The old man and the stream

  • (C) ISTOCK, Fotorvr

With my students and another teacher, I climb up from the suspension bridge across the Black Canyon, along switchbacks that wind through phlox-matted slopes. Crisp arnica leaves curl in the roasting sun. Several times we teachers stop for breathers, while the students wait impatiently, scarcely showing any discomfort.

The trail descends briefly into a ravine, and we see an old man. He is stooped low, carefully examining what's left of the bridge spanning Elk Creek, probing it with his cane. Where two planed 12-foot logs once stretched side-by-side, now only one remains. The other has fallen to the rushing creek four feet below.

The old man is slowly and deliberately seeking a way to cross. On his back, he wears a small backpack and a dismantled fly rod in its tubular nylon case. 

I ask if he'd like a hand across. He says to go on ahead -- he thinks he'll be better off doing it on his own. He watches as the students scurry across the upper log, cutting up, hopping, skipping, miming spills into the creek. The other teacher and I, that kind of agility a distant memory, take the lower, fallen log, which still provides a dry surface. "I think this way would be your best bet," I call back to the old man. He nods.

We leave him behind and scramble out of the steep little valley. At the top we catch our breath in the shade of big Doug firs. Below, we can see the man has not yet started to cross. The students are worried. One suggests we stay to see that he makes it.

"We're embarrassing him," I say. "You all just keep going, and I'll hang back and watch him from the trees."

They move out along the trail. I watch.

Ever so slowly, he starts across the lower log. He shuffles, crablike, left hand bracing with his cane, right hand clinging to the upper log. Five minutes of effort bring him nearly across. But a small step up from the log onto a boulder on the near side has him stymied.

I watch for 10 more minutes. He stands looking at the big rock, at the switchbacks above and ahead of him, back along the log at the headway he has made. I hear the surging Yellowstone far below. Finally, I abandon my hiding place behind the old fir to descend the switchbacks. Stately alumroot that I somehow overlooked on my way up springs from the rocks along the trail.

The old man smiles as he catches sight of me. "Could you maybe take my cane, please?"

It's tough getting him up on the rock. His joints won't bend right; old toes inside stout leather boots won't grip. His purple-blotched hands can find no purchase.

"Take my hand," I say. "Use me however you need to."

Panting hard, he hefts himself up on the boulder. One foot twists awkwardly, probably painfully, under him. He bends and grabs it in his hand to straighten it. We sit together on the rock.

"Thank you. I'm sorry you had to do that."

I grin at him. He is in his 80s. Behind rimless glasses his face is liver-spotted, his bald pate speckled with pre-cancers and worse. He reminds me of my father, dead 10 years now. "Don't worry. I love to fish, too. No offense, but I kinda see my future in you."

He says he's been coming here, crossing this same little bridge, for 18 years now, always to fish one particular eddy of the mighty Yellowstone, pulling out gleaming 14-to-16-inch native cutthroats. "I guess this'll be my last time, though," he sighs.

He's a former accounting professor from Texas. Yellowstone was an irresistible lure for him, and in his retirement years he pulled up roots to settle in the park, work part-time in one of the stores, and fish. Now that he knows I'm a fisherman, he launches happily into a few fish stories.

I'm not listening very carefully. I'm thinking of my father, the series of heart attacks and strokes that landed him in one bed after another for most of his 15 retirement years. His final bed was in a nursing home, part of a hospital he'd gotten all too familiar with over the years. A minister -- for whom he would have had little time had he been strong enough to register an opinion -- attended his demise, his death, his funeral.

I stand up. "Well, I better join my class. They'll be wondering what happened to me."

"Yes, you should. That was very kind of you, helping me out."

"Do you think you can make it up off this rock?" It's not only slick from creek splash, but littered with crushed chips of rotten wood. "Yeah. I'll make it."

Again I climb the serpentine trail, panting and sweating heavily through my shirt. When I reach the ridge I feel as if I'm bending into an oven.

I look back down into the steep ravine. I see the broken log bridge. The old man sits on the rock, head bowed. His cane lies where I left it, up on the bank but in easy reach.

The class has paused a half-mile down the trail to sit on a shaded hillside, lean against some rocks and read nature poetry. I quietly join them. I sit looking at the ground as one of the young women reads Ted Kooser's "August": life is a moon
    in the frail blue branches
    of my veins

I smile for the old man. I cry for my father. I learn, I hope, from the old and the dead.

W.S. Robinson teaches biology-related courses, including Yellowstone Field Science, at Casper College and the University of Wyoming at Casper College.

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