efore I get into my stories about Dad, I need to set the scene. The cabin is also an important piece of our family history and its own character in these stories. It’s where all of our favorite memories take place.
About twenty miles out of town, up a winding one-lane road, you’ll find a turnoff for a campground, which sits on the middle fork of the Clear Creek (some of the coldest water I’ve ever swum in). Once you pass the campground, you’ll continue along a dirt track, only wide enough for one car, as it weaves through a dense pine forest. Small cabins start to reveal themselves, nestled among the trees as the road takes you deeper into the Bighorn National Forest. Finally, another mile or so past the campground, the forest suddenly opens up into a large clearing with a small pond in the center. There, on the edge of the pond, sits the cabin. It’s always perfectly serene. It has an idyllic quality about it, snuggled against a fragrant mix of pine and aspen trees. If it is possible for a setting to have a soul, the cabin most certainly does.
The cabin holds most of my fondest memories - but not just mine; its history in our family spans nearly a hundred years. My great-grandfather, great uncles and aunts, their friends and families all have had some of their best times here. My great-grandfather, Bompie, built the cabin himself, cutting the wood for the structure at the sawmill that he also built himself (a lot of the wood was left over from the bowling alley in town that he - you guessed it - also built). The cabin served as a winter hunting lodge for three generations of my family. My dad and his brother and sister grew up spending summers at the cabin just as Nicole and I did. When Dad became a teenager and throughout his college years, the cabin became the hub for him and his buddies. A place to drink and cause a ruckus with no distractions for the mischief at hand. Which, when you’re twenty miles from town and there’s no one nearby to call the cops on you, sets up some long nights of partying. Years later, I, too, would bring my high school and college buddies there to drink and party. For us, it was a retreat from California in search of our own wild tales.
Christmastime at the cabin is likely the best time of year. The pond freezes over, creating a perfect ice rink. The white finish on all the trees makes you feel like you’re living in a Bing Crosby Christmas album. Icicles hang from the edge of the cabin roof like medieval swords that, when I was a kid, were impressive and terrifying all at the same time. I could imagine breaking one of them off and using it as my weapon in some kind of epic snow battle. Inside, the cabin was aglow from the constant fire in the fireplace. It was warm in there not only from the fire, but because it was packed to the edges with family drinking and conversing. It was the definition of wholesome.
Behind the cabin is a large hill perfect for sledding in the winters. In the mornings, we would bundle up with mismatched gloves and hats that we’d find in the drawers of the bunk room in the cabin and set out for the sled hill. Some of the outerwear in that bunk room has lived in those drawers since the cabin was built; they might be a hundred years old. We’d often spend all day out on that hill, building a fire at the top and drinking hot cocoa out of thermoses. As we got older, the hot cocoa would be spiked with peppermint schnapps. One time, Dad decided we needed to heighten the excitement a bit on the sled hill. He came up with the idea of the appropriately named “Death Sled.” Essentially, the death sled was a lawn chair with two old wooden snow skis nailed to the legs. It was sketchy at best. To help us keep our balance, we brought a broomstick as well. When you sat on the death sled with your broomstick balancer, it sort of looked like you were on some bizarro-world canoe. So to really sell the metaphor, we thought it would be funny to wear a lifejacket as we rode the death sled down the snow-covered hill. But that wasn’t enough for Dad. He built a giant bonfire at the bottom of the hill. Maybe so we’d know which direction to go? And I should’ve mentioned that we took the death sled voyage at about midnight. A lot of Dad’s half-baked ideas happened around midnight, as you’ll see. I think he knew that by midnight, when you’re usually tired, the critical thinking part of your brain begins to turn in for the night, so you’re much more susceptible to his brilliant schemes.
We spent the whole night riding that death sled at high speeds down the hill and, miraculously, only sustained minor injuries and zero third degree burns. The death sled’s shoddy craftsmanship didn’t make it through the night, and by the end we were dragging its mangled components back to the shed near the cabin, where we dumped its remains and called it a night.
During the summers, it was a whole different ball game. The cabin is smack dab in the center of the Bighorns, so it’s the perfect starting point for hikes to anywhere in the mountain range. Our favorite hike was to a lake called Angeline, which was about a ten mile drive from the cabin to the trailhead on one of the bumpiest, rockiest roads imaginable. Since I was the youngest, I’d be stuck sitting in the back of the truck as we lumbered along the rarely (if ever) maintained dirt road. Our truck had a canopy on it, so riding over a bumpy road was like sitting in a human-sized rock tumbler, getting polished up along with our backpacks, fishing gear and the occasional dog. Once you arrive at the trailhead, it’s a challenging five mile hike uphill to the pristine lake. There was never anyone else up there when we’d arrive, usually around lunchtime. Dad was notorious for packing inadequate lunches. Canned oysters, vienna sausages, sardines, and Triscuit crackers were usually on the menu if Dad was left in charge of vittles.
The lake at Angeline is completely fed by glaciers. Dad told us that one time he and Uncle Larry had climbed all the way to the top of one of the glaciers and then slid down the whole thing into the ice cold water below. How they didn’t crash into the rocks at the bottom, which would have resulted in massive injury or death, is a mystery to everyone. We would spend the afternoon fishing at the lake, sometimes eating our catch right there on the spot. We’d nap and lounge around until late afternoon, then make the long hike back down the mountain. Our grandmother, or Gram, as we called her, would be waiting for us at the cabin with dinner, excited to hear what kind of predicament we’d gotten into this time. There was always something interesting that happened at Angeline. The time we got caught in a lightning storm at the lake, which was so high up that the lightning was striking the ground so close we could see blue sparks bouncing off the rocks. Or the time our camp got invaded by marmots while we were fishing. Dad threw a ball of liverwurst at one of them and it smacked it right on the belly. We laughed for hours at the image of a confused marmot bounding for cover with a clump of liver pate glued to the side of it. Angeline is definitely another one of Dad’s mystical places.
Dad’s magnum opus at the cabin, though, is a disc golf course that he had mapped out back in the 70s. It’s a challenging eighteen-hole course that starts at the doorstep of the cabin and follows the dirt road for about two hundred yards, then cuts across the creek into the meadows on the other side. The holes eventually lead you to the top of a large hill that overlooks the cabins below. The three holes located at the top of the hill are by far the most difficult. The wind blows constantly up there and one errant throw of your disc will send it sailing all the way to the bottom of the hill. Dad coined the term “sail rabbit” for discs that caught the wrong end of the breeze and wound up in the bushes below. I’m not sure where he got that term. I’m not sure where he got most of his terms, to be honest, and he had a lot of them that we’ve all adopted ourselves over the years. Those who were able to survive the sail rabbit holes were rewarded with being able to play the best hole on the course; hole fourteen. From atop the hill, you would throw all the way down to the meadow below. In the middle of the meadow stands a lone stick about the width of the flagpole. Par three. It’s the most coveted hole on the course to try and get a hole-in-one, and the margin for success is razor-thin. If you throw too far left, you’ll wind up in the creek, and too far right you’re stuck in the trees. Only a few people who’ve played the course have ever aced it, which was exciting for them, but nobody would get more excited than Dad. He and I would play that course sometimes two or three times in a day. I think it was where we bonded most. I loved that he had invented the course and that it was something I was good at. I felt like he was proud of me, even though it was such an inconsequential thing for which to be proud of someone.
When Dad passed away, we took his ashes up to the top of the fourteenth hole. Nicole and Jesse had fashioned an ash-scattering device to the bottom of a few Frisbees. Dad would have been pleased with their craftsmanship. We filled the discs with his ashes and then each took turns throwing one off the hill. The sun was setting over the Bighorn Mountains in front of us. His ashes caught the wind and scattered over the hill and across the meadow; Dad had become his own sail rabbit. It was hard to play that hole one last time like that, with his ashes on the Frisbees, but there was no better act for him to commit as his last on earth; playing a final round of disc golf with his family and friends on the course he had made so many years ago. There weren’t any holes-in-one that day, but we were still able to laugh together and comfort each other, and I know Dad would have been proud of that.