We'd land safely. Although there was little certainty that the next bump would end the same. The Jeep had a speedometer that promised 90 miles per hour, and that was our goal. The two seater had enough space for our family of five. Seat belt laws and safety standards not yet encumbering our lifestyle. We'd started a tradition of speedy drives home from the Cookhouse restaurant/bar to our house. A short trip of about a mile. Through the meadow, even less. Fortunately, my dad would stay on the road, his condition making that even more impressive. My mom groaning as my sister bounced on her with every bump. My brother and I on the floor between the seats. Dirt berms launching us home with our chants of "90! 90! 90!" shrieking out of the dark mountain moon shadows and illuminated by the brightest stars that you've ever seen.
It was Gould, Colorado in 1982. And circa. By that time we'd moved up from the trailer and lived in the original Gould Homestead built by Eddie Gould. The home was a testament to 19th century craftsmanship. Built in the 1880s, it was around to see people die in wagon trains. It was pre-penicillin, pre-suffrage; it's dark, tarred house logs rising out of the 800 acre meadow like any other pioneering masochist besieged by wind, rain and snow. So much snow. Ten-foot drifts turning the old buck fence into snow forts unlike the world has ever seen.
We hunted, we fished, we carted water around the county for baths, dishes and hydration. My mom could turn any region of any animal into something we were supposed to eat. My brother wolfing it down, while my sister and I lured dogs with elk parts. Out the dinner window was as much natural majesty as a person could paint. And they did. I think we have at least three portraits of that home donated to us by various artists. I would have gladly traded any of them for running water. Still, when I think of beauty. When I think of the wild. I think of me at about 6 years old bursting out that screen door, across the meadow, and into the hills. Thank goodness my mom could whistle because in the dark I had no idea which way was home.
It was one of these evenings when my mom had us all load up into the Jeep because we needed to find my dad. He was usually late, but this was getting more uncomfortable than normal. I'd say that once every six months we'd assemble a rescue mission that could be aborted by the end of the dirt road. Like this summer evening when we heard the engine brake on his 1969 Peterbilt. Mom pulled over so he could pull up. My dad popped his head out of the truck with horrific comedic timing that's, apparently, impossible to forget.
His face had been pulverized. Nose broken. Cheeks blue. Blood crusted from forehead to chin. He'd been hit by a log binder. If you don't know what that is, let me paint the pain. You have a load of logs, around 30 tons, and you've got to secure it with chains that are pulled to their tightest by a foot long lever that requires your entire weight to secure it in place. One of the lighter parts of the logger life is seeing the toughest humans you've ever met jump in the air and float down with the lever. It was like playground equipment for the insane. And sometimes it would smack back. And at least twice my dad's face would get in its way.
I've joked with my dad that death would eventually kill him. I should say that he's always been safe. But he'd been working in the woods for decades, so encounters with the short side of longevity have been part of his life. As a kid I was intrigued, but as a young adult, I was less than supportive.
One of the first girls I'd meet in college would ask me what my dad did for a living.
"He's a logger." I'd say.
"A lawyer?" she'd ask.
"Yes." I'd reply.
Lurking, however, was one of the hardest reckonings of my life. I was in my twenties when I realized the irreversible descent into becoming my father. I tried to claw my way back up the slide but, by my thirties, I was quietly gathering a shed full of axes, chainsaw parts and accessories. I even spent a small fortune on a wood-burning stove. I knew it was over for me. My father had won the fight. I'd grown up in a home with only wood heat. And that's adorable when you live somewhere with the occasional cold night. "Rodney is so romantic...he lit us a fire and it was so cozy." No no. Rodney would die in Gould. Your ass had better be up all night stoking that thing or perish. And I'm not kidding. It got so cold one time that my mom's perfume froze. Perfume. Which I think is mostly alcohol and skunk butt. One time I got a certificate for going to school when it was 48 below zero. Holding that piece of recognition on the bus home, I dreamed of one day getting a house where the heat turned on automatically. You just sat there and hot air came out of the walls. Magic. I also hoped for a future where I could go somewhere and not smell like lung cancer.
Cut to my 40s and I'm loading up dead pine and eager--I mean really social-sharing zealous--to chop firewood.
My dad knew this was coming. When I was 32 I sent him a 17-page letter complaining about being aggrieved by his choices. In reply, he simply sent me an ax. As if to say, "one day this will make sense."
It did. I used that ax so vigorously that I broke it. I ended up buying the next one as I didn't have another 17 pages in me. And soon I could feel my hand becoming the handle. We merged as one. Since urban officials frown upon felling trees in city parks, I'd drive around and look for discarded wood. So far my life has beget two solid pieces of advice: brush your teeth before you go to bed and big, deciduous city trees will have you die of exhaustion before you lop off even a bit of kindling. But I persevered and soon had a wall of firewood once reserved for my country youth. The one that had pissed my siblings and me off when my dad made us get loads of wood on Christmas Day. 1987.
Beyond what my brother, sister and me saw as forced foraging for fuel, my father was known to be a bit frightening. He was a lightning slice between hilarious and terrifying. My friends will likely recall most of the latter. One hid in the bathroom when my dad went off on a tirade at the dinner table. Another hyperventilated while he threw groceries around the house. And then there was Bart. I've changed his name a little bit. Of my friends, Bart had the most experience with my father. He knew to run, and often did.
This brings me to my father's Renaissance. His true strength, perhaps. It's a story of change. It's a story of surprise. And it's one that left me standing in three feet of snow wondering what in the hell had just happened. I was 16. Bart was the same. We were juniors in high school and the coolest people on the planet. I think Bart might have been in overalls and me in a beret that had been handed down from my grandfather. Oh, and in cowboy country, I may have been the only child who drove a Subaru GL. It was blue and would last less than two months before I'd launch it over a barbed wire fence, nearly wiping out a herd of cattle, and inspiring a forgettable day when I had to explain to the judge that I'd lost control whilst trying to put processed cheese on my Handi Snack crackers.
Before I'd kill it by flying off of Highway 14, I'd be driving on the snowy thoroughfare of County Road 21. To get to my house, you had to drive two miles into the woods. For some reason, despite knowing my life was always hanging in the balance, I decided to demonstrate to Bart how well my car handled snow. This was super dumb because I'd also been tasked to demonstrate that I was mature enough to go to the city--the real freaking city, not just Laramie--to see the Denver Broncos and the Cleveland Browns for Monday Night Football. All I had to do was go home and get some things and be on our three-hour journey. That's it! And I remember Bart saying "Jared, we should just get to your house," because he'd developed a spider sense for my father. Some animals can smell fear. Bart could detect why.
I got stuck. Not just a little bit stuck, but a huge bit. The front of the car was buried. We rocked back and forth for a while. We put tree branches under the wheels. We took turns bouncing on the hood to get traction. Nothing. And then there was something. The death rattle. My dad's downtrodden 1980 Chevrolet Custom Deluxe had been banged into more obstacles than a crash test dummy, and you could hear it coming for miles. Bart took off running. I stood there and wondered how I was going to die.
As my dad rounded the final turn past the cattle guard, I did the last and most terrifying thing I could do. I walked right at him. I leaned into it. I raged.
My friend Eric once shared how you knew it was Don Ewy because he drove twenty miles under the speed limit and always had dogs poking out of every window. Well, here he was. Putting along with dogs out either window, and a beard-framed squint as to what was charging at his vehicle. I pulled up and he slowed down. He opened his truck the way only someone with hands the size of raccoons can handle a door.
"Oh shit," I thought to myself. I'd fucked up. There was a bit of quiet where you could hear Bart crashing through underbrush and small trees.
"What in the hell are you doing, Jerry?" chirped my dad.
Jerry? Who's Jerry? And why was my dad talking to me in this playful tone.
I shouted at him. I shouted at this monolith. "I don't know. I don't fucking know! I just fucked up so what!" It was a remarkable bit of outburst that took even me by surprise. This man was going to kill me, so I guess I was going to go out blazing.
"OK, well, get the chain out of the bed and I'll pull you out," he said as if we were in one of those automatically-heated buildings and he was an accountant who noticed a small mistake on my 1040 form.
I have to say that this was scarier than him yelling and throwing things. I had no idea what I was being set up for. I turned and looked for Bart in the woods. He'd paused some 50 yards off the road and was staring back at me.
My dad would pull up his truck. I would get in my car. He'd pull me out and drag the Subaru a good hundred yards for some therapeutic measure. And then, with Bart gazing in awestruck horror from behind a pine tree, he'd give me twenty dollars to buy something at the game. And then he drove away.
We didn't go to the house to get our things. We just drove to the city. We didn't speak to each other for about 50 miles of slow canyon driving.
When we finally did, it was a catharsis like I'd never felt before. Bart had been through it. I'd been through it. I couldn't get friends to stay at my house because we'd all been through it. This giant of a blue collar man--friend to dogs and birds and bar denizen, but overlord to wary children--had just turned on us in the most fantastic way.
"What do you think is going on?" asked Bart as if we were watching aliens land on the national news.
"I don't know. I have no idea." I said as my blue Subaru hugged some of its final curves and we headed for the city of automatic heat.
I have some idea about this man. After all, I'm becoming him. First, I've had many advantages in life. The biggest may be having a father who scared me out of back-breaking work and broke country living. But here's what I know about him. He was a boy who's own father was a legendary Hell raiser who died when my father was only 12. That turned something off in my young dad, and he didn't talk for about a year. He would grow to be a football star who'd get kicked out of school for getting my mom pregnant. He'd still end up graduating, my brother being there to see it. But that was the end of the pomp and protocol for my father. He'd move to the mountains and grow a life as a logger. The seeds being a borrowed trailer, a 1942 Army truck and the ability to catch trout anytime, anyplace. I'm not even sure he needed water.
Twice their tiny trailer home would be burgled by bears. They ate everything, including a bite out of a shaving cream can. It's rumored to be the last shaving kit my dad ever owned.
I'd come along, and then my sister. We did whatever to pull together a living, and relied on trading chores for the use of the facilities at the nearby KOA campground. My dad worked his ass off. He worked our asses off. He worked my friends asses off. I had a Harriet Tubman-like underground railroad to secret places in the woods where could just play. Those times that we'd be tottering twenty miles under the speed limit to work, I'd complain that other kids got to sleep in and watch TV. He wouldn't reply. He'd wait. He'd wait until our first break. The 10:15 snack when each of the dogs got a cookie. He'd turn off his saw and the silence would whip out across the woods and swallow us whole. And that's when he'd talk .
To the dogs.
"So my little boy doesn't like working in the woods," he'd incant to the dancing beasts. Their bodies bending and flexing to the excitement of the alpha approach. "What are we going to do?" He'd sing like a giant freaking mockingbird.
And then it was silence again before he'd preach a tiny sermon.
"You know, Peter/Jared/Laura" he'd say, taking a bite and staring off beyond the cut. "This is it. This is where it's at. I'll be here until they find me under a tree."
"All I can hope is you find something like this one day," he'd finish before ripping open the roar of another chainsaw day.
So back at the Subaru. Bart's emerging from the forest watching me watch this new version of my dad drive away. Apparently it was a guy doing that thing that guys don't do well: emotionally adapt. At about the same time, his first-born--the baby with which he'd grown up--was preparing to patrol the waters near the Middle East. Desert Storm was mere months away. My dad was younger than I am now and he had a kid headed off to war.
Other battles were on their way, too. The decline of logging meant he needed to diversify. His back and body were starting to complain about years of physical labor.
My mom's tumors would grow a new kind of futility.
In that time, my dad redefined who he was. He became an activist, leading a campaign against a ski resort development on Cameron Pass. He'd keep adding to his resume. He'd always been a firefighter, but he'd get all the training he'd need to be a medical tech, an avalanche rescue expert, and even swallow his pride and get mandatory chainsaw certification on a tool he'd operated since he was in high school. He and his wife became popular builders of custom homes, fences, garages, and have been working on restoring a massive, century-old barn. One of my first jokes on stage was that if a person dies in the city, you're quickly replaced. But when you die in a small town, they need a new fire chief, mayor, teacher, football coach, cobbler...
I'm in the city now. Another number riding the train in and out of the crowd. Two weeks ago I called my dad to get some advice on raising kids. It was a strange phone call to make. I thought about hanging up before he could get to the phone. That one phone that's still in the kitchen of the giant log home we all worked to build together (as romantic as that sounds, don't.) He picked up and I listed off some issues we were dealing with. I was expecting him to deliver a baritone about trust and integrity and instilling honor in today's youth. Instead, he told me he wished he'd spent more time understanding his own kids, and that any time you have is best spent listening.
"Listening?" I asked. I mean I heard him, I was just thrown off guard.
"Yeah, just take your time, Jared," he said, as if we were back staring off into the woods.
"Take your time."
There's this backhanded eulogy that includes the word "complicated." It really isn't that complicated, but it's also not all that simple. It takes someone with a depth of empathy and a breadth of experience to follow the clues, that probably describes my brother and sister more than me, but we've discussed it. We've investigated it. We've compared notes. We've spent a lifetime talking to our own dogs. Frustration is when you want to do great things, but you can't because you're too busy delivering the basics of chainsaw necessity.
Think about this, most months in North Park, just to cut down a tree you have to spend a good part of the day making it through mountain elements just to show up. Many times, he had to actually build a road to get where he needed to go. Backed up traffic is tame compared to a three-day delay to put in a culvert. And then there’s mud or snow. If not that, there are bugs. You’re going to lose a pint of blood just by existing. In the snow you've got to dig out the tree so you can cut it down. Just when you're catching up on the bills, there's so much mud you're better off drinking. So you stay home and work on equipment, the whole time thinking about how you're spending money and not making it. 2019 marked the 50th year he did this.
There's this moment. This sample so thin it's left like a microfiche on my brain.
He'd get home and the dogs would be excited and there was a general thrill about everyone being together, and then it would explode with my dad getting angry because he'd tracked mud into the house. And I can see this now. He was home and good things were going to happen. But goddammit if he didn't just work twelve hours in the snow just to cover his expenses, and now there's mud on the floor. He was right there at the finish line. But his obligations left their footprints all over his life.
I'm doing some guesswork on this transformation. But I ended up with an incredible grandfather to my kids. I mean who wouldn't want to introduce to their small children a guy who looks like a cross between Grizzly Adams and Santa Claus...and who has horses and bulldozers? Hollywood couldn't write him better. Simple goodness make it's way through complicated spaces. My mom would explain to me in my dreams that heroism doesn't happen overnight. My dad, my siblings and myself are the same in that we want to take care of people. We want to provide beyond our home. And if we don't get that opportunity, we come to pieces. Because then why are we here? Are we here just to labor for ourselves all of the time? And Jesus H. Christ there's mud on the floor again...
At some point my dad was able to break free of that cycle and he became the man--well, he became a father who blew our minds. A custodian of the community. A caretaker to nature. A spokesperson for a cause. A grandfather to an entire town of children. It all happened. Peter, Laura, and me watched it. Bemused. Bewildered. But growing with understanding and appreciation. Because at some point you gotta get past the dark of the mountain shadows to become one of the brightest stars we've ever seen.