The last few days have been filled with a bunch of stuff. I’ve eaten at different restaurants every day and done my best to walk off the calories to mixed success, for one.
Tommy and I also traveled to Yellowstone National Park, a trip that started at 8:30 in the morning (I had four hours of sleep by the time I woke up and I wasn’t in a great mood) and ended 13 hours later. It had been years since I had been. I was a kid, traveling with my uncle and his wife, and I remember very little about it beyond him clipping a deer with his car on accident. The deer ended up being fine. So did the car.
I recall geysers and hot springs…or rather the smell of them, that acrid smell of sulfur and the volatile mud and water that made them such a spectacle. Still, I needed a refresher course and Tommy had never been. The Beartooth Highway had only just opened the day I arrived in Montana. As it has hits lists to be known as both one of the most beautiful drives in Alaska and one of the most dangerous, we had to go that way. Of course.
The drive wasn’t terrible. Though we hit elevations where snow was still present in great amounts, the road itself was clear of ice. Lack of visibility in some areas and a variety of tight curves made attention necessary, but between that and a cautious speed, there wasn’t much to worry about.
I made friends at the lookout point…
And enjoyed the view…
And once we got up high enough, I found out winter wasn’t quite over for me. I also found an abandoned ski lift post that I had to climb, fear of heights and safety be damned.
God, and when we got into the park, there were just so many different sights to see. We drove all over that place. The craziest thing was that there was such a monumentally diverse level of scenery. All in the same state you’ve got towering mountains, open fields, rolling hills, rivers, waterfalls, forests and canyons. You’d think you had traveled to any number of places. It was breathtaking. On several occasions, it made me speechless, an amazing thing in itself.
We saw a lot of animals. The most heavily populated seemed to be the bison.
We went up and checked out Mammoth Hot Springs.
And even Old Faithful, driving up right as the magnificent bastard erupted. I wasn’t quick enough to snap a picture, but it was a sight to behold.
Fuck, I only just now realized I didn’t even get a picture of the geyser while it was sitting dormant. Ah, well. I did get pictures of a mud volcano, Dragon’s Breath Cave, a sulfur lake, and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.
And though we decided against going back the Beartooth Pass way, opting instead to return to Red Lodge through Cody, Wyoming, the drive out was no less beautiful. We saw sprawling, tranquil waters.
And beautiful mountains.
In fact, though we were road-tired as all hell by the time we stumbled into the house, I think it would be fair to say our spirits were invigorated by the sheet beauty we had been witness to the whole day.
Then I stayed up that night and spent some time to myself. In the quiet, there, everything else started to slip away and the gravity of my whole vacation kind of hit. Where I was, why I was there, and what it meant to me. All the emotions I had suppressed came out in a fucking rush for a couple hours. I reached out to the first person who came to mind and they talked me through everything, helped me work through things and swapped stories with me. Eventually I was able to fall asleep.
The next day I made it a point to visit my grandparent’s grave site. It was the first time I had been able to in the nearly three years since my grandmother passed, in the two and a half years since my grandfather passed. I elected to go by myself, and I walked, a good 45 minutes to an hour, up a winding hill and past houses so old they have historical signs out front telling how they came to be.
When I reached the cemetary, the sky was starting to grow overcast, but it wasn’t raining. I was the only one there and, save for the mostly muted sounds of passing traffic, it was deeply quiet. A mountain raised up in the background of where their remains were laid to rest. They were in a family plot, a handful of Mayers and a bunch of Hickoxes, just to the right and back from an old mausoleum. Red Lodge being the one-time wild West town that it is, there were many graves from the 1800s and early 1900s that I walked past. My grandparents’ seemed too new. It didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel fair.
I wept there, alone but not, with them but in a capacity I couldn’t decide on. I wanted so desperately to believe in the Heaven my grandmother believed in, but I was also reminded by what she said: when you pass, it’s like a deep sleep. When the second coming of Christ occurred, you would wake up as if from a nap.
Which means that even if there is a Heaven, she wasn’t there. Not yet. So I was there with memories and ashes, surrounded by the dead and wishing so desperately I had spent more time with them when they were alive. I’ve never felt so alone, I don’t think, than standing in front of them wishing I could ask their advice. Wishing they could tell me things would be alright.
I thought, too, then, about the last time I spoke to my grandmother. She had had a heart attack and I didn’t get to speak to her long. A minute, maybe? Maybe a minute and a half. It wasn’t long. Her first questions were to make sure I was alright and to tell me she loved me. And I lied to her. One of the very last things I said to her was a lie. I told her I was fine. That my books were being published, that I was going to be set for life. That she didn’t have to worry about me anymore, and I told her I loved her, which was true, and we hung up, and she was gone within a couple hours.
I didn’t even get to speak to my grandfather. He was too feeble and delirious to handle a phone. My uncle relayed my love and says he believed my grandfather understood and he let go.
I couldn’t be there for either of them. It had been over a year since I’d even seen them, and I thought about how my grandmother would call me when I was living in Los Angeles and Seattle and want to ask a million questions and I would get impatient and cut the conversations short. I thought about that and I fucking wept again.
That was not an easy day for me, and it isn’t easy now to write about it. I miss them so much. I love them still, so much.
Tommy and I slept in yesterday. I leave tomorrow, so I started gathering up the souvenirs I bought and the things I’ve decided to save. I mailed off one box of old things to someone I think will appreciate them with the love they deserve and I’ll mail off another one to myself a little bit later. And then Tommy and I drove out to a little town maybe 5-10 minutes from Red Lodge, got a steak and a few beers and watched some pigs race. And let me tell you, unlike racehorses, these pigs had awesome names. I mean, look at this shit:
And I thought they were going to be big ol’ hugs snuffing around the track. NOPE. THEY’RE THE BEST.
I have a traumatic pig story. This is the exact fucking opposite. Pig races. Montana, you are the best.
I’ll be back in Alaska tomorrow night and blog posts will return to whatever other nonsense I write about. Love and art and angst.
Rest in peace, Jean Marshall Burnside Mayer and Richard Thomas Mayer. Thanks for giving me a life.