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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

The ankle was broken, and the swelling came on slowly. As she iced her foot in the lake, Gary and Rand debated what to do. Janet was barely able to walk, and there was little chance they would run into anyone. Gary knew he had to get help.

"This is what Jane would do," he said, thinking of the times she trekked in and out of this wilderness to help injured hikers.

As Rand set up camp, Gary gave Janet a hug and set out. He hiked until nightfall, sleeping just off the trail, and reached Cooke City the next morning. A 911 call led to a helicopter rescue.

As his friends drove to the hospital, Gary checked into a motel and arranged to be driven to a trail head the next day. That night he lay in bed disappointed to be sleeping indoors. The bed was too soft, and his dreams were too anxious.

He woke up at 3:30. With 40 miles to go in his journey, he felt wistful that the end was near. He turned on the light and opened Jane's journal, where he found a passage from Wendell Berry.

" … we had around us the elemental world of water and light, and earth and air. We felt the presences of the wild creatures, the river, the trees, the stars. Though we had our troubles, we had them in a true perspective. The universe, as we could see any night, is unimaginably large, and mostly dark. We knew we needed to be together more than we needed to be apart."

He was certain she had copied these words thinking about their marriage, but the passage also reminded him of everyone who helped after Jane's death. His mind turned to Janet's fall.

By going for help, he realized, he had been called on for the first time in four years to do something significant for someone else. He had always been hard on himself, which was why guilt — guilt for not being a better husband, for not saving Jane, for having survived — had dogged him for so long, and he wondered if in this act of generosity, he had found a way to forgive himself.

That morning he picked up the trail near the northeastern corner of Yellowstone, and two days later, he lay in his tent in a campground listening to the rain dappling the fly sheet.

He rose and taped a blister on his heel. He had five more miles to hike. Martha joined him, along with writer John Clayton and biologist Doug Smith.

They followed the road into the Lamar Valley, and at a scenic vista, scrambled down a sandy bank and walked toward the Lamar River, where they took off their boots and negotiated its current and slippery stones.

They stopped in a clearing. Sunlight broke through the clouds and brightened a stand of cottonwoods to the south. To the east, Gary could see the buildings of the historic buffalo ranch where Jane had spent eight years teaching schoolchildren about the park's ecology.

He took off his day pack and set out the jar and the spoon.

"I'm not the same as I was when I left," he said, "but maybe I'm more of who I was 4 1/2 years ago before Jane died, and it's been a real feeling of coming home."

He read a poem by Mary Oliver.

To live in this world

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.

Once he lacked the strength to let Jane go and held on to her as best he could, but his life had come to a halt. Now it was time: He needed and wanted to be part of the world.

He picked up the jar, dipped the spoon into the opening seven times and made a circle of ash. He had kept his promise to Jane, and it became her greatest gift to him.

In the distance, coyotes began to howl.

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