Dad was going to die and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I had spent months trying to find a way to beat the cancer. Looking long nights online for ways to up his chances of beating it, studies he might be eligible for. Praying that maybe, he would be one of those survivors that told his story on Oprah. My dad had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in his 20s, built a career as a nurse, raised a child, become a homeowner, but, he could not beat glioblastoma. It was too much.
In the last days, while my father had laid upstairs in a coma, I chose to deal with the pain of losing him by cleaning the basement. Navigating through years of dust, spider webs and filth, I found a pile of gold: tucked away in a closet I found 15 boxes of Kodak slides and a cantankerous slide projector. His flowery handwriting on the boxes filled me with wonder: Pacific Crest Trail, Canada Bike Trip with Phil, etc. Photographs and documentation of his life that I’d only heard stories about.
On March 29, 2019, I brought a couple Kodak boxes upstairs, and his family and close friends laid out a sheet in the living room, viewing the pictures of mountains and animals. Next to us, Dad laid in his hospice bed, occasionally coughing. He had closed his eyes two days ago and wouldn’t open them again, no matter how much we spoke to him. They say hearing is the last thing to leave us when we die, and I like to think somewhere, in the part that was still with us, he was enjoying his photos being shared.
Dad always enjoyed showing off his photography to people. Some of his favorite photographs he framed and hung around the house. He loved photographing things as much as he loved a good IPA. We had all heard my father’s stories about these trips. Sitting with his family as they identified his age and place warmed me deeply. Next to us, Dad breathed slowly. That became his last night on this Earth.
Later that week, while cleaning his house I found journals my father kept while out on his adventures. These picture and journals were part of his gift to me, signed away on a piece of paper months before his death. In the months following his death, I read through them religiously, learning about a father I had never known. A young man out in the wilderness, exploring the world.
I have held off going through his slide collection again. Part of me has been afraid it will be too painful, looking at a past he only told me through stories. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought my life to a slowing point. There is nothing to do but look at the slides. The slide projector decided to stage a mutiny that even my handyman boyfriend was struggling with, so I decided to go the digitization route. I purchased a Kodak slide scanner and went to work.
One journal and a couple boxes of slides are from 1980, ten years before I was born. My Dad would have been 21 years old. His Pacific Crest Trail journal mention locations: The Saddle, Upper Gumboot Lake, Mt. Shasta, Mt. Jefferson. He describes with excitement, his adventures through the winding trails of California and Oregon. On a search for wonder and beauty.
In his journal, Dad’s language is almost like an epic novel, describing his triumphs and failures. At moments, he is humorous, and in others he is reflecting on the beauty of the Pacific Crest Trail, and the joy of solitude:
“Last night, I noticed dark clouds rolling in. So, since I don’t gamble with foul weather, I pitched my tent with rain fly and secured my pack. They turned out to be night filled with stars. And the following morning was like a crisp, clear autumn morning.” — August 3, 1980
The descriptions within his journal are beautiful, but not surprising. Dad always had an artistic side to him. He loved photography, drawing, and even dabbled in making his own beer. Had be been placed in the right situation, I often wonder if Dad would have become an artist and not a nurse. For me, one of the moments that converged his love of the wild with his creative side was when I came upon the photos of Three Fingered Jack. Dad loved this mountain so much he painted a rendering of it on his bedroom wall. His journal records the moment he saw his beloved mountain with joy:
“After leaving the noisy highway behind me, I climbed to the impressive “Three Fingered Jack” and a good view of Mt. Washington.” — August 10, 1980
20 years later, to escape Walla Walla, Washington, where we lived, Dad would go on backpacking trips down to Oregon; re-walking the paths he took as a 21-year-old man. As a child, I would be jealous of these trips he took with girlfriends or alone. I wanted to spend time with Dad, but the trails were too complex for me. Besides, carrying a heavy pack and walking through nature all day was not my idea of a good time. But, it what was what my Dad lived for. He filled up his summer calendars with camping and backpacking trips. Any chance he could get to slip away from the bustle of the metropolis that is Walla Walla and to the silence of the wilderness.
After reading his journal, I see that my Dad was looking for something in his older years. He was looking for the young man who had conquered this trail. Who had spent his days walking through the mountains and lakes of the west coast, not carrying the pressures of a full time job, fatherhood, or home ownership. Dad was chasing his past as he walked among the pines of the Pacific Northwest.
Dad was someone with layers of complexity. He hated busy places with lots of people and noise, saying they were overwhelming spaces for him. For him, the wilderness was a place of peace. Far away from people who asked prying questions and bothered him with the nonsense of our modern age. He didn’t care about Sheryl’s baby shower. He cared about how clear the view of Mt. Saint Helen’s would be on Wednesday. I often joked that my dad could go live on a mountain with a couple of dogs and be happy as a clam. The reality is, I think that is what he would have preferred over dealing with everyone in this world.
“This morning, as I walked from Hanks Lake to Pamelia Lake was like I was Alice and this was wonderland. It was [a] garden of various plants. The berries held colors of autumn and they were delicious. Then, I entered a dark forest with cascading, sparkling water.” — August 13, 1980
Social situations made him nervous. He often found it difficult to connect with other people, especially when it came to emotions. From his perspective, he was simply a different species of man. When he was diagnosed with autism in his 40s, he rejected the label. As he told me multiple times, “I am not autistic, I am just smarter than everyone else.” Simply put, he was happy to be removed from the rest of the world and be out on the road or in the woods. Dad saw the world differently and did not “want a label” for his experience of how he moved through it.
My dad’s writing shows me a man who was not different from the one who raised me. He was a man who loved the wilderness and solitude. I find solace in this knowledge. One of my biggest fears in reading his journals and looking at this pictures was discovering a father I never knew. But, I found my dad in these pictures and journals. A bit younger, but still the same artistic, outdoorsy, solitude loving man I grew up with.
I still have 13 boxes of slides to digitize. It takes about one day to go through a wheel of Kodak slides. But, I no longer have fear of seeing my father’s past. I want to see them, I want to understand the things he found special, I want to explore why he photographed what he did. For example, in the 1980s, Mom and Dad spent Christmas in Virginia with Dad’s brothers. A walk on the beach produced multiple slides of seagulls. Knowing Dad, he was probably secretly trying to snap the next National Geographic cover. However, random focuses on a subject cannot derail my curiosity. Even if they are pictures of a thousand birds, mountains, and flowers, I want to see them. They are dispatches from my father, notes if you will, of things he found beautiful and interesting as a young man. And in each one, I am eager to find out more about my dad.
Note: Thanks to Ms. Sandra Mellott, for editing this piece.