Earlier this week I returned from seven days in the wilds of Northwestern Montana with my family. For part of the time, we had fifteen people sharing essentially three rooms. Thankfully the weather was beautiful, so we spent much of our time outside or on the front porch.
We’re very fortunate that when my grandfather retired from the music arranging and composing job he’d held for decades in Minnesota, he decided to build a cabin back where he grew up. After his passing in the late ’90s, it stayed in the family, and several additions have been made to the formerly one-room outpost (the larger original cabin burned in a wildfire in the ’80s). While it remains a simple, off-the-grid getaway, it has what we need, features outstanding views of surrounding mountains, is close to all kinds of recreational and natural wonders, and holds a special place in the hearts of most of my clan.
Our time there on this occasion was wonderful in many ways, but also a bit strange and sad; it was my father’s recent and sudden death at age 72 that brought us all together, partly to fulfill his wish to have his ashes buried by the cabin, next to a rock engraved with, “Enjoy the View.” We did so, and had a nice memorial for him and his older sister, whose earthly remains rest nearby. We think he’d be happy with the arrangement but of course are very sad that he’s gone too soon.
I have really struggled with losing my father. He was a wonderful dad and all around great guy. We were close and quite similar in many ways, I think, and I’ve learned that it’s also simply a strange and fairly earth shattering thing to lose a parent. Talking about, reflecting upon, and actively remembering him or her seems to be key to getting through such a thing, but our individualistic, forward-looking culture doesn’t teach us to do this very well. Many of us don’t know what to say to people who are grieving and often don’t say much of anything, which as I can tell you, ends up compounding the hurt. Further, if we do offer condolences (increasingly on social media), we often feel as though our job is done and move on. Meanwhile, the grieving person hasn’t moved on and may not for a long time…or ever. There are exceptions, of course, and particularly with people who have experienced something similar, and when people do exhibit thoughtfulness in this regard, it is meaningful.
Other than helping write the obituary while in a mental fog right after he died, I have not written much of anything about my dad. Being back at the place he loved so much, and where we had some fun times together, however, inspired me to write up this story. I’d thought about writing it numerous times before, but didn’t, partly because it doesn’t reflect very well on me as an outdoorsman, and also because I didn’t know if I could write it that well. I decided to do so now, regardless, not for the story itself so much, but because of what it illustrates about my dad.
The spark came while I was sitting on the porch of the cabin, re-reading the very first entry in our cabin book — a journal recounting the stories of those who visit the place — on one of our last days there. My dad and I had brought the large, hard cover book with unlined pages on our two-person dude trip back in the summer of 1998. We drove out in the pickup I had at the time, with our gear in the back under a topper and my bike on a rack behind. En route, among other things, we visited a family friend in North Dakota, marveled at the endless sea of sunflowers, and read aloud from my dad’s favorite author Louis L’Amour and his book Walking Drum, which features the greeting, “Yol bolsun!” (thought to mean, “May there be a road”), something we repeated with gusto throughout the trip.
On the first page of our new journal, I drew a pencil sketch of the cabin and the landscape in the background, and wrote a note as to the purpose of the book. On the next page, my dad explained what we did that week. After noting that we’d arrived at 1:30am the first night and then spent time around the cabin, fixing the woodshed and the like, he described an outing we took. We had driven for bit to a campground located up a lonely valley in the national forest that dominates the landscape west of the cabin. My dad noted that he fly-fished in the creek running through the campground, while I mountain biked in the area above it. He then very succinctly explained, “Paul was five hours late in returning”, and then moved on to discuss what we did the next day.
Why was Paul five hours late? What happened? I’m not sure why he didn’t elaborate; he may have thought I’d be embarrassed by it, or simply didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, since everything turned out okay. But therein lies the story.
If memory serves, we had eaten lunch at the cabin and then headed out to the campground on a warm, sunny day. We parked, he started getting his fishing gear out, and I got on my bike. We agreed that I’d meet him back at this spot at about 5pm and we’d have dinner there — either fresh fish, if my dad had luck, or canned beef stew if not. I had been biking in this area once before, so thought I knew where I was going, that I’d given myself plenty of time, and that I had enough water. I was dead wrong on all counts and almost ended up dead. (Okay, almost is a stretch, but it certainly seemed like I was doomed while in the midst of a ride gone haywire.)
I’d biked to the top of the same mountain with my friend Tim two years earlier, but this time I would be taking a different route up, for reasons I can’t quite recall. Maybe this trailhead was closer to the campground. In any case, I had instructions from my cousin, who was much more experienced in this wild terrain than I, and so confidently took off, backtracking down the road a bit until I found the trail and headed up. Steeply up.
The other route up had been challenging, too. I recall coming around a bend on that one and finding no trace of Tim, who was riding my cousin’s bike ahead of me. “Tim?!” I called, in alarm. From below the trail I heard a muffled, “Yeah…” He’d lost his balance and tumbled aways down the steep slope to our left. But overall, that trail takes a much more meandering course up the mountain.
The trail I chose on this fateful day seemed to say, “Heck with going around; we’re going up and over, baby!” And it wasn’t as though I was a great physical specimen or in wonderful mountain biking shape. I soon found myself mainly pushing my bike for what seemed like many miles upward, in the increasingly oppressive afternoon heat.
After a couple hours of this, I had already drunk all the water in the one bottle I had. These were pre-Camelbak and very unrealistic-ideas-about-mountain-bike-ride days for me. Finally, I reached what seemed to be the top, where I would be rewarded with an exciting downhill to the east and I’d meet up with the logging road and cruise back to the campground.
Except that idea was wrong as well. I did enjoy, or least survive (it was, of course, a very steep descent, too) a relatively lengthy downhill. But then the trail dissipated. I was vexed. Tired, hot, thirsty, alone, and vexed, an inexperienced flatlander in a wild and wooly country, on a trail that had been last visited by…my cousin some previous year? While our cabin sits near the heavily-visited Glacier National Park, the area where I was trying to bike — near the Canadian border and far from any town — is the terrain much less traveled.
At that point I pushed pause. I had spent several hours getting to this point and had just traveled quite a ways down the mountain, after struggling for quite a while to climb up it. I couldn’t stomach turning around and pushing my bike back up and also thereby quitting on completing the loop (though this would have been the logical thing to do). Another possibility was to continue heading north, the direction the trail had been heading before it disappeared into rocky scrub. The issue was that if the trail actually continued in that direction it would be taking an impossibly steep route straight up a mountain peak. That made no sense to me, particularly in my increasingly fuzzy state of mind. Partly because I had reached this impasse from a different direction, I had totally forgotten what Tim and I experienced two years earlier. Before I present what I saw as my third option at the time, and what I ended up doing, a brief digression, as our misadventures from ’96 are worth at least a quick retelling.
Tim and I were in the midst of a cross-continental driving trip that had taken us from Wilmington, Delaware, where we had just completed a year in Lutheran Volunteer Corps, to Boston, Acadia National Park in Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, across Quebec and Ontario, to Michigan, the Twin Cities, and the Boundary Waters before we arrived at our cabin, surprised to find my cousin there. We were also surprised that he was lying naked on a mattress on the front porch. That’s not important to the story, though.
He’d injured his ankle mountain biking, but his new girlfriend had decided to go backcountry camping anyway. She was to be back soon. We cooked up a plan for an outing for the next day, which was to be their last day there. The next day we awoke, however, to cold temperatures and rain that poured incessantly until the early afternoon. When it finally cleared up, we decided to go for it, even though we were getting a late start. Not the wisest move, as it turned out. We put our canoe on top of the truck and some ill-fitting (small) life vests and canoe paddles (one partly broken) that for whatever reason we needed to borrow from the local hostel in the back, with their two mountain bikes on the rack. We dropped my cousin and his girlfriend off at a put-in spot on the river that flows through our valley, up by the Canadian border, and then headed towards this same mountain and the more meandering route up with their bikes. We’d have our adventures and meet back at the cabin for supper, we thought. Ha! While our ascent went largely without incident, it took longer than expected, and by the time we got to the top (same general area as my later impasse) the sun was starting to set. It was a beautiful sunset, but now we had to get down. And we couldn’t find the trail that would take us there. With two of us putting our heads together, we eventually found it, and had a bit scary, but exhilarating ride down the mountain in the fading light. What I had forgotten was that it had also gotten quite cold. Tim recalled, ” I remember being up on that ridge worried about it getting darker, but more than that I remember the temperature dropping and it was getting really cold. My fingers were numb and it was getting harder to hold onto the handlebars and feel what the bike was doing, floating through some of those dips on a rocky trail, on a prayer.”
When we reached the logging road, it was dark and we had no lights, but we, being in our early 20s and not so smart, let out a whoop and bombed it blindly. We were surprised by a few rocks in the road but made it with no problem. When we got back to the cabin, we found the two canoeists huddled around the fire, and no canoe. “You’ll have to go retrieve it from the middle of the river tomorrow,” they declared. They, being ill-equipped and inexperienced on the river at that point, had dumped the canoe several times and, fearing for their lives, ditched the canoe on a sandbar, forded the river, and hitchhiked back. We had an another adventure retrieving the canoe and paddling it back for several hours in the rain the next day, but this digression, though it provides a bit of context and foreshadowing, has gone on long enough.
So, I could head steeply back from where I came, go up an impossibly steep (for a trail) slope in the direction I had been heading, or…hmmm. The only other option, to my addled mind, was to head east (“save my life I’m going down for the last time”, indeed). I had no compass but a strong sense that the logging road was to the right, down that valley, through the trees and bramble. I’d been hiking and sometimes biking for several hours, was already late to meet my dad, and felt in desperate need of water, so was looking for the quickest route back to the campground. The obvious choice was to bushwhack to the east. Right?
After I tried to fortify myself with some huckleberries (whose juice was did nothing to quench my thirst, much to my chagrin), I headed towards a draw that appeared to contain a creek, where I was sure I could find some water.
What I didn’t anticipate was how difficult it would be to walk, let alone drag, a bike through the brush, which was thick and head-high. I gave it a shot, but after a relatively short distance, with the bramble enveloping me, exhaustion setting in, and sunlight slipping away, I threw down the Raleigh police bike I’d purchased back home in Iowa five years earlier, and collapsed in a heap on top of the bushes. I’m sure I said a few choice words, prayed, possibly shed a couple tears, and definitely started to worry.
I later learned that, meanwhile, back at the campground, my dad had no luck fishing, but did succeed in taking a nice nap, from which he was awakened by the curious sniffing of a mule deer. After supper time came and went and I still hadn’t shown up, he began to wonder about my fate. There happened to one other person there, an older guy in a camper. My dad explained what was up and the guy replied, “Does he have a weapon?” Slightly taken aback, my dad indicated that he thought I had a fishing knife in my backpack. “No,” said the camper, “I mean a gun.” We’re not gun people and if we were, I’m not sure I’d be packing heat for a mountain bike ride. I didn’t even have bear spray. My dad started to feel unsettled.
I was feeling beyond unsettled. Lying on my back, between clusters of bushes and staring at the darkening sky, I felt a sort of panic I’d never felt before or since. I had spent time in various backwoods locales over the years, and survived some minor foibles in such places as noted above, but not alone and in a gnarly place like this. I wondered if I would die on this night. I wondered what in the world my dad was thinking and doing. Would he similarly panic? I doubted it, but half expected to hear a rescue helicopter heading my way at any moment. Again, not thinking straight.
It probably would’ve made the most sense to struggle up the bramble, find the trail, and head back. I would be very late regardless, but at least that way I would know for sure where I was going. Instead, without much thought, I said “so long” to the bike and kept walking down towards the creek, since finding water had become my top priority.
It was easier going without the Raleigh, of course, so my spirits were buoyed by how quickly I made it down to the draw. They were just as quickly dashed. Sure enough, there was a creek bed there, but no creek. I’m sure I would have shed another tear if I could’ve spared the moisture. But, two ideas gave me hope for survival. First, I thought perhaps that within stalks of the tall vegetation (thinking back, it was likely bear grass) found throughout this area might be some stored water, like I’d heard about. No such luck. The second idea proved more fruitful, though: I figured that even if it was devoid of water the creek bed could save me by providing a trail. If I followed it down the valley, I was certain I’d find the logging road.
Because of the innumerable downed trees strewn across it, the creek bed proved to be a terrible path, but it kept me going in what I thought was the right direction, which was key, since by now it was nearly dark, and there was no going back. Eventually, around 10pm, the creek bed nearly intersected with the trail I had previously failed to find and there was enough light that I could see it. I’m sure I shouted Hallelujah! or something like that.
With pep in my step I followed the trail at a rather brisk pace, particularly because I could’ve sworn that I saw a bear family ambling along in the twilight below me (but again, my brain was not functioning at a peak level). Sure enough, after a short walk, I reached the logging road, just as the darkness fully fell. In another bit of deja vu, once I hit the road, I bombed it, taking off in a dead sprint and forgetting that I was supposed to be dead tired.
After a bit I heard the sounds of nirvana: a creek bed with actual water flowing briskly through it. Giardia-be-damned, I filled my cursed empty water bottle and pounded what must’ve been a gallon’s worth.
And then I continued sprinting down the road, not wanting that bear family to catch up with me, and hoping to find my dad before he took off or that rescue helicopter arrived.
It wasn’t long before I reached the road we’d driven in on, where I took a right and kept running. Then, what to my addled eyes should appear? Two headlights headed my direction.
I slowed down to a jog and started waving my hands furiously, hoping to be rescued and not run over.
It was my dad in the pickup.
I jumped into the cab and said something like, “I’m sure glad you’re here!” He just looked at me with his mischievous half-smile, handed me the open can of beef stew, and said, simply, “What happened?”
No yelling, no hysterics, no judgment. He didn’t even ask about my bike. That was my dad.
I explained to him my various mishaps in between bites of stew, and he explained that he had driven up and down that road numerous times, hoping to find me. This was to be his last search of the night, though, and then he was going to try to sleep back at the campsite and hope I turned up in the morning. Pop was one caring, understanding, laid back dude.
We had been planning to take the canoe up to a lake in Glacier the next day, paddle to the head of the lake, and camp there for a night. We got up the next morning, and that’s what we did. The fiasco of the previous day was old news, and we had a great time together. He was a good fly fisherman and caught us a couple nice rainbows, while I think I got skunked. But we had fresh shore supper, slept in my little backpacking tent, and in the morning paddled two hours to the truck without stopping, because the lake was choppy and we had no life jackets. We came back to a flat tire on the truck, due to a protruding nail, but eventually got past that, too.
The next day, I headed out by myself, nice and early on a clear day, to hike back up and find my bike. I parked on the logging road and started hiking up the trail near where I’d disembarked from that dry creek bed. It was a nice and relatively quick hike up to a stark, rocky peak, where I stopped to survey my surroundings. As I looked down, to the south, it all became clear. Though it seemed to disappear, the trail did, in fact, continue up that impossibly steep trajectory to the point at which I found myself, beyond which it followed a spiny saddle and then headed down through the woods to the logging road.
I clambered down the craggy slope with enthusiasm, sure I’d find my bike and be able to complete the ride I’d abandoned two days earlier. But it was not to be. While I scoured the bramble for some time, no bicycle was to be found. In the haze and panic of the previous outing, there was no thought of me seeing the Raleigh again so I had just left it in the bush where I dropped it, rather than climbing back up a bit and leaving it out in the open or marking its location somehow. I tried to find it, though, and now could at least understand where I’d gone wrong. Plus, as I told this story in the years to come I could chuckle at the vision of a young bruin taking my bike for a spin.
I hiked back disappointed, but at peace, similar to how I feel now, sitting on my front porch in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and missing my dad.
Yol bolsun, Pop.
Note: Lead photo by Aaron Teasdale