Two years after my brother’s death from cancer I’ve learned that time is the master of all disguises. I still have memories of him. I’ve passed the expectation of him showing up to answer a Skype call. I now accept seeing his widow Kathie and the loneliness that often accompanies the loss of a spouse and friend in her eyes. I see his likeness in his daughters love of the outdoors and his son’s college adventures. All it takes is a song, a picture, a book to bring back a memory of him.
Two years ago on a snowy November winter night at his memorial a group of Moscow High School students sang Lantern by Josh Ritter. The first time I heard the song was when my brother sang it. I’m not exactly sure where it was but in my memory I can still see him playing his guitar and singing.
Two decades ago David James Duncan wrote A River Why. My brother introduced me to the book. A River Why is about a young man that found solace in fly fishing. Because the story was set in the Pacific Northwest my brother and I could easily relate to the rivers and the character.
One time when we were in our early teens we set off backpacking overnight on Eagle Creek trail to Wahtum Lake in the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. It was a cold and rainy fall Saturday morning when we were dropped off. We had packed our fishing rods in our bright red Kelty packs, strapped on a sleeping bag and tent, wrapped it all in a large plastic garbage bag in hopes of keeping everything dry. We donned our gators around our ankles and I remember hiking along the trail with my brother, singing songs like Oh Suzana! and shouting: “When I’m in the mountains, I comb my hair with the trees, brush my teeth with the river sand and let my wind blow free!”
At fourteen, we thought we were indestructible.
We had planned on catching fish to eat that night from the creek but after making several attempts we pushed on. What ever trout there were in the deep clear pools they were safe for the winter. They had out-smarted us or grown cautious of any thing with a tinsel like flash in the water.
We put our fishing poles away and pushed on. Part of the trail switches back for several miles as it climbs on top of a ridge. An hour later we hit the snow line. A place that is separated by color. The green and browns of fall to the new cold white cleanliness of winter. Rain turned to snow. We climbed higher and the forest soon became part of the quietness of the clouds surrounding us. At several places we lost the trail and had to rely on old blaze marks; scars on the trees that showed us which way to the lake as we pushed our way through heavy wet snow.
Thirteen miles and ten hours later we arrived at Wahtum Lake. The campground was closed for the winter. We found a suitable place for our tent after clearing the snow and started a small fire with what little dry wood we could find. I pulled a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese from my pack. Underneath packs of instant Quaker oatmeal, he pulled a plastic bag of raw potatoes from his pack.
“Did you bring any tin foil for the potatoes?” I remember him asking.
“No. I thought you did.”
“Oh well.” He said, pulling the bag apart. “We’ll just have to cook them like this.”
I remember he found a forked stick and carefully placed potatoes in the hot embers of our fire which had melted the snow in the outline of a rock fire pit. There was a heavy metal grate that we placed over the fire. I boiled some water, added the macaroni. After thirty some minutes and a hot cup of tea we were starting to warm. Our gloves were dripping wet from the rain and snow. Steam was lifting from them at the edge of the fire and it was getting dark. Our tent was pitched. I remember we were hungry, wet and tired. The only thing that really mattered at the moment was how much snow we were going to get that night and if we could find our way out by morning.
“I think it’s ready” I said pointing to the little soot black camping pot. Our dinner was closer to him so he carefully lifted the lid off and dished himself some steamy macaroni and cheese into a plastic bowl. I took the forked stick and poked around the embers for the potatoes.
“I don’t think they’re ready yet” I said pushing at a potato.
“I’ll wait until after I finish my cheese. No room.” he said between fork fulls.
After a second helping we looked at each. Our eyes saying that we were both still hungry.
I grabbed the stick, slid a potato on it and carefully place it in his bowl. Sliding the stick back into the fire, I pulled out a second potato.
I tapped at the charcoal black remnants of my potato and pushed hard. The potato opened and between the cinder black skin was a soft hot interior. I dipped my fork in.
“How’s yours?” I asked as I savored a second bite.
He didn’t say anything. I looked back at him over the flickering camp fire light.
“You gave me a rock.” he said clinking his fork.
A word, a song, a picture, a book. Sometimes that’s all we have. Sometimes all we can do is smile at the memory of what once was. It is at that moment I thank him for making my life richer.