*I did not have time to have this edited so please forgive any errors. I will be the first to admit that though I am a good story teller, I'm terrible with the mechanics of the English language.
My Bond With My Dad
“Pick your feet up Troy.” My Dad instructed me with hushed words as we trudged through deep November snow. This command intended to minimize the noise I was making as we made our way to the west side of the ridge that forms the Continental Divide. Being only seven or eight years old, my short legs struggled to comply with my Dad’s demand but I tried. Together with one of my older brothers, whom I don’t remember, we made our way through the timber to a large park where we hoped to see some elk but were greeted only with the setting sun and a snow-covered expanse.
|One of my favorite photos of my dad.
This is my first memory of going hunting with my Dad. Though way too young to carry a rifle and legally hunt, Dad would often take myself and my brothers out on late afternoon hunts if his job allowed him to get home early and drive up to the top of MacDonald Pass to get an hour or so of hunting in before darkness enveloped the land.
It is just one of hundreds of memories I have of time with my Dad. Many involve ranch work or other adventures. Some were not so pleasant given that Dad and I did have our disagreements at times. Still, of all my memories, it is the times hunting that I cherish the most, and, especially since he has been gone over a dozen years, they are the memories I miss the most.
Though our last official hunting trip together was a pheasant hunt in North Dakota that was a unique experience, it was not the one I feel strongest towards. That one is reserved for a trip a few years before that, on one of our last times going into hunting camp in the Gates of the Mountains north of Helena.
|My Dad and I's last hunting trip together.
Because Dad had bad knees and was out of shape, our time up in hunting camp had diminished over the years. The effort to pack the camp in, set it up, and maintain it was proving to be too much. My brothers had all moved on and it was just Dad and I who had the time to do the work. This year it was my uncle and I who set it up as Dad was unable to help. Still, my Dad loved hunting camp and would make every effort possible to go up, even if only for a weekend. I like to joke that Dad was a doctor by day but liked to pretend he was the mountain man, Jeremiah Johnson, on the weekends. I was okay with this though as it meant I got to play along.
At that time, I was in college and Dad was working a lot of on call shifts as a pediatrician. Being on call meant he had to stay close to the phone and be able to get to the hospital quickly if needed. This meant that the hunting camp was not an option. Yet his desire to hunt was strong and he arranged for me to go up on a Friday night and have camp ready as his call shift ended Friday night at midnight. Our friend, Dan and his wife joined me up at the camp. With Dad’s on call status ending that night, he wanted me to meet him at the unloading point with our horses well before sunrise on Saturday morning. At this stage in my life I was fine with that, my comfort of working with horses in the mountains was at its peak. That Friday, Dan, his wife, and I went to the camp and got settled. I had two horses for Dad and I. My Dad’s horse, Comanche, and my horse, Sil. Going to bed that night, I lay in my old army surplus sleeping bag going through all the things I needed to do when I got up. All the while, Dan’s snoring filled the tent. Outside, the breeze flowed through the trees, their branches brushing up against the canvas walls of the tent in a cold serenade. I could hear the horses stepping in their corral and an occasional snort. Sleep finally did come but it didn’t last long. Several times I remember waking up and checking my watch, wanting to make sure that I would not miss my meeting time with my Dad. It was important to me not to disappoint him. I was to be at the truck by six which meant I needed to be up by five. At a quarter to five I pulled myself out of my sleeping bag and dressed without benefit of light. I was comfortable in the dark so it wasn’t a big deal. I exited the tent to be greeted by a black canvas of stars framed by the towering trees around the camp. Still not needing a lantern or flashlight, I saddled Comanche and Sil, pausing a couple times to just pet them and stare at the blanket of sparkles above. With horse’s ready, I headed out of camp and down the narrow trail. I learned later from Dan that he never heard me leave and to this day is amazed that someone could get up, saddle up the horses and leave camp without a light and without waking anyone. One of my prouder ninja moments I must say.
|Dad on Comanche with Sil in tow heading out for an afternoon hunt.
Picking our way down the trail to the trucks, we arrived just after Dad had. He stood outside his truck with a large Mini Mart mug that he always had full of coffee. Dad was dressed for the hunt with a thick wool coat, bright orange hunters vest, and his mountain man fur hat that he liked to wear. After he tightened Comanche’s cinch and got into the saddle, the two of us headed out for a day’s hunt. We covered a lot of ground that day, including some of my favorite places. Places that sadly I haven’t been back to since. Places like Sheepherders Monument, Windy Ridge, and the Crow’s Nest. It was while come back from the Crow’s Nest that Dad and I encountered a ice sheet across the trail. We had headed back towards camp using a different route than we had coming up and the trail crossed an area that the snow had melted and then formed a massive patch of ice. This was on a steep side slope so it was a risk taking the horses across, especially while riding them. We talked it over and decided to walk across leading our horses, and take our time. Our horses had cleated horse shoes so I felt confident that they would be okay but I worried about Dad making his way across. I told him I would go over first and then be ready if he needed help. Slowly Sil and I stepped across the fifty-foot span of ice until, thankfully, we reached the bare trail on the other side. I held Sil's lead rope as I watched Dad make his way across. I thought he was going to be okay when suddenly Dad’s feet went out from underneath him and he went down hard. Comanche, being the amazing horse he was, stood still and waited patiently for my Dad. Seeing that Dad couldn’t get his footing again I started to tie Sil up so I could help but Dad told me not to. He crawled on hands and knees until he cleared the ice, Comanche following behind at the end of his lead rope. As Dad stood up I could see he was hurting. I asked if he was okay and he revealed he had dislocated his finger. I tied up both horses and helped Dad take his glove off. Sure enough, one finger was bent at a nasty angle. Dad told me I needed to reset it for him.
I hesitated of course. This was my Dad. A doctor. The man who had reset my finger when I had broken it. The one who stitched me up many times and had provided care to all us kids and our friends at one point or another. Yet he had asked me to help. I tried to think how he had set my finger before and grabbed the finger. Dad held onto a tree with his good hand as I pulled the finger and let the tendons snap it back into its proper position. Dad was visibly in pain but didn’t make a sound. I helped him get his glove on and then got him on Comanche and made sure he could handle the reins with his injured hand before I got on Sil.
The rest of the weekend was uneventful thankfully and I can’t say I remember much else about it. I do remember that time below Windy Ridge and Dad taking the spill on the ice. I remember it because I realized then that Dad didn’t view me as a kid or just his son, but as a man, a fellow hunter and horseman. I guess that is why I cherish it so much. It was times like that where I felt a connection with my Dad beyond that of family relations. A connection from a shared love of the mountains, of horses, and of the hunt. I miss that connection dearly.
This last week I’ve heard a lot of men talk about their dads in preparation for Father’s Day. Some men remembering how positive an influence their dad was. Some just the opposite. Some sharing that they didn’t know their dad or that they lost him at an early age. In all of that it made me thankful that I had the time with my Dad that I did. Yes, some of those times were turbulent but perhaps that is what made the good times so special. The times of being on a horse on the top of a mountain, miles from anyone, anyone except your dad. A true blessing that I am thankful for and wish others could experience the same. Remember such times with your dad. Cherish them, they are fleeting and pass quicker than you want.
|Dad and I around 2001 while out playing in the mountains
The bond my dad and I shared when we were on horseback in the mountains is one I tried to capture in my second novel, Lost Horse Park. It was my hope that I could transport the reader into the saddle high up on a mountain top with the wind blowing and the expanse of God’s creation all before them. It was on one such trip that I penned this poem back in 1988. I know how much my dad loved the mountains, how he felt heaven was there. That is why we spread his ashes up on a high ridge near the Continental Divide.
By Troy B. Kechely
I sit myself upon this ridge and stare across the land.
The rough and sculptured mountains rise, each created by God’s hands.
The wind brings its message, blowing to and fro;
Crying out for all who live, for those who care to know.
The clouds slowly amble by, observing their domain.
For truly they are the rulers of the mountains and the plains.
I wonder of the things I see, and how we coincide;
And I ponder if I do live, or perhaps if I have died.