My graduation gift from my boyfriend was a trip to Badlands, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton National Parks. The perfect gift for me, newly minted with my Master of Divinity degree. Sadly, I was also a newly minted orphan. A trip to the wild was exactly what I needed.
I had lived close to Yellowstone in 2000 when I worked as a nanny in Ennis, Montana. On my days off I would drive to the park and spend my free time with bison and mountains. As much as I was looking forward to this trip to Yellowstone I wasn’t convinced I would see anything new. The mountains would still be there, and Old Faithful is still—for the most part—faithful.
I could not have been more wrong. Perhaps it was that I wasn’t 22 and engaged but that I was on the verge of 40 and divorced. Perhaps it was that I wasn’t adventuring to Yellowstone for the first time while The Dixie Chick’s “Wide Open Spaces” blared from my Volvo’s speakers while I sang at the top of my lungs about having “room to make a big mistake” but that I was older, wiser, and had made more than one big mistake. Perhaps it was that I wasn’t making this expedition with parents to call home to to share the day’s tales but that I was parent-less.
For whatever reason I saw something new. Though I had certainly driven this particular spot a dozen times before, I saw the Lamar Valley with new eyes.
Earlier my boyfriend told me I could tell him to pull over whenever I wanted to stop and take pictures. I had passed on a few vistas and overlooks, but when we rounded a curve in the Lamar Valley I told him to pull over. Now.
I got out of the car and stood in holy wonder as I gazed at the expansive valley before me.
“This is heaven,” I said. “This is what heaven looks like to me. Can you make sure that when I die some of my ashes are scattered here?”
I’m not sure this is something you say to your boyfriend on your first trip together. Here he was trying to take me on adventure to get away from death and grief and the tremendous work I had done to finish seminary. He wanted fun, and here I stood giving him directives on what to do after I die. Gratefully, we are still together.
When we returned home I told the kids about my experience in Lamar Valley. Standing in the kitchen I was emphatic, stating loudly and clearly “now you have to remember.” Ben, my thinker, looked at me with a level gaze. His emotions did not match my heightened state as he calmly replied, “Can you write that down?”
You would think that my son, then 12, would have this directive etched in his memory. That he would have realized the gravity of my request and thought “Okay. Dead mom. Ashes. Lamar Valley.” But, no. Not the case.
It’s been a little over a year since that trip. For my 41st birthday I had an 8×10 print made of the picture I took standing in the exact spot where I want to lay in my eternal rest. That is, until the wind blows and scatters me through the valley on an afterlife adventure.
A year from now we will be back in Yellowstone. I’m already imagining telling my boyfriend to pull over. Now. I’m also imagining gathering my children close, arms draped over them like a mother hen, and saying, “This. This is the spot.”
And while I am sure I will be shrugged off and dismissed with a “Mom” that drags for three syllables I hope that in that moment, in that spot, they, too, will experience holy wonder.