When I was 20, my mom began calling to talk to me about a dying man neither she nor I ever knew—the identical twin of a close family friend. She called repeatedly, crying, and described to me the slow erosion of his body. I think if I had still believed that some things are eternal, that death is not final, I would have cried about this stranger like my mother did.
I like to announce that I don’t fear death. I say I feared it when I believed in heaven, but the day I stopped believing, I stopped fearing. I generally offer this paradox without an explanation—because I don’t think I have one—and I accept that some will always think I’m lying. I’m not.
Snow piles ran like guardrails along the highway, and snowshoes dangled from my backpack. It was my first time on a snowmobile—I’d rented it—and I felt shocked at the assault of sound screaming from the thing, how it split the silent forest.
It was February 2009, and Highway 150, open only to ATVs, carried me 20 miles through the Uinta Mountains of northeastern Utah without sight of another rider. Ahead, snow-dusted rocky peaks towered over pine-crowded faces. Above, the tree-line powder caked in places, highlighting geological layers like wrinkles. I couldn’t confidently locate “Bald Mountain,” which, a decade ago, we Boy Scouts had compared to our troop leader’s head when he made the mistake of telling us its name.The balding man, Roland, who hated being 40 years older than he felt, was Scout leader during the week and priesthood leader for the same boys every Sunday at the Mormon Church. He got us to camp, and he got us to church, and if we didn’t show up for either arrangement, he’d show up on our porch.
Six years and six feet of snow separated me from the Uintas as I remembered them. Snowflakes thickened as I climbed to 10,000 feet, and clouds choked out the pyramid-peaks ahead. I cracked my face-shield and accelerated to keep my glasses from fogging.
We dropped our boxers.
“Count to three, Roland,” a boy named Casey called over his shoulder as I raised my arms
and howled across Scout Lake, my voice echoing off adjacent slopes. At 10,000 feet, Uinta lakes are cold in July.This was October. I kicked snow off the dock with my bare foot, and it sank slowly, saturated but unmelted. Ice stretched over the black water at the shoreline. Wind tightened the skin of my adolescent body.We had the highest Boy Scout camp in the United States to ourselves. I wondered if we’d come illegally, as it had closed for the season—I doubted Roland would’ve checked before bringing us.
“Gads-sheesh! You’re both nuts!” Roland shouted. He stood near the shore, wrapped in a blue coat, wind tossing the gray hair on the sides of his wrinkled head. “What will I tell your mothers when you float up?”
Naked, Casey rubbed his hands in the wind. “If my mom was here, she’d push me in.”
“Oh, Casey, your mother loves you,” Roland called. “Nobody else in this world, maybe, but she does.”Then, laughing, he counted to three, and we jumped.
Like rolling off a bunk bed in my sleep.
My toes just touched bottom. My hands reached for the dock, but I dunked my head and pumped my arms and legs to move forward underwater.
Like trying to swim through a solid.
The cold crushed my lungs and forced me up, but I flailed on, threw paralyzed arms forward again and again, unable to feel my hands break the surface, unable to feel my legs kicking. I wanted to get where I couldn’t touch bottom—to lose the silt-thick floor and swim.
Ten yards out, I treaded water, yelping.
“Roland!” Casey blurted between breaths, then dove forward and raised his winter-white hind-parts above the surface. He came up coughing.
“Your mother loves you!” Roland shouted. “Don’t know how, but she does!” He bounced on his toes, hands lodged in his pockets.
I rolled onto the snowy dock and pulled my underwear on. My numb fingers fumbled to straighten the elastic waistband and failed, so, shoes in one hand and clothes clamped beneath an arm, I ran barefoot to camp in twisted briefs.The winter-dressed boys gaped as I jogged into the clearing, Casey close behind me.They said we were crazy while we stood in underwear opposite Roland’s industrial space heater, that bubble of warmth amid the forest. Sensation crept from my shoulders and hips, down my arms and legs, and finally into my fingers and toes in a crescendo of pinpricks.
How strange to see yourself in a casket.
Only 5 in 100,000 people will suffer from Lou Gehrig’s disease—amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. An ALS diagnosis is a sentence to progressive paralysis and early death. Nine in 10 cases are“sporadic,” writes Philip Reilly in his 2004 book, “Is It in Your Genes?” That is, 90 percent of the time, ALS springs into a family, steals a sister or a father, then disappears.
The other one in 10 cases is “familial”—inherited and passed on genetically. This 10 percent of diagnoses forces siblings and children to decide whether to be tested, whether to flip a coin and see their own fate.The familial form of ALS affects only one in 200,000 people.
Finally, one out of 250 humans is an identical twin.
So, to attend the funeral of your identical twin 14 months after he was diagnosed with familial ALS is a statistical anomaly on the order of one in 50 million.
How strange to see yourself in a casket. The twin skipped the viewing.
My mother said, “At church, Roland had a cane.” It was late 2006.
“Oh, yeah?” I said—or something similar—from my college apartment. Of course, he had a cane. We knew this would happen. In the months of calling about Roland’s dying twin, had she not known she’d been calling about Roland all along? We’d been waiting for this.The cane would be a wheelchair soon, I could have said.
Presumably, he’d put off the cane as long as he could, knowing it would immediately sadden an entire community. I imagine many similar calls went out to former Boy Scouts, now away at school: “Roland had a cane.” But by this time, I’d left the Mormon Church, and I felt as distant from Roland as I did from his twin brother—that eroding stranger with a familiar face.
At the entrance to Camp Steiner, I turned the snowmobile off the highway too slowly and sank, then reversed and sank deeper. Dismounting, I met powder to my hip. I removed my helmet and backpack and pulled the wet sleeve of my snowsuit past my watch: It was 11:15 a.m. Five hours until the rental office would (I hoped) come looking for their unreturned snowmobile. I didn’t want to return to the buried machine oxygen-starved from a high altitude hike, so I shoveled around its track with a snowshoe for 40 minutes until, despite my glove, blisters grew and burst on my palm. I tried reversing again and sank deeper still.
Breathless from work and the altitude, I rolled off the seat onto my back.The scene above smeared and dripped across my glasses. Flakes fell heavy, straight at me; tall pines in my periphery formed odd lines, curving, surreal, as if captured by a fisheye lens. I drew air through my mouth—silently, as if I were lying in bed afraid to move, for fear of … what? A slow wind sifted the tops of the pines, but at ground level, the air sat stagnant, weighted.
There’ve been places in which I’ve felt both invisible and watched.The two sensations blend to one haunting feeling, and in my teenage years, that feeling grew stronger with each trip I took into the wilderness. When I believed in such things, I interpreted it as the absence of God and a vulnerability to evil. For me, God was not to be found in the mountains.
Sometimes, I’ve returned to such places intending to spin around and stare it down— that evil, watching presence. Catch it out in the open, grinning. But that was not why I’d come this day.
Soon, two passing snowmobilers easily maneuvered my machine out of its rut. I mumbled embarrassed thanks.They roared off, rounded a corner, then—silence.
On snowshoes, I trudged beneath the overhanging sign: “Camp Steiner.” Scout Lake and the campsites lay a mile ahead.
The structures we Boy Scouts slept in at Steiner—roofed, rectangular, lacking one wall by design—were perhaps 10 feet from the open-faced entrance to the back wall, and twice as wide.We called them cabins. Logs—smoothed, stacked, intertwining at the corners— formed the three walls and vaulted roof, and wooden planks made the sturdy bunks. The walls were both guestbook and forum. Initials, names, hearts, penises, later crossed out, later retraced, deepened—year after year, altered and re-altered: I Love Barbara ACDC Your Mom Boobs!
I remember I pulled my sleeping bag tight from the inside. Roland’s blue tarp closed the open side of the cabin. His industrial heater would have been off by now, for fear of poisoning us in our sleep. Or, perhaps, it was summertime, and there was no heater. Five years at Steiner blend in my memory; scenes are clear, but their assignments in time are not.
The Scouts were telling slightly vulgar jokes, and I didn’t think they were funny. We were all Mormon—was no one else uncomfortable? I expected this from some in our group, but a few of the voices that crawled out of the dark—emboldened by distance from home or elevation or darkness—jolted me as I recognized them. I was no exception to the general rules of teenage boyhood, as obsessed as anyone with girls and porn and masturbation, but those were dark secrets. I recall times I’d hoped to become the Mormon Prophet (imagine an altar-boy wishing to be Pope) because I craved a permanent connection to God, some final, irreversible evidence of his existence. I imagined I was the only of my peers engaged in something as deviant as masturbation, and when I learned I was not (my fellow Scouts, on other occasions when tents separated us from Roland and the leaders, were prone to forthright discussions on the topic), I felt we ought to be ashamed, penitent—not celebratory.
So, in the cabin, I pulled my sleeping bag tight, perhaps to insulate myself from celebrations of what I feared I was but didn’t want to be. Where Roland’s tarp didn’t cover, I could see the sky and stars so bright they looked unnatural.
When Roland laughed, which he did often, I think it was about more than the joke or scene at hand; he laughed at being 50 and fitting in with teenagers.
“Ok,” Roland chuckled, “I’ve got one.”
I remember his joke:
Three schoolboys report what they did over summer break.The first went to his grandfather’s farm and saw a “moo-moo.”
“Tommy,” his teacher says, “we’re in second grade now.We use big boy words. What you saw was a cow.”
The second boy reports his trip on the “choo-choo,” and the teacher similarly corrects him. “What you saw was a train.”
The last boy stands.
“Go ahead,” he’s told. “Big boy words.”
He puffs out his chest. “My parents took me to Disneyland, and I saw Winnie the Shit!”
The Scouts reveled in repeating the punchline, the implicit permission to say “shit” again and again. I found the joke less offensive than others that the boys offered that night, but I didn’t say words like “damn” or “hell,” let alone “shit.” Before graduating high school, I swore exactly twice, and in the same sentence. I once drove Main Street at midnight tossing CDs like Frisbees from my car window, purging my music collection of swearing, sex and screaming. The greatest albums I ever owned bounced off telephone posts into supermarket parking lots.
As the jokes escalated, I grew more uncomfortable, till finally a voice said, “Guys, that’s enough.” It was Doug, the other leader, nicknamed Mom.They were his only words all night. I don’t recall another sound after that.
The next morning, one boy whined about Mom’s having killed the night’s fun. Roland checked over his shoulder for Doug, then lowered his voice and leaned toward us—a circle of dirt-streaked teenagers in lawn chairs, warming our feet over a smoky breakfast fire. “You know what?” He raised his eyebrows. “I was about to tell another joke!” I felt relieved he’d been cut off.
I’d been afraid to call Roland.What would I say? I’m wondering about your brother’s recent death, and yours to come? Death is miles outside the realm of things I feel comfortable talking to him about.Then, one morning in 2009, he calls me.
“I’ve got a joke for you.”
He tells a Pearly Gates joke about newly dead souls. He says he talked to my mom. He says my family is his favorite besides his own—he always says that, perhaps to everyone—and that my mom told him I was writing about ALS and wanted to talk to him. “You know you can ask me anything, right?”
I ask when he first knew he had it.
He tells me that, in 2005, he walked into a Costco with his wife, Susie. He turned back, intending to jog to the car for Susie’s forgotten purse. He planted his foot, but his legs wouldn’t move. Months later, when he learned of his brother’s ALS diagnosis, he thought of those obstinate legs and knew.
“Susie’s been saying for years I drag my leg.” He sighs. “This probably started to manifest itself a long time ago.”
His brother died in 2007, months after Roland’s own diagnosis. He says he skipped the viewing to keep the attention off himself.To me, the whole funeral sounded like a rehearsal. That’s why I didn’t go.
“People don’t know how to act,” he says. He sounds forgiving. At the funeral, one woman joked, “Pretty soon, I guess you’re going to be where he is!” Others approach Roland in supermarkets and cry. He tells me he used to be honest when they asked how he felt. “But I’d see it in their faces—they were sorry they’d asked. So, now, I say I’m feeling all right.” He chuckles. “They say, ‘Glad to hear it!’ and we get on to something else. But you’re someone I can tell the truth to. And the truth is, I feel shitty.”
ALS used to be called “creeping paralysis,” he tells me. In his brother, it crept up one leg, then into an arm, and finally across and down the other side. His brother lived 14 months after his diagnosis. His 70-year-old mother died three months before his brother did, and while she never noticed ALS symptoms, they found in her DNA—postmortem—what was likely the mutation half her children inherited.
The first time Roland asked me to lunch, I was 21. He needed a cane by then, but his foot remained steady enough for the pedal in his truck, so he picked me up and took me to a bakery.We sat face to face in a booth, and he asked what had happened.
I told him God had been forcibly extracted from my mind, like a perfect tooth from my mouth, by a preponderance of evidence and a craving to know things—how species evolve, how old the Earth is, how mountains form and how long it takes. I told him, in different words, that there’d been no anesthesia for this extraction, and it’d hurt like hell. I explained that I had stopped believing in God before I stopped believing in Mormonism, and I had stopped believing in Mormonism because I was forced to, as I no longer believed in any god. I said I’d believed in God for 19 years without once doubting because I thought he was a necessary being; then, suddenly, God was superfluous, and I couldn’t make myself believe in him any more than I could believe in any other unnecessary thing—like a chariot pulling the sun or fairies pushing up flowers.
“Well,” he started. “I’m still expecting a miracle.”
I said, “Roland, that doesn’t happen with ALS.”
I don’t remember the rest of the conversation, only that afterward, I knew I liked him better before he was dying. His shaken gaze felt like an accusation, like he was accusing me of condemning him to everlasting death. Like I’d stolen his resurrection. I almost wanted to put my palms up and shrug: “Hey, I didn’t make the rules.”
My snowshoes sank deeper as I climbed toward Camp Steiner.The mountains were unaware of me, and the silence aside from my footfall deterred me from rest. I could collapse, die—nothing would notice. Perhaps that’s why I began to believe wilderness harbored evil: It was the first place I sensed a lack of intervention by any god, the first place I felt unknown and unnoticed. The Uintas rose from seabed to their present heights—13,528 feet—over 60 million years.They’ve seen oceans above and valleys below. I am not much to see.
The geological history of the place is detailed by Daniel Jones in a 1955 bulletin, “The Rocks and Scenery of Camp Steiner.” He writes, the “glaciers that plowed down the valleys, carving and sculpturing the rocks as they went, began about one million years ago and disappeared about 12,000 years ago.” “Glacial”: “happening extremely slowly,” a definition clearly written by a human, not a tectonic plate, as glaciers actually move feet per day. From the perspective of the uplifting Uinta Mountains, ice carved the slopes just as enzymes move chemicals through cells—at a scale and speed beyond comprehension. Even each onset of glacial ice sheets, which advance from the poles in cooler climates and sit for thousands of years, is a fleeting moment to these peaks, a snowstorm in spring.
Near halfway to Scout Lake, a meadow I remembered from my teenage visits opened like a burned spot amid the trees. Jones writes that all meadows here were once glacial lakes, and this meadow experienced long ago what he calls every glacial lake’s “inevitable disappearance”: Mosses took its center; aquatic plants spread inward from the shore, layering the bottom as they died season after season; and soon the lake became a swamp, then a bog and, finally, a meadow. Hiking past, it occurred to me that buried under six feet of snow, a meadow and a lake look identical.
The future of the meadow is this: Quaking Aspen move in like a walking plant; later, the Earth shakes and lifts or sinks the spot, or alpine glaciers descend again and render the meadow indistinguishable from the rest of the slope, everything sanded into one consistent pitch by ice, the massive earth-mover. Creeping or cascading—a question of perspective—the glaciers tear boulders free like scratched skin cells and deposit them at the base of the slope, where the rocks form a moraine—a dam for a future lake when warmth returns and the ice recedes.
Ahead, the forest collapsed on my path. I pulled from my pocket a map photocopied from Jones’ bulletin, found it useless and tracked into the trees. Even without a trail, I expected to run into the frozen Scout Lake.Worst-case scenario, I could retrace my steps. My snowshoe prints would not be eaten by birds.
Some Saturday morning, I crawled from my sleeping bag, back sore from the bunks in the three-sided Steiner cabin, and searched my pack for a sweater. Shivering, I dropped to the wooden floor in dirty socks, squeezed into shoes, pushed the tarp aside and stepped into the dirt beneath an icy clear sky. Roland stood over a Coleman stove, warming the griddle for pancakes.The sunrise was hidden behind pines, and where it broke through the needles, October frost shimmered like shook foil.
“You’re up in time to help,” he said, as I moved toward him, half-asleep, arms folded. He poured Sprite from a can into a metal bowl then stirred in pancake mix. “My personal touch,” he’d said once.The metal whisk squeaked against the bowl. My breath rose in the air, face puffy, cheeks tight, dried out from sitting too close to the campfire the night before.
“Here.” He handed me an egg carton. I cracked a dozen into a bowl.The icy insides slipped through my fingers, and a decade later, I can recall the knuckle-deep cold. Roland’s leathery hands, mangled as they were from his home-construction trade, may not have felt the cold as mine did. Skin grew past his nails in places, and his fingers bent odd ways, evidence of a history with hammers, nail guns, falling ladders.
He poured the batter, which sizzled and spread. Minutes later, he cleared the griddle and stacked the pancakes—some a perfect butterscotch, others with blackened edges, half- blackened sides—on Styrofoam plates. Roland didn’t try to stack pancakes best side up; he was unapologetic about burnt spots. He got them on his body, too—melanoma, just off his eye. All those summers he spent building walls in roofless homes, I used to fear he’d die of the sun.
He yelled to wake boys who’d not yet trickled out from behind the blue tarp. Pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, chocolate milk. Some Scouts wouldn’t wake, and for brunch, they’d have Swedish Fish and Mountain Dew. Later, we’d pack then hike to the rifle range to finish boxes of ammunition.We’d hang quarters and shoot holes straight through them.
I don’t know if any of us boys have been to Steiner since, but Roland returned year after year—even after he could no longer walk.
Frank J. Ayd’s “Lexicon of Psychiatry, Neurology and the Neurosciences” describes ALS as a “progressive wasting and weakness of skeletal muscles.” When motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord degenerate, muscles lose their source of stimulation then atrophy. Roland says sensation remains because sensory nerves aren’t affected. On average, Ayd writes, death occurs three years after symptoms arise, most commonly from respiratory issues—when the brain can no longer control the diaphragm.This is why Roland’s brother died quickly; the paralysis crept in the wrong direction.
Ayd’s “Lexicon,” published in 2000, says little more about ALS than does the Encyclopedia of Neuroscience published 13 years prior. That’s the problem, Ayd stresses: “No cause, cure or preventative means have been found.”
But what of that 10 percent of ALS that’s inherited, the kind Roland has?The geneticist Philip Reilly writes that isolating the roots of familial ALS has proven difficult because for every 10 patients with familial ALS, two or three might share a mutation in one particular gene, and two others a mutation on a different particular gene, while the remaining five or six have no mutations in common.T he most ubiquitous of these mutations, which Roland’s family exhibits, occurs in a gene called SOD1, but it shows up in only 20 percent of people with familial ALS. Finally, some who exhibit the SOD1 mutation—like Roland’s mother—never experience ALS symptoms.
We don’t know how a mutation in SOD1 translates to degeneration of motor neurons. Reilly says perhaps—and only perhaps—a misshapen protein, produced as a result of the faulty gene, affects “the size of molecules that can enter the cell.” So, are oversized molecular doorways ushering the wrong-sized chemicals into Roland’s motor neurons? How wrong? Wrong by a nanometer?
I’m fascinated by scale and size.The Creeping Paralysis has, at the molecular level, such a benign appearance:The SOD1 gene contains several sets of DNA base-pairs, each of which tells a ribosome to attach a particular molecule—an amino acid—onto a chain of other amino acids, and that chain wraps around itself to form a glob of molecules, like a ball of loose string, anchored in a specific shape by chemical bonds. In biology courses, we draw proteins as circles with mouths, and when their anchored shapes cause our bodies to die instead of thrive, we say the proteins have been formed “incorrectly,” that ribosomes are picking “wrong” amino acids to attach because of “bad” information from “mutated” DNA. But at the molecular level, there is no right or wrong. As cells erode in function and form, it’s only in a world orders of magnitude larger—our world—that meaning is assigned to the process. At only one point on the continuum of size, from subatomic string to expanding universe, is the shape of a protein or the order of base pairs in the SOD1 gene considered tragic.
Ayd’s “Lexicon” has an entry for “Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis/Final Cascade.”The Final Cascade is the “irreversible, downward course” of the disease, of the body, “once clinical symptoms become overt.”The irreversible downward course—to me, this sounds like Earth Science rather than Life Science.The Final Cascade: I see an avalanche, or a glacier carving down a slope.
“Susie and I used to do this. Get food and come to this spot, right here,” Roland said, nodding. In my passenger seat, he looked as he always had, his body whole. There was nothing to suggest that, minutes earlier, I’d held the door like a chauffeur while he pulled himself from his electric wheelchair, legs twisted like licorice. It was October of 2008, four months before my snowshoe hike.
I feared another rehashing of my faithlessness would further bury the Roland I knew, so I steered our conversation clear of anything that would highlight distance between us. Our friendship centered on things simpler and more concrete: jokes, stories, swearing, cliff- jumping, skinny-dipping. Flipping the switch on the automatic doors at Target and watching from his parked truck as shoppers ran into the glass. Riding in a Suburban full of teenagers while Roland drove over neighbors’ lawns.
The Roland I know once hung upside-down at roof height over concrete for 15 minutes— his shoe caught on a single nail—and still laughs when he describes holding statue-still, hammer in hand, so the passing mailman wouldn’t see him.
I never knew, and still don’t know, the Roland who’s about to die and meet God.
I stepped slowly onto the buried Scout Lake, which, lacking trees, was pummeled by driving winds. Sheets of snow lifted and ran. I rushed across what would’ve been a cove, avoiding the roaring middle where the wind frenzied. If evil was in this wilderness, the center of the lake was where it danced.
My eyes followed the shoreline in search of the dock from which I once made my naked plunge; then, I realized it would be buried. But the lifeguard cabin I remembered was also missing. I studied my map while snow piled in its creases. Parts of the lake didn’t match the shoreline as I could see it—the spot where trees reappeared. I felt a creeping sensation I might be on the wrong lake. Maybe I was on a giant meadow—a lake dead for a thousand years.
I reentered the trees where the map said I’d find the campsite in which we’d always stayed, but the forest lacked any three-walled cabins. My fingers numb from exposure, I considered throwing the paper to the wind and tracing my prints an hour back to my snowmobile.Then I rounded a hill and saw it—the snow-packed Highway 150, directly in front of me.
“What the hell?” I said aloud, ripping open the now-wet map. As I’d thought, I couldn’t be looking at that highway if I was anywhere on the page.
I laughed, feeling not just disoriented but actively manipulated. But my lack of belief in cosmic manipulators left me only lucid awareness of my ignorance of the wilderness. I sank into the snow and the silence that had returned.
Roland first camped at Steiner at age 12.
“That was when it was brand new,” he says.
“They’d just built it in 1952.”
“I read it was built in the early ’30s,” I say, hot phone to my ear.
“Oh—that’s right.They moved it in 1952.” The first camp surrounded a smaller lake, he says, a mile from the present location. I’d hiked with him and the Scouts through the forest to the old lake one summer. Newts burst into the mossy pond as we approached. Grass grew over the edge like early ice, and one boy fell in, arms flailing, when the ground below him proved to be afloat. That’s what I’d snowshoed across, I suddenly know.
“I went up there last month. Hiked in alone.”
“Did you!” he says. “What for?”
I say something simple and probably untrue. I don’t say, “I went because you’re dying, and I’m trying to figure out how to feel about that.”
As the mountains rose, glaciers, mudslides, wind and rivers carried “a flood of quartzite pebbles, cobbles and boulders” off their slopes, writes Wallace Hansen in “The Geological Story of the Uinta Mountains.”This history spread across northeastern Utah and into Wyoming and Colorado. Against the assault, the rock rose—an inch in a million years or a foot in a violent hour—and by 20 or 30 million years ago, the mountains adopted what Hansen calls “a fairly modern appearance.” He writes, “The stage was now set for the sequence of events that shaped the present scene.”
Even earlier ages had a role in the eventual formation of these peaks. Hansen notes that “all past geologic events”—such as deposits of a specific quartzite, two billion years ago— played a part. Looking back now, two billion years of geological history seems to me a grand, final cascade—a sequence of unstoppable, irreversible events. “Clearly,” writes Hansen, “the landscapes, the rocks and the processes that formed them both are not entities unto themselves. They are interdependent parts of an integrated whole, a continuum of matter, space and time.”
Before his brother’s diagnosis, Roland tells me, he found himself struggling to hike to the rifle range at Steiner—struggling for reasons he didn’t yet understand. He was surprised to hear himself say, aloud, that it was the last time he’d be there.
“But I was wrong,” he tells me now.
In October of 2008, his son packed him into a van filled with grandchildren and delivered him to 10,400 feet—the cold air, the thin pines, the three-walled cabins. I don’t know if they took a wheelchair; it would have been difficult to maneuver through the trails. Perhaps his son carried him down to the lake and set him on the flat boulder I once lay on while searching those unnaturally bright stars for something outside myself.
“I didn’t stay overnight,” he says, “but I got to watch my grandkids run those trails and fish in the lake. Being up there again—well—,” a pause, “—Steiner really brought it all together for me.”
I don’t know what he means by that, exactly. My hope is that while in the mountains, he decided he doesn’t need his miracle. I’d like to think one can’t dread death amid rocks that have held shape for 30 million years, form for twice that, their elements eternal—at least from any human perspective.
I also don’t know whether it was his adopted son who drove him to the mountaintop or the son who carries half his DNA—the grandchildren, scurrying over 30-million-year-old rocks, a quarter each.
I scaled a slope to the snow-packed highway. A long walk brought me to my snowmobile, coated in new snow. I slapped the seat to clear it.
I’d become braver on the machine: I dropped off the shallow highway between stands of aspen and raced across prairies or lakes of untouched snow. Behind me, peaks reappeared above the storm.The sun shone between gaps in low clouds and threw shadows of trees on the highway like stripes.
I can’t stop thinking about the scale of things, the relativity of size, of time.The proteins in a cell, in mine or Roland’s—their insignificant mass, the gravity of their failings. Proteins move and die quickly; I am a slow, aged giant.The glaciers tear at impossibly large rock—and that rock is a mere sliver of the moving plate beneath. Interdependent parts of an integrated whole, a continuum of matter, space and time. A cascade—not here or now, but always, everywhere, from the beginning, moving forward into what my mind might call eternity.
At one point on that continuum, I occupy my space. Roaring down the mountain on a snowmobile, I can see from only there. I see the cascade, and I think it’s beautiful, haunting, tragic and inevitable. Final—yes—in its permanence.