The Resting Place, 2024 First Place

By Eric E. Wallace

On a slope rising from the eastern shore of Payette Lake and just across Eastside Drive was the start of a narrow hiking trail—a trail not quite private, but so little known-about that the word secret almost applied. It wasn’t obvious where it began. There were no markers. And along that section of road there were no places to park.

So: an almost-secret, almost-private trail only a few miles from downtown McCall.

In the summer months, those lucky enough to have homes or cabins nearby could easily walk through the shaded lower woods, cross the road into the sunshine and, within moments, disappear, using the trail to climb away from the lake.

Rare was the time you’d wander up that way and meet another human, and those you did encounter were, with few exceptions, people who were quiet and thoughtful, people who treaded carefully and sometimes even reverentially as though there might be something sacred in this hillside.

At the upper reaches, there were two forks. One trail headed north to join more major hiking trails, and the other connected some distance away with paths turning south and east, leading in the direction of Little Payette Lake.

Sarah’s widowed mother, Virginia, spending every summer in McCall since she’d retired, had cherished this almost-secret trail. The vacation cabin that she and Hal, Sarah’s father, had built decades ago sat complacently in the woods only a quarter mile from the beginning point. Virginia hiked the trail frequently, going at least as far as the upper forks.

Whenever Sarah drove up from Boise to visit her mother, most every day they’d walk the trail together, delighting in its pleasures. They found great satisfaction in observing the plants, birds, animals and insects. Never in a hurry, they often let the small things of Nature come to them.

They would meander among sky-reaching ponderosa, gentle alder and wind-touched fescues and wheatgrass. They discovered startling jade mosses and stopped to bend down toward tiny blushes of amazing colors from shy wildflowers.

They watched for deer and fox. They marveled at the anthropomorphic shapes of the volcanic boulders, silent guardians scattered on the incline, timeless reminders of the massive forces which shaped this land.

The women love the trail’s soundscape, a rich tone poem, performed by songbirds, jays, ravens, and hawks, occasionally joined by the random percussion of woodpeckers and squirrels.

They relished the air, scented with the warm lusciousness of evergreen, the low sweetness of Oregon grape, the camphor of mountain sage and hints of musky snowbrush and ripening berries.

At least once each year, Virginia and Sarah packed a picnic, put on their laugh-producing big klutzy hiking boots, took out their best walking sticks, hiked all the way up, chose one of the forks, set off for miles and made a long, tiring and blissful day of it.

When Virginia died after a short illness, Sarah didn’t have to think twice where she’d scatter her mother’s ashes. An only child, Sarah didn’t need to worry about sibling preferences, needn’t get into arguments about ‘where to plant Mom,’ as one of her neighbors had termed a common family concern.

No, it was easy to decide. Sarah’s father’s ashes had been scattered in the Pacific—Hal had treasured his time in the Navy—but for Mom, it would be far different. It would be a place she loved in a state she loved. A place which Sarah could easily visit.

Sarah had the crematorium put Virginia’s ashes in a small cedar box which Hal had hand-tooled years ago. Since it was winter, she placed the box on her broad kitchen window sill in her Boise condo, to stay there until summer, always kept company by a vase of fresh flowers.  

One Friday in early June, Sarah drove to McCall. She aired out the cabin she now owned, turned the water on for the season and settled in for a week’s stay.

Two days later, on a warm afternoon, she carried the box up the hillside until she reached a familiar large boulder, resting just to the side of the trail.

Only those who happened to step away from the trail at that point might know that a short distance behind the boulder and beyond a grove of maples was a small grassy glade watched over by a ring of conifers. At the far edge of this clearing was what had become Virginia’s favorite tree, a little mock orange, standing defiantly and proud beside a pair of firs.

Sarah and Virginia, once they’d discovered this sunlit, hushed space, often stopped there when hiking up the hillside. They’d sit quietly on a fallen log and settle in to long moments of peaceful contemplation.

“Heavenly,” became Virginia’s description of their secret little clearing. She uttered that word every time she was there.

Today, Sarah left the trail at the boulder, went through to the glade and, murmuring a blessing from her childhood, slowly scattered Virginia’s ashes among the wildflowers and around the mock orange.

As Sarah murmured a final prayer, a long beam of silver-yellow sunlight slid down through the upper branches of a ponderosa and lit up her shoulders. A faint sweet scent of citrus and jasmine reached out to her. She felt very much at peace. She watched an ambling white butterfly slowly flutter out of sight, and she was sure it was a sign of her mother’s being content. Heavenly indeed.

Whenever Sarah drove up to McCall for a weekend at the cabin, she always made at least one pilgrimage to where she’d scattered Virginia’s ashes. She named the place Mom’s Haven.

Each time Sarah arrived at the ancient boulder, she touched it, reading the reassuring Braille of the time-pocked surface, rolling her fingers over long pine needles, running her hands gently across what she like to pretend was glacial dust from 10,000 years before.

This first little ritual over, she would go into the glade and stand in the grasses near the mock orange, sometimes in sunlight, sometimes in shadow, and talk silently to her mother. And, subtly, it seemed, she’d begun to find herself communing with her father too.

When Sarah met Ben, literally bumping into him at the Capital City Market in Boise, and a few months afterwards—despite a long assumption that she’d never be married a second time, getting married a second time—her tradition of coming to McCall and walking the trail continued, only now with a new loving companion.

Even in winter, they’d snowshoe up the trail, laughing at their mutual clumsiness, floundering at times, but always getting up to Mom’s Haven, on the way in resting happily, leaning against the big chilly but friendly boulder, their white breath hanging quietly in the air.

Everything continued peacefully for three years. But the next summer began what seemed like a steady cascade of changes.

When Sarah and Ben now went on their walks up the almost-secret trail, more than once they encountered people on horseback. Apparently, stables and paddocks had opened just a little to the south, and equine explorations along this hillside, once a rarity, were becoming more common. The horses were generally quiet and well-behaved, the riders polite, but the trail seemed to lose part of its peacefulness.

Worse, close to the stables, some government entity had installed a new trailhead, added a parking area and cleared a new path to the upper trail network. As the summer continued, more and more hikers came wandering down Mom’s trail—few, it seemed, with any degree of civility.

There was loud laughter, raucous conversation, cell phone inanity, even booming music. The stillness of the hillside, the lazy buzzing of the occasional bee, the soft music of hidden songbirds and the sweet soughing of the breezes—often all were overridden with meaningless human noise.

Twice, Sarah and Ben passed improvised campsites sprawling under the pines, the sagging pup tents and disheveled sleeping bags blighting the dappled shade.

And now there was trash along the trail. A sandwich wrapper here, a crumpled coffee cup there, cigarette butts both here and there—ground out, thank heavens, but still flecking white paper and brown tobacco across the soft earth.

“So much for progress,” Ben said quietly.

“Well, to be fair,” Sarah said. “This is a public trail, not a private one. We were lucky to have had so many good, undisturbed years.”

“Let’s hope they’re not over.”

But it was a summer of discontent. Made much worse by two discoveries on a late August weekend.

One morning, Sarah and Ben walked up the trail, talking quietly and with amusement about a flicker who seemed to be shadowing them like a detective tailing a suspect. But when they arrived at the marker boulder, Sarah gasped.

The morning’s delight vanished.

Someone had decided the stone was just right for a display of clever graffiti. He—or she—had not only spray-painted an obscenity in black down one side of the rock, but had incised the letters MAGA across one of the smoother faces.

Sarah trembled. Ben stood silent, his fists clenched. He and Sarah hugged, remaining there, motionless, for a few disbelieving moments.

The boulder graffiti was bad enough. But when Sarah and Ben walked into the glade, hoping to escape the ugliness, they found that the mock orange tree had been badly damaged. Someone had tried to dig it out, then tried to wrestle it free, then had given up, leaving the tree leaning, injured and broken.

“Who would do this?” Sarah asked.

Ben snorted. “Some cheap and lazy bastard wanting to plant it in his garden.”

Using fallen branches and rabbitbrush vines, Ben and Sarah tried to splint the tree, hoping that nature eventually would provide the rest of the healing.

But the assault on the boulder would be hard to remove or to hide. Painting over the graffiti might yield its own form of blight. Fixing things properly, if even possible, might require some sort of sandblasting, completely impractical up here.

Regardless of whether they could undo the damage, Mom’s Haven no longer seemed the inviolate, sacred space it had been. The place where Sarah had scattered Virginia’s ashes had been invaded, and both of its principal guardians, the giant boulder and the mock orange, defiled.

“I’m so sorry your mother’s rest has been disturbed.” Ben said. “And in such a rotten way. It’s been desecrated.”

Sarah sighed. “I’m not sure I want to keep visiting her here. Maybe that’s kind of silly anyway. This was never really Mom. Any more than if we’d buried her in a cemetery.”

“But you still think of her as being here?”

Sarah nodded. “Literally. Her ashes are part of this little ecosystem. But after this it doesn’t seem the same…”

“What do you want to do?”

Sarah suddenly regained some humor. “Well, we can’t exactly gather her up and move her, can we? I guess it’s pretty much like Humpty Dumpty. No one can put the pieces together again.”

They fell into a fit of giggling.

“All the king’s horses probably couldn’t make it up here anyway,” Ben said.

“Or all the king’s men.”

Still smiling, Sarah closed her eyes, turned her face to the sun and took some deep breaths.

“But it’s serious, isn’t it?” Ben said at last.

Sarah’s smile faded. “Yes. This was somewhere I could come to talk to her, to feel her presence, to honor her. And it isn’t just some arbitrary spot, but a place she loved to sit and just be.”

She touched Ben’s arm. “Let’s head back down. I want to think about this.”

They returned to the cabin, poured two glasses of iced tea, went out on the small back deck. Sitting in silence, they watched a tail-flapping red squirrel investigating the woodpile. The waters of Payette Lake flashed glints of silver-gold through the trees.

“Here’s what I think,” Sarah finally said, putting her glass down. “About a half mile further up the trail from our boulder, there’s a small semi-switchback. I’ll bet you’d recognize it. If you leave the path in the middle of that switchback and go off to the right, wind through some shrubs, there’s another little clearing tucked in there.”

She laughed. “Mom and I found it when we bushwacked in for a little bathroom privacy.”

Ben grinned. “I bet many of the great explorers discovered things that way.”

Sarah chuckled. “Right! Anyway, there’s an interesting twisted little tree in there that Mom identified as a mountain mahogany. Curl or curly leaf, I think she said. It’s one of those smaller renegade evergreens that’s holding its own among the bigger boys. Tiny white flowers, hint of spicy scent.”

“Sounds nice.”

“It is. We went into that spot a couple of times, and since Mom proved herself to be a tree expert there, it’s easy to think of it as sort of connected to her. Perhaps that could be her new place.”

“How would you make it…do you still have some of her…the cremains?”

“No, but I’ve another idea. I’ve been thinking about the cedar box which held her ashes before I scattered them. It’s here in the cabin, in the second bedroom closet. It’s one of those neat little boxes that Dad made. We could put something related to Mom inside it—maybe a ring, a brooch, or that great photo of her in the canoe—and bury the box very deeply under that tree.”

“A new shrine? Maybe even to both of your parents?”

“Exactly. And far from the madding crowd!”

And that’s what they did. Early the next morning, they put Virginia’s amethyst pendant and the canoe photo in Hal’s handmade cedar box, sealed the box tightly in plastic, and carried it up the trail, along with a shovel and a rake.

“You know something?” Sarah asked after they’d carefully buried the box under the mountain mahogany. “It’s so obvious, yet I forgot it until this very moment.”

“What’s that?” Ben asked, continuing to rake leaves and needles back into place.

“When we want to ‘be’ with someone we love, why do we need to go anywhere in particular? If we remember to keep them in our hearts, we can be with them all the time.”

Ben feigned exasperation. “After all this digging, you tell me that?”

Sarah joined in Ben’s laughter. “However…” she said, “…however, also having a special place to go to, some place as lovely as this—well, that’s a bonus.”

Ben stepped back, and they linked arms. Together they regarded the updated Mom’s Haven.

“Yes, she’s always with me,” Sarah said softly. “But, every now and then, why not also climb up a lovely hillside to think of her?”

Ben groaned in mock weariness. “We’ll have to hike further than before.”

“True, we will.” Sarah laughed. “But perhaps we can pioneer a brand-new Idaho saying: Exercise makes the heart grow fonder.”

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