In the old days, when the dead were placed on flaming rafts and set out to sea, we would have had about a two-hour drive to the coast. We'd have taken a few cars - probably Mike's Geo, because Mike didn't go anywhere without the Geo. We may have hopped into Don's truck, too, the way we did, with two guys in front and 4-5 of us crammed into the back, everyone passing a bowl around, thumping on Don's window and laughing at how many bungee cords it took to hold his canopy together. We'd have headed north to Grants Pass and then swung west, diving back down into California and then up to Harris Beach State Park. We didn't have as much to do then, not as many of us employed, not as many with kids and the other life-hooks holding us. We may have just camped out for the night after building the raft and setting it aflame and pushing it past the icy Pacific waves and out into the open ocean, Greg's body surrounded by a sheet of flickering orange fire.
As it turns out, our raft-free farewell to our unexpectedly fallen brother involved a Ziploc bag wedged into Carl's backpack, thrown in amongst the cans full of cheap beer. We laughed darkly at this as those bound by loss often do. What could be more appropriate than a baggie full of Greg?
We hiked, as we did every year, sweating out the toxins of the night before. The banter waxed and waned, keeping time with the grief, in sync with the rhythmic chest-tightening feelings of having lost something that you know is truly gone. Losing a young friend is like dropping something valuable off the edge of a cliff, or having a beloved possession slip through your fingers into a fast-moving river. You know right away that it's gone forever. No fog of uncertainty, no little golden cloud of hope. Inky black verity. Gone. That part is easy to figure out. The harder part comes later, when you try to fill in the hole that was left behind.
We learned on the way up the hill that about a fourth of Greg was in the bag. Carl had been steeped in the mathematics of losing a family member, doling out portions of ash. Half to Greg's girlfriend, a quarter elsewhere, and a quarter for us as we walked up Ostrich Peak. When we reached the top of the hill and took our backpacks off, Carl procured the baggie. Finally, someone voiced what we were all thinking -- can we smoke him? It may be dismaying to some to know how seriously this plan was discussed, but it was finally jettisoned in favor of a more stately scattering of his remains on the hillside, facing his beloved Rogue Valley, in a spot where we could come talk to him every year when we met for our annual trip up the peak. I think we were all momentarily enthralled with the idea of somehow taking him into our lungs, into our bloodstream. It was needless, though. He was already in there, for all of us. He was part of our collective consciousness, and nothing as cosmically insignificant as death could change that.
I can remember passing the bag around, a morbid talking stick, seeing his corporeal existence reduced to a lump of gray ash. No sarcastic smile, no recent southern California golf tan, no worn cargo shorts. I remember saying a few words, crying openly in front of the people who meant the most to me. Laughing.
We scattered him there. The sun broke through the clouds and warmed us. We said goodbye.
Later, as we repacked our backpacks and put away the crushed cans and finished passing the last bowl around, I lagged behind. I stood on the edge of the hill, remembering the hang-gliding ramp that was once there, remembering lying shirtless and young on the splintered wooden platform and passing a bottle of vodka around with Greg and the others, timeless, caught in a freeze frame of all the glorious warm Ashland autumns. I bent to pick up a little handful of the remains, and I pressed them to my lips. I stared for a while at Mount McGloughlin in the distance. Beyond that was the phantom Mount Thielsen, now the rim of Crater Lake, blurred through tears.
As I rejoined the others, I was sure that I could taste just a hint of vodka in the wet ash.