Last weekend’s 1,300-mile road trip took me where I didn’t know I needed to go. I learned how to capitalize on bears shitting in the woods; why the greatest vector for rabies is my friend; and where to find a little wisdom from a ghost.
Discreet and not-so-discreet relatives gathered in Missoula, Montana, my home town, for my father’s memorial service last Thursday. With friends, we mooned over photos of the man’s handsome young self, we told stories, moaned the loss of his brain, personality and dedication to preserving environmental beauty.
We cried plenty.
Then, from the side of a sailboat, we cast his ashes by the handful into the clear, hauntingly blue waters of his favorite place, Flathead Lake. We watched him sink.
We cried plenty more.
In conversations surrounding the memorial, a Great Man emerged, as I suppose, occurs at every form of funeral.
But greatness aside, I noticed we were each talking about a different person. My sister mentioned several times that he spoke seven languages, (including Quechua, the Peruvian barber claimed); his students would miss his enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity; his colleagues mentioned his kindness and crazy ability to land Fulbright scholarships overseas. His brother told a touching dog story from their youth in Argentina; his ex, (my mother,) told a funny bear-in-camp story and his girlfriend revealed a bitter truth — about his inability to process emotion.
The man’s gift to me was teaching me the fine art of road-tripping.
To plan loosely, to allow opportunities to define the path. My father and I had road-tripped through Patagonia, the North American West, Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica … hell, the whole of the Americas pretty much. As I listened to my siblings debate the values of paintings, destinies for his many books, origins of his furniture, I felt the urge to clean the windshield.
I should drive to California instead of fly.
So I rented the smallest Uhaul I could for the shifting, splintery desk that had been in our family for five generations. I added the five crates of burlap-wrapped mosaic tiles my mother, an artist, had picked up in Italy 50 years ago but had abandoned when she divorced the man and moved to Maui. I also heaved aboard a preposterous number of vinyl records –something my 16-year-old son has recently started coveting.
An extra futon-couch destined for a California cousin also got loaded cheerfully into the truck. It looked more comfortable than where I had planned to sleep, (a rocky ledge in the Ruby Mountains south of Elko, Nevada.) I threw in a surplus army sleeping bag, an empty gas can, a bag of almonds (my father’s favorite snack) and I was on my way.
Emancipated for a few days from all things probate, I departed my father’s home with a huge intake of air. The house overlooking the lake had been inhabited for a week by everyone except the man who belonged here, a condition I found unbearably sad. My laundry bag bulging, just a few clean options left, I looked at the empty passenger seat and on impulse, for company, buckled in the 5-foot stuffed fish my father had kept in his empty bathtub.
I stuffed my father’s most-worn cowboy hat on my hair to keep it from blowing around and headed south with the window wide open.
My favorite route, over Lolo pass – where Lewis and Clark had started eating their horses – was closed because of a wildfire. I headed straight through the smokehouse that was the Bitterroot Valley instead, stopping for a few hours to visit my college friend, Jennifer, a K-12 art teacher whose work belongs at MOMA.
Jen reported her husband, Matt, was out collecting native seed for his new nursery business. “Matt’s excited,” she reported in a text shortly after I left, “His ‘seed collecting’ black bear is working for him again.’
I confirmed that this was a way of saying that Matt was scooping poop.
“The bear works the night shift, too,” Jen responded.
The last time I stayed at Jen’s bright yellow house in Hamilton, Montana, the fire department had been called the next block over to get a black bear cub out of a tree.
I headed for Lost Trail Pass instead of Lolo. I would be tempted, as always, to hang a left at the pass and go through Wisdom, Montana, where beaver-slide hay dumps rake the sky. The last best country, this is where Chief Joseph fled, vowing to ‘fight no more forever.’
Knowing that such brief delight would land me on Interstate 15, the faster, straighter route to vast Nevada, I kept true to the path less traveled, pausing only at the Lost Trail Pass ski area to adjust my fishy friend so I could see to the mirror.
The smoke only worsened when I passed the “Welcome to Idaho” sign.
As I wound down among the lodgepole pines and the occasional mountain meadow through the Salmon river drainage I thought I would tell my father how many new houses seemed to be sneaking in, that new road signs cluttered the landscape and more pickups were parked along the river. To report back: No longer could I pull over to pee behind a tree, now portapotties marked every river access; trails to the river’s edge had become perennial.
Then I remembered my father’s phone had been disconnected.
Oh, and he was deceased. I would never again hear his answering machine message: “Hi, this is Chris, since I am neither here nor there, please leave a message.”
Feeling neither here nor there myself, I searched the landscape for comfort.