- A Rough Guide to Astronomy
The day that we scattered my father's ashes, Mars was closer to Earth than it had been in 60,000 years. When the sun went down that night, Mars rose up above the high mountain lake, throwing orange spears at us through 34 million miles of space, stabbing us with the taste of its dust and the silence of its landscape. My breaths came shallow under this astronomical certainty that seemed so improbable. This other planet.
My dad was the one who first told me about Mars and the stars. At night when we could see them, when we were alone with them on some cold mountainside. We sat bundled up in jeans and long johns, wool socks and down coats, back before Polartec and the ubiquity of fleece. We were bundled tightly—I in particular because my skin always seemed so thin. He told all of us—me, mom, Doug—about the night lights, but I think I was the only one who curled up between his lips. It was me that my dad blew to the stars on his breath, me he hurled across the universe to be caught by the wonder, by the cold palm of space, and I'd run back to my dad, to the one who could warm it in his hands.
The night that we scattered my father's ashes, I had to stand alone. Maybe Mars had known all along that I would be so forlorn on this night, and had journeyed across an ancient calculation of planetary orbits to reach me as best it could. To remind me of the universe.
When those of us of my dad's regular backpacking crew could all get together, we packed in to the clump of lakes he most visited, arguably his favorite. Everything about this trip was perfect.
The weather was iffy, often cloudy, sometimes rainy, always cold, threatening worse—we'd heard rumors of snow before we left. Jerry—as everyone and I called my dad—shined best in situations less than ideal. He had no pity for anyone in such a minor predicament as inclement weather. His [End Page 51] optimism and good cheer could part the clouds. This is true: He walked always in sunshine, even if sometimes it was shining only on his back. In 29 years of backpacking together there were only two times we came back early because of the weather. Once was from here, after it had rained until we had standing puddles in our tents and we had no cloth or fabric of any kind that was dry, and we'd been running along bare mountain ridges in violent lightning storms. We had been trying to impress Jerry's brother, Morris, and his family with the fun of backpacking. We spoke of that often, this weekend of the ashes. The misery is now to us hilarious.
There were no other people at the lakes—we had all three of them completely to ourselves all weekend. Jerry was moved by solitude in the wilderness as by nothing else. The best trips were those where we never encountered other people. He died in the remote wilderness 70 miles upriver from any living human besides his brother, and much further from any community. I don't think his consciousness picked that spot to die, but I'm quite sure his heart had it all planned out.
We had a lovely sort of ceremony among the lakes, which for me was the real funeral. This was all I had wanted to mark his passing.
Even the crisis on the last night. I don't know . . . Somehow it, too, belonged.
The group hiked up in several rounds. Jerry's brothers hiked in a day before everyone else. My husband and I, my mom, and my cousins hiked in together in the morning. My brother, Doug, and his wife started up last, but caught up to us before we'd reached the lakes as we sat in the fog eating lunch at the top of the pass. "Isn't it here we cut up the mountainside to shortcut the pass?" my cousin...