Today was my first Father’s Day without a Father. My Dad passed away just over three months ago. Even though he is gone, I still managed to spend the day with him. Before you stop reading here, believing me crazy or into some kind of voodoo witchcraft, let me explain.
My Dad will always be a part of me. I am a part of him. He is in my DNA, he is in my memories, he is part of who I am. Growing up, my Dad instilled in me a great love for nature, the outdoors, and the mountains. We would spend days in the wilderness as a family, backpacking into the National Forest, cooking over campfires and sleeping in tents by the river. He would point out every detail of the forest: he would name the trees, stop to show us the wildflowers, have us listen to the birds, and remind us to leave only footprints and take only pictures. I grew up respecting the outdoors because of his influence.
Of course, while we were hiking through the beautiful Colorado landscape, my Dad could always be found behind the lens of a camera. Over the years he must have taken tens of thousands of photos. It’s a passion I shared with him over the past two decades: we would share our “trip photos” with one another, and between the two of us, our photos would pretty much fill and entire flash drive.
When I started to think about how I wanted to spend Father’s Day this year, I instantly knew that I wanted to spend it in the mountains – the wilderness he taught me to love – with a camera in hand and memories in my heart.
I headed to Rocky Mountain National Park, to Mills Lake, where he had always told us he wanted his ashes spread. I never dreamed I would have to make that trip so soon. We will head there as a family next month to say our final goodbyes and scatter his ashes in the beautiful Colorado Rockies.
Somehow I knew that I needed to do that hike alone first, to honor my Dad and all he has done for me. I needed the solitude, I needed to listen to the mountains and let them restore my aching soul.
From the time I got into my car this morning, I felt at peace. I popped in one of Dad’s “mixed CDs” and listened to Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, and the Eagles as I drove further west, the tall peaks coming closer into view. The skies were a perfect Rocky Mountain blue, not a cloud in the sky. I slipped on my hiking boots, threw my Dad’s backpack on my shoulders, grabbed my camera, and set off.
As soon as my feet hit the trail, my Dad was there with me. Not in a physical sense, and perhaps not in a spiritual sense either, but I saw him in the wildflowers, I heard him in the wind, I felt him in the warmth of the sun. I thought back 15 years when he and I hiked along the same trail, smiled as I heard his voice ring in my ears as we passed Alberta Falls: “Alberta, Alberta, Where you been so long?” I carried him with me as I listened to the birds chirp, as I felt the sun on my face, as I crossed the raging creek.
It was bittersweet reaching that lake. With tears running down my cheeks, I held my camera in front of me and clicked away. This is a beautiful place to be at rest, I thought.
If nothing else, I honored his memory by hiking alone into the wilderness – unafraid, confident, and prepared – because that’s how he raised me. I didn’t have enough time with him, but the time I did have molded me into the person I am today.
His presence was with me up there on that mountain.
I spent the day with my Dad at Mills Like. Not in the way I would have liked – it was a day filled with both happy memories and tears – but I was at peace knowing he is always with me, no matter where I go, forever.