A Celebration of Life
As I drive closer to the mountains, my finger instinctively hits the Montana Public Radio-programmed button. Hopefully I’ll catch the weather forecast before I lose service. I checked before I left home; it’s going to be bitterly cold, -10 degrees Fahrenheit, but at least the snow should be safe to traverse. I’m hoping Eric Whitney buoys my hopes by forecasting a balmy 0 degrees. Either way, I’ve got to get outside. The mountains are calling my name so I do what any rational Montanan does and head out.
The weather report forecasts more bitter-coldness and as static overtakes the news, I switch to a folk CD. Pulling into the parking lot, I notice I’m the only vehicle here. Not surprising -- who else would be crazy enough to be out on a night like this? All of my buddies are back home, enjoying a hot beverage, reading a good book, and stoking the fire but let’s not think about those creature comforts. I’ve got miles to go before I sleep. I double check my headlamp, hoist my backpack on, and step into my skis. With my faithful retriever, Buddy, by my side, I head into the wilderness.
Dark descends and I forge through snow, making first tracks. Buddy chases ahead then falls behind, consumed by a squirrel that darted up a tree. It’s a clear evening and the moon lights my way. I reserved a little cabin nestled a few miles into the woods. I couldn’t get off work as early as I would have liked but this day has been emblazoned on my mind for the past year. Today, of all days, I need to be outside. Today would have marked my brother’s 30th birthday celebration, had he lived to see it. Instead, it’s a solitary day. I just want to be outside where he and I always felt at home.
I see the cabin up ahead and slog the final way as Buddy dashes off with boundless energy. Leaving my skis outside, I dump my pack and make a fire in the woodstove. Now we’re talking! Say goodbye to 0 degrees and dropping. I feed Buddy, prep dinner, eat, read, and say goodnight to Buddy like I have so many nights before out here. Lying down with nothing before me but sleep, the significance of the day settles over me. Grief rolls over me like waves and I sob. Buddy plods over and nuzzles his nose into my sleeping bag. Wiping the tears away, I walk to the entrance and open the door. Buddy by my side, I stare out upon the still, snow-swept landscape illumined by the moon hanging low in the sky. The magnificence of creation and my seeming insignificance sober me. Mountains rise up around me, stars fill the sky, and here am I – alive and grateful. I come out here for moments like these to refresh my perspective.
In contrast to the sobering nightscape, the daylight causes hope and joy to rise up. The sun shines like so many millions of diamonds on the snow. The birds sing among the trees. The mountains echo their morning song. We repeat similar tasks as last night, eating and cleaning, then hit the trail we blazed yesterday. Although my thermometer reads 0 degrees, the sun is shining, I’m skiing, and Buddy’s by my side. Those old words ring true that “weeping may endure for the night but joy comes in the morning.”
We reach the truck, pack up, and head back to town. Once again, my finger instinctively hits the MTPR button as we head out of the mountains. Freeforms plays folk tunes, evoking nostalgia. I remember so many backcountry trips with my brother and smile. If he had lived to see his 30th birthday, we would have skied into a little cabin in the woods bathed in moonlight and surrounded by mountains to celebrate life.
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