One would have to dig deep to find a greater advocate for wilderness over the last 25 years than Red Lodge writer and speaker Gary Ferguson. Over that quarter century he's written 23 books on science and nature and countless articles for big-time publications like Vanity Fair and the Los Angeles Times. He's always been a "boots on the ground" writer too, quite literally, logging thousands of miles through some of the most rugged terrain in North America in pursuit of his stories. The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness is Ferguson's first foray into the wilds of memoir, and the journey is a gut-wrenching one.
At its heart, The Carry Home is the deeply intimate story of the death of Ferguson's first wife, Jane, in a canoeing accident in Canada in 2005. Ferguson writes of his overwhelming grief in the aftermath of the tragedy, his subsequent struggles to move forward, and, finally, his recovery from the devastating loss. He finds his way through it all by returning to wilderness, the very thing that brought he and Jane together in the first place, while fulfilling her ultimate wish: to have her ashes spread in five different wild locations the two had shared and loved together.
Ferguson does a masterful job here juggling multiple threads. The story does not unfold in a linear fashion. Rather, he jumps around in time, serving up biographical anecdotes about his life growing up in Indiana, as well as detailing Jane's upbringing at the opposite end of the Hoosier state. We learn of how the two met, of their forays into the wilds, the struggles of their early years together trying to create livelihoods in an arena that didn't provide many, and how their work built on the foundations of wilderness preservation initiated by the previous generation. Throughout are breaks in the biographical narrative to describe the events of the trip that took Jane's life, which are heartbreaking.
I found myself with a lump in my throat several times while reading this book. So many of us in western Montana are here because we love the outdoors and the adventures we have access to every day. At the same time, we are out there with loved ones, and risk is ever-present, even on simple river floats or day hikes. It doesn't take an abundance of imagination to picture one tiny turn of bad luck, or a misstep, or a single bad decision, to put us in a "what if" scenario. I can hardly bear the thought of losing anyone I love in such fashion, and Ferguson puts us right in the middle of it actually happening.
The book is much more than a single man's tale of woe. It is also about friendship and community, and how people band together in the face of terrible circumstances to lift one another up. It would be easy for Ferguson to fall into the trap that many nature writers do, that of holding the natural world up like some great healing source of profound white-light bullshit, but he avoids it. Wilderness is beautiful and terrible. It gives so much, certainly, yet is always ready to snatch away. It is clear that for all the succor that Ferguson finds in his beloved forests and mountains, it is as much the relationships with people that get him through his struggle. These timely interventions come in many forms: friends willing to lend ears at all hours for receiving the expression of Ferguson's grief, companions on those first forays back into the world (the story of Ferguson's return to a seat in a canoe for the first time after the accident is particularly poignant), or the entire town of Red Lodge rallying around him after the accident.
Ultimately, it is in those wild places where he finds the trail that leads him out of his despair. The trips to scatter ashes, "five of them in all, from the red rock of southern Utah to the foothills of the Absaroka Range; from the granite domes of central Idaho to the Beartooths of south-central Montana; to a certain high valley in northeast Yellowstone," are equal parts struggle and a kind of returning home. Two of the journeys he undertakes alone, and three he makes with friends. He sets out from his front door on the final journey to two locations, ending up deep in Yellowstone, where he finds something I wouldn't call closure, but peace and acceptance.
The Carry Home is a brave book, and one I will be carrying with me for some time.
Gary Ferguson reads from The Carry Home at Fact & Fiction Mon., Dec. 15, at 7 PM.