Southern Idaho. Endless alkali desert like bands of old paint dug out of the garage and scraped on the land with a putty knife. Hours in the car listening to a single radio station from Pocatello. Crop prices. Country and southern rock. High school football.
Finally, the big red shoulders of the Teton mountains rise up out of a ruff of quaking aspen. They are the guardians at the gates of my sense of what home is. Guardians of stories, of love, adventure and of loss. I’m going to lay my hands on this place one last time while my father is still alive.
Dad was the chaplain at the VA hospital in Sheridan, Wyoming. He also did circuit preaching and would drive long distances to hold services in Shell, Ten Sleep, Story and other tiny towns in northern Wyoming.
Once he drove out to Story to conduct a funeral for a rancher who had died in an accident. Before the service, the man’s wife came up to him carrying a pair of cowboy boots and asked him if she could put them on her dead husband. When my father asked her why, she said where he is going, he will need them. The look in her eye told him that she wasn’t looking for a laugh or sympathy, just some neighborly assistance. The request was unadorned — like asking to cash a check at the bank.
I remember the Northern lights glowing over the Bighorn mountains like a great phosphorescent sea creature. And tight rows of veterans in gray hospital uniforms — men with what was then called shell shock — rolling reel mowers across the parade ground at Fort Sheridan.
The funeral home where they turned my father’s body back into dust is now a Portland brew pub. I had a beer there on his birthday. Listening to the whirr of traffic outside, I remembered his wry smile — he would have enjoyed the irony. Dad didn’t drink. Driving home, the tire slap on the pavement reminded me of the hundred thousand miles we traveled in his 1957 Volkswagen bus. Along roads where all of our stories — stories that hold us all together and remind us of who we are, collect and scatter like cottonwood seeds.