Releasing Dave Gogolak’s Ashes: An Extraordinary Pilgrimage
My friend Nicole tragically lost her husband, Dave, in an avalanche nine years ago. A piece of her heart died on January 13th, 2008. She was left alone with their two young children.
Nicole and I became friends when our boys were in the same class. Our friendship deepened when we drove together to Denver for a school field trip. We discussed every intimate detail of our lives during the eight-hour, round-trip drive.
When Nicole shared some of her dating woes with me, I looked over and saw that she was wearing her wedding ring. I asked her why she was wearing it after all these years, even though it was obvious that she was still in love with her late husband. She told me that as much as she wants to move on with her life, she can’t seem to part with him. Every January, around the time of Dave’s death, Nicole hides in her home, shedding tears and heartache over missing the love of her life.
I suggested that we needed to have some kind of special ceremony to symbolically let go of Dave so that Nicole could move on. Dave’s body had been cremated and some of his ashes released off the San Francisco Bay, where they had lived at the beginning of their marriage. The rest of his ashes sat in a box in her home. We decided that on the anniversary of his passing, we would hike up to the top of the mountain and let go of Dave’s remains, sprinkling them like angel dust.
Nicole invited a few of her close friends, some of whom had known Dave, while others had only heard about his legend, to hike or skin up Tiehack (the east side of Buttermilk Mountain) after sundown on the seven-year anniversary of Dave’s death. The weather was bleak and snowy on the day of our scheduled ceremony. Earlier in the day we questioned whether we should postpone the hike. I probably could have convinced Nicole to postpone the ceremony to the following day, but we had been planning this for about five months. I felt strongly that it needed to take place on the same day Dave had died.
Maybe the bad weather was a sign from above: hang in there; don’t give up; life gets better. By the time we made it to the Tiehack parking lot, the snowfall had ended and the weather had turned mild. We grabbed our gear from the backs of our cars, piled on our layers, and prepared for the pilgrimage. A few of us skinned up the mountain, while others chose to hike with snowboards strapped to their backs.
Our uphill trek was surreal. We couldn’t see the moon, but the abundant stars lit the night sky, giving us a subtle, glowing light. Along the way, Nicole chatted about Dave and the calm peacefulness she felt about letting go of him, literally and metaphorically. We took our time hiking up the hill, awestruck by the natural beauty that enveloped us. The smooth blanket of snow helped our feet glide as we pushed ourselves to the peak.
Upon arriving at the top of Buttermilk Mountain, the group gathered around a picnic table surrounded by panoramic views of the spectacular snow-capped mountains. One of the women pulled from her backpack a bottle of Prosecco, plus some cheese, crackers, and chocolate. We each poured a small serving of the bubbly drink in a paper cup and took turns saying something to honor Dave and Nicole while nibbling on our snacks. All of us felt blessed to be a part of the special ceremony.
We then headed to the edge of the mountain where Nicole opened her large Ziploc bag and released Dave’s remains out into the abyss. The ashes floated into the air, creating a luminescent cloud that slowly evaporated into the night sky. Chills pricked every inch of my skin as I watched Nicole let go of her husband.
Afterward, we hugged each other and wiped away our tears. But these tears were different. Rather than tears of grief and pain, they symbolized new beginnings and a new life to come. It was cathartic. Dave’s memory will continue to live on in Nicole’s heart, but at least she is now at peace with his death as she journeys into the next chapter of her life.
Soon after, we grabbed our skis and prepared for the downhill journey. It only took about fifteen minutes to ski back to the base. Everyone thanked each other before heading home, grateful to be included in an evening that will remain with us forever.
This special journey provided the seed for my debut novel, Lost and Found in Aspen. I set out to write a story that would help others deal with loss and grief in a warm and humorous way, to inspire and give hope to people who have experienced tragedy and life’s fragility. Although the book is a work of fiction, and many of the characters and scenes were a figment of my imagination, within the story lies a glimmer of truth. Reality is filled with emotional turmoil and how we learn to overcome the darkness is ultimately what makes us who we are.