Stars and Stones
From the horizon, a mile and a half away, a heavy chain of headlights snaked down toward us through the darkened desert. The exiting parade of cars was coming from Delicate Arch, or Landscape Arch, or maybe from some other phenomenon of erosion that might provide a picture frame for the sun to sink through. A lighter line of traffic was heading the opposite direction, their red taillights punctuating the chain of white headlights. It was the night shift of tourists coming to view the cosmos away from Moab’s city lights. We’d been one of those cars in that line, but we pulled off early into the parking lot at The Courthouse, a wide desert plain book-ended by 300 foot stone towers. We’d come to see the stars too, but we also had a tangential plan. Unfortunately, like many of my plans for our trip out west, this was not working out how I’d imagined.
Bad omens popped up before we even catapulted out of Pennsylvania. I almost broke my arm changing a tire when a car slipped off the jack outside Pittsburgh. A mudslide closed interstate 70 across Colorado, turning our 4 hour trip from Denver to Grand Junction into a 12 hour detour. And once we descended into the deserts of Utah, the temperature rocketed, making it impossible to be outdoors for long during daylight hours.
The nighttime trip into Arches National Park was my attempt to get some relief from the throngs of tourists and the oppressive heat. It was also a ceremonial visit. I’d brought along Corinne’s ashes to spread in the desert. It was supposed to be one of those moments that I hoped the boys and I could carry with us for the rest of our lives.
But at 10:45 pm the parade of cars showed no signs of stopping. The headlights swept over us in the parking lot, casting us in a shadowy movie that repeatedly rolled across the desert’s tower walls and ruined our view of the stars.
Frankie got tired of waiting and went to lie down in my dad’s truck. Max, my dad, and I tried to make the best of it. We were lying on our backs on the sidewalk, looking up into the night sky and sweating through our shirts onto the concrete. Max was looking for shooting stars, my dad was looking for satellites, and I was trying to reimagine the constellations as letters to see if there was some angelic message spelled out for me in the heavens.
Finally, after it was obvious that we would not be able to outlast the parade of headlights, Max and I decided to walk into the desert and spread Corinne’s ashes.
But when I stepped off the sidewalk, fear came over me. Life in the desert leads a crepuscular existence. Hunting happens at dawn and dusk, and there was no easy way for us to see what might be coiled up along our path, ready to strike. So I hesitated.
“Dad, why are you stopping?” Max said.
“I don’t know if this is good idea.”
“I don’t want to surprise any snakes.”
We both stood still, looking into the dark, considering our chances.
“Well let’s just do it right here then,” Max said.
He pointed down into the dark at a swale that funneled into a dry drainage ditch.
“There?” I said.
“Well, where do you want to do it then?”
I looked around to the desert behind me. There was no place that seemed any better. It was all scrub brush, and sand, and rock, just like where we were standing.
“How about this bush here?” I said.
“In a bush?”
“Yeah, I mean, mom wouldn’t want to get trampled on a path, or thrown in a ditch, don’t you think?”
Max huffed out something that sounded like both agreement and defeat. He walked in front of me on the path a few steps as I unscrewed the purple cap off the toy test tube that contained Corinne’s ashes. I’d found the plastic vial in our basement, left over from the boys’ first science set. Back at the RV, I had scooped a few tablespoons of ash into the test tube from the 10 pound plastic bag that now contains all the remains of Corinne’s body. She’d bought the test tubes for the boys years before, but they never saw much use, and I thought she’d be giddy about their repurposed utility.
I held the test tube over the bush. I felt like I should say something, but I couldn’t come up with any words without picturing myself crying, so I said nothing. Then I turned the test tube up side down and unceremoniously dumped the ashes into the bush. It was too dark to see them. We couldn’t even hear them fall. They just silently disappeared. Max and I looked down into the darkness at what I had just done, dumbfounded. I wanted the moment to be so much more, but I posses none of Corinne’s power to animate life when it walks through the valley of death, so I let it be what it was: a man and his son in the night, dumping the remains of the boy’s mother into a bush in the desert that was filled with snakes and tourists.
The desert movie cast by the headlights kept repeating on the tower walls as my dad walked up behind us, his boots scuffing off the peaks of partially exposed rocks jutting into the path.
“You got to watch these darn rocks!” he said, not knowing what we had just done.
“Let’s just be quiet,” said Max, trying to maintain some sense of ceremony, but my dad didn’t hear him, so he kept on with his mild complaints about the trip hazards until he came to stop behind us.
After he stopped it got quiet, and Max and I looked toward the darkest part of the sky, up and east, 400 miles away into the enormous expanse above the peaks of the Colorado interior, awaiting some cosmic judgment to rain down on our crestfallen moment.
As I looked up, I again thought I might try to say something, or do something, maybe something like put a hand on Max’s shoulder. I felt I had to at least try to frame the moment with some kind of meaningful gesture, but just as I was about to make a move, the darkness came to life. A star fell across our view like a singular laser. It lasted a full second, dividing our sky at a 45 degree angle, and then disappeared into the horizon.
Dad! Did you see that?” Max said. “Oh my god! Did you just see that, Dad?”
It made the moment something I could not match. We went on about it, recounting to each other what had just happened, as if one of us had missed it. And after we ran out of ways to describe it, we just stood there, excited and silent, staring into the sky as if it might come back.
It was a pivotal moment in our trip, and in that instant, I was sure things were about to get better for us. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
The pivot angled in the opposite direction. By the time we hit Arizona, the daily temperatures soared over 112 degrees. Max got carsick often. Frankie’s interest in the desert was never piqued beyond mild amusement. Roxy had injured her foot in the thorny brush and was in constant danger of overheating. We had to cut it short, cancel reservation, abandon plans, and even abandon our campers for hotels when the AC couldn’t cool the interior of our RV’s below 90 degrees. And I had my own private difficulties. I cannot say that I was exceptionally sad, but I can say that my dream of traveling across the country in a camper was empty without Corinne.
I cobbled together a hurry-up itinerary back to Colorado. We abandoned our campsites on Lake Powell and bolted out of Arizona. Three days later we pulled sweatshirts over our sunburned bodies for a ride to the top of Pike’s Peak. It was supposed to be the pinnacle of our trip, both literally and figuratively. It would be the highest peak we visited and it was also the last place that I had planned to spread Corinne’s ashes. I’d envisioned it as a last act of devotion, setting Corinne aloft on the wind from the tippy top of our final trip together.
But in the morning rush to meet the tour van for the mountain, I’d forgotten to pack Corinne’s ashes. I dug through my backpack on the ride up, searching between the bottled water and bags of granola, but it wasn’t’ there. The van kept climbing, taking us above the trees and into the snowy patches of high alpine meadows as I checked and rechecked. By the time we came to the bare rock of the summit, I’d finally accepted that I’d simply forgotten, and just stared out the van window with a head-shaking smirk on my face.
The boys jumped out of the van and shrieked about the stunning cold, then ran to the nearest vista. I followed them, empty handed, which seemed appropriate. That had been the feel of the entire trip. The whole thing was an empty gesture aimed at keeping promises that could no longer be kept. There was some release in that realization for me, and it turned my self-kicking smirk into an internal smile. I didn’t get to choose when I had to say goodbye to Corinne, but I did get to choose when to let her go. The shooting star in the desert was a dividing line. I cannot pretend that Corinne is with us anymore, and I cannot pretend I can coax her out. She lives in the dark now, still present, but silent, waiting for the odd, brilliant moment to bring her back to us.
After an hour of being blown around the boulders and taking shelter in the visitor center, it was time to head back to the van. The boys bounded ahead of me. I had to look down at my feet and shield my eyes from the wind as I hopped through the boulders. As I was looking down, I felt like I was scanning the cracks for something. Maybe my time in the desert had left me with a lingering fear of tramping on coiled death. But there was nothing in between the boulders at 14,000 feet: no plants, no flowers, no moss, no life at all seemed to grow there. Yet, my eyes kept searching the small hiding places between the rocks, and something did find me.
A V-shaped crevice opened before me on one of my leaps. I held myself back from jumping, then bent over and looked in. A small fist of sparkling, pink granite was wedged between the bear-sized boulders. It looked like it was floating, suspended by something other than gravity. I bent down to it, put my face close, and wondered how it got there.
I reached into the crevice, tugged it free, then held it up to my shielded eyes. It had been cleaved flat along its length, as if it was meant to be a paper-weight, or maybe something that was supposed to lie flat on the ground, something that might make a good foundation for something else. I put it in my backpack and caught up to the boys at the van.
The next day we descended the mountains that cradle The Great Divide and cannonballed across the plains for eight days straight to get back home. And when I walked into the house, it was no longer the place I had left. It had become a place more stable, and less empty, a place that felt like home again.
It was a cruel road that got me to the top of Pike’s Peak, but I think it needed to be that way. I needed to feel the emptiness of the arches. I needed to feel the ashes fall silently away from me in the dark. I needed to feel the sting of the bone-bleaching sun on my skin. I needed to see that falling star, search it out, and then find it on the mountain top so that I could bring it back home and build a new life with it. That’s the story I like to tell myself about the stone. And stone is a good place to start a story, because, in the end, you can’t build your house around somebody else’s ashes.