“Man, it’s been ages since we did this, Dad. I’m glad that you had this idea.”
Greg Shannon sat on the wooden bench seat of the stone camp table that had been built by the WPA men during the Great Depression, almost one hundred years earlier. “I can’t believe that it’s been fifty years since we did this.”
“Fifty years at least” Roger Shannon replied. You and Wally Graham were fifteen, I think, the last time we camped here.” Roger sat down beside his son, extracted a bottle of beer from the ice chest that sat at their feet, twisted off the cap and took a long pull off of the cold brew. “Damn, but this stuff tastes better here than anywhere else.”
“You say that all the time, Dad. I don’t think it makes too much difference where you are.”
Roger chuckled and said “Yeah, son. You may be right.” He took another gulp of beer and looked across their campsite. A narrow asphalt access road ran past campsite #36. Across that road the ground quickly dropped ten or fifteen feet to the bed of the Sweetwater River. The Sweetwater could just barely be called a creek, really. Only when a thunderstorm rolled across that corner of the mountains, or when an infrequent snowpack melted, did the Sweetwater look in any way like a real river. On this day it was low, as usual, as it trickled on it’s way to being absorbed by the thirsty earth long before it reached the sea. Beyond the river stretched a narrow mountain valley, and beyond that the mountains continued to climb to a peak of 6,000 feet, the highest elevation in San Diego County. The air was warm and dry, the scenery beautiful, and the whole place thick with memories of family camping trips long ago.
“No, Roger said softly; almost under his breath. “It tastes better here.”
Greg looked at the same vista that so impacted his father. He too looked at the riverbank, and thought of the creek that he loved to play in after his father had admonished Greg and his younger brother Jerry to stay out of it. “Don’t you two get wet in that river!” he would sternly command. “Yes Dad” they would reply, and then run and jump into the middle of that misnamed stream of water in the straightest line possible, as everyone involved knew that they would do.
That and a million other memories flooded into Greg’s mind as he looked in the same direction as his father. And, like the older Shannon, he reached into the ice chest and withdrew a cold beer. Taking a swig he drew his sleeve across his lips and said “Yeah. They do taste pretty good up here.”
Greg and his father were traveling together alone for the first time in decades. Greg’s mother, Roger’s wife of many years, had died in an automobile accident ten years earlier, and now Greg’s own wife had succumbed to a short and brutal struggle with pancreatic cancer. The elder Shannon had been separated from his wife suddenly, without having had time to say goodbye to her. He grieved, and then healed and began to get on with the rest of the time that was left to him.
Greg, on the other hand, had watched his wife wither, wracked equally by the cancer and the treatment for it. He had plenty of time to say goodbye. Too much time. By the time that death ended Eileen’s suffering Greg had felt like he had died several times himself. He was glad for an end to her pain, and both sadness and relief did battle for primacy in his scarred and beaten heart. Within two months of Eileen’s passing, and after spending many hours on the phone pouring out his hurt and loneliness to his father, Roger proposed this trip.
“Greg, I think you need a break; a change of pace. You’ve spent too much time in hospital rooms and I’ve spent too much time in Gustavo’s Tequila Factory. Why don’t you come down here and take me on a road trip? I’m too old to drive that much by myself, but I would love to see some scenery go past my window once again.
Roger lived in a single-wide mobile home on the outskirts of Taos, New Mexico, and therefore had access to the best scenery in the world. Some of it, anyway. But he did love being on the road, and knew that his grieving son needed to get out of his cocoon. “You drive down here and pick me up. Your boy can run the clinic while you’re gone and we can just hang out.”
The truth was that Marty, Greg’s oldest son who followed in his father’s footsteps and successfully navigated dental school, had already been running the clinic in everything but name only. “Yeah, Pops. Do it!” Marty advised his dad. “I think Grandpa’s right. A change would probably be a good thing for you. We’ll hold down the fort until you get back.”
So Greg, or Dr. Greg to his patients, took the next month and a half to clear his schedule. Then, in the beginning of July, he backed his Ford Explorer out of the driveway in front of his home in Bismarck, North Dakota, and headed west on Interstate 94. The trip usually required two days to travel a combination of Interstate highways and two lane roads, if you pushed it.
Greg decided to do it in three days. Loneliness had become his constant companion these last four months and more, and while he looked forward to “rejoining the living” as his plainspoken father had put it, he wondered if he ever really could. Loneliness had become his lot, and he was not sure that his loneliness wasn’t somehow the glue that held his sanity together.
Greg spent his first night in a sort of clean and definitely inexpensive motel in Deadwood, South Dakota. The sign in the bathroom admonishing guests to not use motel linen to wipe down their motorcycles was mildly disconcerting, but the place was otherwise unremarkable. Dinner that evening and breakfast the following morning were purchased at ‘The Shootout Bar and Grill’. Both meals looked strangely alike; the burger steak in the evening and the sausage patties the next morning appeared to have been fried in the same grease. “My doctor would crap in his pants if he saw me eating this” Greg thought. “Oh well. You only live once.”
His leisurely drive the next day brought him to Walsenberg, Colorado. He upgraded his motel accommodations and meal opportunities, finding a very nice motel with a pool and a restaurant attached that offered meat that wasn’t fried, as well as green things to eat. A breakfast of oatmeal and fruit was procured in the morning, after which he pointed his SUV west again, winding across southern Colorado and then dropping south into New Mexico.
He pulled onto the gravel driveway in front of Roger’s mobile home at about four in the afternoon. Knowing the futility of knocking on the front door, Greg picked his way across the yard, avoiding cacti and spreading patches of goatheads, and walked around to the east-facing back porch, where he was almost certain that he would find his father.
He was not disappointed. Resting in nylon lawn chairs were his father and a woman of similar age. “That must be Rosie” he thought. Roger had a mixed drink on the wooden table at his elbow and the woman had what appeared to be an iced tea. In front of them, at a distance sufficient to separate them from any extra heat on this warm summer afternoon, was a hooded barbecue grill with aluminum foil covering the opening. A small motor turned a rotisserie, and on top of the hood rested a metal dish containing pieces of hot dog and bologna and other meats. There, the bits of meat would be kept warm until they could be speared with a toothpick and munched, as hours of relaxation and conversation passed by. Greg had seen this picture hundreds of times at least, but this was the first time that any woman other than his mother had been in it.
“I knew I’d find you here” Greg announced as he rounded the corner of the mobile home.
“Where else would I be?” Roger responded without missing a beat. He then rose up and greeted his son with a bear hug, and didn’t let go too quickly. “Come on son. I want you to meet Rosie.”
Rosamunda Elena Chavezguerrero rose up from her seat and, after introductions, shook Greg’s hand warmly, but only after he had extended his first.
“The chicken,” Roger pointed in the direction of the barbecue grill with his chin. “Will be done momentarily. Rosie will then turn Henrietta there into the finest chicken enchiladas that you’ve ever eaten.”
“By that, I suppose, you mean that I had better have brought my own Tums.”
“Oh, no” Roger protested. “It’s not too hot.”
Memories of that meal lingered as the two Shannons crossed deserts and state lines for the next two days. Greg discovered that Tucks pads would have been far more useful than the Tums that he consumed later that that evening.
Eventually they arrived at the Green Valley Falls Campground and now they had erected their tent, deployed their cots, and had packed all of their canned and packaged food items in the wooden camp pantry that was found in every campsite there. The camp set up, they began to walk toward the falls area which was not too far away.
“So, tell me about Rosie, Dad. What’s your relationship with her?”
I knew you’ve been dying to ask” Roger chuckled. “Rosie and Ernesto were two of my favorite people in Taos. I met Ernesto at Gustavo’s and we hit it off right away. We tossed back a lot of drinks before we discovered that we both loved to garden. Pretty soon I was at his place all the time, working in his garden with him and sharing meals from the produce that we grew, and spending long evenings sitting in the shade with him and Rosie and oftentimes with their family and friends. They sort of adopted the lonely old Gringo.
I began to go to church with them; yes, don’t look so surprised! They sort of became like family, and the family went to church. So I went to church. I guess I’m still a Methodist, if I’m anything at all, but I found the church to be a comfortable place. You know, that building is over two hundred years old.
Generations have been born and died, all of whom were baptized there and later laid to rest out in the campo santo. Sometimes when I’m there it feels like they’re still hanging around, sort of. Still worshipping. Nobody’s ever called me a religious guy, but I guess the closest I’ve ever come is right there in that old adobe church.
“So, where does Ernesto figure in here?” Greg asked. “What does he think of Rosie cooking chicken enchiladas for you at your home?”
“Ernesto passed away two years ago. He got the flu, then pneumonia. The two diseases tag-teamed him and his organs all shut down. His death hurt, sort of like your mother’s did. Not with the same intensity, but it left a hole. Of course, it left an even bigger hole in Rosie’s life. She took it pretty hard, but her family and the church really came together around her. I continued to tend Ernesto’s garden; in a way, it was like keeping a part of him alive for myself.
Rosie and her family were surprised by this, I think. The Hispanic community up there is used to living side by side with us Gringos, but there’s little real mingling. After a while though, Rosie saw that my affection for her husband was genuine and she appreciated that. Plus, I grow a better garden than he did! Anyway, we’ve come to enjoy each other’s company.”
The falls area was only a short distance form the campsite, a fact for which Roger was grateful. Soon they stood before the slit through the boulders in which a narrowed-down Sweetwater River shot towards the forty-foot long, steep slide of rock down which the water raced toward a pool at its base.
“I can’t believe that Jerry and I would climb around on that pile of rocks and didn’t kill ourselves,” Greg said.
“I can’t believe it either,” Roger replied. “Your mother was certain that one or both of you wouldn’t come back when I would turn you two loose.”
Greg stared at his father in surprise. “Then why did you let us do it?”
“Well, I remembered my own growing up. I did things at least that dangerous and some a lot worse. I suspect that you have too. I survived mine, and I thought that letting you two live was a better deal than worrying that every little thing would kill you. So I rolled the dice. Do you think that I did the right thing?”
Greg mulled it over as he imagined two ragamuffin boys prancing barefoot over the rocks and sliding along in the river current, and having the time of their lives. “I guess it was probably a good thing,” he said.
Later that evening Roger cooked a simple meal on their gas camp stove. The old stone camp stoves, also built by the WPA men so long ago, had finally crumbled under the stress of thousands of roaring campfires used to cook breakfasts and dinners, and to provide a center for storytelling and camp life on thousands of evenings. The steel stove-on-a-pole contraptions that had replaced the old stone stoves had the aesthetic appeal of a razor blade easy chair, and the two men would have nothing to do with it.
After cleaning up they opened two beers and sat back to watch the sun go down in the west. Roger was tired from the long drive west from Taos. Walking around the campground, while satisfying in that it limbered up his tired and cramped muscles and joints, had taken its toll. Greg mostly felt peace from his walk down memory lane, and only narrowly avoided shucking off his shoes and shirt and getting into the water like he had done so many years ago.
Something was holding him back from real peace though. Something seemed to be lurking beneath the banter and reminiscences that he shared with his father. There was another shoe. Just about as the sun slipped behind the low hill on the other side of the campground’s shower building, that shoe dropped.
“Greg, there’s something I’ve got to share with you.”
“Damn!” Greg thought. “I hate it when people say that. Here it comes.”
“What is it, Dad”
Roger stared at the western horizon for a minute to two more, as if looking for the right words to come to him out of the fading light of the already-set sun. Greg noticed the little shrug of his father’s shoulders as he gave up the search.
“I had a colonoscopy a couple of months ago. Part of the ‘old man drill’. Problem is, it showed that I have cancer growing up there. They did a CT on me and found that it’s already in my liver, and in a couple of bones, too.”
Since Greg had felt that something was coming, he was not terribly surprised at the news. “So how bad is it?”
“Well, they say that I’ve got maybe six months to a year. It’s pretty far along. Nobody knows, really.”
Greg sat silently, trying to digest this new bad news. His struggle with the death of his wife had exhausted him, and he now could feel no grief as he listened to his father tell of his own impending end. He knew that the grief would come soon enough though.
“You’re not going to do chemo or anything like that, are you.” Greg said it as a statement of fact, not as a question.
“Nope. No point. My sawbones recommended all of that shit, but he knows it’s worthless and didn’t argue with me too much. Rosie introduced me to a curandera; a traditional healing woman. Many in the Hispanic community swear by her. I’m giving her a shot. She prays and mixes up some roots and bark and other stuff like that for me to drink. Hey, it might work. Who knows?”
The two men remained silent for a while, deep in their own thoughts while the beers in their hands grew warm.
“Dad, I thought that you invited me on this trip to help me deal with Eileen’s death. I have to tell you that I feel a little bit screwed here.”
Roger was ready for that statement. “I don’t really blame you, son. But I wish that you would try to look at it differently. I lost your mom in an instant. She went to the store to get some groceries and she didn’t come back. The sheriff and the coroner both told me that it would be better that I not see the body; that not much of it resembled the Rebecca that I had known. I said goodbye to some ashes; to pictures, to a closet full of clothing that still smelled like her, but she was gone. I could only say goodbye to memories.
And you have just watched death happen in slow motion. I won’t describe that for you again; you know it well enough. Hell, you know it a lot better than I do. I saw it close enough when Ernesto was dying, but it was nothing like you went through.
Anyway, I thought that telling you here and in this way was like splitting the difference. We’ve got the rest of this trip to enjoy and lots of time to say goodbye, but I’ll not have you watch it again. I don’t want to add to the grief that you have already been feeling. In fact, I hoped that somehow this would help to take some of it away. If I’ve done this badly, I apologize for that. I did it the best way that I know how though, and I did it this way because I love you very much.”
Greg sat silently, thinking about what his father had just told him. There was a logic to it; that he couldn’t deny. How could his father have told him in a better way that he was going to die soon? Sitting in campsite #36 , where good memories of family camping trips were thicker than the bluejays that would flock to a piece of bread thrown on the ground, did seem like a good place to break such news. Greg then thought about the generations of people who seemed to still linger in and around the Taos mission church that his father had spoken of. Yeah, it was sort of like that here. It seemed like a circle was somehow being closed.
“So, who’s going to take care of you Dad? You’re not going to do anything stupid, are you? You know that I will come down in a heartbeat and stay to the end.”
Roger chuckled a moment at that. “You mean commit suicide? Naw, I’m not doing anything like that. Rosie’s promised to look after me. Her family will step up too. They’re good people, son. They have a soft heart for an old stray dog like me. I’ll die in my own bed; the one I shared with your mother for more years than I care to count, and in my own home. That’s a pretty good gift, I think. I’m sort of looking forward to seeing your mother again, too.”
Greg let that sink in. His father wanted to spend good time with him and spare him from a repeat of the ordeal that he had just endured with Eileen, and that felt good. He was surprised to hear his father speak of meeting Greg’s mother again though.
“Sounds to me like you’re thinking of heaven and stuff like that.”
“Well, Rosie and her family and the people we go to church with are pretty high on it, so what’s there to lose? Yeah, I think about it some. Heck, why not? The idea of being with Rebecca again is kind of pleasant, don’t you think? Maybe they’ve got good tequila up there too. Ernesto and I could toss a few back again. Your mom wouldn’t mind too much, I think.”
The two men sat quietly together as the gloom thickened in the east and overwhelmed the last glow of sunlight in the west. Lanterns sprang to life in the camp sites that surrounded their own. Roger’s ancient Coleman gas lantern sat on the thick table untouched.
Greg finished his beer and got up to relieve himself behind a tree. He then retrieved a pint of bourbon from the back of the SUV. Tonight called for something stronger than beer. He returned to his chair, took a pull from the bottle and passed it over to his surprised father who didn’t know that Greg had brought such a treasure along. Roger took an appreciative pull off of the bottle and then asked“You mad at me?”
Greg shook his head; an act that Roger could not have seen in the dark. “No Pops. I’m not mad. That’d be kinda pointless. I get what you are trying to do, and I guess there’s just no right way to do it. I’m not made out of ice though. This is pretty hard to swallow. And speaking of swallows, don’t bogart that jug, OK?”
Roger passed the bourbon back to Greg, who gulped down a mouthful, and then continued. “You’re probably right about this, Pop. Hell, you’ve been right about a lot of things in my lifetime, now that I think of it. I’m not staying away while you die though. You can forget about that shit. Marty doesn’t really need me to run the clinic any more. I guess now’s as good a time to retire as any. Maybe I’ll rent a place in Taos, so I can be close but you can keep your own space. I can volunteer at a clinic, if they do that there, just to keep busy. I’m going to be close, but I’ll stay out of your face. And this is not negotiable.”
Roger reached for the bottle and took a swig. That was not his plan, but he had to admit that he liked it. “Fair enough” he said, closing the deal.
“Does Jerry know?” Greg asked.
“Maybe. I suppose so. I sent him a letter to the last address that I had, and it didn’t come back. I guess that when it’s over he’ll come around to see if there’s anything left for him.”
“Will there be?”
“Well, I don’t need any of it. What are you going to do with it? I know it’s a pretty penny.”
“Some’ll go to the church, I guess. Some to the Humane Society. The rest I’ll give the a Native American college fund.”
“The church, huh. I think you’re a little deeper into this than you let on.”
“Yeah. Maybe. I guess so. You might try it yourself.”
Greg thought again about Eileen, and how much he would like to see her again. “Yeah, I wish that I could believe that.”
More than half of the bottle of bourbon was drained before the two men got up to go to sleep. Roger wobbled a bit after sitting for so long. Greg, who was far less accustomed to alcohol than was his father, wobbled a bit as well as he helped Roger to the shower building, where they emptied their bladders and washed their faces before turning in.
As they stretched out on their cots under the blankets that kept out the cool mountain air Roger spoke from his corner of the tent. “You sleep well, son. The sun’s gonna come up tomorrow and I’m still gonna to be alive. Life was never anything but a gift, and I’m not called to give it back just yet. And this is the last that I want to speak of it, on this trip at least.”
Soon after that the tent was filled with Roger’s soft snores. Greg listened to his dad’s breathing and thought of his father’s coming death. He remembered Eileen’s sufferings, and anticipated the next round of that struggle that he would soon have to watch.
“Church!” Greg thought. “I hate you God!” How is Dad turning to you now, when you’re about to snuff him out? Eileen believed in you too, and her suffering was awful. What are you, some kind of cosmic masochist? Do you get your jollies screwing people over? Who the hell would ever worship a God like you?
Greg went on in that manner deep into the night, talking to a God who he said that he didn’t believe in; wrestling with a God who he said wasn’t there.
In the morning, when the first light of hope began to pierce the eastern darkness, Greg finally understood that he really was talking to Somebody. It was a conversation that would continue and, in time, would bear much good fruit until his own final nightfall.