When All That Remains is a Memory

Memorial Day weekend.  I expected the tributes to our troops, both current and past, and the deep thankfulness that you cannot help but feel for our hard-earned freedom.  Red, white and blue flags flying, headstones marked with crosses, flowers and tears.  What I didn’t expect, was to find myself contemplating memories on death, loss and the hand-picked timing of certain moments in life.  I found myself grieving, quieted by a once-familiar place, now darkened with long lasting scars, and only the stark skeletons of what once was.

I guess I hadn’t been there since the fire.

Photo courtesy of Drew Smith via www.panoramio.com

Trapper’s Lake and the dirt county road leading to it was a place we frequented growing up.  Pulling a cream and green “Wilderness” camper, loaded down with fishing poles, a hibachi barbecuer, Shasta Cream Soda and large amounts of excitement, our family would find ourselves heading up to go camping almost all summer long.  The little county road seemed to go on forever then, clouds of dry dust following us the last part of the way, surrounded on both sides by mountains, pine trees, quaking aspens and the rare  glimpse of a shimmering, snow-fed creek.

Our weekends were spent hiking under the canopy of pine forests, being swallowed by the sweet scent of pine trees in bloom and fishing in excruciatingly cold, clear volcanic-formed lakes.  We loved this beautiful place that was right in our back yard.

I guess that’s why I found myself grieving so palpably over the weekend.

Photo courtesy of Drew Smith via Panoramio.com

I had no idea that the wildfire that took place nearly ten years ago, would still have as fresh a scar on the land, as if it had just happened a few years ago.  The mountains looked scraped bare, with only dry dirt there where the beautiful pines once stood, where spring rains and winter runoff would have fed the once-dense green brush and undergrowth.  All that remained were skeletons.  Sharp ghosts swaying with the cold wind, hundreds, thousands of other skeletons fallen in shards at their feet in a nasty, tangled mess of a larger-than-life game of Pick-up-Sticks.

Instead of the breeze singing through soft needled branches, the wind screeched and hissed now, whistling through their gnarled bones and around this ghost town of dead trees, their burned forms standing as tombstones for the fallen, now only a memory.

Ten years after the Big Fish fire near Trapper’s Lake

I was out of college, living two hundred miles away, when I first read their words.  A Letter to the Editor published in our little Rio Blanco Herald Times, that would never let me forget.  That would, from that day forward, always cause me to think upon timing, upon moments, and upon God’s big plan.

Dear Editor,

What a sense of loss and despair.  Trappers Lake is a very special place to a lot of people, for a lot of reasons.  While living in the Yampa Valley my family got to know Trappers Lake, to know the meaning of what a special place does to one’s soul.

We moved to Texas seven years ago and my son always asked if we could return to Trappers Lake some day.  I told him “sure and we’ll go there many times together.”  My son died last summer at the age of 21.

My wife and I brought his ashes back to Trappers Lake this summer.   It is his favorite place on Earth and that’s where he should be.

We stayed at Trappers Lake Lodge Resort on this recent trip and made reservations for our return next summer.  Years past we had camped in the campgrounds but enjoyed this stay at the lodge.  Our mind set was not focused on the camping experiences we normally enjoy, rather the personal emotions and continued feeling of loss with our son’s passing.

The experience of placing a loved one into the environment they so love the most for eternal rest is comforting but yet so difficult.  You go through the grieving all over again but it is the same grieving you never stopped experiencing.  The sense of loss is tremendous but you know you are doing the right thing.  With that comes some sense of acceptance.

Our last night at Trappers Lake Lodge Resort was fraught with many sudden awakenings from the lightning and heavy rains.  It was quite eventful that night and we were glad to see some rains returning to the high country.  We got up very early that morning, went down to our canoe on the lake for a short paddle and wet a few flies.  We marveled at the rain-cleared sky, no longer saturated with the Lost Lake fire smoke.  The reflection of the Amphitheater on a still glass lake surface left no doubt our Creator has a plan. 

It mattered not the fish would not rise to our imitations, we were in the presence of an awesome experience and were touched deep in our souls.  One day too we both will return to be with our son in this awesome place crafted by the hand of God.  My wife and I said our last goodbyes to our son and departed this special placed called Trappers Lake.

As we left the lodge we got only a short distance down the road when we saw the smoke from a new fire.  It was nothing large, looked like the smoke billowing from a cabin chimney on an autumn day.  That was Big Fish Canyon and that was Saturday morning the 20th of July.  The morning after the birth of this fire.  How could we know what was to come?  How could we anticipate what we read and hear now about this place so distant yet so close to our hearts?  How could we imagine the destruction to the buildings we had only just left?

We couldn’t, just as we could never have thought we would ever experience the great loss of a child, a son, a friend and companion in all life’s experiences.  What a sense of loss and despair we feel and share with you.

Richard and Cindy Scott

From the Rio Blanco Herald Times, August 29th, 2002

I don’t know them.  But I hope one day to tell them what a profound effect their Letter to the Editor in our local newspaper had on me.  Now, even ten years later, I cannot read their beautifully thought-out words without feeling my chest tighten and my eyes blur with tears.

Photo courtesy of Drew Smith via Panoramio.com

They experienced not only the loss of their son, but then the terrible loss of this place that held so many happy memories.  A place held dear with memories surely of laughter, gentle lapping lake water, cutthroats with their bold red markings darting in the dark shadows of the creek, cool nighttime falling quickly under the shadows of the mountains, the fresh, crisp forest air of evening, and the immense blanket of a million glimmering stars just overhead, feeling close enough to reach out and touch.

I knew about the fire all those years ago, but I hadn’t “felt” it.  I had read about it, I had heard about it, but I hadn’t yet seen it with my own eyes.  And now, all these years later, I finally felt my heart heavy with grief for a place so special, so beautiful.

And this Memorial Day, I remembered the great loss that these strangers felt and must still feel for their son.   God’s hand holding them as He brought them back to this place one last time, only Him knowing that just days after they spent their last night there, it too would be gone, smoldering with only the memory of what once stood.

Mourning the Fallen

The wind howled today.  In angry gusts of pent up spring temperament, it raged across the ground picking up anything and everything in its path.  Dust flew.  Sand & small rocks flew too.  Tumbleweeds shot across the sky as if propelled from within a jet engine.  I expected to see the fenceline due north of us transformed from open wire, into a virtual wall of crackly weeds, caught and pushed against each other, an abrupt end to their flights by way of a few strings of barbed wire.

As I drove home, the wind had calmed some, but its effects could be seen everywhere.  Random household objects littered the middle of our main thoroughfare.  Diapers, beer cans and shingles were strewn everywhere.  A pine tree, snapped at the base.  All that remained of its trunk were a few sharp shards sticking haphazardly out of the ground.  They pointed sharply upward as if in testimony to their glorious form that had only hours earlier reached its old branches skyward.  Now it had been quickly sawn into long sections, and laid out down the side street as if in a public viewing of its death.  There it lay. Sadly, broken and no longer intact.

I instantly mourned for that tree, its owner and the house that now had to stand alone, without its branched canopy or the gentle song of a breeze through its needles.

It took me back to a sadness I knew well.  On the verge of signing paperwork to buy my very first home out of college, I still felt myself teetering on the edge of whether to do it or not.  Then, the picture of the house in its full summer glory, shaded by a beautiful, silver maple tree in the front yard, would be plucked from the “Pros” side of my advantages v.s disadvantages mental list I had created in my mind.

I dreamed of birds nestled in its branches all summer, lightly cooing outside my window on sunny afternoons.  I dreamed of the beautiful dappled shade it would cast on my green lawn, the fluttering of leaves overhead with summer’s hot breeze.  I dreamed of its green leaves burning with autumn’s fading light, turning the tree into a bold, yellow burst of fall color.  I dreamed even of the joy of raking all autumn, amassing giant piles of crunchy leaves to fall backwards into.

And with those dreams framed in the front of my mind, I signed on the dotted line.

A few years into my new home ownership, I started to notice a change.  Actually one of my neighbors alerted me.  She, too, had a silver maple in her front yard.  With fewer and fewer leaves, and green leaves yellowing all summer, she had resorted to deep feeding schedules and expert advice.  She feared she was going to lose her tree and she was worried about mine as well.

Happily surrounded by fallen silver maple leaves

I tried to act unconcerned, but the fact was:  I had noticed it too.  It didn’t have as many green leaves, and lots of them would yellow and fall to the ground.  One day I even noticed an entire bare branch without a single leaf intact. I hoped for the best, but my heart secretly feared the worst.  I resorted to iron supplements, fertilizer stakes, deep root watering wands and resigned myself to trim the dead branches as soon as I saw them.  The quicker I could get rid of the symptom, I hoped, the quicker it would mend itself.  Maybe these dead branches were just a figment of my imagination or an unlucky summer budding timeline.

I scoured online looking for possible remedies, causes, cures, reasons, explanations and miracles.  Silver maples, it turns out in the area I lived, did often suffer from iron deficiencies, causing the leaves to yellow.  Drought was also a factor.  After enduring three winters of extreme drought, maybe my summer sprinkler system and the city-patrolled, two-day-a-week watering schedule just wasn’t making up enough ground for those other six months of the year.  I learned that silver maples are also fairly short-lived trees.  The negatives were racking up.  I found myself preparing, secretly, for what seemed to be the inevitable.

Apparently this photo was NOT taken during one of our drought winters!

A few years later, despite my valiant attempts at resuscitation, my beautiful silver maple had been reduced to all of two tall branches that still leafed out timidly.  I wonder if those branches missed their friends and the days of happy green leaves, they looked lonely and abandoned.  Betrayed and left to fight what remained of a losing battle.  It broke my heart to remember its green-leafed canopy, its cool summer shade and those piles of autumn leaves.  They were but a distant memory now.

I wasn’t there the day the tree cutters showed up.  The next time I saw my front yard, the only memory of my dear silver maple was a sawed off stump and the naked blankness of my beige and brick house.  The tree had somehow buffered it so gratuitously for all those years.   The character, the longstanding curb appeal, the aged perfection it had infused to my front yard had dematerialized instantly with that final carcass of wood that they dragged carelessly off to the side of my driveway.  What took nearly thirty years to grow had been butchered into saleable-sized pieces in less than an hour.

Like a friend, my silver maple tree had seen me through my first house, my first car purchase, an emergency appendectomy and a revolving line of friends and roommates.  It had watched me come home much too late on a few nights, but it had also seen me leaving the driveway early on Sunday mornings for church.  It saw me through promotions at work, and disappointments with friends.  It watched me celebrate the weddings of my brother and my sister.  Life was good, life was bad and my silver maple saw it all, standing stoically there in my yard.  No expression but the beautiful leafed tears it shed every fall and the proud buds of hope that welled up each spring.

My beloved silver maple, in all its beauty, is but a memory now, long burned in a fireplace for heat.  It is hard to say goodbye and to let a dream go.  To boldly embrace where it has taken you, but also to realize its end has come.  In a pile of firewood that day, I said goodbye to a tree . . . and a dream, but its beauty will live on forever in my heart.