I'm writing this from the shore of Two Medicine Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana. I've just come down from Dawson Pass, where my brother and I, accompanied by my son, scattered our parents' ashes to the high-mountain winds.
This Two Medicine area has been the axis of my family's world since before I was born. In fact, it's part of why I was born. In 1955, my parents were living in San Francisco, in an apartment they both hated, and not sure if they were going to stay together; my mom had blown things up with the most dramatic of her love affairs, and although the affair was over and my dad had moved back in, the emotions still ran high and dark. To get away, my father applied for a summer job with the National Park Service. Then he landed a new regular job, teaching high school English in the Santa Clara Valley, where new suburbs were spreading like fescue, uprooting old cherry and plum orchards. Whether his wife would follow him there was their lives' central question, and that summer apart—he caretaking a campground in the quiet of Glacier, she and their nine-year-old son staying behind in the city—became their chance to answer it.
In the end, they moved as a family to drowsy Los Gatos and started saving to buy a ranch-style tract home. They also launched a reconciliation baby—hence my existence. My mother was eight months' pregnant with me when my father drove the family back to Glacier the next June.
So it was that my first home was a log cabin, the caretaker's residence in the middle of Two Medicine Campground, heated with a wood-burning stove and regularly invaded by mice, shrews, and weasels. That my mother would take that on with a newborn—after spending the preceding few years trying to establish herself as a sophisticated city girl—was a testament to her strength, her dedication to the new family agreement, and the masochism that got her through so much of her life.
I spent my first six summers in that campground, and in my early memories it's far more vivid than the pastel stucco world where I spent the other nine months of every year. My father had to give up the job after that, but we still returned to Two Medicine for at least a few weeks nearly every year into my teens. I suppose most of my real growing up happened in California—all the social and academic development that's shaped who I am outwardly—but it was in that alpine quiet, skipping rocks alone over the glassy surface of Two Medicine Lake, that I discovered an inner self, learned the power of solitude, and first got it in my head that I wanted to spend my life telling stories. My memories took on a lonely depth that's turned most of my wanderlust toward cities and valleys instead of mountains; but still, I went back to Glacier for my thirtieth birthday and my fortieth, and I took my son there as soon as I thought he could appreciate it.
My brother's life began there too, although not quite so literally. After being bounced around among neighbors and relatives while our parents fought, never fitting in at a blue-collar city school, Two Medicine became the first place where he truly felt he belonged. He started hiking the trails, at first with our dad but then on his own, and discovered an autonomy and liberation he'd never known. He exhausted the local trails and started heading off cross-country. He became a legend among the park staff as "that kid who hikes everywhere," and by his second summer there, at the age of eleven, he was selling his services to tourists as a trail guide. When our father let the job go, Ray got his own job with a Glacier Park trail crew, and from that time on he owned the park, and it owned him, more than any of us. It's been his well-spring. His stories about it are endless. He can turn the telling of its geological formation into great drama. He raised both his children to love it, and this trip his eight-year old granddaughter came too. Like anyone who's spent any time in the glow of Ray's radiant love of the place, she wants to go back.
For our parents, Glacier was the source of a peace they seemed able to find nowhere else. It was the one place where I felt they were living shared lives and wanting the same things. My father had always craved quiet and solitude and liked knowing that he'd gone as far as possible from (as he liked to put it) the madding crowd. My mother could be frenetically social, at least in her manic phases, but she was high-strung and sensitive, and too much human society would tip her into her self-isolating depressions. In the campground at Two Medicine they both found an equilibrium, with each other and with the world. My dad was present and approachable in a way he rarely was at home; the closest I ever felt to him, at least until I took care of him after my mom died, was the summer I turned ten, when we two made the Montana pilgrimage alone. My mom was simply and profoundly at peace. She hardly drank. Her words were rarely bitter. And I believe that the good later years of their marriage began when my dad retired from teaching and retook that lost, idyllic summer job in Two Medicine campground that he'd had to let go of two decades before.
Whatever spirituality I have springs ultimately from Two Medicine. The only deities my family ever honored were the mountains ringing the lake. Their names, a hectic mix of Blackfoot titles, some translated and some not—Rising Wolf, Lone Walker, Sinopah, Painted Teepee, Never Laughs, Appistoki—invoked a mystery in me from my earliest years that I think I'm still trying to comprehend.
Rising Wolf so dominates the campground with his monumental mass, flashing light from his terrible cliffs in the morning and burying everything in his shadow by late afternoon, that I grew up unconsciously looking away from him as much as I could. My father and brother tried twice to climb to his summit and were turned back by pounding storms and unscalable masses of stone before, on their third try, he finally let them reach the top. (Even then, they never spoke of "conquering" him.) Sinopah, gazing at us serenely from across the lake, was our one real object of veneration. My father took thousands of pictures of her over the years in every light and every mood. As many times as we'd looked at her, the words "come look at the light on Sinopah" would bring us all tumbling out of our cabin or trailer.
Dawson Pass holds a special place in that family mythology. It's a short, steep, beautiful hike with a breathtaking consummation. The trail starts from the lakeshore at the foot of Sinopah and climbs along the shoulder of Rising Wolf, from a swampy, creek-watered valley of lush-leafed plants with fragrant blossoms, through a forest of firs that stand tall and majestic at the bottom but waist-high and wind-twisted by the top, and finally to the cavernous amphitheater of the high country. There, suddenly, as you push through the constant wind and cross over the pass, you find a whole new world of jagged peaks and plummeting gorges stretching away from you in every direction.
It's also the first saddle in a longer hike, the Dawson-Pitamakan Loop, famous among hikers as one of the most spectacular trails in North America. That trail was essentially created by my father and brother. When Ray was eleven, our dad discovered a trail marked on a 1938 USGS map that had apparently never been built, connecting what were in fact two dead-end trails to Dawson and Pitamakan Passes. So they headed out early one morning to reconstruct the original, hypothetical route across the slippery scree around the back of Mt. Morgan, building cairns along the way to mark the safest passage. After a few trips cut short by wrong turns and unexpected cliffs they had a trail marked out. My father then drafted a proposal, including a hand-drawn map, and sent it to park administration. It took quite a few years, but the trail got built.
Almost nothing has changed in Two Medicine since then. I want to say that going back there stirs up old memories, but it's more than that: it's as if the memories become my reality and everything I've ever experienced there is present again. It's the life I've lived outside the park that feels old and distant. Timelessness is the soul of the place. The mountains themselves are made of ancient stuff, Precambrian mudstone heaved up over the much younger ground of the prairie. When you hike up to Dawson Pass you take a journey forward through time, from the green mudstone of the oldest stratum to the tawny limestone of the youngest; but the rocks are so old that after you've climbed upward for miles, at the very top of the trail, you find the ground strewn with stromatolites, stone remnants of the colonies of cyanobacteria who became the first creatures to enter the fossil record about a billion years ago. (No, my brother and I weren't the first to mark the passage of time by scattering remains on the pass.)
In another way the trail moves in reverse, a rapid hike back through time. Spring comes earlier to the lower reaches of the trail, where the snow melts first, and in the time-tight ecology of the high places that makes a difference: we found that the beargrass stalks near the lakeshore had already shed their blossoms, but two miles up they were in full bloom and two miles further were covered with buds. Right before the treeline, along the runoff from still-melting snow patches, we found a few that hadn't even sprouted stalks. In a couple of hours we had marched a month backward along that timeline held in the bodies of plants.
And, of course, there's another way in which we journeyed through time, because we were climbing back to a time when our parents weren't dead. Among the unchanged monuments of stone and endlessly recycling organisms whose names I had begun to learn before I could write my own, they were there. When Ray and I looked back over the deep valley we'd just climbed out of and reminded each other yet again of some memory we'd created together half a century before and had been polishing on every trip to Glacier ever since, Mom and Dad may just as well have been barely out of sight around the bend of the trail ahead of us or waiting in the campground below. I could hear their voices: How was Dawson today? Any huckleberries?
The ritual itself, when it finally came, was comfortingly casual. We settled in on the pass, meditated on the view, told Nicky the names of the mountains and glaciers, took some pictures, ate sandwiches, and finally came to the business of the two small, heavy bags we'd packed all the way up. We said a few unrehearsed words to our parents, welcoming them home and thanking them for giving us Glacier. Then we dug our hands into the ashes—Dad's light and crunchy, Mom's dense and powdery (and I sense a metaphor there about their lives and characters that I haven't found yet)—and started tossing.
Although it took us a few handfuls to admit it, the tossing itself turned out to be invigorating. Fun, actually. The wind caught the ashes and sent them sailing over the pass, back toward Two Medicine Lake, as little clouds. Pretty soon we were positioning ourselves against the wind and tossing them as high as we could so they would twist into the air as animated vertical columns, looking like the ghosts in images of Victorian seances. Nicky had the camera, and soon the challenge became timing our throws so he could catch a picture of the perfect ghost. We admired how pretty they looked against the stark tallis and shadowed top of Flinsch Peak, and we laughed about how our parents would have loved the game and how our dad would have insisted on trying too if he'd been able to reach back across the Styx to grab a handful of his own ashes.
But the moment when we each, simultaneously, tossed our final handful of ashes into the air—me the last of my mother and him the last of our father—we fell silent. We looked out where the white clouds could no longer be seen and listened to the constant wind of the mountains telling us that the longest story of our lives had finally ended, and that it would never end at all.