When I write columns about
Western hunts to reflect on the notion of being
thankful, I usually begin with the characters walking downhill at the end of the day, because those are always crucial moments for me, and really the only moments of those days when thoughts can be either collective or broad-
ranging. Early mornings in the mountains are about gaining altitude, middays about covering ground, both either in the heat of the chase or in anticipation of being about to be. It’s hard to be philosophical and out of breath at the same time, and any jaunt but the day’s last is certain to feature all I can stand of that. As the world’s fattest avid hiker, I get to experience the thrill of victory and the agony of the feet, lungs and all else in roughly equal measure, cramming a year’s Western adventure into a week or two of experiential glut.
Come sundown each day, though, with shooting light gone and our chase called off for the night, shuffling in single file just close enough to one another to keep the trail without flashlights, feeling the warmed air giving way to icier drafts that must have hidden since dawn in the mountain’s dark folds, it doesn’t take much of a poet to get the relaxed appreciation of life those steps bring.
All the pressure is off, all the work is done, all the day’s sights and sounds pressed in deepest memory. Ahead lie a casual walk, a hot meal and a fast night’s sleep, with no business more pressing before us than to get up come the wee hours and do it all over again.
Having shared lots of these particular walks, uphill, sidehill and down, with post-9/11 combat veterans, it’s been my privilege to see the high country with many for whom every sunrise is a reminder to give thanks. Not that it shouldn’t be for all of us, but, for men and women who’ve put their own lives into the hands of others, who’ve lost brothers in the field, left part of their souls behind, and who face each day a life forever changed, it’s just different, and I’m simply not equipped to say how. I could maunder through a stack of dictionaries and never pass anywhere close.
What I can say is, in sharing their appreciation firsthand, my own appreciation never fails to be increased. Beyond the scars they wear and the burdens they carry, the light reflected in eyes that have seen the worst of man shows all the better the best of what life can be. There’s no call for them to describe it. Their very manner proves it so.
It’s a light, a set of the eyes, an absence of voice, an appreciation I recognize from the faces of men who were much older, men I knew when I was much younger, men whose thanks for the everyday had grown and spread with their years. If only I could introduce them, but time stands now in the way.
The more we think about life, the less, it seems, we find we truly know, but I do know this: I am thankful for the service and sacrifice of our veterans, and thankful they have shared their time and thankfulness with me, in freshwater fishing boats through summers long ago, and on sage-lined walks down mountainsides under aspen leaves yet to fall, turning over memories just then freshly made.