In distance, Madera Canyon Recreation Area is a mere forty-five miles from Tucson, Arizona. Measured as a state-of-mind however, it’s on another planet. In the hour or so drive from the bustling city, stresses and cares seem to fade away, as the lovely blue Santa Rita mountains on the horizon come slowly and more sharply into view.
Once parked in the lot, and started up the Old Baldy Trail, it’s pretty hard to think about much except the rugged trail ahead, and the spectacular views all around.
Cares are left behind–and life is renewed.
It’s hard to think about death in these lovely surroundings–but the fact of the matter is . . . it’s never far away. We are all, only a heartbeat or a breath away from eternity.
In the midst of life–we are all just knocking on Heaven’s door.
This last Sunday, February 22nd, at seven 0’Clock in the morning, I made my last hike to Josephine Saddle, in Madera Canyon.
I didn’t walk alone. Death was with me–in my backpack–in the form of the cremated remains of my beloved brother Dale Edward Caplin, gone from this life on Valentine’s Day–February 14, 2015.
It was an appropriate day. Dale took a good sized piece of my heart when he left.
And it was the day the music stopped.
Dale was born in 1943, and lived to just a little short of 72 years old. Between those two dates are usually a dash. At least that’s the way it appears on the cemetery headstones. The little dash doesn’t look like much, but it represents the totality of a person’s life.
Dale crammed quite a bit into his dash.
His big thing was music. And he was great at it. An extremely accomplished organist and pianist, it was, simply–his life’s passion. He began playing when he was just a very small child. Mom and Dad bought him a tiny electric organ when he was around five or six years old. The kind that fits on a child’s lap. Most kids would destroy such an instrument in pretty short order.
Not Dale. He took it seriously.
He taught himself to play–and never had a single lesson in his life.
He could read music easily by the time he was ready for long-pants, and was one of the few Church organists that I ever knew of that could actually use the pedals the way they were intended.
Those who did it wrong were one of his major pet-peeves.
He loved all musical instruments, but cherished the big pipe organs–and was involved with the Arizona Society of Theater Organs for many years.
Dale played the Organ for years at the local Lutheran Church for extra cash. When the Church membership dropped and they couldn’t afford to pay him anymore, he just kept playing–for free.
One of his happiest memories, was of his opportunity to play the monster pipe organ at The Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City.
Very few receive that honor.
I like to think of him today–a part of the heavenly choir–playing the organ of course . . . and teaching the backup organists the proper way to use the pedals.
After the family moved to Arizona back in 1985, Dale and I became something of “outdoorsmen.” We loved to get out of the house for a good old-fashioned hike in the desert or mountains.
One of our favorite places was Madera Canyon Recreation Area, just to the southeast of Green Valley. We made the hike up Old Baldy Trail many times, and often continued on up to the top of Mt. Wrightson.
It was a grueling hike, but a breath-taking view–high enough to be able to look down on The Mount Hopkins Observatory, located one mountain over. But we were young then, and took it in stride–pun intended, by the way.
Often we would pass by the marker left by The Boy Scouts of America, in honor of the three young men that perished in a freak snowstorm in November of 1958. One cannot stand above their death-site and be unaware of the fragility of life.
Dale and I would talk of death–usually in a joking manner–and he often told me that those mountains were the place that he wanted his cremated remains to be scattered. He also specified the very top of the mountain–where, he said–he would get the better view. I assured him that if I were to live longer than him, I would make it so.
Little did I think, back in those sweet and sunny summer afternoons of our youth, that the day would come when I would actually be called upon to keep my promise–or, that I would be too old and fat to entirely keep it, either.
I’m going on sixty-six years myself now, and realized that I no longer had the capability, whatsoever, in any way, shape or form–to make the long and arduous hike all the way to the top. The last time I made it, I recalled–was on the day I turned forty. I remember taking a long look around before I headed back down–saying to myself, that I needed to keep the images in my mind forever–because I sure as heck wasn’t ever going to see the top of that mountain again–unless of course they built a road up to it.
Well, they still haven’t built a road–so Dale kind of had to settle for a final resting place a little closer to sea-level.
It’s a two and a half mile hike from the parking lot to the top of Josephine Saddle, the connecting ridge between Mt. Wrightson and Mt. Hopkins. On the north side of the Saddle is Madera Canyon, and on the south side, looking toward Nogales and Mexico, is Josephine Canyon and Temporal (meaning time) Canyon.
That’s where I put him.
Exactly 9:20 in the morning–Sunday the 22nd. Up on the saddle, just over the top, on the Temporal Canyon side. His remains will work their way down the canyon, courtesy of the wind and rain, for centuries to come.
It was an appropriate location for a man a little obsessed with time. He had more than a dozen clocks in his small apartment–along with photos of each and every one of his family members–all long passed on from this world.
He died in his office chair–the result of a massive heart attack–facing those photos on the wall. I like to think that those sweet faces were the last thing he saw in this life–and the first he saw in the next.
He and I always joked about who would take the long trail first, and cross the great divide. Turned out to be him.
I guess he just got tired first.
I’m pretty sure it was illegal to scatter his remains there–but that’s okay too. Dale, much like myself, was always a little something of a scofflaw. Doesn’t matter now of course. All the king’s horses, and all the king’s men, couldn’t ever put Dale inside a container again.
Dale didn’t want a service–but he got one anyway. Just him and me, on a windswept ridge–up on God’s mountain.
I prayed over him, gave him a farewell blessing, sang (in a very broken voice) “God be with you ’til we meet again”–and recited–in it’s entirety, one of Dale’s favorite poems . . . “Abou Ben Adhem,” by Leigh Hunt.
It goes like this:
Abou Ben Adhem, may his tribe increase, awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight of his room, making it rich, and like a lily in bloom, an angel writing in a book of gold.
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold, and to the presence in the room he said: “What writest thou?” The vision raised his it’s head, and with a look made of all sweet accord, answered, “The names of those who love the Lord.”
“And is mine one?” said Abou.
“Nay, not so,” replied the angel.
Abou spoke more low, but cheerily still, and said, “I pray thee, then, write me as one who loves his fellow men.”
The angel wrote, and vanished.
The next night it came again, with a great awakening light, and showed the names whom love of God had blest,
And lo, Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.
Dale Edward Caplin, May 3, 1943 – Febuary 14, 2015.
He loved his fellow men–and he loved the Lord.
And he had one hell of a “dash.”
We love you–and we’ll remember you.
Farewell, and God-speed.
Second star to the right brother–and straight on to morning.
. . . and, may God be with you ’til we meet again.