Prairie Lights: At river’s edge, a long-overdue reunion


Pari Kemmick

The Yellowstone River at Norm’s Island. It’s worthy of an oration.

It had been a few years, but there was no mistaking him.

I was walking down by the river with my dogs when I saw him, ahead of me on the trail about a quarter mile away. The wind was blowing hard and the man’s long white beard was standing out from his chin almost horizontally.


Ed Kemmick

He stood on the bank facing the river, motioning so energetically with his arms that he might have been doing calisthenics. As I got closer, I could hear him speaking, rather loudly and with some passion, though I was too far away to make out what he was saying.

When I was close enough to understand a word here and there, he stopped abruptly and turned to face me. I am happy to say that a broad smile creased his face, and he said, in the midst of a theatrical bow, “Mr. Kemmick, I presume!”

“Why, yes,” I said, “and I’ll eat my hat if you’re not the sage.”

He bowed again and said, “Sir, the very same.”

We actually hugged, and it was only after we had disengaged that I realized something remarkable. My younger dog is a lovable creature, but some trauma in his early days made him averse to strangers, particularly men. And yet there he stood, panting agreeably and looking calm as you please, though he had just witnessed our approach not only to a stranger, but to one making a bit of scene, and who had then embraced me.

It was unprecedented. To compound my amazement, the sage crouched down, looked my young dog square in the face and proceeded to pat him on the head. Out of respect, admiration, excitement or probably a combination of all three, my dog sprayed the ground with a bit of urine.

What can I say? The sage, whom I first encountered years ago, living in a cave under the Rims across from the old townsite of Coulson, and whom I had then run into periodically for years after that, never ceases to amaze me.

He straightened up and now looked me square in the face. “And how have you been?” he asked.

“I can’t complain,” I said. “But where have you been? It’s been four or five years. It used to be rare when a year went by without my encountering you.”

“Well,” he said, scratching his beard thoughtfully, “I had grown a little disgusted with myself. If I couldn’t live as a true hermit for longer than 11 or 12 months at a time without some sort of break, was I a hermit at all? And even in the old days, as you know, I had some disciples who would lower supplies down to my grotto with ropes. I would exchange a few words, get a bit of news and feel, however faintly, some human connection.

“No, I finally determined that I needed utter solitude, absolutely unbroken aloneness for three solid years. I amassed a fair number of foodstuffs, a decent amount of clothing and a few blankets, a great deal of water, sufficient firewood, a first-aid kit and a few other necessities, and away I went.”

“Where, if I might ask?”

“In the Pryor Mountains,” he said. “There is an extraordinary number of caves down there, and for three years I lived just as I wished, without even having to worry about human contact.”

“So you had none at all?”

“None whatsoever. I mean, er, not any human contact. I’m not entirely sure how one should classify the diminutive creatures I occasionally caught sight of, but our contact was merely visual, and they never deigned to communicate with me.”

“You’re not referring to the Little…” I began, but he cut me off.

“Hush,” he said. “It is better not to speak of them at all, for which I apologize. Let’s just say I felt incredibly privileged to have seen them, even at a distance.”

“Speaking of which,” I said, “when I was walking up it seemed to me that you were giving a speech to the river.”

“Ha!” he said. “As a matter of fact, I suppose I was. I was declaiming, as it were, to the geese and the gulls, to the ravens and the fishes.”

“What were you saying?”

“Oh, nothing much. Just thanking them all for being here, for sharing this grand day with me.”

“I see. And when did you emerge from your isolation?”

“Hmm,” he said. “It’s rather hard to say. When one has been alone so long, strange things happen to one’s concept of time. A few days, anyway, possibly a few weeks.”

“And what have you been doing with yourself?”

“What I have always done when I reconnect with the world,” he said. “I have been inhabiting the haunts of men, reading the paper, watching television, exploring the Internet at the library, trying to grasp what has happened in my absence.”

“So, what do you think?”

“I think that three years’ isolation was not nearly enough. My God! I had thought that things could not possibly get worse in the Mideast. How wrong I was! And then ebola, ISIS, the Boston Marathon, millions of refugees. Ukraine, Crimea, Libya, Syria. Not to mention the mass shooting of the week, police killings and Bill Cosby.

“On the other hand, all that might have been expected. Terror and violence, war and depression—it never seems to stop. But so help me God: Donald Trump? Fifteen years in a cave wouldn’t have given me the strength to contemplate anything that strange and appalling.”

“So you came to the river for some peace?”

“I came to the river because I was on my way back to the Pryors. I just went slightly out of my way when I saw that enormous flock of gulls over yonder. I thought it would do me good to see them, and it has. And now I must be on my way.”

“Well,” I said, “what can I say but good luck?”

“I don’t think I need it,” he replied. “I know just what kind of world I’m going to, and what to expect. But you—and everybody else—need more than good luck, I venture to say. I don’t know what that is, but I sincerely hope you find it.”

He turned and walked away and I saw a shiver run through my poor little dog as he whimpered faintly. I think I knew how he felt.


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