After the phone call with the Coroner, I hung up in tears. Again. All I wanted to do was visit with what I’d come to think of as “Clay’s Stuff,” the items he carried with him that fateful day nearly a year ago by now, when he’d taken his last hike into Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains.
But the Coroner had tersely said he was busy and told me to call back the next week to make an appointment with his assistant.
I had spent months trying to figure out what Clay had taken with him. At first, the searchers had needed to know. I had needed to know. Did he have a tent? Had he said “day hike,” but taken overnight gear as a safety contingency? Did he have emergency rations? Did he have matches? A headlamp? Climbing shoes? Which pack? How many layers did he take? How many water bottles?
Some of these questions were easily answered in the first days of searching for him. He’d jettisoned his long underwear and puffball vest, leaving them on the floor of his car, which was found the same day we realized he was missing. After hiking with him for ten years, I felt confident this choice meant he intended to return the same day. Clay would never head out for a longer period of time without having all sorts of “just-in-case” gear.
But other details remained a mystery. I became obsessed with creating a profile of Clay’s intentions based on what he might have taken with him, versus what he left behind. I found six headlamps in the house. Why would one guy own so many headlamps? Did he have the seventh with him? Which pair of hiking shoes was he wearing? I saw three pairs in the closet—think, Rachel, what does that fourth pair look like? I couldn’t remember; why hadn’t I paid more attention?
Searchers finally found Clay’s things seven months after he had packed them. I thought if I could see them for myself and understand the stuff involved in that day, I would have answers. But it was a couple months before I mustered the courage to call the Coroner’s office again.
When I did call back, a woman with a kind voice answered. A human with a heart. Yes, she said, it was no problem to visit his things, to review the photos and read the reports. And then she asked if I was interested in keeping his stuff.
I was stunned. I hadn’t known that might be an option.
The Coroner had told me they needed to keep Clay’s things since the case was still open. This had made sense to me, which is why I was merely asking for visitation rights. But suddenly, when I learned I could bring his stuff home, I was sure I would see them and finally understand what had happened to him. His stuff knew. And it would tell me.
My relationship with stuff suffered a traumatic shift on November 10, 2007, when Clay Rubano, my husband of too few months, went for a day hike up the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River outside Lander, Wyoming, our recently chosen hometown. Clay was forty-six years old. He never came home.
With obsessive single-mindedness, I would spend the next months and years looking to stuff for answers, understanding and connection.
I was finishing my fourteenth season as a ranger in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Clay was a ranger, too. He had left Glacier a few weeks earlier to begin a new career with the National Outdoor Leadership School, so he was back in Lander living in the house we’d bought the previous January.
We talked on the phone Friday evening, November 9th, and agreed to talk again on Saturday the 10th. Clay told me he might be hiking up Sinks Canyon that day, so when I couldn’t reach him on Saturday, I assumed he was enjoying a good day on the trail. I left a message on our answering machine, saying I’d call again later.
Saturday evening, I tried one last time. He still didn’t answer. Because of the layout of our house, I knew the phone could be hard to hear, especially if the furnace was blowing air, so I wasn’t concerned. Again, I left a message.
Sunday, November 11th, I was away from the phone all day and didn’t try to call; this was a pre-planned communications black-out so Clay knew not to expect me. It was Monday, November 12th, at about 3:15 p.m., when I learned Clay had failed to show up for work. Thus began a long endeavor to sort out a story based solely on stuff.
When, exactly, did he go hiking? Was it Saturday, Sunday or Monday? Monday, a work day, was also Veteran’s Day. Did he mistake it for a day off?
His work mates had already checked for him at the house and had located his car at the trailhead. I told them to check the answering machine to see whether he had heard my messages. The machine showed no new messages, suggesting Clay had been home Saturday night to hear them and had likely gone hiking Sunday or Monday.
The next day, after a sleepless night, I drove the tortuous twelve hours home. That’s when I realized Clay had set up a second telephone, with an unused answering machine. I checked the other machine, and saw my messages had gone unheard. Clay’s co-workers had checked the wrong one.
This upped the ante considerably, as it told us definitively he’d been out since earlier in the day on Saturday. Although it had been a glorious, sunny day that Saturday, it had snowed in the meantime. This meant he’d been in the mountains for three unplanned nights already, heading into his fourth.
I combed through the house to see what he’d taken with him. This is when I discovered he’d left his camelback, his water filter, his tarp and tent, his sleeping bag—he had no intention of staying out more than a day, this much was clear to me. He’d left his watch behind, but this wasn’t unusual. His wallet was nowhere to be found, telling me he likely had it with him. I was sure, because he habitually jotted notes on anything and everything, that he had some paper and a pen with him. Did he scribble notes to himself that day? Did he write to me? Over the next weeks I scoured his journals and other writings for insight as to where, specifically, he might have gone, but all I knew was what he’d told his friends and me, that he planned to go “above the falls.”
The country Clay walked into is a jumbled mass of river, rocks, trees, sagebrush, and hills piled on hills until they culminate in mountains. These things knew the answers, but they were silent, despite the massive ground and air search.
Dogs, helicopters with infra-red, and more than 100 ground searchers with 20/20 vision turned up animal bones, mittens, twisty-ties, clothing tags, shoes and empty water bottles.
Human artifacts were brought to me to see if they said “Clay.” None did.
It is dry country, except when the hillsides flow with water and mud, as they did during some search days. It is hot country, except when winter is closing in with shortening days and increasing snowfall. It was mid-November, and searchers were racing the oncoming winter and the ever-decreasing daylight. Tracks were found in the snow and mud, but it was unlikely they were Clay’s, given the snow that had fallen the day after his hike.
The canyon remained silent. I looked at the river, with its pools gone dark in the shade of the steep canyon sides, and cursed it for keeping secrets.
Clay’s car, though, was a mighty source of information. The investigators kindly left it parked at the trailhead for a week or two, at my request. After all, when he stumbled out under his own power, he would need transport home.
The car turned up pertinent negatives, such as no fingerprints other than his. The law enforcement officials who dusted for prints commented on how clean it was, and for once I wished Clay was one of those people who would toss rejected items over his shoulder to be left where they fell for months to come.
Surely I had missed something, but I was at a dead end. His stuff wasn’t talking. Late fall had turned to winter and the searchers all went home. The rocks and hills were cocooned in snow, the river froze solid, and time stopped, hanging me in limbo. It seemed spring might never come. At each sunset, I would watch the dark envelop the hills and wonder what sort of night Clay would have. I needed to find him. But I had run out of stuff through which to comb, or for which to look.
So I started over.
I quickly became aware Clay’s things were heavier than normal things. When I finally consented to having his car removed from the trailhead, I went to the impound lot to retrieve it. I mistakenly went alone. I wasn’t prepared for the heaviness that would wash over the streets as I drove home, making the one-mile trip feel like a journey of thousands. I didn’t know a Subaru could drive through such viscous air.
I gave his car preferential treatment, parking it in the one garage space we had. It was months before I drove it again. I left the clothes he chose not to hike with right where he’d left them on the car floor. I was sure I couldn’t lift them, and when I finally did carry them inside, months later, that one trip of a few yards exhausted me and was the day’s sole accomplishment.
His things had grown in importance as well as weight. His toothbrush, shoes, journals, clothes, camping gear—indeed, all things Clay—needed to stay where he’d left them. Moving them felt like a betrayal, an admission to the universe that maybe he wasn’t coming home. So I concocted a story I hoped might be true. It involved a whopping case of amnesia, a deer skin tepee, and a finely honed ability to lasso bunnies for food and pelts.
I gently pulled his favorite plaid jacket over myself each night as I lay in bed, studying the knot holes in our pine ceiling. But sleep was elusive. Eventually I’d get up and sift through a pile of his things again because maybe this time I’d figure out where he’d gone.
Four years earlier, I gave Clay a small stuffed lion named Lafcadio, after the leading character in Shel Silverstein’s children’s book Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back. Over the years, I had accumulated a modest collection of small stuffed animals, and I thought Clay needed one. He joked and said he wasn’t sure he could take proper care of a small stuffed creature, even though his care of larger, living beings was always full of kindness.
But when Clay departed Glacier for Lander in the fall of 2007 to start his new job, Lafcadio was with him. And when I came home, I found Lafcadio lying amid the covers of the unmade bed. Lafcadio became a special member of my stuffed menagerie. When he wasn’t under my chin during sleepless hours under that old plaid jacket, he had two team mates assigned to stand guard on either side of him: a horse with an unruly mane, and a black lamb with a giant belly. This was, in my grief-stricken mind, a way to try to protect Clay. This is a difficult confession, but it seems I turned a stuffed lion into a Clay totem. I don’t, all these years later, let Lafcadio hold that place anymore. Though I look over as I write and see Buck, the horse, and Chester, the lamb, flanking Lafcadio, precisely as they should.
Finally winter gave way to spring, and the dearest people in the world showed up to resume the search for Clay. They came in droves on a June evening, driving towards a set of double rainbows, which stayed in the air for half an hour.
At the same time, my sister and I were looking out my front door at that same set of rainbows. We could see where both ends faded into the ground. My falling-down barn, good only for picturesque moments like these, stood within the arcs. Surely this was an omen of good luck.
But luck, even good luck, comes in all shapes and sizes. The worst good luck I ever had came three days later, when, on the afternoon of June 8th, my searching friends found Clay. More accurately, they found Clay’s stuff: his pack, his keys, his hat, his empty snack wrappers. The items were found scattered at the bottom of an eighty-foot cliff, suggesting Clay had fallen from above.
This was devastating, as seven months of imagined tepees and lassoed rabbits came crashing down around me in the dark reality of Forever Gone. But in the scheme of things, answers and closure are more than some people get when their loved ones have gone missing.
Now I had something tangible. I imagined the searchers bundling Clay up and bringing him down the trail to me, on a wheeled litter or tied to a horse. An hour later, though, I was told I wouldn’t actually get to see him. The coyotes had scavenged him and the searchers were finding only fragments of bone; the largest were a piece of a leg bone and a small part of his pelvis. In all the scenarios I’d dreamed up over the months, his feeding the coyotes wasn’t one of them. Strangely, though, I was okay with it.
I know seeing a body would have helped me crawl out from the mighty depths of denial sooner. But five years earlier, we had planned to spend a full year in Antarctica, and we were encouraged to write our wills prior to departure. As seasonal employees living nomads’ lives for years, we had few items to leave to anybody, so Clay used the document to outline his wishes for his remains. They were, in order of preference, to be left in the natural environment in which he’d died (I imagine he was thinking the bottom of a crevasse or the ocean in the instance of an airplane crash), or to be cremated and “dumped”—his word—into the Arkansas River’s Tin Cup Rapid.
So it turned out, the coyotes were his perfect outcome. In most cases, leaving a body in situ wouldn’t be possible or ethical, let alone legal. He would have loved the fact he was recycled quickly and completely, nourishing the critters he so loved to watch.
Now that he had been found, I had a whole new array of stuff at which to look for answers.
Within a day or two, our families joined me as I hiked the 5.5 miles across hillsides thick with sunny yellow arrowleaf balsamroot and fragrant sage brush into what I now call “Clay’s Place.”
It is a lovely spot edged with a giant rock cliff, the top of which affords a beautiful view up the valley, into the high peaks of the Wind River wilderness. The bottom of the outcrop, located about fifty yards off the trail, is shaded by aspens and huge boulders. It is into and under these boulders that Clay tumbled.
I hiked to Clay’s Place that first time, and each time thereafter, fully expecting to be infused with understanding and knowledge. I now knew where and when he’d hiked, but I needed to understand how and why he fell.
By the end of that June I’d pieced together much of the story based on Clay’s things left at home and my investigation of Clay’s Place. The Coroner’s report and my conclusions do not agree, but I have the added benefit of knowing Clay, and I’ve incorporated this insight into my theory.
The official report tells me Clay probably fell and landed where his keys were, a few yards from where his pack was found. It says he crawled to the overhang, under which he rested with his pack and opened his snacks and ate them; this latter assertion was based on the fact the packages were opened cleanly and not chewed apart by critters. Then, according to the report, he died sometime that night or the next morning, from exposure. This is the Stuff of Wrong.
My months-long investigation tells me another story—the right story, I’m reasonably sure.
Where Clay’s things were found, a narrow log leans into the space on a diagonal. I know this log was involved, because it had been drenched in blood and nibbled on by critters, and the rocks near the top of the log had blood on them. The log is knobby, inclined at such an uncomfortable angle that nobody would choose to lie on it. An injured, conscious person who had dragged himself to an overhang would have no reason to then pull himself up onto this terribly uncomfortable log and then eat his snacks in a calm and orderly fashion.
These inanimate things clearly told me he had fallen directly onto the log and thereafter made no conscious movements.
Clay was a meditator. He enjoyed a good, long view. The outcrop’s eighty-foot summit can be easily accessed by a leisurely stroll up the back side. The top is flat, but the edge slopes gradually for a few feet until it ends abruptly in a sheer face. This slope is broken at the edge by a single indentation large enough for someone to sit in comfortably. It is the kind of seat that appeals to a person like Clay; the perfect place to be while snacking and admiring the view up the valley, before beginning the trek back to the car, particularly on such an unseasonably warm and sunny afternoon.
I know Clay would have chosen a sunny rock with a view upon which to eat his snacks. Clearly, since his pack was found at the bottom, it was on his back when he fell, or at least on one shoulder or in his hand, with his neatly opened wrappers already tucked back inside, their contents consumed.
In Glacier, Clay had participated in searches for lost hikers. He knew how to be found if he’d had any control over it. If he’d had enough energy to eat his snacks after he fell, he also would have had the energy to put his layers on, or leave clothing outside the overhang to be more visible. He would have known it was a sunny Saturday and other hikers might be nearby. He would have used his energy for being found, not for eating.
I crawled around under the overhang that first visit, finding bits of t-shirt, bits of pack strap foam, even some hair. I saw the blood on the rocks, protected from the cleansing weather. I walked to the top and saw his last view, his last meditation seat. I saw the sheer face and his trajectory, and I saw how his keys and hat could have separated from him, landing in a spot he never touched.
My parents and I hiked to Clay’s Place again, on the anniversary of his hike. It was, like his day, an unseasonably warm afternoon. With aspen leaves crunching under our feet, I saw his Place as he would have seen it, under the golden slant of a late autumn’s afternoon sunlight.
Clay had always been keen on wilderness safety and mitigating unnecessary risk. His job as a radio operator in Antarctica had involved tracking field parties that were out in the harsh polar environment. In Glacier, long before the park’s dispatch began tracking rangers in the back country, Clay himself kept track of which rangers in his area were still on trails in the evenings, and he wouldn’t rest until everyone was home.
How could such a safety-minded person possibly have fallen to his death on a seemingly innocuous day hike? He was prone to rolling his ankles. Is this what happened when he stood up to hike back down the hill? Did an eagle buzz and startle him? Any mistake near the precipitous edge would have resulted in a plummet. Maybe he had an aneurism. Or maybe he was struck by an unreported, rogue shot from a careless hunter’s rifle. By the fall of 2008 I’d reached a dead end of possible answers gleaned from his existing things. I desperately needed new fodder.
That’s when I worked up the courage to call the Coroner’s office back. A friend drove me to Riverton to meet with the Coroner’s assistant, a young woman whose big-heartedness far exceeded her diminutive stature and who had, herself, been widowed at too young an age.
She gently updated me on the lack of DNA progress, telling me that Clay’s leg and pelvic bone fragments were on hold at a Texas lab that specializes in mitochondrial DNA. She explained that most samples in the lab were being tested for cases that were going to trial. But because Clay’s remains only needed to be identified for the death certificate, he kept getting pushed back in priority.
The assistant made copies of reports and photos for me to keep and sent me out the door with a brown grocery bag full of Clay’s belongings. I carried the bag with reverence, full of hopeful anticipation its contents would enlighten me.
This bag, its contents huge in import, contained what Clay had inadvertently chosen to use as his final possessions, and my final chance to find more answers. I clutched the bag as if it were the Holy Grail.
My wise friend advised, as he drove me home, that I should acknowledge their importance but not build a shrine out of them. He suggested I cut a piece out of everything and put each shred in a pouch of some sort, like a Native American might do in certain rituals. I liked this idea, and he offered to help. Though we both knew I wasn’t ready for that step, it did give me a reasonable option for when I was ready.
For the time being, I wanted to examine each item and learn from it. I took the bag into the refuge of my bedroom and emptied its contents one by one, turning each item over, examining and listening for answers. Among the things I’d so patiently waited to see and hold were Clay’s orange rain coat, his favorite blue coat, a water bottle, his wallet, a shoe, and yes, paper and a pen. I longed for a shred of communication from him, but my last chance was dashed by the silent, blank paper.
After I had all his stuff spread around me I felt at a loss. I remembered my friend’s advice not to put these things on too high a pedestal, but surely they, and I, deserved proper ceremony. What would Clay do? He’d sit with them. Nothing more. So that’s what I did. I sat with them. Eventually, I made tea and drank tea with them. After a time, my teacup drained, I found a basket and put “Clay’s Stuff” inside it, neatly folding each thing, his one shoe sitting on top. His wallet I kept out, tucking the $60 away for something special. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the seed money for a kayak, something Clay-the-water-baby would have liked. That kayak, named Tin Cup, provides me long moments of solace on Bowman Lake.
I was disappointed by the lack of knowledge gleaned from his things, but my venture through them was not entirely without merit.
What I did see was remarkably unfaded clothing, indicating it had spent most of the winter and spring inside his pack before the critters pulled it out and left their teeth marks. His pack was faded where it lay face up, but the part that was against the ground retained its old blue-grey color. One strap was chewed completely off. This all confirmed my belief in an instant death; he hadn’t gotten out his layers for warmth or visibility and he hadn’t eaten snacks. He hadn’t written me a note; this I know he would have done had he been at all able. I didn’t put those cleanly opened wrappers in the basket. I threw them away like a normal person would.
What the rock, logs, unweathered pack items and single shoe still won’t tell me is why he fell, but this is one of the unknowns I have to learn to live with. Thanks to the coyotes, an autopsy was impossible. This means I get to choose the kindest version. I choose aneurism because then he was too dead to notice the fall.
I can live with that.
Clay’s stuff remained in the basket. From time to time I visited with it, always putting it back, neatly covered with a scarf. One winter day in 2012 I happened upon a delicate leather pouch, hand made by a local artisan. And I knew. This was going to be the container for the pieces of his things.
I took it home and cut shapes from the things I could and I tucked them into the pouch. I haven’t looked at them again. It still hangs on the bedroom wall near our wedding photo. I don’t think it’s a shrine. I think it’s a remembrance, and as close to a funeral ritual as I could come without his body. The rest of the stuff I took to the landfill in one deplorably heavy plastic bag.
Clay had a single blue Nalgene water bottle when he took his final hike. This didn’t go to the landfill, but instead became my companion everywhere a water bottle might normally accompany me—until I made a grave error by leaving it on a New Zealand tour bus in March 2010. Realizing what I’d done knocked the wind out of me, leaving me shocked and bereft all over again, as if it was Clay himself I’d sent down the road. It reminded me how I’d felt when a power outage erased Clay’s voice from our answering machine in the first days of the search.
It dawned on me, as the bus disappeared around the bend, that I had some work to do. I needed to acknowledge plastic bits for what they are and embrace that Clay is not in those bits. This is hard work, but at least grief leaves no space for boredom.
Before the bone fragments were sent to Texas for DNA testing, they were given to a lab in Laramie, Wyoming. The lab concluded the leg bone showed a break consistent with falling. The critter marks on both the leg and the pelvic fragment indicated coyote and nothing larger, like a mountain lion. I never saw these bones, but I trust the Wyoming lab was correct.
It took a full year and many battles to get the DNA results back from the Texas lab, confirming the bones were Clay’s. We knew they were, but without the documentation, he was still considered missing, and I could do nothing at all with his things; even the things in both our names. I couldn’t file taxes, or sell a car, or close out his credit cards. The things I could do something about, such as his toothbrush and shoes, were still too heavy to lift.
The DNA results finally arrived in June 2009. But because of what I consider some stunning incompetence on the part of those in charge, I didn’t get the ashes from his remains until September. The death certificate took many more battles, becoming official in April 2010.
Finally, I could settle his things—though not his toothbrush and shoes; those were still weighty—and get on with the messy task of grieving.
That spring I contacted Clay’s old rafting buddies. Together we floated to Tin Cup Rapid and commenced dumping him into the river, where he promptly swirled around in an eddy for a long while before breaking free for his last run down the rapids. That was the Stuff of Ashes. Both of Clay’s wishes came true, to stay in situ in the natural environment, and to swim in his favorite river.
Clay appreciated creativity and independent thinking, and so I felt all right in my decision to take two small tins of ashes to other important locations. One was Antarctica, where I learned that if you stand with your back to the wind, the ashes will eddy back and land in your puffy coat’s Velcro. I’m okay with that, because I think Clay would have tossed his head back and laughed.
I can learn, though; so during the second tin’s release in the Rocky Mountains, I carefully stood sideways to the stiff, mountaintop wind. It was blowing relentlessly to the east, which was unfortunate because to the east lay an undesirable town in which Clay would’ve preferred to not land. But I took comfort knowing at least he’d not eddy out again.
And he didn’t! Out of the tin he came, flying exactly perpendicular to the wind, heading with gusto for a gorgeous, blue mountain lake with straight-line determination. We all saw it, standing with our mouths agape before laughing at how Clay could travel contrary to the wind even in death.
Some things may never be found, like his wedding ring. I wear mine on my right hand. Its twin is somewhere up Sinks Canyon. I wish mightily it would show itself to a hiker who would have enough curiosity to investigate and figure out it might be Clay’s. I have a picture from our wedding day of our two rings together. At the time I thought it was a cheesy photo, but I was wrong. It’s lovely, with rose petals and a mirror, and the only place where our rings are still together.
Clay’s skull was found by a horseman in August 2012. So it goes on, this Stuff of Living and Dying. With the skull I felt a resurgence of anticipation for potential answers, but I was not surprised when the usual disappointment followed. The ashes from his skull, in their plain white box, sit idle in my closet and I think, perhaps, a journey to the ocean will suffice for them. No dams or eddies to get stuck in, just direct deposit into his intended destination. I’m not in a hurry. He’s already there, anyway, riding the waves.
Clay’s own take on stuff was that it was merely that: stuff. He never would have capitalized that word. His attachment to stuff was not great, but somehow in his death, my attachment to his stuff grew to insane proportions. But I finally managed to deal with it.
I gave all his Patagonia gear to one of his friends, who received the two boxes and found them too heavy to open for a long time. At last I threw out his toothbrush. I stopped wondering if he’d like the new couch I bought and put in a picture window that allows me to see more than sky when I sit in the living room. His practical solution would have been to get taller furniture. I finally sold his skate skis this winter, putting them back into play on the snow. I don’t know who has them, but I’m sure they had a fun winter, once again carrying their rider in long glides. With the money from the skis I started saving for, and eventually bought, a sewing machine. I used it to make a sleeping bag out of a kit I won when we were first engaged.
And this is how I make his stuff live on, through some sort of Stuff Reincarnation. I’ve come a long way since the beginning of my obsession, and I finally understand it isn’t about the physical things at all. It’s about finding ways for Clay’s fun spirit and ‘joie de vivre to live on. I know this now and can mostly let go of the inanimate objects as I hold onto the animate, though I’ll be forever grateful to all of Clay’s Stuff for the answers and connections it has afforded me.
I am a person who, apparently, finds comfort in ritual. The things Clay left behind, including his cremated bones, are what I had to work with. I made the most of it and in the process learned Clay isn’t even in the ashes. He’s in the wind and can blow wherever he wants. He’s in the rainbows, the flowers, the light, the sunshine. It is a swap I can buy into whole-heartedly: The Stuff of Ashes for the Stuff of Love.
It will be my lifetime’s work to fully trade the Stuff of Stuff for the Stuff of Intangibles, but I do know the latter is a whole lot easier for my nomad self to cart around. I don’t need to worry about leaving it on a New Zealand bus.
Meanwhile, Lafcadio doesn’t take up much space in my satchel.
A collector of communities, RACHEL JENKINS feels at home in many places, but Glacier National Park has laid claim to her heart each summer since 1994. Colorado, Wyoming and Antarctica have topped the winter lists, though her new partner and his dog recently motivated her to make Montana her year-round home. Less nomadic, she no longer judges a vehicle by how much it holds. “The Stuff of Dying and Living” is her first published piece. All photos courtesy of the author