Snake River, 2012
… “know that this day
this sweet golden day
this bright manly day
(what we do with our days)
is like the clear river ?”
There’s a light in the western mountains that comes at the end of the day. After the heat of the late afternoon and just before the sage turns purple and black in the last of the light. It is then that the day puts away its inexorable expectations and the air becomes suffused and golden. There’s a light that spreads on the evening river; the light of amber, the light of memory.
It’s been ten years now 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. 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 the July summer, ragged peaks that contend with the timeless sky of the mountain west, my home for almost forty years now. Ever they stand at the edge of my mind; ever reminding, never forgetting, always asking.
In his poem Sometimes, David Whyte writes of “questions that can make or unmake a life, questions that have no right to go away”. I would add that there are questions only I have the right to ask of myself and, harder by far, that only I can bear to hear answered. Am I a good man… am I a good father?
Towards the end of the trip, at the close of another irreplaceable day, we stopped to rest on the shore of the Snake River. There, near Idaho Falls where, 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 fathers always will, stood guard behind. Ready for action should the river leap its banks and entangle 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 of these memories. 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 cannot 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 living 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 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 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.