A little girl follows her dad along a stream in the mountains of Wyoming. They’re up out of Circle Park Campground, in the Cloud Peaks Wilderness. It’s a sweet, warm summer day and the air is soft and vibrant with life. They are not following a trail; the stream is their pathway. The father carries a fishing rod. He has the body language of a hunter; he is poised egret-like over the water. The child has a fishing pole, too, but she’s along for the walk.
They both watch the water. The stream has led them upslope, first through rocky terrain and forest, and then into a wet, green meadow. Around the meadow the land raises steeply, dark with conifers, to silvery peaks. The peaks appear to be snow covered, but that’s an illusion; in fact, the silver is desiccated wood from trees felled decades ago and left crisscrossed in an impenetrable mess of giant jackstraws. Even as an eleven year old, the girl can tell what a waste this is and feels anger at the timber company that committed the offense against the mountain wilderness. But the meadow is intact, a work of nature’s art, each part woven into to the adjacent parts, forming a tapestry that is beautiful in its completeness: water pooling behind fallen logs, deep green grass, dense stands of willow, clouds of noseeums, a warbler’s song, and trout.
“Let’s try for right there,” says her dad. “Right there” is a place of deep water in the curve of the stream where the bank is undercut, forming a dark and mysterious pool. They are well up stream from “right there”, moving quietly; trout can see shapes in motion above the water. Her father takes careful, long, quiet strides, and holds his pole low. He reaches a choice place on the stream bank and lets his worm drop gently into the water. Then he lets the line run out. The worm is caught by the current and disappears down stream. He can mark its travels by the ripple in the water where his line intersects the stream. They watch anxiously. But no luck; the worm is too far out and takes the corner mid stream.
Her father makes an exasperated noise and pulls the line out, careful to bring it along the far shore, away from the dark place where a trout might be lurking.
He smiles at his daughter, “We’ll try that again.”
This time he drops the worm into the water a little farther out across the stream. The line runs out. They watch it travel with the flow. It’s taking the corner close to the far bank. Yes! The worm is in the pool. Suddenly the line straightens. Her dad starts to reel in, his hands jerky with excitement. The child is excited, too, and grips her pole so hard her fingers ache. The line zigzags through the water. A fish slaps the surface, disappears, and breaks the surface again. It’s silver and copper and decorated with tiny red dots, the same colors as the stream bed. Her dad reels the fish in.
It’s a fairly big fish: frying pan size. Her dad keeps everything he catches, no matter how small, on the theory that the fingerlings are delicate and tasty. Her mom gripes about the tiny ones because they are too hard to eat without getting a mouthful of little bitty bones. This fish will please her.
Her dad lays the fish down in the grass while he extracts his pliers from his creel. The girl has watched this ritual before, but she doesn’t like it. The fish is panting desperately; every now and then it gives a convulsive flop. Her dad pins it to the ground with one hand and starts to work the hook out.
“Swallowed it,” says her dad, grimacing. The girl averts her eyes from the trail of guts that are dragged out with the hook. Her dad tears up a handful of grass, wraps the fish, and places it in the creel with the rest of the catch. The other fish, the ones caught earlier, are quiet now, the girl notices.
“You want to try here?” her dad asks. She has not yet caught anything. For most of their walk her line has not been in the water. She shakes her head, content to watch. Her dad thinks that more fish might be lurking in the deep water of the curve, so he tries again: he’s right. They take another, a smaller trout, before moving on.
On the far side of the meadow the stream reenters the forest and becomes a series of rocky pools and cascades. Father and daughter clamber over rocks and fallen logs. The child enjoys the logistics of this: the plotting of a course through the maze, the climbing and scrambling, the careful placement of feet and hands, the little risks incurred while sliding down or scrambling up a boulder. Every now and then they have to cross the creek. The water is extremely cold; in seconds the chill travels up her ankles to her knees rendering her numb and clumsy.
It’s bright water: sparkly, refractive of sunlight, glowing with the colors of the wet pebbles. She takes a moment to crouch by the stream and count the colors where the water runs over rocks: copper, gold, russet, orange, dun, and silvery black, too many colors to count. She notices that the flat water in a pool behind a rock is sky blue. She can look through the blue surface and see more colors: rose, maroon, dark green. She realizes that she is looking at a fish.
“Daddy,” she whispers, “I see one.”
“Don’t point,” he says. “It can see you.”
Her hand reaches for her pole. She brings it up slowly, calculating as she does where to drop her worm. She moves the tip of the pole along the surface of the water up stream from the fish and lets her worm drop there. The water grabs her worm and takes it in a swift dive over a little waterfall into the fish’s pool. She can see the worm, see it moving into the stream bed right by the fish. She watches the fish dart forward, and sees it make its big mistake. Then she feels the shock through her pole, her line straightens, and the fish dodges back into the darkness behind a rock.
“You got it!” her dad exults. “Now reel it in, but not too fast.” He hovers anxiously, watching.
She turns the reel, pulling steadily, and the fish struggles. The line darts around, cutting the water’s surface. The fish breaks through into the air with a frantic splash. It’s pan size, a good fish, one her mom will like. She reels it in, dragging it across the brightly colored pebbles of the shallows.
Her dad reaches down and grabs the line, pulling the fish onto a tiny patch of sand.
“Good one,” he says.
But she is caught by the sight of the hook. It is barely in the fish’s mouth. This is a fish that could survive.
It’s a beautiful fish. Its eyes are round and glassy, and its fins are fanned out, rigid with fear, glittering with water. All along its glistening sides are tiny dots of red on pinkish silvery scales.
She had plotted the demise of this particular fish. She saw it, she stalked it, she tricked it, and now she was going to kill it.
Why was it the fate of this particular fish to die on this day? She touches the fish: it’s slimy. It wriggles beneath her hand.
“Daddy?” she asks
“I want to put it back.”
He stares at her in surprise.
“Is that OK?”
“Sure.” He’s smiling, but doubtfully. Carefully he extracts the hook. The fish’s mouth is intact. It is panting.
Her father picks the fish up and holds it gently in the water. The fish’s gills fan rhythmically. It’s breathing, restoring itself. It gives a sudden full body twist and disappears. She sits back on her heels, relieved.
Her dad stands up. “Do you want to keep going?” he asks. She can tell that he’s worried. He’s afraid that she might want to go back to the camp, to give up fishing entirely.
“Let’s go farther.” she says. They scan for a route to the next pool upstream. A twisted old conifer is almost leaning against a boulder. They climb the lower branches of the tree until they are even with the top of the boulder. There her dad stands with one foot in the tree and one on top of the rock. The gap is too wide for her to step across by herself, so her dad grabs her by one arm and helps her jump across. From the top of the boulder they can see the next pool. Her dad scrambles around from rock to rock, working his way into position to stalk the next fish while she watches.
“I came up here with my dad,” she tells her husband. They are on a honeymoon trip of sorts: recently married, on their way home to Oregon from visiting her folks in Iowa. Wyoming and the Big Horn Range are on the way. So is Circle Park Campground.
She is disconcerted by the vividness of memory. She has the feeling that she is just one memory neuron from time travel. They are standing on the trail up to the silvery peaks where trees cut decades ago are still dehydrating. The beguiling steam that meanders off through the trees is the one her father fished when she was a child. She wants to remember her father.
“Let’s follow the stream,” she suggests.
He grinches his face up in a frown. “It’s kind of buggy.” He’s right: the noseeums are out. Funny how that didn’t bother her when she was a kid.
They dither, a teeter totter. Then he says, “Let’s stay on the trail. I don’t want to get my shoes wet.” He has brand new hiking boots. She thinks getting beat up is what hiking boots are for, but she also thinks that seeing what waits up the trail will be fun, and maybe it isn’t a good idea to follow in the footsteps of memory too much. After all, life goes on.
They contour up the side of the mountain through the groves of aspen. The dog follows them.
The dog is not theirs. Neither of them has ever lived with a dog, or a cat, for that matter. Her only pets were a pair of white rats she got for Christmas when she was in elementary school. He comes from a pet-free home. No, the dog was abandoned in the campground and has been surviving on the kindness of strangers. She fed the dog some lunch meat earlier in the day. The other campers—a woman and her three children—have been caring for the dog for several days.
The dog is a Shepard mix, a big dog. Too big for them. They live in an apartment in Portland. She cannot quite get her mind adjusted to the idea of owning a dog. Where would it spend the day when she was at work? They have no yard. And her husband doesn’t want a dog in the house; he has his mother’s attitude about animals and furniture. But the dog sees them as potential owners; he trots along behind them on their hike as if he belongs to them.
The newlyweds head up the trail, the dog trotting along behind. The trail curves in a series of switchbacks. She enjoys the exertion and strides out enthusiastically. He chugs along behind. The dog doesn’t see the point in all this walking and is getting thirsty, but where the humans go, he will follow.
The woman is thinking about the top of the trail; they should be reaching a viewing place soon, she hopes. Her husband is getting a bit frazzled. He is slowing on the corners, looking up the trail with his mouth open, panting. She stops, turns, and smiles encouragingly. That turns out to be a mistake because it gives him an opening. He asks, “How much farther does this trail go?”
“I don’t think it’s much farther,” she says.
He responds with more noisy panting and a wipe of his forehead with the tail of his tee shirt. “These boots are giving me blisters. They aren’t broken in yet,” he says.
She is tempted to hold a silence, to make him speak, but doesn’t. “You want to go back?” she asks.
“Yeah, I’m getting blisters.”
Well, hiking is no fun if you have blisters.
On the way back down, he leads the way, limping. The dog is limping too, footsore and thirsty. She doesn’t think of the dog’s thirst because she has never been responsible for a dog; it just doesn’t occur to her that he might need a drink. She does see the limping. Poor old dog, he walked so far, thinking that it would please them.
The dog and her husband are relieved to get back to the campground. The dog rejoins the family of campers; they have bowl of water out for him. The newlyweds return to their car. They are staying at a nearby resort instead of camping.
As they drive away, the woman looks back. The dog is standing in the dirt turnaround watching their departure. She sees the worry in the dog’s eyes, but thinks that there is nothing that she can do.
That evening they eat in the restaurant of the resort. It’s a tiny resort, just four or five shabby cabins, and the owner is the waiter and cook. They are the only customers. The owner asks about their day, and she says, “We found a dog up at the campground. Someone left him there.”
“He won’t last long,” says the owner. “Someone will shoot him.”
The owner walks off with no idea how shocked she is by his response. Or maybe he does know and likes to shock the outsiders. Everything about this resort is shocking to her. The walls are festooned with the heads of dead animals. The reading material in the cabins consists of magazines about shooting and killing animals. The pictures on the wall are photos of men posing with animals they killed.
This is not a place where she would like to live. That night, lying in the overly soft bed of the shabby cabin, she can’t sleep. She writes in her head over and over a story about the family in the campground taking the dog with them when they go. The mother was thinking about it. The kids were advocating. They were already putting out food and water. Surely the mother would not want to drive away with a bunch of crying kids in the car.
The woman wishes that the family would take the dog.
She wishes that she could take the dog, but …
She wishes that she and her new husband were camping. The room is stuffy. A memory comes to her of lying in her sleeping bag in Circle Park years ago with her family. Her parents had told her that the trees around the camp were hundreds of years old, the same trees that had been there when the mountains belonged to the tribal peoples of the west. Native hunters had walked by those very trees, looking for food for the winter, stocking up on meat before the snows shut them out of the mountains.
She remembers the strange feeling, the eerie sense of time travel, which she had experienced while lying there in her sleeping bag. Those hunters had looked up at the same stars she was seeing, through the same branches of the same trees. It had made her feel very small, but at the same time it was comforting to feel that her life was a spark in a much longer sustained continuum of time shared with the firmament of stars.
But now, in the dark stuffy cabin, she cannot summon up that feeling. She curls into a fetal position, hugs her pillow, and tries to sleep.
She had not realized at the time that the decision to abandon the dog was one she would regret for the rest of her life. She wonders if the dog died at the campground. Or did someone, some kind stranger, take him home or at least take him to a dog rescue or a shelter? Maybe the mother succumbed to the blandishments of her kids.
She had not known how to respond to a lost dog; dogs had been not part of her experience in life, just as being married had not been part of her experience. Now she knew a lot more about dogs and knew what to do if she found a lost one. She also knew a lot more about being married. Which was why she wasn’t any more.
She is sitting on the shoulder of the hillside just south of the campground. Above arches the hard blue sky of Wyoming, a sky so blue as to appear solid. Behind her the open ground slopes in a rounded curve edged with the dark green of conifers. From a distance the hillside meadow seems a silvery green, but she knows that up close it is a decorated with the colors of wildflowers: blue lupines, orangey-red paintbrush, violet hardy geraniums, yellow hawksbill, and cream and pink pussytoes. She spent the morning on that slope with a field guide to flowers, learning the names.
To her right, just visible through the conifers, she can glimpse the dirt circle of the campground, the place where the dog stood and watched while she and her ex-husband drove away.
In front of her lies the road to the campground, a one lane dirt road that follows the gentle curves of the meadow, winding its way through flower fields: the road her family drove on when she was a kid; the road she showed to her new husband when she brought him up to Circle Park to share memories of her life, thus boring and annoying him; the road she drove in on three days prior, on this pilgrimage, on her way back to Iowa for a family visit.
It was the same road driven about a month ago by a young woman who had come to the Cloud Peak Wilderness to die. There was an article about her in the local paper.
The dead woman had been only twenty-two years old. She was from Seattle. She had committed suicide by hypothermia up off the trail in the woods somewhere. She had parked her car in the campground and hiked up the trail carrying nothing but a diary and a pencil. Then she turned off the trail and wandered through the forest on the mountainside until she found a spot that met her requirements as a good place to die. There she sat, occasionally recording her thoughts in her diary, awaiting death.
From what the sheriff figured out from the diary, it took three nights. She had to get wet from a summer thunder squall in order to get cold enough to shut her body down.
The diary didn’t say why she wanted to die. It did say why she wanted to die there, in the Cloud Peaks of the Big Horn Mountains: she had wanted to die surrounded by the beauty of nature. She had wanted to rot there, to be recycled. That’s why she left the trail; she didn’t want her body to be found.
She should have stayed away from the creek. A couple of fishermen found her body. It was desiccated like the dead trees.
Of course a story like that, read at breakfast time, was going to set the tone for the day.
She could, to some extent, understand the woman in the newspaper article. She was getting old enough herself–fifty nine--to think about death, and, while she didn’t want to die anytime soon, she did like the idea of exercising control over the time and place and manner. The Cloud Peaks of the Big Horn Mountains seemed like a good place to do it, and hypothermia seemed like one of the more benign methods. And the recycling of her body suited her notions of religion.
But she was not sitting there on the shoulder of the hill thinking about the past because she wanted to die on that spot.
No, she was sitting there breathing in the bright hard air, full of the scents of life because she wanted feel alive. She was feeling the heat of the sun on the dirt and the coolness of shade beneath the trees. She was letting her eyes roam the scenery, taking in the details, the nuances of color and texture and pattern, so that she wouldn’t forget. She would leave shortly, and she wasn’t coming back, but she wanted to remember this place, to remember and learn and live.