Three Visits to Cloudland — The Day I Lost My Dad and Found a Wondrous Sense of Peace

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Morning fog on Gaither Mountain.
Morning fog on Gaither Mountain.


By Jan Badovinac | Photos courtesy of Jan Badovinac and Tim Ernst

One cannot live in the northwest quadrant of Arkansas and not hike one of its most photographed locations: Hawksbill Crag. One also cannot live in the northwest quadrant of Arkansas and not be familiar with nature photographer and author Tim Ernst. Tim had achieved somewhat of a cult status among our little hiking group, The Drips, as we did not make a move without consulting one of his guidebooks to the trails of our surrounding area, and his photography often inspired our choice of hiking locations. Since his studio is a short distance from the Hawksbill Crag trailhead, two of The Drips and I decided it was high time to pay a visit to both.

Trumpeter swans.
Trumpeter swans.

At this point in my life I was a stay-at-home mom of two youngsters, and the highlight of my week was usually something like spackling hockey puck divots in the garage wall. Hikes with my girlfriends were such hallowed and precious times that this particular day started out simply awesome even before leaving the house, just from the mere anticipation of meeting Tim and participating in a much-needed day of oxygen therapy in the woods with my friends.

The drive started off with the rising sun illuminating fog-filled valleys, lighting up the February-frosted trees, and we spotted deer and a flock of wild turkeys. Every turn led us to gush at a new view of Arkansas’s natural beauty. A few miles later, elk! Grazing! A whole entire herd of ‘em, bulls and all! Jaded city slickers might snigger that I would consider this to be thrilling, but seriously, it was very cool to come around a curve in the road and bam!…see these majestic animals just doing what they do best (which is eating, I guess) in their natural habitat. But for me, the best wildlife sighting that day came around the next curve: trumpeter swans.

Corine Lord and Jan Badovinac on Hawksbill Crag.
Corine Lord and Jan Badovinac on Hawksbill Crag.

I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for these beautiful, majestic creatures ever since I read E.B. White’s Trumpet of the Swan as a young girl. Trumpeters mate for life, which is amazing considering not many animals do that, including humans. We didn’t have much time to spend watching them float around on their pond since we were late for our appointment with Tim, but even those few minutes with a creature I had so long admired but had never seen was something I carried with me all day long.

Tim’s compound, christened “Cloudland,” is on top of Cave Mountain. It’s something like seven vertical miles up the side of this sucker, and apparently there was some erosion over the winter because the ruts in the gravel road were big enough to house small killer whales. After being tossed about hither and thither in the truck, I was taking on a greenish hue, and you might well appreciate that here my previous enthusiasm for the day was beginning to wane just a bit. However, all became well again when we finally arrived at Cloudland and our hiking sensei strolled up from his beautiful log cabin to greet us. He even had the requisite beard and cool hiking hat, further cementing his idol status with us.

Tim was a gracious host, letting us spend as much time was we wanted marveling at the brilliant photo canvases on display, and indulging every question we had about trails for future hikes. We bought some of his books, which he politely signed, and he bade us farewell as we began the trek to the crag.
This particular hike was taken in winter, which allows visibility of much more of the hardscape of the land without all the leaf cover. Once we got to the crag

Melissa O'Neal and Jan Badovinac at Cloudland.
Melissa O’Neal and Jan Badovinac at Cloudland.

I noticed that on the opposite side of the canyon the trees had grown in some kind of swirly pattern and I clearly remember thinking that my father would get a kick out of that. Or at the very least, he’d be furrowing his brow in concentration, arms crossed, blinking, one hand under his chin, with his index finger resting lightly against his lips: the look and stance he often assumed when his brain cogs would be whirling over some conundrum of which he would be determined to get to the bottom.

My dad was always wondering about something—how it works, what it’s made of, how it got there, what makes it so. I inherited a lot from my dad: big feet, hair and eye color, a love for the outdoors, and the desire to know what makes things so. The practice of wondering, asking, and seeking the answers (though not always getting them) was a process we both loved and shared. So as I surveyed the view from the crag, the swirly tree pattern and a dozen other things caught my attention and immediately the questions began forming. I very clearly remember thinking that Dad would love to stand there and ponder these things with me, but since he was hundreds of miles away in Illinois, I was left to ponder for the both of us.

Later, as I sat at the crag sharing a delicious lunch with two of my most favorite women, I noticed again this weird sense of euphoria that had been following me around all day. Everything felt simply perfect. Well, maybe getting nauseated by a bucking truck wasn’t perfect, but by golly, everything else sure felt like it. The setting, the weather, the swans and other wildlife sightings, the visit with Tim, my friends, great food…it seemed to all come together in a huge sense of contentment and bliss. Now, I’ve got to say here that most of my days are usually pretty dang good. Knowing my little family is happy and healthy is all that I need, so it’s safe to say I know what contentment and bliss feel like. I have been blessed to go to sleep almost every night feeling that way. But this day was different. I don’t know how to explain it other than it was actually palpable, and it seemed to be there from the minute I got up. I guess the best way to put it was that everything seemed heightened. Even the commonplace parts of the day—packing my backpack, picking up the kids from school—it all happened with this weird but amazing kind of clarity.

The day was crystalline, like all the molecules in the universe had been washed and shined until they sparkled and were lined up all spiffy and crystal clear. It was very bizarre, and I noticed it all day. I clearly remember thinking about a hundred times, “Man, this is just the most amazing day!” And the good stuff just kept coming when both kids were invited to spend the night with friends, meaning that my husband and I had an entire night to ourselves, a feat that has been accomplished only four other times in our parental career. We decided to take advantage of this by going out for a long, leisurely dinner with the promise of uninterrupted adult time together. It was the perfect ending to the perfect day. Seriously, life was good.

But then something happened to the molecules on the way to dinner.

The Day My Dad Died
With one phone call from my oldest sister in Illinois, the perfectly crystallized molecules of the day mutated into some kind of misshapen, black, tumultuous mass. My father was gone. He’d hit a patch of black ice while driving, rolled the truck several times, and died six hours later from his injuries.

Jan and her dad.
Jan and her dad.

Over the next few hours an irrational and somewhat inappropriate thought kept popping up through the grief and pain: “But this was the most awesome day! And now it’s the worst day of my life. How can that be?” What I had been so certain was the most surreal day of perfection was now and forever branded as The Day My Dad Died. And not only that, I knew I’d always look back on it and be reminded of the mockery I’d made of his death.

After all, what was I doing while my father lay broken and dying in a frozen snow-swept Illinois field? I was hopping around on a big rock, foolishly thinking I had some kind of existential experience and for that, shame on me. How dare I take pictures of dumb birds on a dumb pond when he was spending his last morning with his wife of 61 years? How dare I look at stupid patterns in stupid trees when he was fighting for his life? How dare I laugh with my friends about something trivial when my mother and siblings were rushing, scared and anxious, to the hospital? How dare I even THINK I felt any sense of happiness and peace at all, much less goddamn euphoria, when the most gentle man I had ever known was being slammed around inside a metal shell?

What kind of daughter does that?

The guilt of that weighed heavily on my mind as I flew up to Illinois to be with my family. Most of them had been at the hospital when Daddy died, and I felt horrible about them having to go through such an ordeal while I was indulgently feeding my inner hedonist. In addition to the guilt, my heart ached for some kind of “sign” from dad. Once, my father and I had a lengthy and wonderful conversation about life after death. We agreed that if there was any way to send a sign, we’d do it. Dad asked, “So what kind of sign do you want?” And because I am weird, I told him I’d like an albino animal. He logically pointed out that might be a rather tall order, so I reconsidered and said that a white bird would be just fine. I thought about that conversation during the flight up north, and half expected/hoped to look out the plane window and see a dove flying alongside.

Didn’t happen.

The first 24 hours at my childhood home were very busy, as it became the command post and the gathering spot for the entire family, as well as the parade of friends and neighbors who stopped by to offer their support. At times we felt as though our hearts would literally shatter, and at other times they were lifted in joy and laughter as the photo albums we pored over evoked stories and memories of our tender, soft-spoken, and unconditionally loving father. I was sitting off by myself, looking through one of these albums when my mom walked over and handed me a card. “This is the card your father gave me for our 60th wedding anniversary two months ago,” she said. As I turned the card over to see the cover, my heart skipped a few beats.

There, set in an oval, were two beautiful white trumpeter swans.

Now, I had never seen trumpeters before, yet I saw them on that perfect day, which also happened to be the last day my dad walked this earth. And I might never know if the swans on the card were my white bird sign, and frankly, it’s not all that important if they were or weren’t. All I know is, in that exact moment, the molecules snapped back into position and no longer obstructed my view. I realized then that the surreal clarity of the day had existed BECAUSE of him, not in spite of him. It’s like the two opposite experiences of that day were no longer contradictory or mutually exclusive; in my mind they now existed in perfect symbiosis.

I can now equate the euphoria of the day to the joy and celebration that was his life. I can equate what I felt that day to the joy and celebration he would have shared with us had he been along on the hike, and I can equate what I felt that day to the joy and celebration that surely greeted him when he arrived at his final destination.

After all, that day had my dad written all over it. He would have gotten such a kick out of all that we did since he loved being outside and loved nature. From mentally sharing the tree pattern with him to the first trumpeter swan sighting of my life, only to have them show up again a day later in a card he himself had bought…well, I just look back on it and realize there was some kind of connection between me and something, though I can’t put into words yet what that something was.

The only thing I knew at the time was that the day was clearly unlike any other I’d ever experienced, but now that I know it was the last day of his life, I can look back on it and, rather than feel the guilt, I can feel the euphoria again, though now for different reasons than I originally thought. To me, the feelings I recall from that day represent the wonderful legacy of his life and the wondrous life that he is surely living now. And although grief has taken up residence in my heart, a sense of peace is there to hold grief’s hand.

I don’t pretend to know for a second how God or the universe works (heck, I’m still fuzzy on how my DVR works) but there has to be some reason why the day unfolded the way it did. And as is my and my dad’s modus operandi, I don’t really need to know the answers; I’m just thrilled I have a chance to ask the questions and ponder the possibilities.

I also don’t pretend to know the exact location of where we go when we die, and I’ve never even particularly believed it’s “up there” in the sky. But every time I think back on February 8, 2008, I can’t help but think there were two trips to Cloudland made that day: my trip to a studio with that name and my dad’s trip to the original.

From Tim Ernst’s Blog—June 8, 2009
For my first trip of the day I headed out early to make another attempt to photograph the white squirrel that lives nearby. We’ve seen him off and on here for the past several months but I’ve never been able to get a good photo of him. With my wildlife picture book deadline looming I’ve decided to double my efforts on this most-unusual critter. I drove up the road and parked right in the middle of the trees where the squirrel has been spotted most of the time. To let the squirrel get used to my car being there I hiked the mile on out to our mailbox to pickup Saturday’s mail.

There was a FAT letter addressed to me—I almost never get real letters anymore, so I opened it and started to read. I perfected the art of reading-while-hiking back in 1981 as I was backpacking across Kentucky with a group of hikers that were hiking across the entire U.S. We had to hike a lot of backroads that were mostly empty other than the big Peabody coal trucks that flew by (John Denver’s song was SO true!). I cannot read a word while riding in a car without getting a headache, but it is no problem to read while hiking—tough to do on a trail though, but along a straight highway shoulder is no problem.
The letter was from a Journal reader who happens to have her own blog. She sent 12 pages of printouts from a blog entry last year titled, “Two Visits To Cloudland” (it is a private, family blog with no public access, and has photos and comments). The first part included a visit to Cloudland that she describes as being one of the most amazing days of her life (the Cloudland visit was a very small part of her day, but it was relevant to her, and to my post today as you will read). The first six pages described her trip to Cloudland, seeing some great wildlife along the way, and then a wonderful hike down to Hawksbill Crag. She described the day in a way that I see the atmosphere out here frequently—crystalline. (Sorry Jan, but I plan to use that term more often now that you explained it so well!)

It was great to hear of such a trip that gave so much joy to this lady and her friends—however on page seven her day turned into horror as she learned that while she was out enjoying the day her dad had been in a terrible car accident and died a few hours later. Tears began to flow and I had some trouble keeping my course straight along the road (she is a VERY good writer). She piled a heap of guilt on herself for having such a fine day while her dad was dying.

Albino squirrel.
Albino squirrel.

Turns out that long before he died, father and daughter had a discussion about life after death, and she asked him to send her a sign so she would know he was up there. She asked for “an albino animal.” Since there are not too many of those in the world they settled on a white bird. She had seen the trumpeter swans in Boxley on the way out to Cloudland that day, but did not know the significance of them at the time. Later on at her parents house she found a card from her dad that included a photo of white trumpeter swans—it was then she realized her dad had indeed sent a sign down to her—in fact, twice. Wow.

Jan—this is the part that you don’t know yet. Ten minutes after I finished reading your letter, the white albino squirrel appeared—”Three” visits to Cloudland.

Here is the link to Tim’s original post: M! February/March 2014




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