I have never been to Montana, but I’ve always wanted to visit. I’ve always wanted to witness the acclaimed sundowns. They tell me one Montana sunset can cause people to spontaneously believe in heaven.
I almost had a chance to visit the 41st State as a teenager. I was supposed to help my friend’s uncle work on his cattle ranch. Sadly, his uncle passed away before I got the opportunity.
But I wish would’ve visited. I know exactly what I would have done. I would have spent every evening sitting on a log, watching the sunsets over the windswept plains. Or walked the famous Going-to-the-Sun-Road at dusk.
A few years ago, Montana residents reported that the sky was having some highly unusual sunsets. In some regions, the skies were turning electric purple and indigo. This mystified many, including multi-generational Montanans and meteorologists.
(Cue “Twilight Zone” theme music.)
Finally, science discovered the reason for these sunsets. The answer lay across the Pacific Ocean with the Raikoke volcano, between Japan and Russia, and the Ulawun volcano in New Guinea.
Both volcanoes had recently erupted, sending volcanic material 60,000 feet into the stratosphere. When volcanic aerosols drifted into the stratosphere above Montana, they scattered blue light particles, which mixed with the reddish sky colors to produce deep purple sunsets.
The effect was heaven-like. No wonder they call it the Big Sky Country.
Montana is also where an old man named John once lived. You’ve never heard of John, he wasn’t famous.
At the start of John’s adult life, he was your average Montanan. He had an okay job, three happy kids, loving wife. Theirs was a good life. They attended a clapboard church. The family was a tight-knit one.
John’s wife died at 39, leaving him with three children, and it was like having his limb amputated.
John’s adult son recalls, “My dad became old overnight. His hair literally went white in a few years.”
John’s kids would often find their old man crying in the kitchen, head tucked in his hands. Sometimes, John’s children would overhear him uttering prayers to the ceiling. These were not necessarily PG-rated prayers, either. They were prayers of a hurting man, spoken in frustration. “What the blank-blank am I gonna do?”
He was lonely. He was scared. This world is not a fair place, and nobody knows this better than someone who grew up among the most diverse ecology in the U.S. This world does not ask permission before it steals from you.
But this is not a sob story. This tale is about how John became Super Dad.
Over the years, John never let his children know how scared he was; he never let them see him struggle; he never once said “uncle.”
John’s kids have memories of their father cooking breakfasts, making pancakes shaped like hearts. They recall seeing him clean an entire house in a frilly apron.
They remember the way their father became half mom, and how he packed school lunches with sweet notes. They remember how their father was unashamed to kiss his children in public.
He attended every ball game. Every high school musical. Every event between. He was there to patch up skinned knees, he refereed disagreements, and when his children had broken hearts, he always knew how to mend them.
The old man became sick last year. His adult children were at his side within 36 hours of the terminal diagnosis. During the final moments before John exhaled his last, they were gathered nearby.
“My dad went peacefully,” says John’s son, Hunter. “We were with him, telling him we loved him.”
Weeks later, John’s ashes were delivered to his porch in a cedar box and it didn’t seem real. How could a superhero just up and die?
Hunter was charged with the task of spreading the remains according to his father’s wishes.
“I didn’t want to let him go,” said Hunter. “But we all knew it’s what he wanted. He wanted to be scattered in one of his favorite places.”
And so it was, a few days ago, John’s sons and daughter crawled into the cab of a faded pickup and drove into the smooth plains of Montana, into the white capped mountains. When they arrived at a particular place the old man loved most, Hunter opened a plastic bag and let his father go.
“I expected Dad’s ashes to fly around in the wind, like in movies, but… Ashes just sorta fell out of the bag. It was a big let down.”
Life once again proves that it is not scripted by Hallmark screenplay writers. Life can be unforgiving, indifferent, and sometimes filled with the kind of pain that makes you forget the reason for life altogether.
But there is a reason. An important one. And John’s children believe their father accomplished his “reason.”
They believe this not only because he was a good dad. But because just as they were walking away from their old man’s remains, the wind picked up.
A sudden gust carried the old man’s remains somewhere beyond the mighty Missouri River, and turned John’s memory into a cloud that was soon hovering in the Western sky. Then, as if on cue, the sunset changed from golden orange to a wild purple.
I asked John’s kids to describe the color.
“It was just like looking at heaven,” they said.
Yes. One day I hope to visit Montana.