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hit the Forest Service hiking trail an hour after dawn, ascending from 5,400 feet to the
summit at 7,975 feet in about four hours. We walked in leisurely single file, mostly alone
in our thoughts, and from time to time Dave and I teamed up with Kelly to catch lizards
for her research. Storm clouds were gathering as we reached the end of the path, on the
northern edge of Ben's and my favorite part of the world. The Peloncillos were visible
across the San Simon Valley in New Mexico, and to the southeast, beyond that long line
of bald granite mountains, we made out the darker, more heavily forested Animas Peak,
separated by a shallow pass from the Sierra San Luis in Mexico. There was little talk as
we ate crackers, cheese, and apples, and after a few minutes I climbed onto the highest
Remembering the Big Bend experience and unsure about what lay ahead, I flung
Ben's ashes steeply upward, imagining they would be blown out over the forested
slopes. There were, however, no opportune gusts on that overcast summer day, and his
remains fell downward, exploding like dirt clods on the rubble. Immediately a move-
ment below drew my attention to a couple of Yarrow's spiny lizards, covered in gray
dust with their heads cocked up as if in disbelief. I brushed ashes off my arms and re-
membered out loud that our friend's many “favorite” creatures included Sonoran moun-
tain kingsnakes and banded rock rattlesnakes, both predators on spiny lizards and not
uncommon at these higher elevations. As we started back down the trail I smiled, real-
izing that eventually, by way of powder-coated prey, his physical presence might reside
in those very snakes.
A year and a half after Ben's death, on my way home from a herpetological meeting
in Baja California, I detoured to the Bolsa Chica Wetlands, an hour or two by rental car
south of Los Angeles. At the end of a dilapidated boardwalk that spanned the cordgrass
and pickleweed marsh, the Pacific Ocean pounding the beach only a few hundred yards
behind me, I grimly noticed an inland horizon dotted with oil rigs and, farther back
through the dirty haze, a solid line of dull cream and pastel condos. Those wetlands had
indeed been “reclaimed,” but how, I wondered, did Ben manage so much optimism in
this microcosm of overconsumption and environmental degradation? And what was I to
make of his life and death? On that day the migratory brown pelicans were elsewhere,
replaced by black skimmers and Forster's terns as the most obvious wildlife. My mood
was an idle, aching need for perspective, and the birds' knife-winged aerobatics brought
to mind miniature Jurassic pterodactyls.
As I turned to leave, several pigeons flew from under the boardwalk. A Hispanic man
strolled toward me, his son of about nine on one side and a younger daughter on the
other. Suddenly the boy dropped to his hands and knees, put his face right to the slats
so he could peer between them, and exclaimed, “Look, Dad, there's eggs, there's eggs
in this nest!” I heard the joy of discovery in that young voice, devoid of cynicism. The
father was attentive to his kids, the little girl grinned as she bent down to look too, and
they were still talking about the pigeon eggs as I walked on toward the parking lot.
From our talks during his last weeks I knew Ben was at peace, that he wanted us to cel-
ebrate collective good fortunes rather than mourn his passing. And with those smiling
children fresh in mind, I remembered the final words of my friend's farewell, left on his
computer: “Here's my advice for young people, borrowed from Joseph Campbell's The
Power of Myth. If you are after happiness, it works: 'Follow your bliss.'” 14
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