This is a story of two worlds colliding in a most unusual way, the impact of sharing your story with the universe and of undying love. A powerful conversation between two men, one alive and one that is dead at least in a physical sense.
One of Those Days
It is a fall day in western Colorado, the sky is a brilliant blue with wispy cirrus clouds threading the indigo. Wes Martin stands beside his horse, there is a cool wind straight out of the north threatening a change in the weather and he can smell the sage on the breeze. He has a strange uneasiness about this day, he cannot put his finger on it, but something just feels off. He decides to check his phone one last time and as he opens his text messages, he sees a text from his wife Jenny, “Be careful out there today baby, I wish someone was going with you!”
Wes texts back, “I’ll be fine darling, see you in a few hours if things work out.”
He loads his horse in the trailer and heads out the gravel lane and turns west on the county road. He is headed to Escalante Canyon today to look for one of the ranches bulls that they have not been able to find during the fall gather. He heard a few days back that the bull had been seen heading towards a deep box canyon called “hell’s hole”, the name speaks to the difficulty of getting in or out of the canyon and he’s a little edgy about the trip in.
As he drives, he continues to have this feeling of butterflies in his stomach and it frustrates him not being able to control it or put his finger on its source. He keeps thinking to himself, “What the hell is going on? I never get nervous about riding alone.”
Wes pulls off the main road onto the BLM access road and heads down into the mouth of the Escalante. When he reaches the trailhead, he will park there and head into the canyon. The road is rough, and it seems especially so with his insides so unsettled. He finally reaches the pull out and shuts off his truck. He can hear the sound of the creek, the water breaking over the rocks and the breeze rustling the golden leaves of the giant cottonwoods that line the banks.
Starts Up the Trail
He unloads his horse and ties him to the trailer and checks his cinch and his gear one last time. As he loads his saddlebags with a couple bottles of water and an old granola bar, he found in the truck, he feels a bottle in the bottom of one of his bags. Pulling it partially out of the bag just enough to identify it he realizes it’s a half full bottle of Crown Royal, he shoves it back in the bag as he says to himself in a low voice smiling, “I may need that later.”
Gathering his reins up and placing his hand on the saddle horn he swings up into the saddle, pulls his hat down tight and starts up the trail. His horse is feeling good with the cool weather and steps out at a snappy pace. About an hour passes and Wes comes to a fork in the trail, straight west would take him up on the plateau, but once he takes the trail to the right and heads north, he’ll be headed into “hells hole”. This is the point of no return, at least not for several hours. He’s heard stories all his life about cowboys going into the canyon and never coming out or their horse breaking a leg and they have to walk out, but these stories aren’t what have him troubled and he knows it, it’s like the universe is speaking to him, trying to tell him something but it’s in a language he doesn’t understand.
He shakes off the feeling again and urges his horse on to the right, down into the unknown. The descent begins abruptly, and the trail turns into a giant boulder field of rocks the size of a compact car with barely enough of a space between for his horse to set his foot. He shortens his reins as he navigates what amounts to a minefield of opportunities for either himself or his horse to be injured or worse. He can hear metal horseshoes scraping over the rocks as his horse reaches and steps for sound footing. As they make their way out across the bench the escarpment begins to twist and fall off sharply to the right towards the creek bottom, still covered in car sized boulders. Wes takes a deep breath as he gives his horse his head allowing him to freely pick his path and he holds on while his horse lunges and claws his way to the bottom.
As suddenly as the bench dropped off Wes finds himself on flat ground, he and his horse standing in a bank of willow beside the creek. He takes a quick inventory, and both seem to be no worse for the wear. He looks back up over his shoulder at the place they practically just fell out of and lets out a, “Goddam!”
They tip off into the creek and cross, coming out on the other side he spots what he is looking for, a set of fresh tracks heading down the trail beside the creek, it is the bull. They follow and the trail opens, and the scene is beautiful, a lazy creek flowing down the canyon, its banks lined with stately cottonwoods with beautiful golden crowns and enormous ponderosa pines. The ride in was hell, but this is the payoff, a canyon where few have tread, it feels wild and untamed, hidden from the rest of the world.
An Unusual Discovery
As he makes his way along the creek he passes numerous petroglyphs on the canyon walls, the Utes loved boxed canyons like this as they offered safety and great hunting opportunities and they left their stories on the walls for any lucky traveler to see over a century later. Rounding a bend in the trail he sees a small grassy meadow along the water’s edge, he decides this would be a good place to take five, stretch his legs and get his bearings.
About twenty yards from the creek bank Wes sees a big cottonwood and heads for it, there’s a big bough that had fallen from the tree and will make a nice place to sit, he can water his horse and let him graze on the sweet grass for a bit while he takes in the lay of the land.
As he nears the tree, he can see a person’s leg and their hiking boot on the backside of the tree, it looks like there is a hiker sitting there taking a break by the creek side. Just then Wes’s horse stops abruptly and backs up a step or two and snorts. Wes gathers his reins shorter and rubs his horse on the side of the neck, “Easy boy, what’s a matter?’
He steps down and leading his horse by the reins he approaches, “Hey buddy!” Wes shouts trying to alert the unwary person of his presence. He nears the side of the tree where the person sits, “Hey, are you alright?”
The person now comes into full view, “Holy shit! What the hell?” It becomes clear to Wes that the person is no longer among the living. He quickly ties his horse up and goes over to the stranger, he can tell that it is an older man, he is dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans with a polar fleece vest and hiking boots. It appears to Wes that he has been dead a few days as the body has not suffered much decomposition yet and with the cool Colorado evenings it has probably been slowed way down. The man’s left hand has been partially eaten by a predator testing the waters, Wes figures probably coyotes.
He kneels down in front of the man and takes it all in, “What the hell happened to you Pard? I imagine there’s folks looking for you right about now. Guess my plans have been changed, I reckon I’m gonna have to get a hold of the Sheriff.”
The Conversation Begins
Wes sees a small journal in the breast pocket of the man’s vest, he reaches for it and slips it out cautiously as if he is trying to avoid waking him. The journal is green, and the cover is made of leather, it has a rubber band around it and inside a pen. He removes the rubber band and sits back on the ground, opening it he begins to read, “If you’re reading this then that means I’m dead and you’ve found my body. Before you do anything else, I want to tell you a story. I promise you it’s the short version, cliff notes if you will, but enough to let you know I’m here of my own doing and here I want to stay.”
Wes takes off his Stetson and sets it on the ground, he looks up at the man again and offers, “Well Sir, let’s see what you have to say.”
He continues to read but this time allowed as if he were reading the story to others, his horse stands with attentive ears facing forward, a Jay lights on the branch above where the men are seated, Wes looks up with half a smile, “You too eh?”
He continues, “I know I don’t look like a cowboy, but I grew up in this country. A son of a rancher and a good man. We worked hard but my childhood was a great one, while other boys of my day were walking city streets with straw hats, cap guns with holsters and riding the range with “Roy” on stick horses, I was living the dream, a real cowboy with his own pony! My Dad wanted me to have a better life than him, although looking back his, ours, was the best. So, when I finished high school it was off to college. I headed to the University of Law at Buffalo in New York and yes, I became a lawyer, but it was there that my life changed forever. I met a girl!”
Wes stops for a second and looks around to check things out, then looks back at the stranger, “You’re dam right your life changed, you met a girl, Lord!”
A Tale of All Consuming Love
He continues reading, “I was clerking at a law office while waiting to take the Bar and one day she just walked in, I nearly fell over myself trying to get to her to see if I could be of assistance, but I knew, I knew right then that this woman was going to change my life forever. Call it love at first sight, kismet, whatever you want but what I felt was this entrenched attachment to her at first glance, an undeniable connection and when she smiled at me I saw it in her eyes that she felt something too.
Sure, I had always planned on getting married at some point, raise a family, but this was something a person cannot plan for, this was a storm, a storm of the heart! When my feelings were reciprocated, I knew I was not crazy or obsessed, but I was both those things if you get my meaning. We became inseparable and unlike so many couples where one loves more than the other, our love was like a torrent, like bulls smashing into one another, two trains sharing the same track careening towards one another at full speed!
We became the envy of all our friends, while they struggled with their relationships in quite common ways, we enjoyed bliss. My father intended on me finishing college with a law degree and returning here to transform the ranch into the kind of cattle operation he had envisioned, but that all changed the day I met her, I forsook all others for her and she for me, “we” were all either of us needed. I would never return here until now.
We shared many passions and we were in the perfect place to indulge them, walks in Central Park, lunches at Katz’s Delicatessen, dinners at the Grand Central Oyster Bar, shows on Broadway. We would spend summers in the Hamptons walking the beach and both of us sitting for hours in silence on opposite ends of the sofa engrossed in a good book. We never tired of one another’s company and our passion burned like a bonfire.
Children though were not in the cards for us, we never spoke of having a family, but at one point we did in silent agreement allow it to happen if it were meant to be, but no child ever came and after enough years had passed that we knew they never would we’d occasionally joke about how if we had a child the poor thing would have only felt abandoned and lonely in the midst of our obsession for one another. For forty years we drank one another up with greediness, savoring every morning and each evening, her falling asleep in my arms.
Then it happened, my heart, my everything found out she was ill. The doctors told her there was nothing they could do and within a few weeks of the news she was gone. How could forty years pass by so quickly? How could a love this strong, this powerful be broken by anything? I held my tears in her presence, never letting her feel the pain already growing inside of me from her impending absence.
Her ashes were spread on the beach we shared for so many summers and with that she was completely gone from my life and from this world and so was I. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t speak, I just sat alone in our apartment for hours staring into oblivion, looking at the place where she once sat beside me, so alive, so full of love and laughter and now nothing remained but the silence. I could not bear to be anywhere we had been together anymore, the pain was too great, so I sold everything and came back here, the only other place I called home.
I wanted to die, it seemed the only way to escape the agony of life without her and at last my wish was granted, I became ill myself. I could have treated my illness, fought it, and lived a while longer but I was ready to go, I wanted to cross that great divide and go in search of my beloved Emily.
Time was close, I could feel it in my bones and so I made my way here to this place. I once roamed this canyon with a childhood friend as we imagined being pursued by wild Indians and bandits. It is a mystical place, hovering in its own parallel universe, unsullied by the insanity that has become our world. I thought what a fitting place it would be to embark on my next journey, across the vast expanse in search of my love. If she is out there, anywhere I will find her and if you feel the earth shake, you will know I was successful, and we are once again united. So, there is my story and my only request is that you “Respect My Wishes” and leave me here in peace, the way you found me. For I am already gone, speeding like a bullet train in search of her. Yes, the coyotes will feed and fight over this carcass of mine and let them, my pain has ended already and there’s only love, peace, and joy. My hope for you my new friend is that you may experience even a thimble full of the love that I have, for if you do your life will be full and rich. But remember everything comes at a price, the greater the love the greater the feeling of loss when it is gone. Be fearless and love with everything you have got and have no regrets for as the poet once said, ‘It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.’ So, love big and love strong and do not look back, there is something grand just around the corner! Thank you for reading this and for the chat, I hope I gave you something of value in return.” The story was simply signed, “The Man Beside the Tree”.
Stunned by the Words of a Dead Man
Wes sighs, “Holy shit, that was deep Sir! A couple times you almost got me, there didn’t you? My dam eyes teared up, what if another cowboy had ridden up and saw me all weepy reading your darn letter? How would I have ever lived that down?” Wes laughs and then sniffles as a few tears sneak from his eyes. “Well I guess I’m going to respect your wishes Pard, if this is where you want to be who am I to stand in the way of it, but boy howdy, I’ve never seen or read anything like this. I bet if you’d a come back here when you were supposed to, you’d made a helluva cowboy.”
Closing the journal, he puts the rubber band back around it and carefully returns it to the man’s pocket. “There, just in case somebody else comes along maybe they’ll get the message too. I do believe this calls for a toast.” Remembering the bottle of whiskey in his saddle bags Wes makes his way to his horse and pulls the bottle from the bag and returns to his seat in front of the man, “Here’s to a love like no other I’ve ever heard of and to your journey, I’d have to say you’re braver than most doing this on your own.” Wes takes a big pull from the bottle, screws the lid back on and leans forward and places the bottle between the man’s legs, “That’s for your trip Pard, no one should set off on an adventure without a bottle of the good stuff, you know, for snake bites and such.”
Wes grabs his Stetson and getting to his feet he puts it on and just then the Jay that had sat on the bough above him for the entire conversation flies off and to his right Wes sees what he came there for, it’s the bull. “Well look at you, eaves dropping. Didn’t your Momma teach you any manners?” as Wes laughs. “Guess I’ll leave you for another day, it’s time to head back. Jenny’s probably wondering where the hell I’m at.”
Wes Bids the Stanger Adieu
Wes gathers his horse and swings up into the saddle, turning his horse towards the man he urges his horse closer within a few feet and they stop. He takes in the scene one last time, still not believing his eyes. He feels like in this short amount of time he has come to know this stranger, even admire, and respect him. In typical western fashion he touches the brim of his Stetson and gives a nod, “Well guess this is Adios Pard, wish ya God’s speed.” Again his eyes fill as he turns his horse away and starts out of the canyon, he shakes his head as if to scold himself for getting emotional, “Goddam Wes you blubbering idiot, keep that up you won’t be able to ride out of here.”
A fair distance away now he looks back over his shoulder for one last glimpse of the tree where the man rests as his horse continues. He notices something that makes him laugh too, the bull is following behind. He has heard cowboys tell tales about outlaw bulls, hard to gather and then one day a rider will come in with the bull following along behind like a dog following its owner. There is just no accounting for what an animal will do from time to time, sometimes it is something completely out of character or not the norm.
Wes surveys the climb out as he approaches the spot where he dropped in and decides to try another trail that looks like it may be a little longer distance but easier on man and beast. He starts up and after a few minutes of climbing looks back and that crazy bull is still coming! After a half hour of clawing their way up the trail they top out and the trail starts its slow gradual descent towards the trailhead where the truck is parked. A few minutes into the descent and Wes checks his back trail again and to his surprise the bull is still in tow. Wes shakes his head, “What the hell? Let’s see how far you’ll come.”
The truck and trailer are now in view and the bull is still coming so Wes figures he has got nothing to lose, he will just try and see if it is his lucky day. He puts his horse at a trot and gets back to the trailer well ahead of the bull giving him several minutes to set the trap as they say in the west.
The Planets Align
He opens the trailer gate wide and unwires the old fence panels wired to the side of the trailer and places them end for end and leans them up against the trailer gate making a makeshift fence. He jumps back on his horse and moves away from the trailer to give the bull some room to come in. As he stands guard over the set up the bull walks directly to the back of the stock trailer, sticks his head in and sniffs the wooden floor and then with one big hop he jumps in. Wes moves his horse closer in a hurried walk and closes the gate, “Hot dam! You can’t write this shit!” Wes lets out with a laugh. “Ain’t nobody gonna believe this day, be a waste of time even trying to explain.”
Home Never Seemed So Sweet
He moves the bull to the forward pen in the trailer and closes the gate behind him and then loads his horse and heads for the house. As he pulls in behind the ranch house his wife Jenny comes out to meet him. Wes parks and gets out, Jenny starts, “Wes I was worried sick about you baby! Didn’t you get my texts?”
“I’m sorry darling, cell service is pretty sketchy down in that canyon.” Jenny, “I thought you were just going to locate that bull today and go back with help to get him out if he was there? Who met you down there to help?”
“No one baby.” Jenny protests, “You’re telling me you got this bull out of hell’s hole yourself, without getting killed?” Wes smiles as Jenny comes close and puts her arms around him, “Yep.”
Jenny smiles and kisses Wes, “Well I guess you just might make a cowboy after all. Looks like you’ve had quite a day.” Wes smiles, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” They both laugh as their embrace ends and Jenny tells Wes, “Well baby I’ve got something in the oven so I gotta keep an eye on it.”
She starts to leave, and Wes grabs her by the arm and pulls her back in close and he holds both sides of her face and kisses her with passion.
“Well what was that for baby?”
“That was because I love you darling and I hope you really understand just how much.”
“Baby I do! I love you too!”
Wes watches her go, he thinks to himself he will just keep the details of this strange and amazing day private for now. He resolves to share it with Jenny one day, but not today, it is too fresh, and he has not fully absorbed it yet or discerned its meaning. All he knows for sure was that it was not usual, not in any sense of the word. Today, in some unusual fashion he feels the universe smiled on him, first in one strange, fantastic way and then in a very practical way and the two combined equated to magic! He acknowledges he will never look at the world or people the same and he will never forget one very exceptional conversation.