grand canyon illustration

The Promise

In search of a place to honor the memory of my mother, I sought somewhere I could always return to.

I left the trailhead in the early afternoon and followed a narrow red-dust trail out across the scrubby, tall grass of the open mesa. According to the signpost at the edge of the parking lot, it was 2.5 miles to the canyon rim.

It was one of those odd, in-between April days: hot when the wind paused, and cold when it didn’t. Gray skies, but still bright enough to force my eyes into a squint. I pulled my sunglasses off, then put them on again as I walked. Rolled up my sleeves, then rolled them down again. The dry powder of the trail was stirred up in bursts as I passed, and it settled in a fine coating over the mesh of my trail runners.

Though there were plenty of other visitors in Canyonlands National Park that day, I was hoping I would see no other hikers on this trail. I had hiked it twice before, and I’d always had it to myself. It was tucked away from the busier, shorter routes that led to big over-the-rim views.

Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky district

I was raised as a pure-blooded city kid, splitting time between my mom’s attic apartment and my dad’s narrow townhouse in Ottawa, Canada, riding the bus or hailing cabs home from bars I’d snuck into underage, and hanging out in coffee shops and malls. When I graduated from college, I had only ever gone camping three times. I didn’t make my first awkward forays into the wilderness until my mid-to-late 20s, and when I did, I generally did so by myself. After I moved to Canada’s northern Yukon Territory seven years ago, intending to shed my urban upbringing and learn to handle myself in the outdoors, I had to break that habit of solitude. The Yukon’s backcountry was too wild, too empty (and simultaneously too full of grizzly bears) for a sensible novice to wander around unaccompanied. But I still cherish the chance to hit the trail solo when I can get it. It’s a greedy feeling: I love to look out over a landscape and lay claim to it all for myself.

In this case, though, I wanted privacy for a more precise reason:
I was here to scatter a small portion of my mother’s ashes.

My mom had died not quite nine months earlier. It was sudden, and yet not. An out-of-the-blue, catastrophic stroke in a restaurant on a Friday night—that part was near instantaneous. But the week she spent in the intensive care unit while I flew across the country to join the rest of my family, while we waited on brain-activity test results, while we listened to the steady beeping and whirring of the machines that kept her breathing, while we gathered ourselves to make the decision to turn those machines off—that part felt much, much longer. We let her go on July 24, 2015. She was only 60.

I’d known right away that I wanted to do something private, something personal, to remember her. The two of us had lived alone together from when I was 7 to when I left for college at 19, sometimes acting more like roommates than mother and child—ordering delivery pizza on Friday evenings; staying up too late talking on school nights; watching the Olympics on TV and giggling about the male athletes’ physiques—and I wanted to honor that closeness. She and my stepfather had purchased burial plots in a city I’d never lived in and rarely visited; I suspected her gravesite there wouldn’t mean much to me. I’d asked my stepdad if I could have a portion of her ashes to scatter myself, at a location of my choosing, and he’d agreed easily. After the burial, the funeral director handed me a small velvet drawstring bag and a letter from the funeral home, certifying that I had a right to carry these particular human remains around with me.

Canyonlands’ Needles district

The question, then, was where to scatter them. I thought about my home, in the Yukon Territory: There was a beautiful wild river that ran right through town, and I could visit it any time I wanted. But my mom had only been there twice, and it was a place where I had built a life apart from her—somehow that didn’t feel right to me. There was a man-made, murky canal that ran through the neighborhood where I’d grown up, back in Ottawa—but then, both of us had long since moved on from our lives there together.

I considered a hiking trail near Phoenix, where my mom and stepdad had spent their recent winters. She loved the Southwest desert landscapes, the alien cactuses, the hot, dry sun. She had discovered and embraced hiking in Arizona during the same years that I had been finding my footing in the Yukon wilderness. But I didn’t know much about the trail’s legal status, and I worried that someday I’d come back to visit and find towering condos or a gated golf community built over top of it. I knew I wanted someplace wild, or at least wild enough, something that couldn’t or wouldn’t be fenced off or paved over. A body of moving water. An alpine meadow. A cliff edge.

That got me thinking about national parks. They’re unique in their permanence. They have a sense of stability, a promise to endure, shared by few other places in America today, wild or urban. Nothing is ever completely certain, of course—my mom’s stroke had taught me that. But if I scattered her ashes in a national park, I figured I would have the best odds of being able to keep coming back to visit her for the rest of my life.

For a while I leaned toward the Grand Canyon, which she’d seen and loved. In the end I picked Canyonlands for me, not for her—she’d never been to Utah, although she’d wanted to go, and we had talked about road-tripping there together some year during my annual Arizona visit. It was a place I knew I’d be happy to come back to again and again.

The trail soon left the grassy, wide-open space behind and wound through a slickrock maze, the way marked by rock cairns, before dropping down below the rim. After a few twists and turns, I stopped at a point where the trail ran alongside a long, sheer drop. Off to my left, I could see nothing but canyon country: corrugated red rock to the horizon. On my right, the trail tucked into a broad horseshoe fold in the cliff face. If I kept going, I supposed I would switchback down that fold until I reached the valley floor. The wind was blowing against my back as I stood near the edge and looked out; that was good. I wanted no mishaps with windblown ash flying back at me today.

It seemed like there ought to be some ceremony to the event, so I picked a skinny red desert flower and tossed it in the air. Caught up by the wind, it drifted along the cliff edge at eye level for a long moment before dropping away, out of sight.

Mesa Arch

I pulled the small, maroon velvet drawstring bag out of my backpack. Inside it was a smaller Ziploc baggie, filled with a fine gray dust that shimmered, faintly metallic, in the light. I walked as close to the drop-off as I dared and waited for the wind to pick up strength. As I wondered how best to get the ashes out of the bag, I had a vision of accidentally tossing the baggie with the ashes still in it, littering the park with plastic in my attempt to honor my mother.

(Something I hadn’t expected about grief and grieving: how many moments of unexpected comedy it forced you into. The little things seemed funnier when everything else was sad.)

Finally I held the bag out straight in front of me and jerked my arm up and forward, squeezing slightly with my fist. The ashes came out in a puff—once, twice, three times. Like the flower, each burst of dust swirled on the currents in front of me before vanishing. Soon, sooner than I’d expected, the bag was empty and the ashes were gone.

I tucked the baggie and the velvet bag back into my backpack and sat down on a large rock nearby. I had expected to cry—I’d expected this moment to be wrenchingly sad—but I felt calm. I was satisfied with what I’d done. I had cried my tears and said my goodbyes, over and over again: on the long sequence of flights home, during the days spent lingering at the hospital, in the minutes when we waited at the bedside for her life to run its course, at the funeral and in the weeks and months afterward.

This, today, wasn’t another goodbye. It was a promise to return.

Eva Holland lives in Canada’s Yukon Territory. She has written for Pacific Standard, AFAR, and Smithsonian Magazine.

Illustration by Alex Green; photography by Wsfurlan/iStock (Island in the Sky), Tonda/iStock (Needles district), Golfladi/iStock (Mesa Arch)

Originally Published July 2016