I never met Andy Dennis but I wish I had even once shared a wilderness campfire with him. I think we could have swapped stories for the better part of an evening, sharing the pleasant duty of getting up now and again to toss another chunk on the blaze, until it was down to a glowing bed of embers and the night chill was coming on.
Andy loved the mountains, an affinity I share.
He died in the Wallowas on a day that I imagine was, perhaps until the fatal moment, much like many other days he had spent in the high country.
He gulped lungfuls of the sharp, pristine air.
He gazed across the Eagle Cap Wilderness Area’s expanse of ridges and forests and canyons, the peaks dusted with early autumn snow and the tamaracks brightening to that unique green that precedes their transition to the orange and yellow so coveted by photographers.
From what his niece, Candy Sturm, told me, Andy probably was, as the cliché goes, doing what he loved right until the end, trekking through a wildly beautiful land and hoping to come across a fine buck.
This makes his death no less a tragedy, of course.
Andy was 60. However appropriate the setting might have been, given his feelings about the mountains, that seems to me far too young to rhapsodize about a person’s life ending “just as he would have wanted.”
Surely he could have had many more years, many more crystalline fall days, to wander among the Wallowas and to relish their wonders.
I’m 49, and if I’m still tramping around the Eagle Cap Wilderness a dozen years hence — nay, two dozen, three dozen — I’ll be a happier man, with a richer life, for having had the chance.
As I’ve pondered Andy’s last hunting trip and what befell him I initially thought that the story resonated with me in part because I could imagine my boots following his path.
But that’s not the truth, not really.
I have hiked alone in the mountains many times, to be sure.
And although I suppose I can conceive, in a theoretical sense, of falling to my death, as Andy apparently did, I don’t believe I’m any more capable than most people are of truly believing that their own demise will come about in such a specific way.
I find it much easier, however, to envision myself getting into trouble in the mountains, albeit the sort of predicament that is not immediately deadly or even, at least initially, especially dangerous.
This is not a particularly difficult thing to do, of course.
The wilderness, however peaceful it might appear in photographs, is a hard place. It is moreover an alien place, as ignorant of human emotion as a grizzly bear which knows only that its stomach is empty or that something is threatening its cubs.
The trees don’t care if their ubiquity has confounded your sense of direction and left you wandering aimlessly.
The rocks are utterly unaffected if you step wrong and snap your fibula.
I know these things implicitly. And I think about them sometimes when I venture into the mountains. I suspect Andy, who by every account I’ve heard was intimately familiar with wild country, must have done so too. It is a natural inclination, and a profoundly human one.
We know the risks and we accept them because to choose otherwise would be to deny ourselves a great and unique pleasure.
But even as I lament what happened to Andy, I ponder the response to his family’s call when he failed to return to his home in Haines on Sept. 28 as he planned to do.
And this pulls my heart in the opposition direction.
The week-long campaign to find Andy, to end his family’s ordeal for good or for ill, was one of the more extensive searches undertaken in Baker County in decades.
I’m thinking here not of raw statistics — of how many people gathered in the woods or of how many miles they hiked.
I imagine instead the empty chairs at dozens of dinner tables. And the children who fell asleep without having been tucked in by mom or by dad. And the spouses who waited, and worried, as clouds cloaked the Wallowas.
I think of how many people tossed aside their regular lives temporarily with the sole goal of reuniting a man with those who love him. And when I ponder this I feel that special sort of joy — the sort that makes your throat feel hot and somehow heavy as you are reminded anew of the selflessness to which we aspire, and of which we are capable.
And I realize that if I ever get turned around in a storm when the swirling snow renders a familiar landscape unrecognizable, or my boot slides off a slab of slippery limestone and sends me sprawling, that people will come for me. They will put themselves in peril on my behalf and they will keep at it, despite blistered heels and frigid fingers, until they have brought me home.
Whether the story ends with tears of rejoicing or of anguish cannot, of course, be told in advance.
But it is a great comfort to know that these people are there, to know that they would do for me what they did for Andy.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.