I first notice them from the crumbling edge of a precarious viewpoint: white-peeling crosses, glinting plaques on the gray stone outcropping, pots of half-dead flowers anchored in gravel, their petals curled toward the tops of 14,000-foot mountain peaks. A bouquet of memorials in the penumbra of the overlook.
I'm driving through Colorado mountains with my husband's family. We press through thick fog and thunderstorms, the four-wheel drive creaking as we wind up the sheer sides of guardrail-less roads. Here at the viewpoint, we pile out to admire the wet, green canyon, the stained glass sparkles of the river three hundred feet below. I'm caught instead by the weathered metal slabs across the bumpy dirt road, memorials as nonchalant as certificates on a wall. "Mike—rest in peace." "Mikkelsen, 1939-82." "We miss you, silly daddy." I wonder at the placement of these markers at a turnout, where a family faces a breath-taking view and togetherness while I turn the other way, lungs stalled over the dead.
Who is this "silly daddy" stamped in metal on the wall? A young father, outdoor enthusiast, lean and bearded, who made his two children laugh with silly songs and stories, who took his family camping and S'mores-making, until this last camping trip when he left his family safe in the house. He was a likeable man, well-respected—a man now in past tense. Or maybe I'm laughably wrong, and the man is nothing like this imagined version. Does it matter to him or his aching survivors if I reinvent his character? Does it matter that, by association, or the spirit of the place, I'm inventing Mike and Mikkelsen as fathers, too? In my anxiousness to pay tribute to them, do I eulogize imaginary versions of the dead?
We construct homes for our dead, in cozy cemeteries, mausoleums, at a riverbank or beneath a beloved tree; places reverenced from the everyday, places visited with the intent to reawaken the departed, places for families. Memorials let us preserve the memory of the deceased in a public place, a place he felt at home, perhaps, rather than the foreign still of a cemetery he had never been. Or maybe, for those who came here for the first and last time, it is a place as unfamiliar as the moment of death. The memorial anchors the dead's presence to the living passage of time.
These markers on the cliff, like crosses along a highway, don't wait for meditative visitors. They haunt the carefree explorer. They intrude, whispering for attention. Do those who remain hope a stranger will take a moment to share the pain? Are these markers a warning—a shiver that life is not as firm and permanent as these immovable peaks? A reminder to hug your dad again, and again, and never say something you'll regret, because you just don't know when—
My husband's father stands a few steps from the unprotected edge. "What a view!" he exclaims enthusiastically, his wife and sons close behind, joking and snapping photos. I want to call them over here, to the memorials, but I'm not sure why. To snatch away their comfort and security? To shout out how close they are, how close we all are, to the gaping edge?
After that first turnout, I notice the markers everywhere we stop; dull smudges crowding the corners of my vision. On a block of marble on the edge of a drop: "Gus—the only thing he couldn't weld was a broken heart." On a bronze memorial, hanging on a cliff face by a rocky picnic spot: "Little Petie, 1988-2010." On a metal plaque in the ground on the side of the road, camouflaged with grass so that my foot hits metal before I notice, before I can jump back, apologetic: "HAW." On a handwritten sheet of paper protected with plastic, stapled to a telephone pole—"Dad please come home, we love you a lot." I am anxious to find them—these markers, these memories, these fathers.
I am staggered by the age of these mountains, each passing year an opportunity for more men to disappear into their depths, from causes left to imagination: fall, exposure, avalanche, lightning strike, starvation, heart attack, stupidity, suicide; the possible accidents: traffic, camping, work, weather. I picture a young man setting off firecrackers with friends in the dark, sprinting from the spitting fuse straight off a one-hundred-foot cliff; a working man driving his cargo down the mountain in a storm, eight tons of marble in the back shifting, sliding the truck off the slimy mud road, the marble blocks scattered among the wreckage like a buffet of headstones—headstones scratched with initials and dates, the bland sum of a life.
In the green dark of these mountains, I picture young men as future fathers, men with children and grandchildren, dead and missing fathers to number the pines that crowd this canyon, a few marked by plaques and memorials, some marked only by a picturesque creek lapping at twisted metal, most whose death signs have been erased by erosion and renewing earth.
I'm an outsider, staring at a memory: I don't know what they left behind or where their lives were headed. I don't know who weeps for them still, recalling memories like a fist to the chest. Maybe I'm wrong to believe the dead were beloved and innocent; maybe they neglected their families, maybe they left for the mountains in anger, or drunkenness, or selfishness, ignoring the child's hopeful look, the wife's plea, to just stay home for one weekend. But their families won't forget them: their absence remains a steady pressure, the weight of earth piled high, the press of mountain. Maybe their children are thinking of them now, and our thoughts combine, both summoning and creating them. They are contained in these mountains: a presence just barely out of grasp, like a wisp of cloud that gathers below a distant peak.
Title graphic, untitled, appears courtesy of Amy Roper.