In the summer of 2016 my family and I headed west as we always do for our annual trip to the H-Bar-G Ranch in Estes Park, Colorado. We spent a week at the ranch, soaking in the views of Meeker and Longs Peak and enjoying each other's company. But there was one person missing from the picture that summer; my grandfather.
Medical issues kept Grampy and his partner Maureen home that summer. For over ten years the duo had made the trek to the ranch from Florida where they'd spend the majority of the summer helping Julie, Tim, Jill, Rich and Anne with any ranch upkeep and projects. They decided to sit the summer of 2016 out in hopes that my grandfather would get better to enjoy many summers to come.
The week we were all together at the ranch, my grandfather went into the hospital only to be released on hospice care. At this point it was merely about making my grandfather comfortable in his final days.
Leaving the ranch is always difficult, but that summer it was exceptionally so. I drove out of the gates heading west towards Moab, UT, immediately recalling all the times my grandfather would sing-song Roy Roger's "Happy Trails" in years past as we drove off. The tears came too easy as the ranch and H-Bar-G road became a tiny speck in the rear view mirror and I realized the last time I will have seen my grandfather was the summer prior out at the ranch.
It's strange how you always manage to remember (seemingly) all the details when something bad happens. I remember driving with my family to Ogunquit beach in Maine when the radio DJ broke the news of Princess Diana's death. I was sitting in my History of New Hampshire class in high school when the planes hit the towers on 9/11. When I got the call that my grandfather had passed I had just made a bathroom stop at a Chevron next to Glazier's Market in Kanab, Utah.
Later that afternoon, my father texted with a simple request; capture one last sunset photo for Gramps. Overlooking a valley of majestic rock structures at Monument Valley, I witnessed, and captured, one of the most beautiful sunsets I've had the opportunity to experience.
A year later and the Herrin clan made the voyage back to the H-Bar-G Ranch. The itinerary included much of the same things we've done in years past; day hikes, ranch chores, eating too much food, but this time we were also celebrating the life of my grandfather in an ash-spreading ceremony. After an afternoon of remembrance, we laid Grampy John to rest, spreading part of his ashes in the place he came to love, forever keeping watch over the H-Bar-G Ranch and the Rocky Mountains. The other half was reserved for spreading at our beloved cabin on the pond in New Hampshire, Broken Paddle.
Getting Grampy back home to New Hampshire became my job as I had driven out to the ranch and would be making my way back east. And just like last year, my plan was to drive east - but we'd be detouring west first. We packed Grampy (in his Union Jack canister... his wishes) into the car, propping him up on a blanket in the middle seat ensuring he had an unobstructed view, and we set out for some amazing views and favorite national parks.
When I think of some of my favorite photographed moments of my grandfather, I always recall a photo taken of him at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Of course, I wasn't there, but I always felt connected to the image. I see myself in him. And so, I set out to not only get him home but also to photograph him in all these amazing places. On the edge of the earth, looking out over grand vistas and vast landscapes.
By the end of the trip, Gramps had made it to 6 National Parks, watched a handful of amazing sunsets, hiked to a natural arch in the desert, drove through the Valley of the Gods in Utah, watched the sun rise in the Tetons, sat on the edge of the world in Canyonlands, hunkered down with us during a sand storm in the Great Sand Dunes and drove thousands of miles from Colorado back home to the east coast. For me, bringing Grampy's ashes home became my way of finally saying goodbye - in the most "me" way I know how.
I hope you enjoyed the ride as much as I did, Grampy. Happy trails to you, until we meet again.