n July 15th, 2019, at age 61, my dad, Tom Herzog, passed away unexpectedly at our family cabin. Heart attack in his sleep. They said he went peacefully. That the setting was rather serene when they found him. His book was sitting on the bedside table with a bookmark saving his place halfway through. His slippers sat below a chair at the kitchen table, ready to keep his feet warm when he got up to make coffee in the morning. His dogs lay idly by the fireplace. When the coroner arrived, Dad was still in bed, as if he was sleeping. They told us that if he’d been in pain, they likely would have found him somewhere else, because he would have struggled. I take a lot of comfort knowing that he went peacefully, in his sleep, in a place he loved. You can’t really ask for a better way to go, in my opinion.
Dad was a sculptor by trade. For months leading up to his death, he had been living at our family cabin in the remote Bighorn Mountains in northern Wyoming, about 30 miles north of a small town called Buffalo. He lived there every summer and fall because it was a place that allowed him to fully concentrate on his art. No cell service, no Wi-Fi, no running water and barely any electricity. He would gather stone from the quarry down in Buffalo, haul it back up to the cabin, and get to work creating truly beautiful works of art. The cabin is the perfect place to spend profuse amounts of undistracted time with only your thoughts which, once deciphered, can be funneled into something physical to present to the world. His sculptures were mostly abstract stone cairns that incorporated a lot of Fibonacci sequences, golden ratio patterns, and basically just a bunch of crazy math that I never understood. His art displayed a love of nature and natural beauty. It was really amazing that he could turn a pile of leaves and river rocks into something so alluring. His largest project, called “Seed Pod Cairn,” is a six-foot structure that sits permanently in the sculpture park in Loveland, Colorado. He had been bidding on that project for months, and when he finally got the green light to build it, he was ecstatic. It’s a great monument to him and his work.
Dad was married three times in his life. He had my sister, Nicole with his first wife, Theresa. Dad and Theresa split and he married my mom a few years later. I was born in 1989 and Mom and Dad parted ways a year or so after that. When I was about fourteen, Dad married for the third time, to another Teresa. He likes what he likes. Eventually, they, too, went their separate ways, and at that point I realized that Dad was just a bit too unconventional for something as conventional as marriage. I can’t fault him for that; his approach to living was unique. He had a lot of love to give and anyone who was close to him knew he gave it all.
Before he had gone to the cabin the summer that he passed, Dad was living a nomadic lifestyle. He had spent a few winters staying with some friends in Helena, Montana, where he helped them build a veterinary hospital. Before that, Bend, Oregon, where he lived with his friend, Terry. While he was there, he built Terry a new dojo where Terry could give his Aikido classes. They spent their free time mountain biking in the Cascades. Dad was a great carpenter, which seemed to go hand in hand with his talent for sculpting. His portfolio of carpentry work included home remodels, a martial arts dojo, and now a vet clinic. I think part of the reason he was so nomadic toward the end of his life was because he enjoyed traveling around the country to help his friends and family build whatever it was they needed built. He wasn’t the type of person to turn down a loved one’s request for help. In fact, I think most people who knew him would say he was one of the most selfless people they had ever met.
Despite all his travels, Dad always ended up back at the cabin. I think memories of a place pull you back like gravity. The more powerful the memories, the stronger the pull. I think maybe that’s what home is; the place that compels you to return, like the tide being drawn back to the ocean. The cabin is such a special place that it pulled Dad back no matter where he was or what he was doing. I feel that same pull myself, even though the biggest tragedy in my life occurred there. There are still too many great memories and they outweigh the sad ones.
Dad was athletic. In high school he’d played football for his small town team, and was subsequently the big man on campus because he was such a good linebacker. As he got older, he mellowed out from football and instead engaged in endurance events. He ran a few marathons and was constantly hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, or skiing. Once Nicole and I came into the picture, he made sure we were right there next to him. At the time of his death, he had been hiking probably about three miles a day around the cabin. Mostly because he had two large dogs, Bear and Luna, who would get frustrated if they were cooped up in the cabin all day. These daily hikes were huge for him because he had successfully rehabbed his bum knee all on his own. He said he would go on jogs in the hills and get into a zen-like state, focusing his mind on laying down his feet perfectly straight each time he took a step. After a few months of doing that daily, his knee stopped bothering him. He had this amazing ability to get into some kind of enlightened state of mind that helped him to pull off something like that. He was a Taoist in a lot of ways and practiced meditation often, so I think these flow states weren’t too uncommon for him.
When I was in elementary school, Dad lived on the shores of Flathead Lake in Montana, which is just outside one of his favorite places on the planet, Glacier National Park. Nicole and I would spend weekends with him and become caught up in the ill-fated adventures he had planned out for us before we arrived. There was the time he took us out hiking near some cliffs and got us rim-rocked 30 feet above the ground. Or the time he took us cross-country skiing by moonlight in 0 degree weather and my ten-year-old body quit on me halfway through the trip. Dad was a renegade, in the sense that he thought it was perfectly fine to take a small child (me) out into the freezing cold pine forests of Montana in the middle of winter at midnight and that I would be cool with that. Looking back now, I agree that it was all, in fact, fine. But still, that was quite a gamble on his part. Our outdoor expeditions weren’t complete until someone was panicking or I was crying. Came with the territory, I guess. Dad would take us into Glacier Park and show us some of the sculptures he’d made and left out there for random hikers to stumble upon. He told us once he’d snuck into a tour group that was passing by a sculpture he had made; a rock cairn perched on top of a boulder in the middle of McDonald Creek. A member of the tour group pointed it out to the guide, who said the park rangers had been seeing similar structures all over the park, and they thought it must be aliens. Dad got a kick out of that.
I think Dad had some kind of mystical connection with Glacier Park. Actually, he had some kind of mystical connection with nature in general. His favorite place was called Willy’s Park, which is about a four mile hike from the front door of the cabin. Willy’s Park is a giant meadow shaped roughly like a circle, and is surrounded completely by pine trees, some of which were still charred from a forest fire that had burned through there in the 80s. The park offers a clear view of Bighorn Mountain and Darton Peak, two of the most prominent mountains in the Bighorn range. Dad told me one time he was sitting in the middle of Willy’s Park and a herd of elk came out of the woods and gathered at the edge of the clearing. They started running in circles around the edge of the park like a school of fish swirling around him. He said they did a few laps around him and then disappeared. Dad had some kind of mystical connection to elk too.
Every summer, Dad, Nicole and I would make an annual pilgrimage to the cabin for a few weeks. This was where we spent the majority of our time together. Cabin time was spent hiking, playing card games, inventing our own games when the normal card games didn’t cut it anymore, fishing, reading, rock climbing, anything to get us out in nature, really. Most of the memories I share in this book take place at the cabin. Dad was the ringleader for all of it. He was an adventurer and he wanted us to be adventurers, too. He’d take us on expeditions into the woods that neither I nor my sister was qualified to handle, but it always seemed to work out… for the most part. Whether that was because of his confidence in us or because he didn’t really think through the worst case scenario will forever remain a mystery. I think he believed that there was a connection between us and the woods out there, and that a guiding force, of sorts, would get us out of trouble if needed. But probably he was just shooting from the hip the whole time, which is itself pretty impressive.
Dad was good at being my Dad. He was a kind person. He was encouraging. He was always good for a laugh and had a knack for lightening up a situation. He might have been the original “dad-joke” guy. A bunch of memories won’t tell the whole story of who he was; people are too complex to encapsulate in a few pages, but I hope they’ll paint a picture for those who knew him well and even for those who didn’t know him at all. Dad was the most interesting person I knew, and we should do what we can to remember people like that in our lives. The ones who mean the most to us. It’s the only way to make sure the ones we love are never really gone.