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.
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.
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