Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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Yesterday I decided to clean out files moved from New York to Montana in the 80s, then twenty years later, from Montana to New Mexico. The files contain research for articles and books; drafts of those same articles and books; stories I never sent to anyone; topographic maps for every wilderness I’ve ever hiked; every piece of information about horses, dogs, falcons, bison, grizzly bears, gorillas, lions, jaguars I’ve ever collected; every letter — apparently — I ever received. Maybe I didn’t need to keep all the letters but after a long discussion with friends while we were at Antioch about how you decide which of your friends’ letters to save, and which to discard — since, of course, you would later want all those letters from your friends who had become famous — I took no chances. I kept them all.

That means I now have to read them.

So far I’ve found some rather passionate letters with signatures I cannot make out or first names I don’t remember. Many are dated with month and day, but no year. I’m tossing all of these, but I would suggest that people imagining immortality while writing letters by hand (in case anybody still does) date them with the year and print their first and last names. This may lack a bit in romance, but it does offer more chance of being remembered. Anyone doing anything illicit should, of course, write illegibly.

But some letters are gems. Two from my father are a priceless gift. In one he seems to be addressing a letter in which I must have lectured him about heat exhaustion. Perhaps he’d gone out to play golf on a hot day without wearing a hat, or drinking enough water, two things about which I do tend to badger David when we’re hiking.

My father wrote: Dear Ruth, I was delighted to receive that long informative letter and I must say if I had been aware of all those stages of heat exhaustion, I might have taken precautions to avoid them. Nevertheless, since you listed the three categories of heat exhaustion so completely and definitively and with such exactitude, I find that I must place my onslaught in the second category, and in the future, I will, I hope, recognize it and not subject myself to such self abuse.

Needless to say, I am particularly proud of your medical acumen.

As to exercise, gym classes and organized athletics, I have for as long as I can remember taken walks of at least 3 miles each morning, then come home to read and relax before playing golf after lunch. I also find time to enjoy an occasional game of bridge and gin rummy, dine out, shop, market, wash & polish the car. Incidentally, I also do a few setting up exercises upon arising and before retiring for the night, some of the same I taught to troops in the army.

I am terribly sorry I sounded down when we talked on the phone, but I am much better now and I will promise to follow your suggestions. I think you made your point. Frankly, I always thought I had led an exemplary life, beyond reproach and that I had set a standard of values by which you could guide yourself to a greater fulfillment of the best things in Life.

Let me close with this admission – I don’t like bean sprouts."

How wonderful to discover I had a father willing to listen to his daughter. Is this not what every child wants of her or his parent? Wouldn’t any daughter ignore the rather tongue-in-cheek attitude to know she’d been heard? I’m certain, though, I never suggested eating bean sprouts since I’m not fond of them either.

My father died while living with me in Montana. He and my mother arrived in October, 1995 and he died in January. After several years of living with a dementia caused by congestive heart failure, he was not the same man who wrote that letter. When he died, I wondered how we enter the world of spirit — as we are at the moment of death, or as we were? In the years since, I’ve decided that an overlay of disease cannot erase the spirit. Disease simply lies upon the spirit the way a broken limb lies upon the body, disease and injury both external events for the soul. Sometimes the body heals, but the soul always does. Death, itself a healer, makes the spirit whole. In the meantime, however, since I have no proof of this beyond my own belief, how wonderful to have this letter that brings me back the father I always knew.

Next I came across a draft of a letter I sent Pope John Paul II inviting him to go on a canoe trip with two friends and me in Montana. The three of us, Bruce, Bob and I, sitting in a café after a short backpack, decided the Pope could probably use a vacation. We thought he might find it refreshing to revisit interests of his youth in Poland, when he had been a skier and a canoeist. We decided that a Pope, for whom Nature was once part of life, would probably miss being in Nature, surrounded as he was by all the trappings of the Vatican.

Because I was the writer in the group, it became my job to write the note. It is dated:

Rose’s Cantina, Jackson, Montana, Sept. 13, 1983.

Dear Pope John Paul II,

Three of us, just come down from Homer Young’s Peak, were sitting in Rose’s Cantina having lunch before heading back into the wilderness. We thought of you and your canoeing days. It occurred to us you’d probably never been canoeing in Montana, so we thought we’d invite you on a canoe trip down the Missouri, whenever it was convenient for you. The best time on the Missouri is June and early July.

If you can join us, we’d be delighted to send you photos of the Missouri and the area we’d be traveling (we can make it as many, or as few days as you’d like), and a little of the history of this amazing river — at the edge of prairies and mountains — that led to the opening of the American west.

I received a note on embossed Vatican stationary thanking us for the invitation, but regretting the Pope would be unable to make the trip. I haven’t found that note yet, but I’m really only at the beginning of my clean-up which is taking a long time because of having to read all the letters. I’m not sure how much of a clean-up it will ultimately be since the only things I’ve managed to throw away so far are those letters from people who didn’t sign their names legibly enough for me to read. What kind of memories can you have of someone whose name you don’t know?

Perhaps more perplexing is what to do with the drafts of manuscripts that have been published. Certainly I don’t need them anymore, although all of them — of course — contain priceless information left out of the published work. I kept these because I thought all that was left out might provide substance for further articles or books, but I know I’ll never go back to find out what is there, that any new pieces I write I will research anew. So the drafts should just be taken to the recycling center. They are finished work. The necessity is to make space for what is ongoing, to clear out the past so there is room for the present.

But then there is every poem, every story I’ve ever written that has not been published. And the journals, the notebooks . . . there are so many of them! I suppose there’s no question about the journals. I suppose they stay. Who could throw out their life?

But what about all the query letters about ideas? What about the rejection letters that prove one is a writer? Do I need to keep these to show the IRS I’m legitimate? One, though, is a treasure I want to keep. In rejecting a novel my agent had sent her, an editor wrote, "This is too much like Camus, and he is no longer in fashion."

There could not be a more wonderful rejection. I may, in fact, have been influenced by Camus, whom I loved (love), although I never consciously tried to write like him. But to be compared to him seems high praise. Even more, to be told what I was writing was "no longer in fashion" seemed wonderful to me then, and still does. What could be more perfect than not being in fashion . . .

Copyright © 2012 Ruth Rudner