By Dave Ammons
Keith was my favorite and most loyal fishing buddy, mostly because he never judged. He paid no mind to a bad mend, a snag on the back cast, or a unnatural drift. He just loved observing quietly from the water’s edge.
Keith recently drove with me to Colorado, riding in the back as he usually did. On all of our previous trips he occasionally crawled up to shotgun but he mostly liked to stay in the back or the way back. He would sit quietly and stare out the window as the world went by, morphing from the hardscrabble, brown-dried Sonoran desert to the Rocky Mountains where our destination lay. Or he would stretch out across the bench seat to sleep or sometimes just curl up on the floorboards. On this particular trip—a long, tiring fifteen hour drive—Keith lay particularly still.
I knew I had chosen the perfect spot. At the bend in the river a flat-topped rock dominated the higher bank overlooking the small rocky beach strewn with sticks and driftwood picked up in higher water and deposited as the river ebbed. The rock was a sentinel, presiding over the bend and covered with lichens of pale hues gravitating through spectrums of green and orange, red and yellow. About seven feet across and five feet wide and as solid as the granite faces surrounding the valley it lay unyielding, embedded in the crook of the field.
Keith was 14 years old at the time, but had noticeably aged the prior couple of years. The changes had been gradual, at times imperceptible in the moment—the growth of lipomas on his leg and abdomen were easier to discern than the fact he was losing his hearing. He tired more easily, moved from place to place more slowly, began to limp on bad hips during our walks. When he turned 12 he was completely deaf. But he never lost his inimitable spirit nor his devotion to his family.
I was certain he was content returning to this spot. It’s where we most often fished together, forever fascinated with a trout on the line. It’s where he shared his boyhood summers with his siblings splashing in the river water chilled by mountain springs and winter runoff. If given the opportunity he would have fetched sticks from the current until he died of exhaustion.
When he shook off the water he smiled with joy, spraying droplets on the sand and on the rocks and on us. The best days at the bend were the mid-summer ones when the Colorado sky pulsed a deep and impenetrable blue and the sun cut through directly and purposely. We would lie on our towels and go quiet, the bubbling, gurgling stream holding us in its trance, the warmth knocking down the goose bumps. Those were the days Keith beamed most broadly, the days we all felt connected to the ground, the sky, the whisper of the wind in the branches of the cottonwood and willow and spruce.
When the hole I had been digging was large enough I sat on the edge of the sentinel rock on the bank above the current, pensive and reflecting. I wondered how the water just kept flowing. Why didn’t the river run out or become so skinny it just seeped into the pebbles and broken limestone and shale of the riverbed, reclaimed by the earth? I’ve seen the river rage with power in spring as the high country snow pack melted, pushing glacial debris and fallen trees and foamy, frothy silt. I’ve seen the river at a near trickle in early fall barely able to pull the downed aspen leaves along with it. And I’ve seen the river stopped in the dead of winter, frozen over bank to bank but even then under the shelf of snow and ice it moved, it breathed. I believe the river will live forever. I felt a bit envious as I pondered my own mortality. I reached out to stroke Keith’s neck but came up empty. Muscle memory is a funny thing.
I picked up the ceramic bean pot that had belonged to my grandmother and in which I had placed Keith’s ashes and laid it at the bottom of the hole, then quietly covered it with the ancestral soil of a thousand years. I thought about how different it might be if Keith had died here rather than 900 miles away in the desert and how I would have wrapped his whole body and hugged him one last time and buried him here at the base of the rock on the bend in the river near the edge of the mountain meadow.
Dave Ammons is a TU volunteer and a member of the Zane Grey Chapter in Arizona.