I have about six different dog-eared versions of our Trinity search maps stuffed into a large envelope I keep on the shelf at home. I looked through each of these, trying to decipher various notes made by Jim and the HRD dog handlers in an effort to make sure we found the right spot for our memorial mission without getting lost up there. In the past, I always had the navigational help of Jim or one of the HRD handlers, all well-versed with maps and GPS apps. This time it was up to me, and I would be bringing my sister, my eighty-six-year-old mom, and my one-and-only daughter with me. So the stakes felt even higher than usual.
On Friday morning we ate breakfast, loaded the pack with safety gear and water, and headed out, with Peter and his friend, Duke, following in his mammoth truck. (I asked Duke to come along with his weapon and hunter’s skills–just in case.)
The wet winters had carved even deeper gulleys in the roads than we remembered, and our four-wheel drive skills had gotten a bit rusty. We had to jump out a few times to fill in the deepest ruts with rocks. (It was great to have Ellie’s strong help with this!) But overall, with Anna at the wheel, my trusty Subaru did just fine. (Unfortunately, the rough roads and steep drop-offs were taking a toll on my otherwise tough mom. But after a brief respite, she was ready to take on the “nerve-wracking” roads again.
We followed the highlighted route on my map through the maze of logging roads until we got to the “X” that I was pretty sure marked the spot we were looking for. It all seemed familiar, because it was. There was just one problem: it was the wrong spot. This was “Old Base Camp,” our original jumping off point and communications hub from our earliest search efforts. Fortunately, Peter and I took another look at the map and agreed our actual destination was just about ten minutes beyond our one wrong turn.
We quickly found the “Four Trees” we used as a landmark for the beginning of the route into the woods. The trees were taller, and the grasses and bushes more prominent after several good rain years. But otherwise, it seemed the same: same slope, same burnt log, same smell of warm dirt and dry grasses.
The familiar landmarks we passed on the old, abandoned logging road reassured me we were at the right spot, as well as conjuring up a flood of memories of long days of tedious searching, excitement at finding important clues, and a few crises averted.
After about fifteen minutes of winding our way down slopes and streambeds, we arrived at the spot we now call “Steve’s Rock,” where we believe he probably passed away. I wasn’t sure at first, but the slope of the low rock was right, and I remembered a young maple just opposite it (now doubled in size).
I found my emotions were not nearly as raw now as they had been when I first encountered this place. But Ellie and Mom had never been here, and so now it was their turn to try to absorb the waves of emotion that threaten to overpower you when you’re standing on that ground, picturing what Steve may have gone through. It was wrenching to witness. But they both wanted to be there, needed to be there…even though they had to know it could be excruciating. Overwhelming grief, born of love.
We weren’t allowed to place the plaque in this particular spot, so we located an area not far away where I asked Ellie to choose a boulder we could attach it to. She used her analytical mind to thoughtfully select one in a relatively protected spot. She chose well. It’s nestled between larger boulders and surrounded by pine and fir trees, flanked by a young dogwood (Steve’s favorite) and a miniature wild rose. Peter, Duke and Ellie got to work, carefully prepping the rock, then gluing the plaque on and propping it up with rocks to hold it while it “set.” Steve would be proud to see how eager Ellie was to help, using the carpentry skills he so enjoyed teaching her.
Seeing it there felt like a degree of closure. I just seems right to be leaving behind some tangible marker of Steve, his life, and his last journey. I found myself feeling so grateful for all of the people who helped us get to this place, sticking with us all those many months as we worked to solve this mystery. And I was so aware of God’s clear presence with us, offering direction and protection as we worked in this wild, remote place.
Once the plaque was set, we rested awhile, relaxing and getting a feel for this place before hiking back out. It was quiet in the car as we bumped our way back down the road to the cabin. I felt my shoulders drop with gratitude and relief when we made it back without mishap. I was wondering how Ellie would do following such a difficult experience. But Peter and Meghan helped her shift by inviting her to spend a few hours zipping around the lake on a Wave Runner with their little family. Perfect.
So Mom rested and Anna and I took a walk up the road, where we discovered a deep, agate green swimming hole, while Ellie spent the afternoon in her element: playing in the water with this cool, young couple and their fun-loving kids, soaking up life, just as she should be.