I’m living each day as though it’s my last
It was late in the evening on an early summer day, when things get still and quiet and the earth is verdant green and bursting with life. I was driving four horses from winter pasture over in Hotchkiss and heading through the twists and turns of the highway above Paonia Reservoir that the motorcyclists love. Halfway up the reservoir, I saw the still waters disturbed by the wake of a motorboat, and I thought someone was taking advantage of the rare occasion when the reservoir was full of water for an evening outing.But as I approached closer, it became apparent that there was something seriously wrong. The motorboat was spinning in tight circles in the middle of the lake, the throttle at full blast, no one at the helm. There was another driver already observing the scene. I stopped and watched with him. Quietly we looked for a head bobbing above the water, a swimmer climbing out onto the far bank. Nothing. Another driver stopped and joined us.My horses started pawing and kicking, then pushing with their legs until the trailer started rocking back and forth. I wanted to get them into their new pasture before dark so they didn’t get injured on unfamiliar objects. I gave the Gunnison County Sheriff’s phone number to one of the drivers, who promised to call, and drove home.A few days ago, searchers finally found the body of Charlie, whom I knew from my first days in the outfitting business. At the time I was renting a cabin in a campground where Charlie and Mo were the campground hosts. He was a big bear of a man, never cold, wearing only a pair of bib overalls and hunting boots in 20-degree weather. He liked living outside. On those nights when I was riding home in a rainstorm in the dark, Charlie’s campfire was always welcoming. “Hey, Gary!” he’d call. “We got a big pot of ham and beans over here! Come on over!” Rarely have I had such a welcome invitation.Then last week I heard that a hiker was missing up above Geneva Lake, and that Search and Rescue crews were looking for him. I had a bad feeling. Sure enough, I got a phone call from the Gunnison Sheriff, who wanted me to come pack out the hiker’s body. Between myself and Larry Darien, the former outfitter in Marble, we have over 40 years of outfitting experience, but neither of us had ever done that task.The Search and Rescue folks were in fine form. What a job they do. As we rode up the trail, they came trickling down, lots of fit, athletic people with backpacks who were enjoying a hike in a gorgeous wilderness setting while simultaneously accomplishing a grisly task. They were happy to see the packhorses, because freighting a 200-pound body down a steep, narrow mountain trail is no easy task. I could see the snowpacked slide chute on Snowmass Peak where the hiker had made his last descent, a terrifying journey that culminated in a cliff at the bottom. I’ve packed a lot of unusual articles in and out of the mountains, including hundreds of dead deer and elk, but there’s nothing to compare with packing a body. On one hand, we’re not used to touching each other without knowing each other, and it’s strange to touch another person’s body, even wrapped in a body bag, without knowing the person. On the other hand, it’s just a load to pack, and it becomes impersonal, a job to be done with its inherent difficulties, solutions and successes.So why has death come to visit me lately? Just down the road from where I live, a woman flipped her car in the river and drowned last week. A gaudy memorial of flowers marks the spot.The two men whose deaths touched me were strong, fit, capable men who were simply trying to make the most of their lives. No doubt they had lived more in their lives than the average couch potato who dies in a nursing home at 85. No doubt they would have been embarrassed at all the attention, time and difficulty their deaths had caused other people. I’m sure that death was not part of their plans. What is a soul? I read recently that researchers established that a border collie can understand 245 distinct words, which does not surprise me. My horses have very distinct individual personalities, and respond and react to stimuli and situations in unique ways. Do they love? I think so. Do animals have souls? I asked this question of a very committed Christian, who stated emphatically that they do not. I must disagree. Does a dog have a soul? Does a horse? Does a deer, or a butterfly? My friend Roger Paris rides his bicycle everywhere. He says that people are driving so fast that the carnage along the roadsides is incredible. How many souls do we destroy in our hurry? The dead deer along the roadside has a fawn in the woods that is now starving to death. Sweet dreams, driver.You may think I’m crazy, but I brake for butterflies. If you drive a little bit slower than you normally do, you hit far fewer butterflies. Nevertheless, last week as I drove to my stables, I saw a pair of big yellow swallowtails fluttering above the road. I slowed down, but as I passed, one was missing in my wake. I pulled the truck over and examined my grille. Yes, in one corner, there were the wings of the swallowtail protruding from the grille, the fan sucking it into the radiator. I gently grasped the wings and pulled, and the insect came free, whole. Surprised, I set it in my hand, and strongly, it flew away and rejoined its partner. One little life and maybe one little soul. I’m going to live today and the next day and the next like it’s my last.Gary Hubbell lives in Marble, where he and his wife, Doris, operate OutWest Guides. They offer summer horseback rides, fly-fishing trips and autumn big-game hunts.
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