ninety, on this drive we cruise home uneventfully, with no firewood in tow, and with Daniel talking more than I expect. I want to ask him if he felt afraid, did he like the mountains better than ours, and did he get to try any local cuisine, but mostly I want to know about the reason for his trip. Nonetheless, he keeps inquiring about my job, so my curiosity waits.
“So, how did this happen? You haven’t mentioned anything about changing jobs since last year.”
“I know, it surprised me, too, but I guess with Archie retiring they needed someone in the forest and it was easier to fill the spot with me than try to hire from the outside.”
“I think you’re selling yourself short. You have a wealth of knowledge about the forest and I can see you doing well in this job.”
“Thanks, and I’m sure you’re not at all biased.”
“Maybe a little, but think about how much you’ve learned since I met you.”
“When I met you I’d only been on the job a few days, so pretty much everything I’ve learned has been since I met you.”
I think about how green I must have appeared the first time he wandered into the office. I look at his curls, his beard, and his huge hands and they are exactly as I remember that first day.
“Granted, but you’ve made a point to learn the regulations for both recreational and commercial use, plus you’ve spent plenty of time in the forest and you know many of the roads and have hiked dozens of the trails. You’re selling yourself short if you think you’re just filling an opening.”
“Thanks for having such confidence in me.”
“I don’t need to be the one who has confidence. You do.”
In my mind I know this, but convincing myself when I am on the job may be different.
“I’m going to miss being able to stop by the office to see you in the middle of the day.”
I laugh. “You don’t stop by in the middle of the day.”
“I do when I get my firewood permits.”
“Sure, all four times a year.” We do the glance back and forth that tells me he knows I’m right. He simply smiles and it occurs to me that he might be teasing me.
“You’re going to be great at it.”
I wish I felt as certain as he sounds. After about thirty minutes of discussion about my work in the forest, I don’t feel particularly excited like I am going to save the world or reverse climate change, but I do feel like he supports me completely. I marvel at how different this relationship continues to be from every previous one I knew. I allow him to settle in and let the views of the mountains ease his mind and relax his tall body, and when he stretches and eases himself against the window, I ask him about the trip.
“Daniel, tell me about Afghanistan.”
He doesn’t sit up, but continues to rely on the window for support. Neither of us have said the name of the country out loud, and he doesn’t act surprised when I verbalize it. We pass three mile markers before he responds.
“What do you want to know?”
“What were you doing there?”
“Sightseeing.” Oh please, this was no spring break.
“Daniel?” I let his name squeeze out of my mouth almost seductively, but more to ask for honesty.
“It’s true. I saw the sights. Lots of them.” In those terms, he wasn’t untruthful, but I know he didn’t spend two weeks abroad to explore military battlefields. Unless, of course, that is exactly what he was doing.
I wait to find the right words to ask again. It gives us one of those Wyoming pauses in conversation.
“If you aren’t going to tell me what you did, can you at least tell me what it was like there?”
Again, the long stretch of quiet precedes his response. I think about the Bighorns just out the window to our right and the features hidden within them. Their alpines, their peaks, their granite, their wildlife, their buttes, and the water that flows through them all create separate yet dependent ecosystems and scenery. I’ve seen enough to know not all American mountains are the same. I wonder if the ones he saw while he was gone offer such diversity.
“Much like here, you can see snow on the peaks, and despite the fighting over the years, there are patches of green that remind me of the meadows near the lodge where we first ate pie together.”
Like the imprint these mountains mark within me, the forest we know carries its impression within each of us no matter where we go. Pie is just the beginning.
“Sure, but how’s the pie there?”
He shakes his head admitting in this one measure, at least, the Bighorns are unrivaled.
“Did you get to go exploring at all?”
I wait for a response, or even a gesture with his head, but nothing follows. I wait what feels like longer than his usual pause, until I realize he cannot answer me.
“Let me guess. It’s not that you won’t tell me, it’s that you can’t.” He slides the corners of his mouth outward, as if attempting a smile that doesn’t apply in this discussion. “And you cannot explore or hike or sightsee.”
He takes a deep breath and turns his view back towards the mountains, and I wonder if he is thinking about these, or the distant mountains of Afghanistan. I change the subject.
“So, what did Newbold do to piss you off?”
In his classic manner, he waits to reply. And I wait as well.
“’What didn’t Newbold do,’ is a better question.”
“In fairness, I just don’t remember which one is Newbold.”
“Lucky you. He’s the annoying one.”
“So, what did he do to piss you off?” I ask again, verbatim, which is my technique for letting him know just being quiet, or just be his usual quiet self and think I’m going to drop it, isn’t an option.
“Newbold is what my father used to call the ‘suckers of humanity,’ but I think he meant it in the sense of the fish, not the P.T. Barnum version. I think today we just call them ‘bottom dwellers’.”
I wish I knew which partner was which. There are only about seven or eight, counting Daniel, and besides Mr. Waterfield and his wife, I don’t really know any of the others by name. Although that one guy, I don’t remember his name, was a complete asshole, but I don’t want to say anything because these are Daniel’s co-workers and peers and I don’t want to insert myself into his relationships with his fellow partners.
I try to think of a way to pry a little more, until I realize from the soft sounds coming from the passenger side of the truck, Daniel is sleeping. I want to reach out and grab him, so excited and relieved and ecstatic and thankful that he is home safely, but I can only imagine his body clock is so far out of whack it will take another week to figure out what time zone he is in now.
As I cross into Wyoming and size up these mountains to my right, I am reminded about what awaits me in the morning. Tomorrow I will be on my own, tackling the requirements of a Forest Technician flying solo in more than 1.1 million acres, although only a third of it is within my ranger district. Nonetheless, these mountains are formidable and still covered in a thick layer of winter’s contribution to their treacherousness. Sure, the weather is supposed to warm this week, but still, most of the internal roads will remain inaccessible for a couple months, depending on the weather. Even US Highway 14A isn’t open yet, which isn’t surprising.
I think about what Archie told me during our training and all the information I hope I will remember through my first summer on the forest. Honestly, I cannot imagine two or three months of training would have even been enough time to glean all the knowledge he gathered in his duration in the forests he served, but I appreciate the few days I spent with him immensely. I hope we can get together casually and he can continue to share his stories.
The one story that sticks out and has danced upon my mind ever since he shared it, described a moment when he took his granddaughter up to the Medicine Wheel. From best I can tell, she was probably about four years old, but I would just be guessing. They walked all the way up the road, which isn’t terribly long, but the elevation approaches ten thousand feet above sea level, so it’s easy to get winded making the trek.
“She did great as we got started, especially once she saw her first pica darting in and out of the rocks. Every time one would appear, she’d squeal and giggle. She always wants to pick the wildflowers, although they either need to be left alone, or they are invasive species covered in thorns, so I kept telling her we could pick some dandelions in my yard when we got home.” I know darn well he let her keep a couple.
He recreates the story for me, grinning like a proud Grandpa, probably because he is one.
“Once we reached the straightaway and the long ascent, she lost her motivation to keep climbing, so I put her on my shoulders and she leaned her head on top of mine, and I worried she might nod off and slide to one side. I mean, you know that climb isn’t the easiest.”
Understatement – and he was carrying a human on his shoulders! The first time Daniel took me there, I straight-up mouth breathed every step. I stopped at each bench along the way, claiming to be taking pictures, and in hindsight, Daniel told me he expected as much. I would have liked to have been carried up, too.
“When we reached the top, we made the obligatory stop at the little granddaughter’s room, and then she walked right up to the edge of the circle, and blurted out with that innocence that only kids can convey, and asked, ‘Papa, why is the wind dancing here?’”
The entire walk includes blustery strides, and even the hint of a summer electrical storm places visitors in the middle of the target area for the lightning bolts along the edge of the ridgeline. The wind remains constant from the parking lot to the ancient site, so the idea that she only noticed the wind at this one point struck me as specific and pointed, even for a four-year-old.
“The wind is carrying the messages of the people who have left mementos here. Their thoughts are carried away to wherever those people are now, so they are never forgotten. Maybe it’s dancing because it’s happy to hear from the people.” I suppose this answer, simple enough for a child, aptly explains the true belief of those who have visited this place and tied feathers or flowers or beads or bandanas to the fence around the stones.
“’Papa, can I leave a flower for my Daddy? Do you think he’ll know I am here and I am sending him a kiss?’”
She couldn’t have remembered her father, given the dates and rough details Archie shared with me, but I expect her mother helps keeps those memories alive in her own way.
“’Of course you can,’ I told her. And would you believe, she took that flower, and danced around the entire circle as if she was plugged back in and rejuvenated with energy, and when she was finished, she set that flower down at the edge of the circle.” Archie’s face gives the impression he is visualizing the scene again.
“I’m surprised it didn’t blow away,” I mentioned as he relayed the tale.
“Oh, and it did, and she yelled out, ‘Grandpa! Daddy heard me!’” Archie tried to pretend he wasn’t brought to tears. I didn’t try.
Picturing her dance around the circle, I couldn’t help but think of my Amelia. I wanted to tell him about her, but I hesitated to detract from the beautiful, intimate moment he shared with me. This hard, old man, who wasn’t really hard, and not nearly as old as his style belied, lifted me up as much as he raised up his little Katrina.
NEXT: Baggage -Part 17