On my younger brother’s seventieth birthday, I grilled him a steak, filled a pipe with Minnesota Nice, and asked him, “If you could do anything you wanted, Owen, what would it be?”
I gave him the pipe and he lit it with a beat-up zippo. Then he took a hit, held it in, exhaled, and said, “Easy, Frankie. I’d go back to the Stillwater Canyon and climb that rock again.”
I took the steak off the grill, cut it in half, and put it on his plate along with some roasted red potatoes and steamed green beans from my garden. “Here you go,” I told him. “Happy birthday.”
“He grinned, took another hit from the pipe, set it aside, and dug in. “Thanks. For a big brother, you’re okay.”
I fixed my own plate and sat down next to him. We were on a little brick patio in his backyard. He’d lived in the well-kept bungalow for the last forty years, most of that time with his wife, but the last two years by himself ever since she’d passed away from ovarian cancer.
“So, getting back to my question, you really want to go back there?”
“Yeah, I do.” He paused, then burped. He slammed his knife and fork down, brought his napkin to his mouth, and burped again. “Damn it all anyway.” He pushed his plate away. “I hate this.” He lit the pipe again.
My brother had gotten the test results eight weeks earlier. They’d shot some barium into him and the findings were everything we hoped they wouldn’t be: he had cancer of the large intestine. He was given less than a year to live.
I looked at him. Once tall and handsome, over the past months he’d shrunk about an inch and lost maybe fifty pounds. His face was sunken, exposing cheekbones I’d never seen before, and his skin, once perpetually tan from being outside working in his yard, had turned a sickly, sallow grey. But not all was bad. He still had the same green eyes that had sparkled looking out at his students as a high school music teacher, or when he’d told me about a marathon he was training for. And he still had his sense of humor, telling me the same lame jokes that always made me laugh.
And he still had his spirit of adventure.
“Yeah,” he said, burping into his napkin again. “Yeah, I’d love to go back to Montana.”
“Okay,” I said, stepping over to shake his hand, our long-time brotherly way of sealing any deal we agreed upon. “Let’s do it.”
* * *
Three days later, just after sunrise, I stood at the front door and kissed my wife goodbye. We lived twenty miles west of my brother in the little town of Orchard Lake, and I wanted to get a move on, but Faith took my arm and stopped me.
“You sure this is a good idea?” she asked, giving me one of her patented critical looks, a look I was used to receiving. “He’s not well, you know.
Talk about an understatement. “Yeah, I know,” I said. “He’s dying. But I think this trip is important to him. He’s seemed, I don’t know, more enthusiastic about things the more we talked about it.”
“It’s hard to explain,” I said. “He just seems a little happier. Less depressed. I don’t know.” I looked her in the eyes, searching but coming up with nothing more concrete than, “It’s complicated.”
She sighed a long-suffering sigh and said, with barely a hint of irony, “I hear you. Look, I know you’ve got your mind made up. I understand.” She hugged me. “Your brother and you have something special. You’re not just related by blood, but you’re also friends. I get it. Just be careful.”
I smiled. We’d been married nearly fifty years. It was nice to know she still cared. I hugged her back. “I love you.”
“Love you, too.”
The drive to Owen’s took half an hour. I was dressed for comfort, planning to put some long hours in behind the wheel, and was wearing tan cargo pants, a black tee shirt, and a Nature Conservancy baseball cap. Along with tennis shoes for driving.
I parked in the driveway, went around the back, and into the kitchen. My brother was hunched over, cradling a cup of tea.
“Good morning!” I greeted him. “Ready to go?”
He was wearing cut-off jeans and a faded Minnesota Wild tee shirt. He had on sandals and a floppy straw hat. Along with his beard and the hat, he kind of looked like Claude Monet.
He looked up from his cup with a forlorn expression. “I’ve had better days.”
“Want me to help you pack?”
“Yeah, I’d appreciate it.”
So, I did. It was obvious he’d been having what he called “A slow morning” which meant he was too tired to do anything other than climb out of bed, drag himself to the kitchen, make a cup of tea and sit at the table.
But he could direct me. He was always good at that, and today was no exception. “I want another pair of cut-off jeans and a pair of long jeans, some tee-shirts, toiletries, my meds, stuff like that.”
“Okay,” I said, hurrying to toss everything he listed in a backpack. It took about ten minutes. When I was done, I asked, “Okay, I think that’s it. You ready?”
He stood up and immediately sat down. “Oh, man…”
I could see he was having trouble with his balance. It was one of the side effects of the medication he was taking.
“You all right?” I reached for him.
Stoically, he steeled himself and took my hand. I helped him to his feet. “Yeah.” He grimaced. “Thanks.”
I rinsed his teacup. “You good to go for this?” I asked, setting it on the drying rack and starting to get a twinge of worry. Maybe we should have talked to his doctor about our plan. But if we had, and she had told us that it wasn’t a good idea, then what? Sit around in Owen’s backyard, grilling steaks he couldn’t eat and waiting for him to die? We both agreed, without saying it out loud, that anything was better than that.
He smiled, picked up his pipe and tin can full of weed, added it to the backpack, and said, “Don’t worry about me, Frankie. I’m good to go.”
In the back of my mind, I could see Faith shaking her head with a bemused smile on her face. She was probably right, this wasn’t my best idea, not by far. But it was a good idea, nevertheless. Of that, I was sure. A point reinforced when Owen smiled, clapped me on the shoulder, and said, “Come on, Bro. Let’s get this show on the road.” He started for the door. “Grab my walker, will you? I’m going to try it with just my cane for a while.”
“All right,” I told him, picking up his backpack and his walker and following close behind. “Montana, here we come.”
* * *
We were headed for the Woodbine campground. It was in the southern part of the state in the Beartooth mountain range, home of Grizzly Peak, at over ten thousand feet the highest mountain in Montana. We drove my twelve-year-old Ford Fiesta, a small car, but it got good gas mileage. Once on Interstate 94 heading west, Owen pushed the seat back, took a sip of bottled water, and smiled. “Oh, man, Frankie, this is the life.”
I smiled at him. “We should be there tomorrow. Next day at the latest.”
“I’m in no rush, Bro. Take your time.”
I kept the speedometer at seventy miles an hour and we watched the rural Minnesota landscape roll by all the way to Fargo, where the land flattened out and wheat replaced Minnesota’s corn and soybean fields.
The journey was uneventful other than Owen’s running commentary describing everything he saw: cows, horses, old barns, farmhouses, hawks, farmers in their fields riding tractors. It was fun to see him engaged and excited. It made me realize that getting away from his home and the constant reminder of not only his wife being gone but of his imminent death, was a good thing. It reinforced how glad I was we had made the trip.
We stopped the first night in Mandan, North Dakota, in the middle of the state on the Missouri River. We got up early the next morning, and, after a quick breakfast at the motel, we were on the road once again. After a few hours, we crossed the border into eastern Montana, Owen commenting on the land changing from flat, cultivated fields to rolling, undulating range land. The further we traveled west, we encountered less water and fewer trees, and more sage and scrub brush. We’d crest a rise and the land would stretch out before us to the far horizon, the sky above as blue as could be. No wonder Montana was referred to as Big Sky Country.
The second night we stopped in Columbus, in the southcentral part of the state, sixty miles west of Billings.
I pulled off the interstate and drove into town. We found a room for the night at a place called the Creekside Motel which seemed like a logical name to me since there was a tiny stream meandering nearby. Next door was a café called the Buckin’ Bronco with a weathered sign of a cowboy riding guess what? Yep, a bucking bronco.
After checking in, we left the car at the motel and walked next door to the café for dinner, taking our time. Owen was using his cane instead of his walker, so the going was slow.
“Damn,” he muttered under his breath. “Damn this cancer to hell.”
“Can I help?”
“No. Damn it. Thanks anyway,” he said, stopping to catch his breath. He pointed west with his cane. “It’s beautiful, though, isn’t it?”
Less than fifty miles away the Beartooth Mountains, our final destination, rose toward the setting sun. On the tallest peaks, snow glistened bright white against the indigo sky. Closer to us, the heat of the day had unleased the scent of sage which mixed with the hot, dry wind creating an earthy, wild fragrance found only in the West. When we’d come here with our parents during the summer back in 1959, we stopped at a local dry-goods store and bought snap-button cowboy shirts and cowboy hats. When I reminded Owen of the experience of wearing our cowboy hats everywhere we went the rest of that trip he said, “People must have thought we were nuts.” He chuckled. “It was sure fun, though.”
“It was.” I laughed. “No one would ever have guessed we were tourists.”
Owen laughed with me. It was good to see. He seemed more content right now than I’d seen him since we got the cancer prognosis two months ago. I was happy for him.
We entered the café and made ourselves comfortable at a table for two. It had a red checked table cloth and was adorned only with a white salt and a black pepper shaker. The aroma of french fries and seared beef filled the air. Old-time country music blared from the sound system, and when our ears picked up Patsy Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces,” Owen and I looked at each other and smiled. We both liked old-time music, country or rock and roll, it didn’t matter.
We perused the small menu and both of us agreed on dinner, ordering fresh trout with new potatoes and asparagus. Service was quick and efficient and we wolfed down our meal with hardly a word being spoken. I hadn’t realized how hungry I was. It was one of the best meals I’d had in a long time.
Owen loved it, too. “I can’t believe how tasty that trout was,” he said, smacking his lips when he was finished and sitting back with a satisfied sigh.
He looked around the dining area. It was about half full and Marty Robbins was singing “El Paso” in the background. “I could get used to this.”
It was good to see him happy. And eating. The colon cancer wasn’t doing his appetite any favors and all day yesterday on the drive from Minneapolis to Mandan he’d complained of stomach pains. Today the pains hadn’t been as bad. He’d munched on saltines and sipped bottled water across western North Dakota and eastern Montana and seemed to be doing lots better. Seeing him have a nice meal made me feel good for my brother.
I signaled for the bill, but he refused to let me pay and took the slip from the waitress when she arrived. He smiled at her, “Thank you.”
She smiled back, “You’re welcome.”
“Nice place here. Great food.”
She grinned. “It’s been in my family for three generations. I’ll tell my dad what you said. He’s the boss.”
What the heck? I thought to myself. Are they flirting with each other? Whatever the case, I could see that Owen was relaxing even more and beginning to have some fun.
After he paid the bill and left a nice tip, we got up to leave. “I’ve got an idea,” I said. “I know we’ve been in the car a lot, but how about if we go take a little drive around town? Check out the sights?”
“Sure,” he said, “that’d be good.
We slowly made our way to the door, the cane tip-tapping on the linoleum floor. “Damn thing,” he muttered. Then he smiled. “Hell, it’s better than that walker, though, right? I’m glad we left it in the car.” He’d been using the walker for the past few months but didn’t like it, commenting time and time again that it made him feel too old.
“Take your time,” I told him, as we stepped aside to avoid a young couple coming through the front door hand in hand. “No rush.”
As we made our way out the door, Owen turned and waved at the waitress. She smiled and waved back. He grinned and winked at me. “She’s really pretty.”
The thought that ran through my mind was, geez, cool your jets, you old geezer. She’s half your age. But to him, I said, “Cool you bootheels, cowboy. Let’s go for a drive.”
He laughed. “I’m just joking around. Having fun.”
He was, and it was good to see.
It only took a few minutes to check out Columbus. It had a population of about two thousand people and was located on the Yellowstone River, a fast-flowing, picturesque watercourse that ran through the outskirts of town. We found a city park on the south bank where we stopped and watched the sunset while eating ice cream cones from a nearby Dairy Queen.
“This is the life,” Owen said, admiring the setting sun turning the foothills to the east a brilliant orange. He turned to me. “I’m glad we did this. Thank you.”
“I’m glad we came,” I told him. And I was. We watched some mergansers float down the river, and I noticed Owen grinning at the antics of the little family of ducks. Just to see him smile, made the whole trip worth it.
And we’d only just begun. The next day we left our little motel and had a breakfast at Buckin’ Bronco. “Best oatmeal, I’ve ever eaten,” Owen exclaimed, to the waitress. He didn’t seem to mind that it wasn’t the lady from last night. He just grinned at her and left another nice tip.
Then we set off for our destination. It took nearly three hours, following a twisting two-lane highway from Columbus, through the small towns of Fishtail and Absorkee, all the while moving deeper into the mountains and the Stillwater River valley.
Owen’s commentary mentioned the Yellowstone River and cottonwood trees lining its banks while the foothills of the Rocky’s rose behind them; more sage; a few homes and ranches; more land and wide-open spaces. And always, the Beartooth Mountains rose in front of us, getting closer and closer the further we drove until finally it seemed we could reach out and touch them.
Eventually, the highway turned from pavement to gravel and led us through the middle of a five-mile-long valley transected by the Stillwater River which flowed clean and clear on our left. On either side of it, the land rose gently up rocky slopes dotted here and there with pine trees and aspen clumps all the way to the very top of the majestic mountains.
“Look at that.,” Owen said.
I slowed down and glanced out my window as Owen pointed to a big bird soaring high on the thermals above the valley. “I’ll bet it’s a golden eagle,” I guessed.
My brother and I had been lifelong birdwatchers. “I think you’re right,” he said, staring at the big raptor while I went back to focusing on driving. “How cool is that?”
“It’s very cool,” I said, grinning.
The Stillwater River was less than a quarter of a mile to our left. The sky was blue and cloudless. The sun was hot and the air smelled sweet with the scent of sage. The wheels of the car crunched over the gravel, kicking up a plume of dust as we made our way further into the valley. Neither of us felt the need to speak, our wide smiles said it all: this was an incredible adventure.
On our right, the land rose sharply with the snow-covered peaks so close it seems like we could hike to their summit in a matter of minutes, but that wasn’t going to happen because they were nearly two miles high. It’d take days to get there. Instead, we just enjoyed their beauty from where we were.
Ahead of us, the gravel road forked. To the left, it crossed a bridge and continued on to the campground. We followed the fork to the right and after about half a mile entered a pine forest with a space carved out for parking. It was the end of the road. It was also the trailhead for a hiking trail that followed the river into the mountains and eventually ended in Cooke City, Wyoming, thirty-three miles away.
I parked and we got out. Owen leaned against the car and took a deep breath. The scent of pine released by the blazing sun filled the air. “Man, this smells just like I remember,” he said, exhaling and breathing deeply again. “Nothing better.”
I agreed. “It’s a good day for a hike,” I said.
The ground was soft sand mixed with pine needles, and we sat down and put on our hiking boots. Then I reached into the backseat and took out a small day backpack with a few bottles of water and some granola bars.
In the background was the faint sound of the river’s rushing rapids echoing off the walls of the canyon. It was hidden by the trees and about a hundred yards from us. Owen used his cane and started walking towards it, but faltered when he stumbled on a hidden rock.
I hurried to his side. “Here, hold on to my arm.” Reluctantly, he did.
“I hate that I’m getting to be like this,” he murmured.
“Don’t worry about it. At least we’re here,” I said, stating the obvious and trying to cheer him up. I pointed to a well-used wooden picnic table. “Let’s sit over there and get our bearings.”
We made our way to it and sat down. I set the daypack on top and opened up a bottled water and handed it to him. He drank thirstily. There was not a whisper of a breeze; the air was calm and hot, but the pine trees provided some much-appreciated shade. Nearby a couple of red squirrels were chasing each other, and a Whiskey Jack, a western blue jay, was scolding them. I couldn’t imagine a more delightful or calming scene.
I glanced at Owen and was happy to see that he was enthralled, looking around and taking it all in. I took out a bottle of water for myself, opened it, and had a sip. I felt myself relaxing. The long drive and the miles began melting away and were replaced by the peace and serenity of the mountains.
Owen turned to me. “Remember coming here with mom and dad?”
“Yeah, I remember like it was yesterday. You were nine and I was eleven. We stayed two days.” I pointed behind us in the direction of the campground. “Dad wanted to try to fly fish. Mom was writing her poetry and was happy to let us explore.” I smiled at him. “It was great.”
“We found that rock we climbed. Remember?”
“Of course, I do.”
The Stillwater River began its life high in the mountains and was fed by snow melt. On the river’s journey through the valley, it passed through a mile-long, steep-sided canyon defined by granite walls and huge boulders. As young boys, we were captivated by the rushing rapids and decided to explore the canyon.
Owen grinned. “I don’t know why I ever let you talk me into climbing it.”
“Ah, the power of being a big brother,” I chided him.
“Yeah. I would have followed you anywhere.”
I laughed. “Not my best idea, I’ll tell you that.”
“Not by a long shot, Bro.”
That day, while exploring the canyon, we found a huge boulder on the edge of the river resting against the side of the canyon wall. It gently sloped upward, curving out of sight as it reached the top, thirty feet above the rushing water. ‘Let’s climb it,’ I had suggested. Owen was all for it.
“I really didn’t think it’d be all that tricky,” I said, taking another sip of water. “There were enough handholds, so climbing wasn’t too bad. Plus, I could use the side of the canyon to maintain my balance. It was pretty easy.”
“Yeah. I followed right behind like an obedient brother,” Owen said. “Or a Billy Goat,” he added, laughing.
We made it to the top of the rock and enjoyed the view up and down the canyon. The river pounded through the narrow gorge and the water cascaded over the huge boulders filling the air with a cooling mist. The rapids had been so loud, we could barely hear ourselves speak, so we didn’t talk and just enjoy the sights.
After about fifteen minutes I yelled in Owen’s ear. “We should get back to the campsite. Mom and Dad might start to get worried.”
We’d been gone most of the afternoon.
“Okay,” Owen had said, agreeably.
But going down hadn’t been as easy as going up.
“I’ll never forget that look on your face,” Owen said, opening a granola bar. “You were scared. First time I’d ever seen it.”
“I know. It freaked me out.”
These days, I’ll be the first to admit that I lost my courage when it came to climbing down from the top of that rock. Back then, though, for an overly confident eleven-year-old, it was hard to admit. But I was scared. Really scared. The way the boulder curved, I was afraid if I tried to go down, I’d lose my footing and slip and go crashing to the rocks thirty feet below, breaking who knew how many bones on the way down. I froze. “Let’s wait,” I told Owen.
“Why?” he asked.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him I had lost my nerve, so I lied. “Let me catch my breath,” I said, even though we’d been there long enough for me to have already caught it many times over.
Ever the amiable brother, he said, “Okay.”
“I remember putting my trust in you completely,” Owen said, arms folded on the picnic table, munching on his granola bar.
I grinned sheepishly. “Yeah, I know.” I took a sip of water. “That only made it worse.”
Finally, I talked myself into attempting the climb because the reality was that I had no other choice. I had to get myself down, and I had to get my brother down. So, I turned on my stomach and used my hands to push myself backward. Inch by careful inch, I started a slow slide downward, pulled by gravity. The overriding fear was not knowing if I could grab a handhold as I slipped backward. But I reasoned that if I’d been able to grab something on the way up, I’d be able to on the way down.
Luckily, I did.
After sliding backward for what seemed like twenty feet but was probably only one foot or two at the most, I found a handhold, a small crack in the rock. I held on for a couple of minutes to catch my breath.
From above me Owen, called, “How’s it going?”
I looked up but couldn’t see him beyond the slope of the rock. “Great!” I yelled, again lying through my teeth. But I didn’t want him to get scared, so I tried to sound confident. “Almost at the bottom,” I called back to him. Which was another lie. I wasn’t even close.
I tried to ignore the pounding of my heart in my chest and steeled my courage. Then, I let myself slip, my fingernails scraping along the rough surface, frantically searching for a crack or a bump on the rock, anything I could hold on to.
I lucked out again. After dropping down another foot or two, I found a handhold. I’d never been so happy in my life. It was then the thought came to me, Hey, this might work.
And, it did. By slipping and sliding backward, a little at a time, I was able to work my way down to the bottom of the huge rock. Sweating, scratched up and shaking with both adrenalin and exertion, I finally stood on solid ground. The river was next to me only a few feet away. I squatted down and cupped my hands and washed my face and drank deeply. Water never tasted so good.
“Then I had to come down,” Owen said, taking a sip of water from his bottle.
“Yeah, I remember it taking a long time to talk you down.”
“You climbed back up and helped.”
“That’s right, I did.” I looked at him and grinned. If there ever was a time when the unbreakable bond between us was forged, it was that day.
I knew that I had to help Owen get down. He was shorter than me and not as strong, so I climbed most of the way up and called out, “Come on. Get on your stomach like I did. Start sliding and I’ll catch you.”
I didn’t blame him for being hesitant, but finally he did it. He slid down to me and I grabbed his foot. Then, I slid backward holding his foot, grabbing for handholds, and together we worked our way to the bottom.
Sitting across from me at the picnic table, Owen grinned. “I remember it like it was yesterday, Bro. We got down, looked back up at that rock and both of us just laughed. I think you said, “Well, that was a piece of cake,’ or something like that.”
“I was scared out of my mind. But I knew if something happened to you on my watch, Mom would have killed me.”
Owen burst out laughing. “You’ve got that right.”
I laughed with him, happy beyond words we’d made the drive to get here.
You know what? We never did get to the rock like we’d planned. Instead, we sat at the picnic table the rest of the day and talked and reminisced and had a wonderful time. Toward sunset, Owen said, “Say, Frankie, I’ve got a favor to ask.”
“Sure, what’s up?”
“Could we come back here again sometime? I’d like that.”
“Sure, I told him. Anytime.”
The unspoken reality of the situation with Owen’s cancer was not even mentioned. What good would it have done? We had now. We had this moment in time. We had each other. That’s all that mattered.
“That’s good, Frankie. That’s really good.”
We shook on it, making a pact and sealing the deal.
When the sun started setting toward the mountains, I helped him to the car and we sat for a moment with the windows down, listening to the sounds of the forest all around and breathing in the sweet scent of pine and sage. In the background, the Stillwater River thundered through the canyon on its way to the Yellowstone River, and then out of Montana for good. The late afternoon light was soft and magical. I couldn’t think of a better place for us to be.
“Should we go?” I asked.
“Sure,” Owen said, sticking his head out the window and breathing deeply. “But take your time, okay?”
“Okay,” I told him.
We drove to Columbus and got there long after sundown. Like Owen had asked, I’d taken my time.
* * *
We’ve been home a month, and, so far, his health is pretty good. We’re spending a lot of time together. Owen can even eat a little steak when I grill it for him.
I’m glad we made our pact to come back to Montana again. Even with the odds being against Owen surviving much longer, if there’s one thing we’d both learned on our trip to the Stillwater River Valley, it was that if we were able to climb that rock all those years ago and get safely back down, anything was possible. There’s no doubt in my mind.
Or Owen’s. As he put it recently, “Hell, I’ll bet we can even beat this damn cancer.”
I like that he said, ‘we’.
“No kidding,” I told him. “Piece of cake.”
And we shook on it.