I’d been in a comatose nap, stretched on the downstairs sofa with one dog curled at my feet and the other flopped atop me like a giant, hairy quilt. It was a dark and cold evening in late October, and the valley outside my home was quiet. Inside, the corner woodstove popped and cracked and tossed flickers of firelight around the room.
There was a hard rap on the outside door.
I remember rubbing the back of my hand across my mouth. I’d been drooling, which I sometimes do during dreams.
We tumbled off the couch, the dogs and me, all legs and paws and growls. When I opened the door we found a neighbor standing on the porch.
“Sorry to bother you,” Doug said, “but I saw your light.”
Doug and his wife live a few miles up the road in a comfortable home perched on a wooded slope. They grew up in the valley together and had the pleasure of a hardscrabble childhood with the luxury of not knowing any better. They had millions of acres of forest and creeks to explore and a youth filled with adventures that today’s kids have replaced with video games.
“I thought you should know,” he continued. “Ruben died today.”
Ruben is Doug’s father-in-law, Tammy’s dad, Patty’s husband and Button’s master.
We have a repertoire of daily hiking routes that wind across hillsides, down draws and along overgrown logging roads. Piecing together a menagerie of routes gives us a variety of options when we exercise the dogs. Over the years we’ve ended our forays into the woods along a well traveled deer trail that leads down a gentle slope to a salt lick behind Ruben’s woodshed. The woodshed contains the outhouse and is a quick hop from Ruben’s hand-built log cabin. The cabin, directly across the Forest Service road from our property, is Ruben’s escape from his home – which is in the small town fifteen miles distant.
It’s been a year now since he died on a steep hillside in the sunshine of a brilliant October day. While four-wheeling with a friend, he lost control of the ATV and slid downhill amid avalanching scree. I think if he could have chosen his death, he wouldn’t have died any differently.
I think of him when I cross through his property with the dogs. Sometimes I sit on his hillside, looking down at the log buildings and the rusted mining and woodcutting implements that fill the pockets of his land. I see game trails cutting seams through the grass, countour lines in the earth. Sometimes I close my eyes, stand in place and simply listen. I know what I expect to hear, and the sounds are familiar. The pine trees swish in the wind, rustling like silk petticoats. Birds chatter with an intensity that clearly says they mean to be heard. A squirrel dashes up a tree, clicking the tree bark as it scurries away from one of the dogs. The creek courses through the valley, heading toward the bigger waters of the Clark Fork River. An old pickup clatters down the dirt road. This forest is content and its sounds are comfortable, and I wonder if Ruben is somehow here, carried perhaps on a glint of sunlight or on the breezes that swirl among the branches and then reach down to dift among the fallen leaves. Is he here, on this hillside and among his handiwork below?
I like to believe that he is.
And I like to believe that I’ll be here, walking these familiar trails, even when I’m gone.