An adventurous backpacker and hiker, Gary Ferguson has made many tough treks into the wilds of North America. But none of them could prepare him for the challenging journey he made through grief following the death of his wife, Jane, after their canoe was swamped on a Canadian river in 2005.
“Grief of that magnitude is something you can get stuck in,” the Red Lodge-based author said recently.
“I was really close to the edge a few times,” he added, soaking his sorrows in alcohol as he stewed in bitterness and cynicism.
Jane was just two weeks past her 50th birthday when she drowned on the Kopka River. Washed through a series of rapids and off a waterfall, Ferguson broke his leg, yet managed to limp out, flag down a boat and get help. Three days passed before searchers found Jane’s body pinned underwater.
The couple had been together for 25 years when the accident occurred. During their time together they had traveled across the country on adventures in such diverse landscapes as the desert canyon lands of Utah and the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, racking up 350,000 miles on a 1979 Chevy van they remodeled for road trips.
“We were restless children destined to become restless adults. Proud members of the last generation to soothe the angst of youth not with Ritalin, but with road trips,” Ferguson writes in his latest book, “The Carry Home, Lessons from the American Wilderness.”
The book details Ferguson’s journey through sorrow, as well as the five trips he embarked upon to scatter Jane’s ashes in the wild places she loved most.
“At first, the journeys broke my heart,” he writes. “Later they helped me piece it together again.”
It took Ferguson five years to write the book — partly because it was a long time before he could distance himself from the incident. He finished final edits in March. It was fast-tracked by Counterpoint Press for release in November, partly because of the positive response to a 2010 Los Angeles Times article about Ferguson’s second-to-last ash-scattering trip into the Beartooth Mountains.
“It seemed like people were really hungry about what to do with grief and debilitating loss,” he said. “We don’t talk about it much, but everyone is going to face it.”
Ashes to wildlands
Ferguson’s relief from his unyielding misery came about slowly as he revisited the places Jane had asked him to scatter her ashes: the eastern edge of Capital Reef National Park in southern Utah, Wyoming’s Absaroka Range, central Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, the Beartooth Mountains and the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park. The trips forced a “present-moment awareness that was really a challenge the first two times because the present moment wasn’t the place I wanted to be,” he said.
Without trying to sound too “woo-woo,” he said the trips opened him up to a certain amount of grace, a clarity and awareness that there was still a bigger world out there.
“And that’s a remarkable position to eventually get to after losing a loved one, which didn’t seem possible after such a devastating loss,” he said.
As he stepped back from the pain, he could see his trip as an archetypal journey, one found constantly in literature, mythology and even films like “Star Wars.” In tales as old as the written word, a hero suffers a complete loss of identity and wanders, not knowing who they are or where they are. Along the journey there are helpers. The hero emerges from the tribulations transformed, forever altered by the experience.
The hard part for Ferguson was turning the camera on himself as a writer, making him feel vulnerable with the exposure. He also had to fight sounding indulgent in his grief and worried that the story could still be engaging enough to carry the reader along. To iron out those problems, his writer friends, like Mark Sprague, became invaluable, he said.
“He came over and just served as a witness when I was going through the panic attacks and anxiety,” Ferguson said. “He was wise enough to know there was no answer or solution. It was a huge deal.”
Ferguson is a productive writer, having authored 22 books as well as numerous magazine articles. He examined the unusual players and issues that have shaped the interior of Yellowstone National Park in his book “Hawks Rest,” as well as those along the length of the Continental Divide in “The Great Divide.” Although these books were experiential, in “The Carry Home” he became the main character. Writing the book also required him to repeatedly revisit the dark moments of Jane’s death and the depths of his sorrow. Even within that dark struggle, though, Ferguson manages to include some kernels of humor in the book — bright stones in a dark stream.
He writes, “One day mid-summer, desperate for elbow room, for a sense of order, I tied my gas-powered weed eater onto one of my crutches with a short length of cotton rope then stumbled out to the edges of the yard and started cutting back the bluestem and Oregon grape, the low-lying shrubs. It wasn’t pretty: Lurching forward a step with the crutches clenched under my armpits, swinging the machine in a wide arc in front of me; stopping there long enough to cut what I could reach, then moving on. A close friend overheard someone talking about my psychotic yard work and phoned for an explanation. ‘Oh, crutch!’ she said after I started to explain. ‘The way I heard it, you’d tied a weed eater to your crotch.’ ”
Many of Red Lodge’s 2,100 residents also suffered through the loss of Jane, Ferguson said. His neighbors were incredibly charitable in supporting and helping him.
“Jane was also lost to them, and helping out was a way they brought service to their own terrible grief,” he writes.
“The town was generous in celebrating Jane’s life and being compassionate to me,” he said. “It made me very grateful to be in this town.”
Ferguson said he can’t say that he will ever be totally at peace with what happened to Jane, but he has come out of the journey a more “integrated, content man,” or, as he writes in his book, just willing to “float in the sensations of being alive.
“I have a stronger sense of what’s worth worrying about and what’s not,” he said. “And I think I certainly have a sense of compassion for the fragility of life, so I’m more connected to people at large. I think my life is actually richer now.”
He’s also been blessed with another loving relationship, having married his new wife, Mary Clare, in January. Stepping into the shadow of someone so well-known and well loved as Jane in the small town had to be difficult. Ferguson noted that Jane had taken on a flawless, almost mythical status since her death. Yet Red Lodge once again came to Ferguson’s aid and has embraced his new wife.
“Jane is now between the covers of the book and what I’m living now is Mary and my story,” he said. “As I talk about this book, I’m talking about something that is no longer my life.”