There’s a light in the western mountains that comes at the end of the day. After the heat of the afternoon and before the sage turns purple and black in the last of the light. It is then that the day puts away it’s inexorable expectations and the air becomes suffused and, for a moment, golden.
There’s a light that spreads on the evening river; the light of amber and memory.
It’s been eight years since I took a trip with our two boys, then ten and fourteen — a winding, ten-day road trip, free from care and filled with play through the borderlands of Montana and Idaho.
Lewis and Clark country; perfect for dreaming, for shooting slingshots and skipping rocks, for making snares and imagining ourselves among that Corps of Discovery. Setting camp by the very same creeks as they, in the very same valleys as they, now two hundred years past.
The land is little changed since. Only we have changed.
Sawtooth, Bitterroot, Gallatin, Teton … ranges that pierce the azure of that inescapable July summer. Peaks that contend with the timeless sky of the mountain west, my home for almost forty years now. They stand at the edge of my mind; ever reminding, always remembering, always asking “am I a good man? … am I a good father?”
In his poem Sometimes, David Whyte writes of “questions that have no right to go away — questions that can make or unmake a life”. I would add that there are questions only I have the right to ask of myself. That only I can bear to hear the answer.
Towards the end of the trip, at the close another irreplaceable day, we stopped to rest on the shore of the Snake River near Idaho Falls. Just to the east, the Snake makes its long run to the north to join the mighty Columbia, and then to the sea. A river that drains half a continent.
The boys, as boys always will, threw rocks in the water, and they threw sticks, then rocks at the sticks — and I, as dads always will, stood guard behind. Ready for action should the river leap its banks and endanger my boys, my treasure.
Am I a good man?… Am I a good father?
There are memories which fuse themselves into permanence. This scene, this not-yet-evening is one. My journal from July 27 reads:
Stopped for a break on the Snake River near Swan Valley. Caleb and Ben walked down to the water and into the river up to their ankles, throwing rocks.
The river here, especially as seen from the level of the water, is broad and muscular. About a third of a mile wide and flowing inexorably, at a speed and power which can never be contested.
As I look at the boys from behind while they play in the water, embraced by the amber light of evening, I realize I am seeing a metaphor.
The mighty river will take them. It will not be denied. Soon enough, they will enter its course and make their own way down its course. And I cannot go with them. This is the way of things.
There are questions that change us in their asking. There are answers that mold us by their very obscurity. There are answers that are generations in the making, yet give only a half-assurance. And thereby become questions in themselves.
There are memories that bring us joy and grief and longing, all in equal measure. This is the way of things.
We live in the in-between. Between the scenes that make up our stories and the scenery that makes up our days.
Between memories that rise above the plain and the questions that dwell in the borderlands.
Am I a good man? Yes, as good as any.
Am I a good father? Yes, for all my faults, yes.