That’s Life

Writer’s note: On April 15, 1993, a freak accident claimed the lives of my cousins, Collin 18 and Greg 21, when they fell from a tree. No one knows for sure why they were up there—maybe just to relive old times in a favorite tree. Later that summer my Uncle Allen and I laid them to rest. TB

Tony Bender

By TONY BENDER

I sat on the boulder, a mile higher than I had been yesterday. The morning sun shone, and the mountain meadow deep below the jagged rocks of LaCrosse Pass glowed with a deep green. Bright yellow, white and crimson blooms stood resilient, as important as the towering peaks and ice blue glaciers in the distance.

I reflected here in these Olympic Mountains. I exalted in the back-breaking climb, and I grieved for the reason we were here.

Collin had first climbed this pass when he was about 12, his father told me as we ascended. The boy had seen the forbidding route and fretted. “Go on,” my uncle had told him, “And if you get scared, we can turn around.” The boy didn’t turn around, and in the years to come he had become a man, a formidable mountain man, carrying fifty pound packs, looking for bears to wrestle, his fear a distant memory.

But now free-spirited Collin was a memory too. A plastic box of ashes in my pack. His father would have carried him, but the accident had taken his other son, too. And he carried Greg. He had been the oldest.

I searched for profound thoughts to speak to a man who was scattering his youngest son’s ashes. “It was good that you could bring him up here one more time.” My words broke the silence like thunder and drove Allen down the trail to be alone in his pain. And the tears mixed with ashes and ran down the mountain to the sea.

Twenty minutes later I hitched up my pack that had become an extension of me and followed him down. I slipped my headphones on and hit the tape. Pink Floyd. Collin had liked Pink Floyd. We walked a long way that day, and the downhill was worse than the climb, rocks bruising my already blistered feet, the decline pounding my creaky knees. David Gilmour’s guitar making it surreal. For nearly two days we wouldn’t see another soul, a testament to the difficulty of the route.

We had pushed hard because we had one more son to take home. Greg had loved the pristine clarity of the small mountain pool, Marmot Lake, and that was another long climb, another hard day away.

The weather had been kind, but we rushed on expecting rain to come any minute. When you’ve lost your only sons, you come to expect the rain.

The sun had moved across the sky to the west before we stopped, utterly spent. I had been so engrossed in shutting out the pain that my heart refused to skip when I met the bear. His black fur glistened majestically, muscles rippled powerfully. But he moved on casually, out of respect I suppose, for our mission.

On the third day we stood on the rugged peak above Marmot Lake and surveyed distant waters and forests in crystalline weather. This time I was silent as Greg was laid to rest.

After he had finished, Allen seemed more at peace. We had done what we had set out to do and all that remained now was to get home safely. And when his misstep didn’t send him careening hundreds of feet down the cliff, I took it as a sign that his luck was changing. Surely he deserved to have a good life in the remaining years. Surely, his wife, Folly, waiting alone in that silent house a hundred miles distant, deserved peace of mind, I thought.

Righting himself after his wobble, Allen intoned, “You wouldn’t have had to go down after me. Not in any hurry, anyway.” Our eyes caught each other like a fishing line snagged on submerged moss but nothing else was said. We would live. It was a turning point.

On the fourth day, as the flames flickered and the smoke drove away black flies left by a passing herd of elk, we stared at the orange tongues licking the branches. “Many fathers would do many things for their sons,” I said over the low rumble of the nearby mountain stream. “But not many would do what you’ve done, Allen. You’ve been a good father.” We talked about his sons, and it was easier to laugh about their adventures and idiosyncrasies. They had been accomplished outdoorsmen. They had been good boys. They had been fine men.

On the fifth day as we walked out of the forest, I had fallen behind, a victim of protesting muscles and tendons that shortened my gait. But before we crossed the bridge that would complete our fifty mile trek, Allen waited. When I limped up he shook my hand. “You did good, buddy,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

Once again, my mouth could not give voice to what I felt. My throat was thick. It had all been so very hard. I wasn’t as strong as Collin and Greg had been. I looked straight ahead through the blur in my eyes. “It was a good hike,” I choked out after the pause. And then we walked across the bridge together.

—1993