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Walking away from grief

A 100-mile, 11-day trek to fulfill his late wife's wishes for her ashes takes Montana nature writer Gary Ferguson back to the wilderness he thought had betrayed him when she died in a canoe accident.

November 13, 2010|By Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, — When Gary Ferguson closed his eyes, he could still hear the roar of the river and see the torrent of water as it crashed through boulders and fallen trees. Jane was in the bow, he was in the stern, and the rapids surrounded them.

"Paddle hard!" he remembered yelling, as if paddling might have helped.

Grief journey: In a Nov. 14 article in Section A about writer Gary Ferguson's hike to spread the ashes of his wife in the wilderness, a caption under a photograph of a campfire scene identified the man on the left as Steve Muth. He is Rand Herzberg. —

They slammed into a rock; the canoe capsized, and on that late spring morning in 2005, Jane Ferguson disappeared.

Gary tried to ease the images from his mind. He got counseling, read self-help books and Eastern philosophy and threw himself into work.

But he couldn't shake his grief. He had lost not only Jane — their love and marriage of 25 years — but also part of himself. He was a respected nature writer and essayist, and believed that in the wilderness there were lessons for guiding and renewing one's life, but he was unable to draw upon them anymore.

To Gary, Jane's death on the river — on a day that began with a sense of wonder and gratitude — was a betrayal, both cruel and existential, of all that he had championed. He tried to keep the pain to himself. Some days were better than others.

One afternoon, early last year, he decided to go cross-country skiing by himself. He lived in Red Lodge, Mont., on the eastern slopes of the Rockies, and his favorite path was a short drive down the highway.

Hours later, heading home, he noticed the sunlight hitting the slopes of Mt. Maurice, a familiar peak south of town. It was a beautiful, even nostalgic sight, for at its base was the trail into the Beartooth wilderness. He hadn't been on it in years. He had been too bereft to consider the possibility.

But today was different. He felt happy and confident, and he thought about the promise he had made to Jane. She had once told him that she wanted her ashes scattered throughout the West. She had five locations in mind.

He tried to respect her wishes. Soon after her death, he stood alone on the shores of Alpine Lake with Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains rising above him. The chill of autumn was in the air, and when he opened the jar that held her ashes, he collapsed. In saying goodbye, he was losing himself.

He had tried again at the Wood River in Wyoming and at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah, but then stopped. He had underestimated his sorrow.

The final destinations — the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and Yellowstone National Park — would have to wait.

Now, after seeing Mt. Maurice in the late afternoon light, he decided it was time. He was ready emotionally, and that evening he studied a map. He could backpack the route from his home in Red Lodge west into the Beartooths and along the Montana-Wyoming border into Yellowstone, a journey of 100 miles.

Along the way, he would stop at two spots in this broad sweep of land that best contained their memories. He was both excited and sad at the prospect.

On a table in his bedroom, he kept Jane's ashes in a wooden box a neighbor had made. Next to it, he had placed their wedding rings, prayer beads, the memorial program and her picture. Jane was smiling in the shot, her wavy brown hair framing her blue eyes just as he remembered her.

After Jane's death, writing became Gary's therapy, and his journal an incantation of their life, that day on the river and the tumultuous aftermath.

They had met as seniors at Indiana University. It was 1979, and that summer they escaped the Midwest for Idaho, where he worked as a seasonal ranger; they spent every free hour on the trails, in the hot springs or floating the Salmon River.

One year later, they stood beneath the Sawtooths and exchanged vows. They drank snowmelt from a myrtle-wood cup, and in the years that followed created a life intent upon exploring the West, eventually settling in Red Lodge.

Childless by choice, they devoted themselves to their community and work. Jane had left her jobs as a ranger at Yellowstone and an instructor with Outward Bound to start a cafe and hone her skills with the search and rescue team, and after positive reviews of his books, Gary was contributing more to anthologies and magazines, speaking to the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy and teaching.

In May 2005, they were returning from a canoeing school in Canada. It was a long-overdue vacation, a celebration of their anniversary and Jane's 50th birthday, and three days from home, they wanted to get out on the water again.

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