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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

He had given himself 11 days to hike this route, mostly off trail, through grizzly country and some of the wildest terrain in the Lower 48. He would be guided by a map and compass.

He planned the first scattering for Becker Lake, one of nearly 100 small alpine lakes dotting this plateau in southwestern Montana. He and Jane had camped at the lake, and she had assisted in a number of rescues in the region. Friends were to meet him there; it was an easy day hike.

Three days later, after a night of rain, he hit the final ridge overlooking the familiar blue water and granite cliffs, and saw their multicolored tents.

More than 700 people had attended Jane's memorial in Red Lodge in 2005. Afterward, a few close friends offered to join him for the first scatterings, but he turned them down. He wasn't ready to expose them to his grief. Now he wanted them to hear his words, and he wanted to listen to theirs.

After lunch, Gary was ready. He and Martha Young sat in sunlight filtering through the branches of a spruce. Martha was one of Jane's closest friends. When she heard about the accident, she flew to Canada to be with Gary, and after the body was recovered, she drove him home with Jane's ashes between them.

Gary placed the earthen jar, a silver spoon and the myrtle cup on a flat stone in front of them.

"This is going to be hard, but I'm glad you guys are here," he said.

Everyone pulled near: Janet Gale and her husband, Rand Herzberg, who had made the wooden box for Jane's ashes; Martha's brother and his wife, Kent and Diane Young, and their dog, Buckley; and Steve Muth, who occasionally played music with Gary.

"I think of scattering ashes as this final release, but I think it really isn't the end at all. There are beginnings and endings, and they're matched."

He had prepared for this moment, reading psychologist James Hillman, Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche, and Joseph Campbell, who most inspired him. People don't seek the meaning of life, the mythologist said, as much as they seek "the experience of being alive."

Gary reached for the cup and explained its role in their wedding. Today he had filled it with water filtered from Becker Lake. He took a sip and passed it to the others, inviting them to share their memories.

"When this accident first happened," Gary said, "I couldn't escape the feeling for a while that I'd been betrayed … that this nature had let me down, and I don't feel that way now."

He had come to realize that his feelings of betrayal — that nature turned on him when he and Jane paddled down the Kopka — arose from his grief, and that he was now ready to see this wilderness as they once had, with a sense of curiosity and wonder.

He rubbed his eyes and told a story, an Ojibwa legend, about two infants who were special to the animals of the forest. Wolf and deer gave them milk. Bear kept them warm. Birds sang to them, and dogs snapped away the flies.

But these children didn't play like others. They didn't explore their world. Then one day with encouragement from the gods, a swarm of butterflies flew near, and the children wanted to catch them. They started to crawl and stand and finally run.

"I hope all of you, as my final wish, will be so blessed that you'll be open to that beauty," Gary said, "and it will coax you and nudge you and entice you to be where you need to be … entice you to where you need to go."

He walked over to a meadow by the lake and angled the spoon into the ash and swept it through a patch of wildflowers. The others took their turns.

That evening they fixed Jane's favorite camp meal: fried trout, grits and scrambled eggs. They sipped bourbon and watched the stars emerge.

Gary woke to the cry of an osprey circling the mist-covered lake where he was camping. It had been two days since Becker Lake. Janet and Rand had stayed with him, and after breakfast they started out; he slowly moved ahead.

He was sore and the straps of his backpack cut into his shoulders, yet he savored the exertion. He cast his mind over the trip, remembering a cluster of blue alpine forget-me-nots, a white-tailed deer in a forest, trout rising on a windless lake, peaches Martha packed in, Orion before dawn.

He was surprised, not that these moments had occurred, but that he appreciated them. His thoughts were not caught in the emotions of the last few years. It was as if grieving had run its course, and in its place, he felt a sweet sadness that kept Jane close without extracting the pain.

Some indigenous people, he recalled, believe that the living are the eyes and ears of the dead, and for the last four years, he had not been a good witness for Jane. He owed her the beauty of these moments.

By midafternoon, Otter Lake stretched before them. They followed a path along the south shore, a granite ledge above the water, and as Gary and Rand pushed ahead, Janet started down a steep slope, slipped and slid a few feet into a patch of grass.

"Oh, no," she said after landing. "I heard something crack."

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