Winter 2015

At Rest in Yellowstone

By Gary Ferguson
Photograph by © MATT TAYLOR
Winter 2015: At Rest in Yellowstone

A husband scatters his wife’s ashes in five wild landscapes they knew and loved, bringing the journey to an end in the Lamar Valley.

In the spring of 2005, driving through the outskirts of Sudbury, Ontario, my wife Jane had turned to me with a serious look on her face. In the first such conversation we’d had in more than a decade, she rested her hand on my arm and asked if I remembered that if something ever happened to her, she wanted her ashes scattered in her favorite wild places. Five of them in all, from the red rock of southern Utah to the foothills of Wyoming’s Absaroka Range; from the granite domes of central Idaho to the Beartooths of south-central Montana, to a certain high valley in northeast Yellowstone. Of course I remember, I told her.

Ten days later she was gone, drowned in a tragic canoeing accident on the Kopka River.

In the weeks that followed, wrapped in an impossibly difficult fog of grief, I recall having only one thought about the future: That when neighbors were no longer bringing over covered dishes, when friends were no longer stopping by to mow my lawn and vacuum my house, no longer driving me to the mountains so I could sleep under the stars—probably sometime in early fall—I would make up the bed in the back of the old van we’d converted back in 1979, stock the tiny fridge, pick just the right music, and drive away. Beside me would be a jar, a beautiful jar, containing her ashes. One last time for the two of us, outward bound, into the West.

Those scattering journeys took five years to complete. At first, they broke my heart. Later they helped me piece it together again. But most notable of all is the fact that they brought me back to nature again, to wilderness; to the lilting beauty of unkempt places—places powerful enough to woo the hearts of anyone willing to put down the search for meaning for a little while and just float in the sensations of being alive.

There was the canyon country of southern Utah, which she’d come to know long before we met, confronting in that longwinded landscape an emotional struggle that had nearly killed her. There were the magnificent Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, where we fell in love and later married. Also a little cabin in the woods of northern Wyoming. And finally, two places in greater Yellowstone: a high alpine lake in the northern Beartooth Mountains of Montana—a symbol of the place that, after much wandering, we came to call home; and the Lamar Valley, in the northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park.

That’s where the fifth and final journey to scatter Jane’s ashes brought me—a trek that involved walking more than 100 miles from my front door in Red Lodge, Montana, to the place where she had worked for seven years in one of the finest children’s environmental education programs in the country. Having lived at the edge of the Lamar Valley for much of our 25 years together, it seemed superbly fitting that the wild, enthralling fabric of Yellowstone would turn out to be the place that helped me heal. The place that allowed me to lift my face to the sky, and begin again.

I was joined on this final journey by Tom Curwen of the Los Angeles Times, an old friend who wanted to document the story. At first I quietly rejected his idea to write about the hike, thinking it was best left a private affair. But over time it struck me that if anyone was capable of squeezing something useful from this poignant trek, if there could be found some small comfort for others in my labors, Tom would be the guy to pull it off. And so, along with Times photographer Brian Van Der Brug, who was fresh back from an assignment covering the war in Iraq, we hiked across the massive Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, finally entering the northeast corner of Yellowstone some 85 miles later, near the wind-tossed flank of Cutoff Mountain.

THE JOURNEY WAS WINDING DOWN. Just one more night in the backcountry. With every passing hour, I found myself wishing it wasn’t coming to an end. I wanted to keep going, keep walking through Yellowstone for another week or two or three, until the snows of autumn pushed me home. Tom asked if I had any worries about reaching this point, about reaching the end. But by then I’d had a strong glimpse of the life I knew Jane would want for me. I was at the point, I told him, where maybe it was less important to imagine my eyes and ears and nose and skin as portals for her to experience the world, as I did in northern Canada, than to see them as doorways for making my own way back among the living.

The next morning, sore but undaunted, we started the gentle 13-mile walk down the Slough Creek Valley toward a developed campground in Yellowstone, where my friend John would meet us with food for the final dinner. The last day. The sun was full on, ringing in the sky, bringing shimmer and shine to the grasslands of Frenchy’s Meadows—so named for a trapper in the late 1800s who set off on a fiery mission to eradicate the grizzly bears of the area, only to end up devoured by one. Though we saw no bears, mostly just elk and bison, the real stars of the show were the sandhill cranes, their wild, primitive chortle echoing up and down the valley off and on throughout the morning. At one point Tom and I were locked in a particularly intense conversation when we looked up to find a pair of sandhills not ten yards off the trail, plucking bugs from the branches of a sagebrush.

Besides loons (and in later years, wolves), the sound of the sandhill cranes, which every spring rang through the skies above our house, were for me the most appealing of all the songs of the wilderness. On several occasions I’ve been lucky enough to see their fabled mating dance, when a breeding pair comes face-to-face, each then launching into the air again and again with the most graceful hops and jumps, fluttering softly back to the ground. For the Greeks, and later the Romans, the dance of the cranes was said to be a celebration of the joy of life.

The walk was one of the finest in many years. The terrain offered less a hike than a sweet amble, one that matched perfectly the easy mood of Slough Creek, falling to the south slowly, flush with meander. Once again I found myself revisiting that Aboriginal idea of the dead being able to experience the world through the senses of the living. On that last day in Yellowstone, I was really hoping it was true. Because if it is, Jane would’ve wrapped herself around that trek like a long-lost friend. John was waiting for us about three miles out, eating his lunch on the trail; together the four of us made the final push to the campground. He’d gone to incredible lengths to give us a good welcome, and after a long plunge in Slough Creek, he served up beer and venison chili and salad and Dutch oven cornbread, and we ate until it seemed we’d never have to eat again. Late in the night, after we’d gone to bed, Martha arrived. Doug—my canoeing partner in the Thelon River country of Canada—would find us the next morning at 6:30, arriving in time to join us for the final trek to the ceremony site.

On first planning this trip, I’d intended to have the last scattering just west of the main Lamar Valley. But on that last morning, it just didn’t feel right. I found myself wanting to be further upstream, within view of the old Buffalo Ranch, where Jane worked as a ranger for so many years. The place where, in the 1830s, the wonderfully literate trapper Osborne Russell laid down on his elbow beside the Lamar River, writing in his journal how he wished he could remain there for the rest of his days. Changing the plan, though, meant that instead of walking three miles from the Slough Creek Campground, it would be closer to five. I told the group, feeling a bit sheepish. But no one seemed to mind.

It had been raining off and on all through the night, but by dawn, most of the storm had moved on, leaving only gray sky. We hit the trail before 7 a.m., strolling out of the campground and then up the highway, the air filled with the smells of Yellowstone: wheatgrass and patches of Douglas fir, sagebrush and bison dung and an occasional whiff of sulfur. On reaching the west end of the valley, we descended to the Lamar River, traded hiking boots for water sandals, then forged across the 62-foot-wide flow to a small delta on the south side. Once I settled on a spot for the ceremony, Doug pointed out that I’d chosen a place exactly halfway between a bald eagle nest and an osprey nest. Just up the valley was the Buffalo Ranch, so-named for having served as cowboy central in the early 1900s for the effort to bring wild bison back from the edge of extinction. It would later become a cluster of restored cabins, a cookhouse, and a classroom. And for parts of seven years, it was Jane’s home away from home.

Following the Rules

Many national parks allow visitors to scatter the ashes of loved ones, but some have certain restrictions, and many require a permit. Visit the park’s website or contact the park directly to learn more.

She and I were off and on in Yellowstone for twenty-three years, and for the last eighteen, Yellowstone was just beyond our back door. The place soaked into us slowly, revealing some new weave in every season: on top of mountains, in the bottom of canyons, in the swells of these savannah hills. Over the years, we left the roads with our packs on and waded knee-deep across rivers, ate dinner in the shade of lodgepole forests, slept with grizzlies. And as time passed, we came to revere this park: the curious look of earth pushing out big pours of boiling water; the spring light on the sage fields of Lamar; the fluty ring of bugling elk in the fall. Even the smells were oddly filling—sometimes like black pepper and lemon peels; sometimes like eggs and toast.

Once again, one last time, the clouds began to give way, revealing patches of something close to autumn blue. We sat on the ground in a circle, at which point I invited my friends to share thoughts or memories of Jane. Doug, looking more sad than I’d ever seen him, told us that the Lamar Valley has always been a big part of the work he did as a biologist, that he’d never again set eyes on the place without thinking of her. Once everyone had a chance to speak, I told them that this place, more than any other in the American West, was where two of the things Jane loved best came together: wild nature, and the chance to share it with children. From here she set off with her young charges across the Lamar Valley, making long treks with them toward the Buffalo Plateau. Some days they fanned out into the Norris Geyser Basin to test pH in the thermal features, or headed for Mammoth to study the travertine terraces. On several occasions, she called me from a pay phone near the trailer she lived in at Tower Junction, telling me how she couldn’t get inside because of a big bison blocking her way.

The whole of the Lamar Valley seemed at ease that day, gently animated: Blue bunchgrass and junegrass and milk vetch trembled in a light breeze. Just up the valley, loose gatherings of bison were lowering their heads and pulling up mouthfuls of grass, chewing for a minute or two, then moving on.

I explained how, on this trip, it occurred to me that embracing Jane in the present meant letting go of her in the past. I thanked those friends for being the ones who early on carried me back to the wilderness—to the river and the tundra; for quaffing beer with me on summer nights under the stars; for hearing on countless occasions some new version of the nature of my sadness. As if on cue, the last of the gray clouds drifted apart to drench us with sun, washing the entire Lamar Valley with light. Just to the north, from somewhere high up on the steep, grassy slopes, a pair of coyotes called out with abandon, launching into a lively call-and-response of yips and howls.

When the time came to scatter the ashes, each of us was left to simply find our own appealing place in those vast, open meadows. For Doug, it was a spot near a big bison wallow, the bare ground layered with course brown hair. John, on the other hand, picked a patch of grass in perfect line of sight with the bald eagle’s nest. I went toward the river, finding a low point on the delta. The following spring, the floods would come, carrying Jane’s remains on to the Yellowstone, then the Missouri, then the Mississippi, then the Gulf of Mexico.

It was a brilliant finish. In part, I believe, because there’s no place on earth like Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley. It was here that the American bison was nursed back from the brink of extinction. And here too that, a century later, wolves would take their first steps back into the wild, after being absent for some seven decades. Both run free today, loping or howling or snoozing amidst eagles and ravens and grizzlies and otter and fox. It’s in the Lamar, too, that every May, pronghorn fawns, as well as bison and elk calves, are born, the latter by the hundreds—babies rising on wobbly legs, soon to walk, then to run.

When she was working for the Park Service nature school, this was where Jane could be found most every morning, especially during the month of May—an eager woman surrounded by eager children. There she and her students would stand huddled against the chill, staring across these meadows, whispering and gasping and giggling. And every now and then, just looking at one another wide-eyed, feeling lucky. Knowing what a good thing it was to be smack in the middle such a wild place. Chosen ones, they were, witnessing for the whole world that unforgettable spill of new beginnings.

About the author

  • Gary Ferguson

    Gary Ferguson has written for a variety of publications, from Vanity Fair to The Los Angeles Times. He’s the author of 22 books on science and nature, including two books focused on Yellowstone: Walking Down the Wild and The Yellowstone Wolves: The First Year. This essay was adapted from his new book, The Carry Home, published by Counterpoint Press.