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Know the West

Beauty and chaos, standing together

Review of ‘The Carry Home; Lessons from the American Wilderness’ by Gary Ferguson.


The Carry Home: Lessons from  the American Wilderness

Gary Ferguson, 296 pages, hardcover: $25.

Counterpoint, 2014.


When Gary Ferguson set off to scatter the ashes of his wife, Jane, in the wilderness, he was overwhelmed by

his deep grief. But slowly the science and nature writer began to understand that the very journeys that broke his heart would one day help him “piece it together again.”

Gary and Jane were students at Indiana University when they met. They married in 1980 and spent the next 25 years walking, biking, driving and canoeing in remote places from Mexico to the Arctic. For the last 14 of those years, their journeys began and ended at a house near Red Lodge, Montana. Then Jane drowned during what should have been an easy canoe trip down the Kopka River in Northern Ontario.

Soon after, “wrapped in an impossible fog of grief,” Ferguson began his solitary journeys to scatter Jane’s ashes in three of the five locations specified in her will: Alpine Lake in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho; near a Forest Service cabin in southern Montana; and in an isolated corner of Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park. Two years later, he hiked to the last two places: remote areas in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains and Yellowstone National Park. During these journeys, he thought about their lives together, and his reflections gradually unknotted the tangle of his sorrow and helped him rediscover himself. He found solace in something he learned from an elderly Paiute man: “On any given day there’s both beauty and chaos standing together.”

Gary Ferguson writes under the influence of poetry, especially that of beat poets Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder, known as the poet laureate of Deep Ecology. But Ferguson’s prose is clear and engaging, and he uses it to convey his hard-earned knowledge of fear and freedom and the failings of the boomer generation. The Carry Home invites the reader to witness life and death from the writer’s newfound point of view: “It’s in the woods just beyond my door where I’m likely to recall that life as we know it wouldn’t even arise in the first place, unless it also passed away.”