I start into the forest. A single large vein-like trail veers to the left; it hugs a mound of gray granite boulders, my calves burn from the steep incline and my heart thumps repeatedly faster and faster as I venture up and into the forest. Sharp thick white-spruce pines, douglas fir, ponderosa pine and western hemlock choke the forest, towering, fighting for light; they are enormous. Tiny clouds of gnats hover in the golden light that streaks through the upper canopy. The wilderness is supposed to be inviting, happy, filled with God’s creation- my thoughts run to fear, to question, to my place in a family, a family in desperate need of a compass. My shoulders, raw, sore, need to stay strong; they carry water, dried meat, nuts and the copper box filled with my dead grandfather's ashes.
The dim haze of the grey winter afternoon seemed to oppress me. Most students fervently studied for mid-terms. They congregated in small groups in our dorm lobby laying on their stomachs, downing coffee, tea, water, trying to stay awake enough to finish the professor’s review questions; chattering about what they missed from class because they went to the new rock climbing gym, they looked worried about the possibility of not getting a “A.”
My brow tightened and tears welled after my mother and father hung up the phone. The dial tone hung like death in my ear. I stood there for an eternity, images of his blue eyes, his scratchy beard and his soft hands and kind heart forced me to retreat to my bed. He had died, alone and frustrated. Eight hours south is a lifetime away when you are at college. Returning to my bed angry and desperate, wishing the news wasn't true, I pulled the covers over my head and wept.
I can taste the silence, the dust, the lemon grass and loam as one can smell the diesel exhaust from faceless trucks and buses on the freeway. The maddening drone of cars are gone, there is no one, not even my father is with me now. Awed by the transition from city to tranquility, the rugged forest beckons me; sweating, trudging up the trail working the pack so the copper box carrying his ashes doesn't poke my back, I aim onward. Turning around back to the security of the car seems easy. He's in my backpack in a copper box? In a million little pieces? What do I do? Confusion consumes my thoughts. I am frightened, frightened of offending God, papa, my father, frightened that I lost touch with Papa when my father and him quarreled and swore they would never speak to each other again. The endless trail, sheer cliffs on my left flanked by dense forest to my right, steepens; sand sucks my boots at every step. Will he be here alone for eternity?
The silence stuns me. Mount San Gorgonio is only an hour and a half from our house; it is light years away from the city. "I am so proud of what you are going to do Christopher." What was I doing? The copper box, filled with my grandfather's ashes lays next to my pack in the back seat; it mirrors my despair and confusion. The trail head parking lot, empty, cool, clustered with old benches and dead pine cones, beckons. Why wasn't he coming with me? How could he let me bury him? Was this a right of passage? I say the Lord's Prayer as I hoist the pack onto my back and close the door. My father waits in the car. Anxiety and depression over unemployment choke him; he refuses to address his underlying sorrow over the last four years of his relationship with Papa. His anxiety steals him from us and to what matter the most in our family- communication.
I had always hated being alone, crying whenever Papa left or when my parents came to pick us up from Grandma and Papa's house. Their house, pure comfort, enchantment and joy protected us from the outside world. Green shutters, perpetually blooming gardenias , a small frog pond in the back yard- it was our enchanted garden. My brother and sister and I created make believe worlds where we escaped the stresses of school and friends- we bonded as a family at their house. On our way to sleep his prickly white whiskers scratched my face as he kissed my cheeks goodnight. He always tickled us and we couldn't move because grandma made the bed with the sheets so properly tucked and tidy. He would yank the sheets loose so we could move our ankles.
I splash cold creek water on my face. Alive with dancing shadows, the forest whispers to push further, closer to his resting place. Beams of sun glare through patches of blue sky; wind carries tiny fluffs of seeds, pinon and juniper from miles below mix with cold thin air and the wind forces the tree tops to hiss with afternoon stress. Electric blue skies begin to force a smile from my otherwise disgruntled face. He would love it up here. The vivid colors, scents and open space. Exhausted, I amble through an old patch of forest in hopes that Papa's special place comes soon. It is still beyond the next craggy ridge, so I think. I can see far off the switch-back trail crossing over the cold strong creek which has its roots at 11,499 feet, the highest peak in Southern California. I drink cold water from a tin cup.
Gasping for breath because of the steep worn switchbacks, turning around to see the small world slowly disappearing behind me, I ask myself many questions. Questions that I don't have answers to. His place must be coming soon. Lichen, moss and tiny alpine shrubs litter this part of the trail. The trail is easier here, lighter, level, inviting. A red tailed hawk alights by from a tree choked with mistletoe. Between the patches of dark rock, flourishing mounds of thick grass, a hearty God created grass that could take a beating from the wind, snow, sun and rain. It is soft on my knees as I rest. Small creek nourished scrub oak and tall grasses shade parts of the creek. The oranges and carrots nourish me; I sit down on a flat rock to pray. The wind has faded to nothing.
Stillness. Sunshine. The scream of two large ravens echoes down the valley. I still breath quickly from the hike. My neck is hot. The secret spot from last winter is nowhere; I guess in the middle of winter the rocks and topography look much different. I feel his burial spot is near. I know I have passed it because I have never been past the sign three miles back that says, SUMMIT NEAR: CAUTION LOOSE ROCK. Small talus conform to my posture and I sit alone for a long time wishing there is a definite action to follow.
Leaving my pack, jacket and food aside, searching for the right spot, a spot of designation, a spot suited for a faithful man,I bring the copper box to a little pool 300 steps away. There are overhanging shrubs, thick grass crowds the pool and the earth is rich, dark and moist; clear ribbons of water flow over shiny black and gray granite stones that act as a natural barrier to wind. This is the spot. On my knees I begin grabbing for fist size rocks or larger to begin construction of a little symbolic totem to remember Papa. Where will his ashes rest. I remember seeing tall rock formations while climbing Mt. Shasta the September before.
He shook with excitement. His tools lay in the back seat strewn about from high speed turns and running red lights; he didn’t want to make me wait The materials finally came; he didn't want to make me wait. He taught me carpentry. The small pieces of wood, brass nails and