This is the letter I meant to write. For the last couple of years I meant to write this letter to you. This is it, a bit belated, but I have a habit of not writing the letter or the poem or making the phone call until it’s too late for any of them to be of much use to anyone. So this is the letter, finally, that I had meant to write to you.
I keep thinking about the first time we met. You had just returned to Montana and were on your way out to Jim Harrison’s place to go fish the Yellowstone. On your way out, you cut up to the Grizfork, where I was then living with my cousin Doug Peacock. You came up this way even though you knew Doug wasn’t around, but you said you just wanted to take a look at the mountains. I came out of my cabin and we shook hands and introduced ourselves in the middle of the dirt road laced with ground squirrel tracks and hoof prints. We both agreed on the same drainage of the Absarokas as our favorite: not the south fork of Deep Creek that Chatham so perfectly captured (his painting on the cover of Jim’s Legends of the Fall marking it as the great book that it is) but the drainage immediately south where Pine Creek rises, twisting up toward Black Mountain. There’s something of power up there, some mystery that I think we both love.
We stood silently, side by side, traveling in the imagination, which is to say in spirit, up the dark passage. We stood silently, side by side, as if we were old friends, which felt like a great gift to me. You, the person who had the courage and wisdom and passion and generosity to create a life that made it possible to bring such words into the world: The Snow Leopard and At Play in the Fields of the Lord and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse and Far Tortuga and on and on. How was it possible for one mind to conceive those books, for one heart to feel them, for one pen to contain them? What a gift to stand in silence, next to that mind and heart and pen, to stand in silence contemplating mountains as if we were old friends. I’ll never forget that first meeting and I want to thank you for that.
I just took a break from writing this to call Doug, who now becomes, perhaps, the elder of our loose and far-flung tribe, a distinction he may or may not admit to, but between him and Jim Harrison and Terry Tempest Williams, who do we now have left? Anyway, I told Doug that I would go look at the Yellowstone River today and think of you and he told me a memory about a fish you caught in a side channel off Ninth Street Island during your last visit out here.
Your last visit. … I can see your smile, which is mostly in your eyes.
The last time you and I talked, it was over breakfast at the Grizfork. You were heading out for a day of fishing and I was off to another day of building Doug and Andrea’s new house. For awhile, it was just the two of us around that old dining room table, with a photo of Abbey and a painting of a grizzly bear looking down at us from the walls. We got to talking about writing. About method and process. I was struggling with a novel and wondering how to ever finish it (I still haven’t). And then you gave me another great gift. You said, “Something that works for me …” and then you told me how you do it – how you find It, day after day, and follow It all the way to the end of the book. It was the best writing advice I’d ever heard.
But here’s the thing: By the time you were driving away down toward the river, I had completely forgotten what you said. Every word, gone.
So this letter that I’ve been meaning to write, this letter that I’ve been meaning to write for the last couple of years, this belated letter, is to ask you, What was it? What were those few words over coffee and pancakes that I so needed to hear?
I know I’m being greedy. You’ve given us a lifetime of books filled with the words we need to hear. I guess all I can do now is keep reading – my answer is in there somewhere. You were generous and you gave us everything.
So now, what can I say but, “Good journey.” Travel well, my mentor, my elder, and (though I probably haven’t quite earned the honor, I’ll say it anyway) my friend. I will think of you every time I’m blessed with a moment of standing in silence, looking up to Black Mountain and our favorite view along this stretch of the northern Rockies.
And, I’ll close with the word you used in signing my copy of The Snow Leopard, which is both greeting and farewell, and is meant in it’s literal sense of “I bow to the divine in you.”