Authors: Donald S. Smurthwaite
Tags: #ride, #retirement home, #cross country, #North Dakota, #family, #car, #road trip, #bountiful, #Utah, #assisted living, #graduate, #Coming of age, #heritage, #loyal, #retirement, #uncle, #adventure, #money, #nephew, #trip, #kinship
So I answer. My voice is croaky, and I feel like a thirteen-year-old again, when the first major change of life came. I hope Uncle Loyal chalks it up to the rapidly cooling night air. “Yes. You’re right, Uncle Loyal. He makes people happy. We never went without anything we needed. He is a good and gifted man. I’m proud that I am his son. And my mom is a lot like him too. I have good parents. The best.”
“Your father need not be a mystery to you, Levi. He must be a content man. A happy man. A peaceful man.”
“I think he is.”
“It’s a gift, a skill, the ability to be content. But I am unsure if you are born with it or if it is learned. No. I believe you must learn how,” Uncle Loyal says. “Part of acquiring wisdom, I suspect. There must be a chapter in the book of wisdom about being content.”
“Yeah. You’ve got a point.”
How could I have missed it? My parents were right there, always, good people, living a simple, good life, devoted to family, but I didn’t recognize the beauty in who they were and what they did. How could I have missed it? But I did. I had. Until now. Stuck in the mud in Montana.
And then it seems as though Uncle Loyal peels the skin right off my skull, looks into my brain, my mind, maybe even my heart. He looks inside and
what I am thinking. He looks at me and knows.
I am convinced it is not just a lucky guess. He knows.
“I have yet to know anyone who wanted more and was content, who wanted more and was at peace with himself. It’s such a simple thing. But it’s a small bit of knowledge that not many people truly understand and fewer yet embrace.”
Note to Levi: Significant moment here. What’s he saying? What’s the meaning? The gears in my head are grinding away. It is this:
Levi, you can’t always be on the hunt for more things, more stuff, more to do, more power, more authority, more of . . . more of whatever, and be at peace with yourself. It does not compute. It defies spiritual physics. It’s oil and water, Levi. It’s opera and bad heavy metal. It’s home cooking and Scout camp food. It’s lima beans and apple pie a la mode.
Do the math: it does not add up.
I roll over on my right shoulder. I think,
I could take up the camera. I could follow in my father’s footsteps. Maybe that is the path for me. I don’t know.
“This sounds paradoxical, Levi. But I have given thought to it for many years. In this old life, you actually gain more by not wanting more. I hope that makes sense.”
I just say, “It does.”
Uncle Loyal leans back in his chair. I look out the car window and see the stars, brilliant stars, puncturing the blackness of the summer sky. The storm is over. Tomorrow it would be clear and warm, the sky, that brilliant blue you can see only at high elevations. With daylight, I’d be able to figure a way out of the mud puddle we are trapped in. It was an odd sensation that night, knowing we are surrounded by water, far from anyone or anywhere, no solid plan to get us out. But with Loyal in the front seat, a half tank of gas, and enough chips and jerky to feed us for a week, I stop worrying.
There is a way out.
We’d find it, and we’d laugh about our night in the muddy red car for years to come. I decide to show myself the same forgiveness that I would bestow on others. What a concept!
We don’t talk anymore. Uncle Loyal’s words about gaining more by wanting less settle comfortably into my thoughts. I feel peaceful, more than I had in a long time. I begin to think of all the territory we’d covered in just a couple of short days, what we’d seen, and more important, what I had learned. I was understanding the road and what I could learn about life from the people I came across on my travels. I was beginning to recognize how a trip was changing into a journey for me. With Uncle Loyal sitting next to me in the front seat, this trip from North Dakota to Utah was certainly becoming a journey.
The little slip of the moon rose over the lake. There was no sound. It was still, still.
I fall asleep more easily than I had imagined possible. A few times during the night, I hear Uncle Loyal turn on the car engine and feel the blast of warm air flowing into the backseat, where I lay curled and, to my surprise, content.
When the morning comes, red and dazzling, I am amazed at how much of the puddle around us has disappeared.
We Escape the Mountains and Roll with Uncertainty toward Our Destiny
Quite the talk I had with my great-nephew. I hope I did not discourage him. Nor do I hope he took what I said too seriously.
Levi is an unusual young man. He struggles within himself, but in time, he will figure that out. His sense of humor is alive and crackling; he makes me laugh, which is good for me. I have not laughed often enough these last few years. He shows great promise. He understands life fairly well for someone of his tender years. In him, I see hope; I see the future. I see someone who is not willing to take life in any one particular way because it is expected of him. Obedient, yes. Independent thinker, also yes. The two are not incompatible. Levi could be a plainsman.
He has the capacity to be wise.
I did not sleep well. The setting was beautiful as the night draped itself over our little carved bowl in the mountains. The air was strong with scent of the water, I suppose, from the small lake, the spiky aroma of the alpine country. At least it seems like it is alpine country. I am a flatlander and not acquainted with the nomenclature of these high spires of granite. Each time I would think of it—
Loyal, you are in the mountains at a high elevation, marooned in a dashing red car with bears on the prowl and the chance to tell tall tales when liberated
—I would get excited and find slumber difficult to achieve.
It was also cold. The cold of the mountains nips at your edges, darts from your head to your feet. It settles upon you in subtle ways—a chill in the shoulder, a stinging at the toes, a shudder down the bumpy spine. Unlike the cold of the plains, it is where the temperature and wind drive through you like a blue, chilled, steel stake.
Midnight gradually turned to morning. I was happy to see the first gray light of dawn. Levi was still asleep and seemed peaceful. I began to think of ways that we might extricate ourselves from this woeful predicament.
I did not need to apply much thought to it. Soon after daybreak, when the shadows were still long and the first hope of warmth was manifesting itself, I hear the sound of an engine grinding slowly up the mountainside. In a quarter hour, I can see the headlights from a truck, a green-painted fire engine of some kind, patrol lights mounted on its cab.
Levi sits up suddenly. He rubs his eyes and runs his fingers through his hair. He cranes his neck and starts to say something, but his words come out as an early-morning slur. His breath is warm and sour, his movements jerky. Then he also hears the engine.
“Forest Service or BLM rig,” he says. “Probably out on fire patrol. All that water from the storm, and they’re looking for fires.”
“Will they stop for us?”
“Oh yeah. Out here in the woods, you always stop for everyone, especially if they look like they could use a hand. It’s just the way it’s done.” He pushes his hands against his face, looks around, and seems to take stock of our surroundings. “And I think we could use a hand. Call me crazy. But I think we’re still stuck. That much didn’t change during the night.”
We watch with hopeful anticipation as the truck crawls up the mountain, sometimes disappearing from sight, the noise from its engine fading. I remind myself that this is natural and normal, the flow and ebb of sight and sound at high elevations. Certainly they would not turn away.
I am on the verge of blowing the car horn or asking Levi to take to his feet and dash down the mountain to flag the attention of the crawling engine’s crew. Then, almost as if by miracle, the big truck lumbers its way into view, not more than one hundred yards from us. It is a moment of pleasure, of celebration. They had seen us. Our rescue is at hand. I swing open the door and crane my head out and wave an arm in the crisp air.
The engine pulls up to the edge of our wide, muddy puddle. Two young men and a young woman dressed in bright yellow shirts and sturdy green pants hop out.
“Good morning,” the tallest of the three calls out. “Looks like you’re in a fix. Mind if we help you out?”
“Not at all. We would be obliged. We got caught in a thunderstorm. It was a calamitous event. Before we knew it, we were in the middle of this pond. My great-nephew heroically tried to free us, but he said the mud was ferocious and unforgiving.”
“That it can be,” the tall one says, knowingly, affably. “You’re not the first people we’ve pulled out of a jam like this. We’re supposed to be looking for new fires, but after a gully-washer like last night, we’re more likely to find people stranded in mud or water.”
One of his companions, a short, stout fellow with long red hair and sprigs of a fuzzy red beard, comes to his side. “You took the last one. Sarah the one before. My turn, I guess,” he says with uncommon good nature. “I don’t suppose either of you will want to go play in the mud this early in the day.”
“All yours, Nate.”
And with that, he pulls a cable on a winch at the front of the truck, and in mere seconds, had sloshed his way to the car and hooked us to the engine. The young woman flips a switch and, with no apparent effort, the line goes taut. With a smucking and swooshing sound, Levi’s red car is pulled to dry land.
“Thank you. Thanks so much. Cool. Thanks. Awesome,” Levi speaks in rapid-fire fashion, getting out of the car. “We had a plan and we were just ready to get on with it, but you guys saved us the trouble. Did I mention I spent a lot of time in the mountains? In Utah. I know my way around stuff like this. But you guys made it look easy.”
“Don’t be so sure of that,” the young woman says dryly. “You’re in the Beartooth Mountains, and a half-dozen people a year who don’t quite know what they’re doing walk or drive in here and never come out. It’s rugged back here. Steep as a goat’s face, dark as a cow’s stomach. They get turned around and panic. Can’t even remember to walk downslope. Gone. Disappeared. Dead and never seen again.” Here she pauses for dramatic effect. “Bear bait.”
“It was Sarah here you need to thank,” the red-bearded one says. “Way down on the highway, she thought she saw a glint in the sun. We figured it could be trouble for someone, so we decided to take a look. Part of what we get paid for is side trips like this.”
Levi looks embarrassed. I know he wants to do something, say something that indicates he’s no greenhorn lost in the mountains, but it was no time to put forth that he is an experienced mountaineer and almost an Eagle Scout. There is nothing he can do but nod and mumble, “I guess so. Thanks, again.”
I try to push a twenty-dollar bill into the hands of the tall one, but he shakes his head. “Just doing my job. Good luck to you. We’ll follow you back down to the state highway. In case you have any other problems, we’ll be right behind you.”
Levi gets into the car, still smarting from the young woman’s mild rebuke. He starts the engine, and away we go, down the gorgeous mountainside, back to the highway, which would certainly lead to a town, which would lead us yet to another town, and eventually, a city. Sometime in the near future, it would lead us to Bountiful and the Glad Tidings Assisted Living Home, where my new life awaited me.
That phrase again: my new life.
How strange it sounded! I am too old to start again. Yes. No. I do not know.
I had grown so comfortable in my old life.
And now, having driven across the plains, fished high in the mountains, bagged a peak, and spent a night shivering in a car stuck in a place that only the moon and stars could see, I am back on a paved road and headed in a direction that I have never quite been before.
This was the practical thing to do, I argue with myself. The time would come when I would need help in my daily tasks and routines. I would be closer to my family and be around people my own age. Yes, practical. And forward-thinking. Reasonable. Conventional. Sensible. What was expected of a man my age.
I think of my beloved plains.
There was nothing sensible about living on the plains. It is a hard country, too cold in the winter, too hot in the summer, too rocky, too flat, too small, and too large.
Yet I loved it there. I loved feeling as though I were on the edge of nature. I loved the people who had the heart and grit to live in such a fierce land. I loved being a part of my community and, with my medicines, making a difference to them. I loved the Church members there, some of them meeting in front rooms of small homes temporarily turned into chapels. I loved them because they came to church when it was thirty below and one hundred above and never thought it extraordinary. I loved them because they were like the plains themselves: unchangeable, unassuming, productive, and solid. It was difficult to leave them.
But the rational being brought me back and led me to this road, bound for Utah. In life, your loves come and go, and if you are fortunate, they last a long time, but in the end, they are all taken away from you or you from them, and you have just the promise of eternities and the faith that it will happen to help you stay whole. So you are left with photographs and memories, whispers, aches, and reminders of other days and other times. So many of my loves were slipping away from me. It was like one door after another slowly closing until there were only doors open inches wide, and then, the final, soft click of the latch catching fast.
This is what it is to grow old. Maybe it suffices as a definition of growing old: more is taken from your life than comes into it. You feel as though you are being guided or pushed toward the outside rim of some unseen circle until, finally, you are at the edge and can only observe what takes place at the center, the center where you once were young, hopeful, vital, and energetic.
Where Levi is now
, I thought.
I saw in him all the recklessness of a young man: from an electric, humorous, and occasionally self-absorbed being to one who was intuitive enough to put his arm around my shoulder, grasp my wrist, softly say, “Here,” and show me how to cast a fly. And another side of his character, someone who thought, “Loyal is a man of the plains. I will take him to a mountain, we will climb it, and he will see something from the top of a peak that he only could have imagined before.”