Where Do You Go To Grieve?

Where do you go to grieve?  As Easter approaches I’m reminded of the story of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, how he prayed just before his arrest and execution.  The garden was actually an olive orchard, probably with some fresh water source, a spring or well, nearby. No doubt it was private and quiet enough for praying.

Historically, people have often went to natural spaces like gardens and grottos to find comfort in times of suffering.

In 1965 I was just a young girl when my brother died in a swimming pool accident. The place I went to grieve was a large spreading oak tree in a field near my house. I remember climbing on a branch and crying.  After a while I calmed down and sang to myself a Beatle song I liked:  “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah…”

Fifty-five years later, this past fall, I lost another brother, this time to cancer.  It was not as sudden nor perhaps as tragic since Matt had the opportunity to live a full life.  Still, I had to get away by myself to grieve, somewhere outside in the open air, for death felt like a dark, stuffy crypt.  In southern Idaho there aren’t any garden oases like Gethsemane, and oak trees don’t grow very well in the desert. There is however, vast sagebrush plains and steep rocky canyons carved by the ever-flowing Snake River.

I struck out on a walk one late fall day shortly after Matt’s death.

Wiping tears away with my shirt sleeve, I was startled when a jackrabbit jumped out from behind some bitterbrush. My mind was so preoccupied with death, the first thought I had was my husband’s story about killing jackrabbits in the desert during an infestation. As I watched the rabbit race over a hill, I noticed the sagebrush was almost done flowering. I ambled over to a large sage and swept my hand over its crown.  Fine, yellow pollen dusted my palm.

I hadn’t planned to climb to the top of the canyon, but that’s what I did. I knew this trail well and had traveled it many times over the years.  It was hard climbing, stepping over sharp rocks and around animal droppings, mostly coyote or mule deer. It wasn’t long before I found myself panting and sweating. The red-twigged Russian thistle, a noxious weed non-native to Idaho, kept grabbing at my pant legs. Up ahead I could see my resting spot. It was a basalt outcropping about half way on the canyon wall, flat-surfaced and good for standing and taking in the river view below.

One time several years ago I stood on this basalt ledge and happened to glance down at my boot. There, half buried in the dirt, was a black sliver of obsidian. I took the toe of my boot and pried under it enough to see the sliver’s shape. How surprised I was to find a perfectly carved Indian arrow head, presumably used to hunt birds. It was a nice memory and the view on the basalt ledge that day did not disappoint:  beautiful as always.

Wiser people than I have considered this paradox we call life: blissful moments even in the darkest of times.

As I turned to head back down the trail, I felt noticeably better.  But I had one more significant discovery that fall day: I found a dried up snake skin just off my path.  Snakes can shed their skin more than once during a season.  I picked up the snake casing and held it in my hand thinking about the last time I saw Matt.  He was lying still on a hospital bed and I knew he’d finally slipped this mortal coil.  Like the women standing before Christ’s empty tomb, I realized, he was gone.

 

Image Credit: Oak Tree    Image Credit:  Diana Hooley photo/Snake River Canyon   Image Credit:  Diana Hooley photo/snake skin

Snake River Canyon

There are certain places in our life—maybe a mountain we’ve picnicked at or a lake we always fished in–that down through the years become meaningful to us.  During these uncertain times with the Covid-19 crisis, it feels especially good to visit familiar locations full of rich memories. The Snake River Canyon near my home is such a place for me.  I’ve hiked the canyon dozens, maybe hundreds of times over the years.  On today’s hike, I’m reminded how pretty the canyon is in the spring.  At its neck, I’m greeted by a vista of desert grasses lining the canyon walls.  I’m always amazed to see how the grasses along the canyon wall change with the seasons from spring green to early summer purple and then, late summer golden-brown.

I remember the first time I really looked at the canyon and noticed it’s beauty.

I was newly married and had just moved to a desert farm with my husband.  One morning we had a big fight, and I was so angry I took a walk back in the canyon just to cool off.

I barely saw where I was going, my eyes were so blurred with tears. But slowly I became aware of how lovely and quiet the trail was.  Before long, my fury was all gone, lost in the peaceful canyon wilderness.

The walls of the Snake River Canyon were shaped by the flooding of ancient Lake Idaho and Lake Bonneville thousands of years ago.  Now the Snake River runs along the bottom. I look to my right, hearing the river as it winds its way down through the canyon floor.  I’m not able to see the river though, the Russian olive trees along the bank are too dense.  Several years ago on one of my canyon hikes with our family dog, Lindsey, we walked by a particularly dark, deep stand of Russian olive trees.  Lindsey peered into the woods and suddenly went berserk, barking wildly.

“What is it girl?  What’s wrong?” I asked her, trying unsuccessfully to calm her down.

It wasn’t until she abruptly backed away from the trees and started mewling piteously, that I became afraid myself.

My mind flashed on a book I’d recently read, a Stephen King horror thriller, The Tommyknockers I think, about a dog who’d dug up something in the woods: an evil, alien, space object.  I didn’t think there was anything from outer space in that Russian olive thicket, but there might be a wild animal on the other side, drinking from the river.  Cougars were not unheard of back in the canyon.  I called Lindsey and we quickly made tracks back out of the canyon.

As peaceful as the canyon is most of the time, this was not my only scare, hiking in it.  One time I decided to climb up the canyon wall, about 450 feet, to get a view of the valley below.  Half way up, I bent over to look at a black sliver of obsidian laying in the dirt.  I didn’t want to miss finding a possible arrow head.  Then I heard the unmistakable “ping” of a bullet hitting rock not too far from me.  My head snapped around to search behind and below me.  Who was shooting at the rim rock?   I couldn’t see anyone down near the river.

Maybe ten seconds later I heard another ping of a bullet, this one sending rock flying above me. Were they shooting at me?

I didn’t stay around to find out, but started skidding down the side of the canyon wall as fast as I could, stumbling over sagebrush and basalt rocks as I went. I never found out who the shooter was, but after that, I always made sure I wore a bright cap on my head when I hiked in the canyon.

Today, as is my habit, I walk until I come to the big boulder settled among some grease wood at the base of the canyon.  Maybe it’s a little obsessive-compulsive of me, but I lightly tap the boulder’s rounded, pebbled surface, and then pivot to head back the way I came. I guess the boulder’s a touchstone of sorts, a reference point for my many walks in this scenic, wild canyon.

Image credit:  Snake River Canyon