The meeting of heaven and earth

  In the dog days of August, Hunter S. Thompson’s ashes were blasted from a custom-made cannon at the top of a 150-foot tower on his land near Woody Creek, Colo. A lot of people were on hand, including former Sen. George McGovern and actor Johnny Depp, when the "gonzo" writer’s cremated remains, encased with fireworks in mortar shells, erupted over the beautiful mountain landscape.

The act seemed a fitting end to Thompson’s explosive life, but he isn’t the only one who doesn’t want to spend eternity under a marble slab in an over-groomed cemetery. I’ve been a park ranger for 23 years, and I see this kind of thing — albeit in a less flamboyant manner — from time to time.

Recently, while working at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, I chatted with an elderly man, who told me that the urn under his arm contained his late wife’s ashes. He’d just released a few of them along the rim of this deep and dramatic canyon in western Colorado.

He wasn’t the first. We know this because there is a visitor register over at the South Rim Visitor Center. People regularly sign in, logging their trip by date and explaining where they are from. Sometimes they tell us a whole lot more than that. We rangers actually do read the comments that visitors share with us, so I notice when someone writes that they’ve set a loved one’s ashes free over the cliffs of the canyon.

The first time I became aware of it was on a winter’s day almost 10 years ago. A woman who was traveling to California from her home in Florida wrote that she’d "released a few of my son’s ashes here." At the time, the notion caught me up short.

But it makes sense. People come to national parks and other wild lands in search of solace, hope and optimism. They leave with memories of waking up to a still, clear morning during a hunting trip, or seeing a flash flood roar through the canyon country, or watching a herd of elk in a meadow of waving grass. It isn’t surprising that these are the places where some of us want — in a sense — to remain forever.

To a growing number of us, wilderness represents an eternity that we can see with our own eyes. I came to know a minister from England while he was on sabbatical in the United States. He was captivated by Colorado’s publicly owned lands; he said the mountains, the canyons and open plains are the places where heaven and earth meet.

But it’s not just religious people: "Gonzo" rock climbers, mountain bikers, and mountaineers also find a spiritual aspect, a freedom, in the West’s wide-open spaces. Some of them want to hold on to that freedom even after they die, leaving their ashes in the places they loved.

Is this legal? Rules vary from place to place. Heavily visited parks and monuments may prohibit people from scattering ashes, and some Native Americans have protested when remains are left in parks dedicated to their ancestors. Nobody wants to stumble over a dumped-out pile of grandma’s ashes. But scattering a handful of ashes is not prohibited on most public lands. And while chances are that you can’t erect a grave marker, you might be able make a donation in someone’s memory for a trail or a bench.

I think about that older man, carrying that cobalt-blue urn with his wife’s picture on its side. I don’t know where else he went with her ashes, if he released more of them along a river or into the wind blowing over a mountain. Hunter S. Thompson’s ashes have been sent into eternity with a great deal more noise, but like those of this man’s wife, they are a part of the landscape now, scattered somewhere in the freedom of our Western lands.

Paul Zaenger is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He has been a ranger at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, near Montrose, Colorado, since 1993. He has also worked at Death Valley National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.