A note: I haven’t shared this piece before, as I felt the emotions were too raw and disturbing (both to myself and potentially to others). If you choose to read this, I want you to know that, thanks to time and many layers of healing, my recent experiences at Trinity were not nearly as intense as they were when I originally wrote this.
It’s only about a ten minute walk to the spot. It would barely qualify as a “hike”–it’s that easy.
We park the SUVs at what we’ve come to call “Four Trees”: about half way up the main logging road, at the place where four scraggly pines are struggling to grow in rocky soil. This is the beginning of a long-abandoned, heavily overgrown road that peters out as it heads south, into the woods.
This route takes us past the area under a tree on the left where three of the specimens we have were found. About ten strides beyond, on the right, towers what we have come to call “Lion Rock.” In a strategically uphill location, this flat-topped, granite edifice would have made an excellent home base for the large lion who has been leaving tracks all around this location.
Although I’ve been to the spot before, I feel called–no, compelled–to revisit this place. Like a strong magnet, I feel it pulling me closer.
We head east, making our way downhill toward the area where the ground levels off. The air is warm, with a pastel, summer blue sky overhead. But as we step out of the trees and into the clearing, I feel a subtle shift: there is a weight to the air, and the light takes on a grey cast. It has the feel of a vacuum–void of some essential element. I find myself wondering if the other searchers with me feel it also.
As I slowly rotate in a 360 degree circle, I feel a sinking across my shoulders–as if I were wearing a vest slowly filling with heavy sand. And in the center of my chest I sense a door opening, and behind that door, my heart is fairly glowing with the intensity of its mission: to become so attuned to Steve, I would just know whether this was the place he died. With the connection we developed after so many years together, it just seems that I will know.
I notice firs and pines in varied shades of green, a bed of dry pine needles carpeting the forest floor. Manzanitas hem us in on one side, while a few graceful maples are scattered among the evergreens.
At the center of this clearing lies a patch of ground that looks raw and freshly turned. It appears some animals have been making a concerted effort to dig up an area about the size of a bed. Months ago, the first “digger” was “Zig,” Montana Cris’s very smart HRD dog. (Since that day, three or four HRD dogs have separately alerted to the dirt Zig was so focused on, both on site and in off-site blind testing.) When Jim returned this past winter, the forest floor was covered with debris from the recent storms–everywhere but this spot, which was mounded with freshly dug dirt, just as it is today.
We will never know for certain how and where Steve died, but the clues imply he got wet up to his chest after having to travel down much of the drainage sitting in the water, as he scooted and slid along on his backside because he couldn’t use his left upper body.
By the time he finally emerged (if our estimates are correct), it was evening, the temperature about forty or fifty degrees. Wet, hypothermic, injured, beyond exhausted, it appears he stumbled this far, to the very same clearing I’m standing in.
The last time we were here, Jim pointed out the cool draft coming up from the valley below in the early evenings and suggested Steve may have tried to rest and find some shelter by leaning up against this rounded rock that would still have held some warmth from the day. It most definitely could have blocked some of the unwelcome, cool drafts moving up from the downslope.
Without thinking, I find myself sitting there, leaning against that warm rock with my legs stretched out in front of me. I think the theories are right. But even more than that–there’s just something “altered” about the air. That part of my heart that has been seeking Steve out resonates, leaving me feeling this very well may be the place where my battered, determined, courageous, absolutely depleted husband took his final breaths.
So what did he see in those last moments? If it wasn’t pitch black yet, he would have seen a graceful young maple, with a rounded shape and vibrant, fresh green leaves straight in front of him, right at head height. Even with feeling as miserable as he had to be, I know he would have noticed and savored her simple, young beauty, so full of promise.
And if he was too weak to sustain a seated position, then he would have laid down. So now, the magnet is pulling me over, seducing me into lying flat on this ground. (I know my sister and the sweet friends who have accompanied me may be disturbed to see me do this, but they have been so generously respectful of what I need to do with my grief, I know they won’t try to stop me.)
I lie on that dug-up patch of earth, which probably still harbors some of his very cells deep within. For a moment, I close my eyes and imagine dissolving into a billion molecules, slipping down into the soil with him. There would be something so right about that… But instead, I open my eyes and look up.
In case he lay there, moving in and out of consciousness, I need to see what he was seeing…to know what image of this achingly beautiful, reckless earth may have been his last.
I can almost feel, more than see, the circle of trees that surround this spot. Gentle, silent witnesses containing us, containing this moment. I find myself feeling jealous at the thought they were able to be there with him when I could not, that they would know the end of the story I can only imagine.
But when I focus straight above me, the sky opens up. He must have seen a stunning array of stars in the heavens on that clear August night. The brilliant light of God poking through a million tiny holes in the black cloth that is the night sky.
Thank you, God, for choosing this view for my Steve: one that would surely bring him comfort as he felt his spirit leave his weary body, knowing he would soon soar up to meet you there, in all of that beauty and brilliance. Home at last.