His Country

David E. Grubb

Photo Credit: Eddie Clark/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Eddie Clark/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Dad’s call came too late at night and out of sync from our normal pattern of chatting on the phone. His stout voice echoed through the static, but feebleness edged between his words. This particular conversation had played out in my head many times and my heart sank before we spoke any words. A calendar on my kitchen wall marked the date—October 15, 2007—another bumpy milestone on the highway running through my life.

“David,” he grumbled, “it’s time to put my plan into motion. How soon can you be here?”

I had an odd sensation his words were spoken to me in 1970, the year of my birth. Somehow those words had taken over three decades to reach my ears, but were right on time.

“A day, maybe less.”

“You’ll come alone?”

“Yeah, I’ll leave ‘em here until…” I glanced down the hallway at the three bedroom doors of my home standing closed for the night.

“Till they have to come.” The weakness in his voice overtook the strength, ice in the fissures of rocks breaking them apart.


“If I could find a way…”

“You’d do it on your own.”

“My old body—I need your help.” Up until then, he’d admitted being unable to do something on two or three occasions, at most.

“I know, I’ll be there soon.”

“All right, see you then.”

“Yeah, I’m guessing late tomorrow.”

I placed the phone back in its cradle. Refrigerator hum and muffled voices from the TV in our master bedroom penetrated the sudden disquiet. I slumped further down in the heavy wooden chair. Shit, Dad expected me to uphold my disturbing promise. I’d hoped that he’d forgotten about our little pact. No such luck, although not surprising since Dad’s mind was sharper than my own would ever be.

Dad’s lifelong journey neared completion while mine continued the stages of midlife construction, the way things should be, I suppose. The same can be said for powerful oaths made in good faith amongst men. I’d pledged the promise to him a few short years ago while we sat around the fire at elk camp.

“I don’t want a fucking funeral.” His words came out of nowhere, we’d been talking about the Rockies and their chances of winning the World Series.

An uneasy scoff burst from me. “Who the hell said anything about a funeral?”

“No coffin, no graveyard—none of that shit, you hear me?”

“Dad, what’re you talking about?” I tipped the ratty, foldout camp chair back a little further.

“That’s not how I wanna be laid to rest.” He used a gnarled, crooked finger to point in my direction across the blazing fire.

“Where’s all this coming from?”

“Your Mother thinks we’re going to be placed right next to one another in the town’s graveyard.”

“And you want something else?”

“I sure as hell don’t want a damn preacher talking over my corpse in a pine box while yins mope and caterwaul, let alone have my useless bones taking up valuable land.”

“I see.” Three empty bottles clanked against one another when I kicked the clump of mountain grass near me. “Well, what do you want?”

“To be cremated and y’all spread my ashes wherever seems most fitting.”

“Where? Fossil Ridge?” I shook my head in disbelief.

“I doubt any of you could find your way in or out of there without me.”

A long, frigid day in the fields with no sign of game had already soured me. “True, but this is between you and Mom.”

“Why in the hell does she have any say in my demise?”

“I dunno, but I’m pretty sure that’s how those things work.” I wished another beer would materialize in my hand.

“You’re right, but does that mean it’s right?” He got up and put two more logs into the crackling flames, which surprised me. We’d already agreed to let the fire go out.

“Can we talk about something else?”

“No. Conversations like this get put off until it’s too fucking late.” His lip curled and he glared at me in an accusing manner.

“Fine. What I’m supposed to do about any of this?”

“Help me hike into Fossil Ridge when the time comes.” He headed off into the darkness. The ice chest, next to the old army officer’s tent used for base camp opened and closed.

“What do you mean, when the times comes? Nobody knows…”

“Oh, I ain’t so sure about that shit. ‘Sides, if I go on my own terms a year or two earlier than slated, well, that’d be damn fine by me.” He thrust another dripping wet bottle of ice-chilled beer into my hand and then eased himself back down into his chair.

“Dad, I can’t do what you’re asking.”

“I’m asking you to help me get back in to my old hunting area when the time is right. I’ll take care of the rest.” He moved his hands as if spreading or flattening the air beneath them.

“This is too much.”

“Yes or no? I’d ask your brother, but he’s gotten too damned soft.”

“You’re fucking serious.” I pried the cap off of the sweat-glistened bottle using one end of his hand-me-down hunting knife.

“I won’t ask again. Yes, or no?”

“You know I’ll do whatever you want.” I took a quick drink and slipped the bottle into the chair’s cup holder so I could hold out my open hands, a show of good faith.

“Yes, but will you do this for me?”

“Yeah, sure, I guess.”

“No hemming and hawing. I want a decisive answer.” His eyes squinted at me harder than they’d done in years, like the couple of times I’d gotten arrested while growing up.

“Fine. The answer is yes.” Christ, did I talk my way out of getting the belt?

“Thank you.”


Twelve hours after his phone call, air-bound to my birthplace, I sat next to an older woman whose perfume made me sneeze half the flight. She tried to gab my ear off and any other time I’d have met her word for word. Instead, I gave monosyllabic responses and halfhearted smiles until she turned to the window and dozed off. A large man had plopped down in the aisle seat, took over the armrest and began snoring before the safety video started to play. The rest of my flight was lost to the aggravation of my last-minute purchase of airfare—a dreaded middle seat—and the insurmountable turmoil in my head.

The tight confines of a compact rental car made my three-hour drive from the Denver Airport an extension of utter discomfort after the long, cramped flight. When the browned, grassy flats of South Park vanished from the mirrors my delight to be in more rugged country soared as best it could.

The mountains outside the car’s windows rose up out of sight. Aspen yellows and evergreen firs blurred past while more peaks further off in the distance beckoned. A dreamy town called Bailey rushed into view and I gunned the car into a gas station. The short pit stop became necessary because I needed to stretch and get some coffee. I filled the car up with gas even though the fuel saver’s gauge read three-quarters of a tank. The unbelievable Rocky Mountain air, before winter sets in, tasted savory and the home-cooked meal I’d soon feast upon popped into my mind. The combination made me salivate, but I’d have to make do with crappy donuts until I got home.

I stood at the gas pump stretching my legs and back, disdain for those new buildings and strip mall areas increasing with every whirring chatter of the pump. The unmistakable taint of Jefferson County’s overgrowth continued to expand and overtake the landscape with every passing second. It’d been eating away at nature for decades and this time the urban sprawl was more palpable than ever before. Cityscape would absorb the small town of Bailey in the next decade, if not sooner. When would my father’s plan envelope every bit of me? By nightfall, in the morning, or long after the deed was done?

I slid back into the small, awful-smelling rental car and pushed its limits on the aggressive inclines. As the engine whined I sipped hot coffee and ate large bites of mediocre cake donuts. Making rapid progress towards my parents’ home became more imperative and cleanliness of the car a whimsical idea.


The cabin-style log house, nestled in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, abounded with familiarity, but I’d lost intimacy with my former home many years ago. The same old pictures hung upon the walls, but newer ones were placed among them with similar care. Faces and people I’d never met stared back at me with matched uncertainty about the stranger gazing at them through the glass.

Mom’s eyes glinted with delight as I wrapped my arms around her and hugged as hard as I could without hurting her. I pulled away and the hint of questioning clouded into her gleeful look. The old boy’s explanation of my impromptu visit must’ve been good, but imperfect.

We spoke of our fictitious late-season fishing trip to Eleven Mile Canyon Reservoir as if the outing was real. I wished he’d have let me in on that part before I arrived. Even so, Mom nodded and smiled while we talked about the fish we’d catch or the weather that might deter our fun. If she suspected anything was amiss, then she did a fantastic job of keeping any concern to herself.

During previous visits I’d scarf down Mom’s chicken and dumplings with blue ribbon apple pie, a ravenous teenager. This time I pushed the food around my plate and tried to make it look as if I’d devoured most of my meal. The flavors were off, much like the house, but a queasiness that had developed during our phone call was the real reason for my dismal appetite. Whenever I glanced at Dad’s face my stomach tightened up even more. His features were withered, more than I’d expected—more than I wanted.

His enthralling spirit, which always seemed beyond our time and place, had diminished. How was that possible? The mighty cosmos and time had managed to catch up to my father. Another impossibility of my youthful brain was shattered.

His once-ageless face and acquired old-man posture indicated any attempt at dissuasion would be pointless. The well-known stubbornness would remain unchallenged. Lying to my mom almost became the deal breaker.

The urge to let her in on our secret simmered and nearly boiled over many times while we ate the bountiful dinner at their centuries-old dining table. Disappointment had something to do with keeping quiet, but the small tip of the iceberg had greater mass below the water’s surface. Respect for his wish and upholding the lies for reasons unknown had a breaking point, but not quite then.

The nicks and dings in the walnut surface of the table top became my distraction whenever the need to avoid their questioning looks arose. Stories behind some of those imperfections in the aged surface mystified me like the foreign pictures on the walls. Smiles from what caused many of the known marks remained suppressed, unlike my sullen disposition.


As we began finishing the preparations for our trip and its aftermath, I could tell he’d done the best he could, but there was a lot left to do. In a few days, the list of tasks he’d given to me in secrecy after the scrumptious homecoming supper neared completion. He often tried to help me with all the tasks and errands, but he’d become out of breath and too fatigued.

He’d sit and watch me work, his all-knowing eyes pressing down on the invisible weights strapped across my shoulders. He struggled to hold in the corrective words I wanted to hear with a desperation I had yet to experience. His methods weren’t any better or worse than how I did things, they just happened to be his ways.

My mother remained oblivious about our activities and his plan because she wanted nothing to do with any of it. A normal pattern with her and my father. This time I left blame out of the equation. How could I fault her? If I could’ve ignored what we were up to and turned my back upon the whole ordeal, I’d have done it. I grumbled to myself, chastising my brother for not keeping himself in better shape. Would Dad have asked his first born for this favor if it’d been an option?

Hearing his gruff, muted call of my name through the bedroom door on the morning we left wracked my nerves and threw me further off balance. Twenty minutes after his knock and call I wrenched myself out of the sweat-drenched covers. If I’d stayed in bed any longer, he’d have been back to roust me again and my desire for a repeat of my childhood flashback was low.

Our early morning start, with sunrise a few hours away, was typical for him. A brisk, gloomy, late-fall sky held itself above us like winter had moved in overnight. We’d be gone well before my mother would be up, and I thanked her ability to sleep in. Mom’s presence busying herself in the kitchen would’ve made me fall apart quicker than a first-season elk blind.

The standard bowl of hot oatmeal and frozen blueberries went down as if I’d eaten wet cement. More than half the berries were unwilling to defrost in the grey goop, as if to set the somber mood in deeper. Some last-minute preparations whittled away the morning, but we were off right when first light began its soft glow along the mountain ridges.

An hour into the drive, we turned off of the main roads and away from civilization. We headed towards the infamous Fossil Ridge Wilderness area. That self-explanatory name was a magical, mystical place because of his fantastic hunting stories involving the area. Once again the ridge became our destination, yet remained a land regaled of untold wonders.

Fossil Ridge, nicknamed the breadbasket, because Dad killed an elk every year for decades to help augment our food supplies and for sport. An incredible feat to say the least, and unnecessary, because there’re easier places to hunt elk in cool, colorful Colorado. The strenuous half-day hike to get into his area humbled the fittest of people. God’s country, in many people’s eyes, but my father will forever own the deed to that hallowed place.

His new, four-wheel-drive truck gave an occasional protest as we drove over the craggy rocks and washouts of the old mining road, but crawled along with ease. The maroon Ford F-150 was the one new “car” purchase he’d ever made in his entire life. Back then the strange buy made little sense to anyone in our family. At this particular moment, the reason for his impulsive shopping spree became clear. His older, junky truck would have fallen apart on that damned road.

The horrible journey down the often indistinctive road took an eternity to complete. Every other time we’d made the trip, I grumbled about the bumpy ride and rough conditions. This time I did my best to savor everything about the drive. I doubted if anyone knew where the road ended, including him. When I stopped his fancy new pickup truck, the distinctive features of the road had vanished miles behind us. He gave no indication if I’d parked in the right place. All I got was a quick nod to say: “good driving, kid.”

I’d put a few nonessential items in my father’s backpack and not much else. The hike in would be extra murderous, because I’d have to help him most of the way. A cumbersome heavy pack on his old frame would make the trek worse. He hefted both packs while we geared up to leave the truck and I flushed with shame.

Before I could explain why his pack held next to nothing, he winked at me with his most familiar gesture of jest. He set the heavier pack on the ground at my feet and slung the lighter one onto his shoulders. His old body pivoted away from me and he began trudging up the trail whistling “Sweet Caroline.” The redness of shame burned into place and his wink became another picture-perfect snapshot in my cerebral photo album.

In a matter of minutes, I caught up to his lead and we clambered up an indistinguishable part of the game trail as if a pack of wolves were gnashing at our heels. An eerie feeling overcame me because of my novice mountaineering and orienteering skills. Could I find my way out of there?

He struggled as we made our way to the area I’d hunted once in my life, but had been to six or seven times on other occasions. He fended me off with angry recoils every time I tried to help him navigate rough terrain. I gave up. Dad led and I followed, like we’d done for so many years in my youth. The ten-year-old boy trailed his formidable father once more.

The hard day of hiking warbled along like an old out-of-tune player piano lilting out Rodgers and Hammerstein pieces. We moved toward Fossil Ridge with as methodic, deliberate, and determined a pace as we could maintain. Even so, our movement was half as fast as those mistuned melodies at best.

By late afternoon we arrived at the campsite, exhausted and almost too spent to set up camp. Fossil Ridge spread out before us like a green, yellowy-blue cornucopia of rugged, mountainous splendor. We’d made the arduous journey with an hour to spare from my bleak guesstimate when we started out from his truck. We arrived ahead of schedule because of his unwavering willpower and I shouldn’t have doubted him for a moment.

With a great deal of effort, we had camp set up right before nightfall. The edgy night of the mountains moved in on us, and the wintry chill became more noticeable as the sunlight faded away. Soon, the campfire glowed with red-orange coals and we were left with little to do but sit as close to the heat as possible.

We sipped on the beers I’d brought along and stared at the coals in silence under the same trance. Dad and I had been at that point hundreds of times before and always found ourselves talking without restraint for hours. This time the words remained unspoken and locked up inside of us. Maybe there was nothing left to be said.

Two loud, crackling pops of the fire brought forth a handful of flying cinders that landed a few feet outside of the rock circle I’d built in a matter of minutes. The embers were too far away to catch anything on fire. We remained sitting, staring… silent. Those rebellious embers turned from red glowing chunks to dark black invisible masses and blended into the murky night. This fade-to-black performance seemed to take hours, but in reality, less than a few minutes—and then he disrupted the quiet.

“You’ve been the best son a father could ever hope to have. I’m so proud of my son the military man and all of his accomplishments, including your beautiful family.” His voice was weak from our exhaustive exertions, but so strong with conviction my eyes darted over to him. The tingle of his heartfelt adulation coursed over every inch of my body like I’d just hit my first homerun in Little League baseball, again.

“I’m not sure what to say other than I love you, too.” The words sprang out strong and unwavering. The choked sadness pushing them forth somehow remained under control.

“I’ll be unable to repay you for what you’ve done.”

“I can say the same thing for everything you’ve done for me.”

“I guess—we’re even then.” He broke the long stare between us and turned to look out into the blackness.

“So it seems.” I studied the side of his face for quite some time before I turned my gaze somewhere else, anywhere else.

“I’ll be waiting for you right here or at least a place like it.”

“I’m looking forward to it.”

“Take your time my son… take your time.” His voice had lowered; like he was talking to me from out in the inked darkness. This chilled away the fading warmth his adulating words and looks had given me.

“I will dad, I will.”

As though he could sense that a cold chill, independent of the frosty night air, had gripped me, his warm, ice-blue eyes fell upon me again. His gaze gleamed with glowing adoration. I’d always tried to match his illustrious look while gazing upon my own sons and daughters. I hoped my brown, non-inherited eyes came close and his ancestry knew where that remarkable look of a proud father came from. This time I broke the connection that held us together for the last time of the evening. I stared at the dying fire wishing we’d just lit it and were thirty years younger.

Soon I stole glances at him, hoping he might turn to look at me and say the outing was just another glorious camping trip or a big hoax. I became aware that glaring at him would go unnoticed. He was staring out through the dark world around us to something else. I had a hunch he was reliving his bygone years. At that moment it became clear my desperate hope of returning to the house together was all for naught.

My father had come home to his Fossil Ridge.

“It’s going to snow.” I nodded my head up to the sky made blacker from the smattering of clouds fractured apart that were coming together. I’d packed for cold weather but not snow and grew worried about our warmth.

“Flurries, but I’d be shocked to see anything more than a dusting in the morning.” He adjusted his head to become more comfortable in the sleeping bag, but his eyes remained closed. The menacing sky was an unnecessary tool for him to make his assured prediction.

“It’s cold—even freezing.”

“Yes. It’s cold enough, that’s for certain. Good night, son.”

“Good night, dad.”

Cold enough for what? I stirred the grey-black ashes of our fire one more time. No red embers came back to life. I retired for the night and huddled deep in my sleeping bag. The stars were steady pinpricks of light as they came in and out of view from the amassing clouds. I wanted to absorb the starlight to warm the frigid darkness inside the pit of my stomach.

On the drive, he’d directed me to head home when the time came. He said to come back and visit him every so often, whenever I wanted to say hello or needed a shoulder to cry on. Staying at camp for a second night was the start of breaking promises, but I had my reasons. The blustery day went by in such a slow panorama of nature waking up, eking out life, and going back to sleep, I almost went crazy.

The night took even longer to move itself along the lines of time. Dad would’ve seen my fire, even if he was six ridges away, and came back to check on me. I sat there in the darkness trying to keep from freezing to death. Another frosty night and lack of heat source forced me into my sleeping bag long before the stars were lit up in full glory. I gazed up at the twinkling lights and darkening sky with a colder, blacker feeling in my guts than the previous night. My eyes tried to fix upon anything other than Orion, but failed. After a while I wished the great hunger would go the fuck away and leave me alone.

In the morning I made a fire to kill some of the time that was dragging by, as if I could save it to use later. When the sun reached the noon apex, I headed out of camp to find him. The cold, angry ground was still in my achy muscles and chilled bones as I walked due west.

He’d kept that part of our conspiracy to himself, but I had a good idea of where to search. In a little under two hours I found my father’s body, after becoming turned around more than once. During one of those wayward times, finding him became the least of my worries and priorities. Using every back country orienteering trick he taught me, I located him without getting myself lost in the immense wilderness of Fossil Ridge.

He’d traveled to the exact spot of his first elk kill. As inspiration for my own hunting prowess, he’d shown me his inaugural place a few times throughout my life. I bet myself he hiked up there in the pitch-black hours before first light in forty-five minutes or less. Even if I could’ve walked straight there, the feat would’ve taken me well over an hour in such conditions.

When I found him, he was cold, dead, and stiff. His majestic, ageless look was back in place on his face and looked like it could never be taken away from him again. I sat down beside my father’s body and put my back against the same twisted old pine tree he had selected to be most fitting for his last day of life.

I surmised he’d used the tree for the back of his throne as he ruled over his magical mountain kingdom. I sighed and finished the thought. For one last beautiful day, full of life, before the view became an eternity of vapid animation in death.

I’d once heard that the elders in some Native American tribes often did what he’d done. They’d go to the spiritual world by getting up one fine morning before everyone else and leave without saying a word. With quiet rectitude they’d go off to unburden the tribe of their dead weight. They’d find a magnificent or meaningful spot and sit down to wait for the spiritual world to take them back into its warm, loving embrace.

I sat by his side contemplating this and remembered I’d first heard this from him. I was a teenage boy when he spoke of this ancient practice, and I’d thought little about the concept throughout my life until that day. My father was a Native American at heart in a couple of ways, but he lacked any ties to those cultures. Even so, the way he had chosen to enter his spiritual world and eternal plane fitted the man he’d been without question.

For a long time, we sat next to one another as if we were on a riverbank fishing or sipping coffee on his deck, while a lazy Sunday morning warmed itself into a hot Colorado day. I floundered, flailed and stumbled while I tried to touch the connection between my father and his country. I came as close to grasping the link as anyone in this world ever could, but I also came up way short.

It was like trying to grab ahold of a particle beam running between two nebular worlds with frozen mittens on my cold, sluggish hands. The thought saddened me further but also made me glad. Could I have handled the charged volts I would’ve received had I been successful?

I broke even further from his plan. I carried my father’s body out of his final hunting grounds and everlasting kingdom. We owed it to my mother and the rest of our family. Many things dawned on me while I hauled his withered, timeworn body, which was now unmoving, rigid, and lifeless out of there. Fossil Ridge would always be his, and I couldn’t name or think of any place like it for me.

When I became an old man ready to enter my eternal romping place, Dad would welcome me into his kingdom, but following his lead seemed wrong. Where would I go when it became time for me to unburden the tribe as I slipped away from them in a hushed departure before dawn? The thoughts harangued me as I made our way back to his truck, using painstaking care to get us there in one piece while avoiding any more detours. I’d laid his body on the back seat when the answer came to me like a visage from my father who now existed on the other side.

He guided me one more time, or at least that’s what I tend to believe. I’d find my fantastic sanctuary in the netherworlds I would encounter when my own expiration date became the final milestone upon my rocky road. My Fossil Ridge would be found through the windows of my loving family’s eyes as I said goodbye to them from my deathbed at a ripe old age. That’s the way I pictured it in the daydream that helped hold my mind together as we drove back home.

While I stood over him at his funeral, which he’d voiced heated objection to every time the idea came up in conversation, I vowed to finish the promise. The tears that had started falling from my eyes when I first found him on his rocky outcropping in the vast wilderness of his country streamed anew from my eyes. The waterworks came with more fury and vengeance as I made the slight modification to our pledge. I whispered the renewal of my oath to him.

“Don’t worry, Dad; I’ll get you back home. It’ll be tricky, but I’ll spread your ashes right where I found you before the first good tracking snows fall. Mom deserves to think she’ll rest in peace with you forever. Hunt well, great Elk Slayer… hunt well and try to save a few for me.”

pencilDavid Grubb is a retired Chief Warrant Officer after twenty-two years of dedicated service from one of America’s Armed Forces. He’s been a creative writer his entire life yet never focused on it because of career and family. He’s changing that part of his life one day at a time and loving every minute of it. He also immensely enjoys being a stay-at-home dad. Email: grubbde[at]gmail.com

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