One morning, not so long ago, my husband and I walked together. We followed a muddy wisp of a trail along the river to a beaver pond, or lake, as it’s called, Beaver Lake. The sun shone in our eyes and made the frost on the trees glint. We were chilled at first but the walking warmed us and we talked of little things, small things – the everyday minutia. The cold made things seem fresh and new as if we had never been here before this morning or talked of the things we talked.
And I do chatter on; about people and things and work. I point at rock steps and turnpikes and rotting pieces of puncheon boardwalk. I talk about when things were built and how and who did what and where did they all go and the two of us, here still, together and with a son back in town in school and us here sneaking away for a walk and isn’t that something. We build trails for the US Forest Service, or did. He still does, my husband. I quit years ago sometime after our son was born. I stop at a place where I so often ate lunch with the trail crew. We see, from where we stand today, a long narrow gravel bar, and with the alders and cottonwoods empty of leaves we can see the snowy peaks beyond.
I recall the first day of one of the new hires many years ago. We had lunch here, his first day. I say this to my husband and point. We scrambled down from the trail, I say, through the alders and cottonwoods, to sit in the sun on the gravel bar by the river. The leaves were out then, and you could barely see the river and certainly not the mountains. I remember that day because of how the new guy looked up at the peaks and the river burbled and sparkled like it does and he, the new guy, could not believe his great fortune. He spread his arms out wide before us. This I tell my husband and spread my arms wide in imitation. I repeat what I think the words were, and I see the pained look he gets, my husband, when I talk too much or am full of complaint or repeat the same stories. But I remember that day and the new guy who stood up and so solemnly said he couldn’t believe his luck, how grateful he was to be eating lunch here and I can’t help telling the story again. Who knew, the new guy asked of no one in particular, shook his head, marveled, acted as if someone had been purposely keeping all this from him. The rest of us who had been around a day or two sniggered and looked at each other and rolled our eyes, shook our heads. This ratty old trail, flat and full of salmon berry and nettles and flies and mud and leading up to nothing more than a dying swamp? Why with the leaves on the trees you can’t even see the mountains. Silly fellow, we thought, as we picked up our shovels and went back to digging our ditches.
My husband powers on ahead. He walks hurriedly but points at things, a giant Doug fir, flickers high up in the dying alders. I walk slower and linger. The birds and trees are pleasant enough but I can’t help but start pointing again, at this culvert or that water bar. I say the names of those that worked here or there; I roll the names around my tongue and wonder what they might be doing now. I remember who dug which ditch, why the switchback went here and not there and why this or that wasn’t repaired. I realize I’m talking to myself as my husband is already far ahead and nearly out of sight.
I catch him on the bridge that crosses the pond. The beavers have been busy and the pond is filled with water and we marvel at this. For so many years the water level dropped and dropped and the beavers seemingly disappeared. My husband puts a finger to his lips and points with the other, out into the pond. He whispers “beavers” and I see off in the middle of the pond a big, brown beaver and then another. One slaps his tail hard against the surface of the water, and both swim off toward what looks like a lodge. We realize in all our years here, neither of us has ever seen a beaver and we watch them a good long while before we talk about the bridge. The water level was low when the bridge was built and we recall what a stroke of fortune that was. We talk about the contractor that did the building, the helicopter pilot who flew in materials, the engineer, the cutting of the decking. There was the historical inventory, long and laborious; the entire trail a remnant of a logging railroad.
We continue walking until the trail ends. My husband stops where the trail is washed away, a place where a good chunk of tread has disappeared into a steep tumble of blue clay and rock and the river below eats at the toe of the slope. We talk about walking the woods above the trail and the blue clay underneath and how the ground cracks and hardly holds a trail and why the trail was never repaired here. I talk about how I’ve seen big bears in the woods above, black and bright in the sunlight, crashing away under the giant cedars. I tell him how I like to wander off under the cedars and see the places I think bears would rest or deer maybe, where they might hang on a hot day, so near the river, yet hidden. I say something about liking to leave the bears alone. And he laughs a little, my husband, then leans in and wraps his arms around my chest, brushes my cheek with his lips.
We stand a little longer in the almost warm sun before my husband says he really has to get back to work, to the office, that he’ll have to stay late to make up for this time here and I say I have to get on with the doing of things. We walk hurriedly through the Doug fir and cedars, the alders and cottonwoods. He points at birds here and there, red winged blackbirds, flickers, mergansers on the river, before crossing over the pond. There are beavers again, this time off in a corner, and he points at those too and pauses briefly.
I wonder about gratitude, I wonder what it means to be grateful, to give thanks. What is grace anyways and am I any of these things? How do I know if I really am grateful for this one day or another – for being given this or that? Is it gratitude I think of when I wake up in the morning and my knees hurt and the sky is dark and the house cold and there are eggs to fry? Why have I never stood on a river bank and spread my arms wide?
These days when the leaves are gone from the trees and the brush not yet grown, many things are visible. My husband, who walks ahead of me, is visible until he rounds a bend and disappears from sight. I know he walks onward along this path we’ve chosen, forging into the future. It’s just a muddy wisp of a way, full of nettles and devils club and salmon berry, and always needing more maintenance. But out there in the open, beyond the gravel bar, are peaks grander than anything imagined. It seems an absurd thing to lose sight of, to take for granted, this river, these mountains. But the building and forming and maintaining day after day, month into years can wear at a person. I start thinking I got stuck with the muddy trail, the flat one. The one with nothing but endless ditches to clean and flies biting at my back.
Long ago when I sat by the river in the sun eating lunch, this day was unknown. It would have been preposterous to imagine myself here today, to imagine this man my husband, and us walking the trail, our son back in town. But here we are, pointing at this or that culvert, remembering the building, the accumulation of days, and watching beavers swim. I think of that day, and the new guy, the one we laughed at, out on the gravel bar, beholding the mountain and river, and I think I see a glimmer of grace. I think I start to understand what it means to be grateful.