“Leaning Into the Rocks” by Pamela Galbreath

16 November 2018 on Nonfiction   Tags: ,

Comets. Powerful, turbulent. Looming, in chilling silence. It is difficult to think of them as ice and gas. Easier for me to think of them as massive rocks set ablaze by some unfathomable deity. Astronomical wonders, awesome, akin to the terror of earth’s medieval and Elizabethan observers. Akin to my terror.

Comet Hyakutake blazed in the frigid March 1996 night sky. This wasn’t my first comet. In 1986, a friend and I rose at 4:00 a.m., donned layers of clothes, drove to the prairie on the west end of town, peered through the university’s strong telescope, and swore we could see Haley’s tail changing shape, imperceptibly, like veils of virga above the dry earth.

I believed in the turbulence of the gasses, the particles, the energy. The comet’s silence was like a roar, the bass sound of gas against rock. Behind me, waiting her turn, Carol said, “Never again in our lifetime, right?” My mortality slammed into me.

On the night of Comet Hyakutake, I nudged our youngest son to bed. “If you don’t sleep, Daniel, I can’t wake you when it’s time.” He had begged for days to see the comet when it would shine its brightest.

Just past 3:00, I went to him. “It’s time.” I swaddled him and his panda bear in a blanket, carried them outside to the deck, felt a sense of vertigo as I scanned the blackness and stars.

“Look,” I whispered into his ear, which smelled of the warmth of sleep. “There it is.”

He bobbed his head, peering. “Why are we whispering?”

“Because we don’t want to scare the comet away.” I hoped to hide my fear from my son.

We listened. I whispered, “Can you almost hear it?  The comet slicing through space, like our sled on snow?” He closed his eyes, nodded.

“I see its tail wagging. Is it wagging?” he asked.

“It’s dancing,” I said. “Those are its veils.” I tightened my grip on his small body.

“I’m freezing,” he said. We slipped inside. “Night, night, Comet Hyakutake,” he said.

I made an ordeal of tucking him into his bed of warmth and safety and, after the comet, comforting smallness. Returning to my own bed, I could not sleep for the awful, unwelcome visions that were part of motherhood. The what ifs. My child whisked from my arms, sucked into the massive comet. His screams, his arms convulsing toward me. My screams, rendered silent by my horror. I remembered as well holding my two older sons’ arms in a death grip as they leaned toward the bubbling cauldrons at Yellowstone. I knew that all I had to do was make one wrong move and I would lose what was dearest to me. Too often, I angrily admitted to the dawn, I made mistakes that carried me dangerously close to that loss.


When I was nine, our family lived in a new suburb outside Washington, D.C. Walking in the scrubby woods behind our house, I found chunks of concrete, granite, longed to find real gems and minerals. At night, I dog-eared my copy of a book about rocks and minerals, a gift from my grandmother. When I showed it to Mrs. Yancey, my teacher, she said I should treat it as a field guide. “Underline and annotate.” When I hesitated, she said, “Go on. It’s fine. That’s what geologists do.”

I believed myself a geologist, carried my field guide and kept my gaze downward, searching the street gutters for obsidian and quartz and the bubbly-looking malachite.

I wrote my grandmother to tell her of the concrete chunks I found. She sent me, from a store in her Vermont town, thumb-size mineral specimens glued to thin cards that revealed their names. I now had my obsidian and quartz and, in place of the malachite, a shingle of mica. I kept some concrete because I alone had found it.

My rock collection grew and eventually took third place at the school science fair, which Mrs. Yancey insisted I enter. A year later, blue-green tarnish covered the trophy. I didn’t mind. I was a winner with my rocks.

I remember a picture in my field guide of a man in breeches and high-top laced boots, a field jacket and hat, legs apart in counter-balance to, I guessed, the high plains prairie wind. The horizon went on and on. Mesmerized by this man, I was sure he found exotic gems and minerals at his feet, identified and placed them in glass-topped museum shelves. In 1961, I wanted to be this geologist.

In 2006, living in Wyoming, I met a woman named Eleanor Keefer. Eleanor was the daughter of Dr. Samuel Howell Knight, a geologist and geology museum curator, nationally renowned, featured in a 1963 issue of Time magazine as “Mr. Wyoming University.” I described to Eleanor the picture from my childhood field guide.

“Oh,” she laughed, “that sounds like a picture of my father in another book.”

She suggested I find a copy of Samuel Howell “Doc” Knight: Mr. Wyoming University by Frederick Reckling and JoAnn B. Reckling. I bought the book, found the picture of Doc Knight in high-top laced leather boots on page 54. The famous geologist was in the foreground, a mountain prairie stretching behind him. He wore breeches, a light canvas jacket, brimmed hat, and neck scarf. His stance anchored against the wind. This had to be the geologist I once wanted to be.

Adorning the window ledges and filling baskets in my Laramie house were the many rocks I had gathered from the prairies Doc Knight must have walked on. Perhaps he picked up a piece of snow-white quartz and brought it to his daughter, who lived in the ‘50s with her husband in the house we now own. Perhaps she placed it on the very ledge where my snow-white quartz now rests.


As I watched my husband fly fish in the mountain stream, I dropped river stones in my pocket. Only one more, I weakly promised myself. When my sons were young, we created water castles from the creek’s sand, decorated them with the smooth, round pebbles.

Near the banks, in the shallow water, the glistening stones displayed vibrant color, their outlines dancing in the gentle eddies. Occasionally, a tiny minnow darted and disappeared from a watery rock cave. The creek’s burbling soothed me. Eventually, I carefully climbed onto a warm boulder farther out, felt cut off but content.

“I need better waders, better grip,” John said, dripping on the bank. “Those rocks out there are slick. The sandstone is the worst.” He used words like treacherous, nasty, just waiting to make me slip.

I didn’t like that he saw as foes the very rocks I loved, but I didn’t want him hurt, didn’t want any reason to hate the river rocks. Their heaviness in the current was always an odd solace, a source of steadiness, something to hold to, something that would not shift under my weight and worries.

“They’ll cost,” my husband said of the waders.

“I don’t care,” I said.


The lid of my niece’s suitcase sat at an obstinate yawn.

“Let me try,” I said.

The problem was rocks. She gathered so many during her week with us, planned to take them home to Pittsburgh.

As we trudged the prairies, peaks, and river valleys, she seemed to relax, keeping up with her long-legged uncle, saying little but smiling. Soon, she would begin medical school. A 4.0 undergraduate, she still feared she wasn’t good enough to be a doctor. At night, in our guest bedroom, she woke from horrible dreams.

Crossing a boulder field at one point, I spied a fist-size piece of granite, shaped like a tiny mountain peak. I pushed the rock into Jess’s hand. “Here’s your mountain. You’ll climb it.” Without a word, she shoved it in her coat pocket.

The mountain rock was in her suitcase, with her other rock treasures. I wedged them into and between shoes, t-shirts, and jeans. Closed the lid, hugged her hard, prayed the mountain rock would be what I wanted it to be.

Long years later, my niece a pediatrician, I spied the mountain rock on her desk. It was just a rock, but I had believed it was something more, and thus it was.


My dream, as a fifth-grader, had been to find quartz crystals and amethyst at my feet. The dream had nearly become real when, a few years ago, John and I ran the dogs in the Happy Jack Hills, just east of Laramie. I climbed through a labyrinth of dead-fall with our older dog, looked down, and there it was. The dream. Bubbly, deep-ocean-green crystals, held by the bulk of the rock—pumice like.

A friend offered to show it to her geology class lab assistant.

She brought back his theory:  It could be from the earth’s mantle, probably 27 miles deep, a kind of  “ultramorphic” rock. The green darkness could be pyroxene, the bubbly mass silicate, the green gem olivine. It definitely was, in his words, “one cool ass rock.” He wanted to keep it another day, to show his professor. I agreed, but would she please make sure I got it back?

“It’s slag,” the professor told the lab student, who then told my friend. “An impurity that fell into a blast furnace. A giant cinder with glass in it.” Then, the worst:  “It’s not a rock at all.”

I placed the slag on the windowsill, pretended it was pyroxene, silicate, and olivine, and loved it as a cool ass rock. A treasure is what someone makes of something.


In the fall of 1997, returning to high school teaching, I was no movie heroine in my first period class. The students were an unruly, disrespectful lot to the new teacher, and I was unsure, defensive, and reactionary. Eventually, we wore each other down, but then we grew in fondness, and the last weeks of the semester seemed poignant.

Panting, Tad rushed into class, tardiness on his heels.  “Look, Mrs. G. Hold out your hand.” I had no choice and stiffened for what might come.

“Look how round it is, Mrs. G.” The tiny stone looked like a garbanzo bean. “It’s just like you said about all of us, Mrs. G—almost perfect. You too.”

I’d forgotten I’d said those words, possibly in anger.

“Do you want it back, Tad?” I would have cried had he said yes.

“Oh, no, Mrs. G. That’s yours.”

It’s mine, even now. It has its own place of honor: one of the faux velvet-lined compartments in my jewelry box. Even now, I mistake it for a garbanzo bean. Even now, I keep the roster of names for that class.


My husband’s depression dug in its claws. His church, his religion meant so much to him, but after those few days, rock bottom, he said he couldn’t go to the Palm Sunday service, even though his sons were participants. He said he couldn’t leave his chair. Until he stood, bolted for his truck, drove off.

After anger and demands for distance, he sought our doctor’s help. The medication, the counseling gave promise but were slow to work. The minister at our church talked with me after each service, offered prayers, offered advice that seemed wobbly to both of us. One day, as I cried, he searched in silence for anything.

He told me that when kayakers, like himself, come to the dangerous rock gardens in the turbulent rivers, they do something that is against the instincts of humans.

They lean toward the danger. They lean into the rocks.

I went home, told my husband we would be in this together.


Sister Clarence gathered her Convent of Mary Immaculate first graders into a line and marched us from our classroom, through the sizzling Key West morning air, along a pebbled path, to the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. The white marble Blessed Virgin looked down on us from a cove in the towering structure made of smooth, substantial island stones.

Sister Clarence explained that the grotto, designed by Sister Louise Gabriel in 1922, was built to secure the Blessed Virgin’s protection of the island from hurricanes. Sister vividly described what tides and winds had inflicted before equally powerful volumes of prayers had been lifted to Jesus’ mother.

Caught in the spell of Sister’s stories, we girls clutched our rosaries, murmured our Hail Marys. I knew beyond a child’s doubt that the marble was Mary, that the sun’s warmth was her sign of constant protection.

Once, before prayers, Annette and I stole around to the back of the grotto. Here, the grass was sparse and dry, the stones jagged, precarious, angry. Scorpions surely nested in the pockets created by mortar carelessly applied. The mound of rocks loomed high and ugly, like a thick- shouldered monster, shutting us off from safety.  We scurried back to Sister, to the Virgin, and to the sun-warmed and pretty stones that created her shrine.

No longer a Catholic, but when sorely frightened, I pray the Hail Mary. I cannot picture the Blessed Virgin without her grotto.


In the mountains, I showed my toddler sons the treasures at their feet. I taught them from my new field guide, content to watch them explore, giving them permission to save their treasures. The wind incessant, I drew comfort from their full pockets, as if they were securely tethered to the earth.

Today, the treasures from their childhoods fill my outdoor gardens, indoor baskets, jars, and shelves. Gathered long ago by boys now grown tall. Anchored by their love of mountains.


May, 2001, Andrew’s fifteenth birthday. The five of us ate cake and ice cream in silence. Andrew, I kept telling myself, was just going through a phase. He was evasive about how he’d use the birthday check we’d written him. 

The relentless rainfall in the Sheridan-Buffalo area resulted in what the Wyoming Department of Transportation called “oversaturation of the ground.” Unconsolidated rock, a geological formation on which the highway was built, weakened and began to shift.  

At Milepost 39.5, the outside edge of the southbound lane crumbled, started its slow slide into the valley. WYDOT diverted traffic to the passing lane and patched what it could. Stop-gap measures. The engineers worried over further crumbling.

When Andrew turned sixteen, he announced he would play in a rock band rather than go to college. At our insistence, we traveled to colleges. At a Missoula restaurant, he asked, “Did you do drugs in college?”

That September, he was arrested for drug possession. He hauled to the living room one dozen empty Vodka bottles, said, “My trophies.”

“I’m losing you, you little shit,” I cried.

Days later, I sat with him in a crowded courtroom. He played with a key chain, a tiny plastic beer bottle dangling from it. After the sentencing, five hundred dollars, he told me he first tried drugs with a church youth group.

At Milepost 39.5, on my way to Buffalo, to the high school where I taught, I moved easily into the left lane, trusting that WYDOT was on constant vigil and would return us to normal.

The rain continued, seeping into the deep layer of crushed rock under the highway. Loaded with moisture, the layer lost its integrity. A drunken foundation. Six thousand semi-trailers per day rumble over I-90, each cargo-full truck doing the damage of four thousand cars. At Milepost 39.5, the weakened foundation stressed to where WYDOT officials could do nothing but say they saw it coming.

“Leave your ball crap with your parents.” One of the rehab center’s social workers led our son away. Another social worker questioned us, concluded that Andrew’s addictions were hereditary. Ancestral addictions.

“You’re saying it’s our fault?” I croaked.

Moving to the passing lane, my tires hit something that caused the car to swerve violently. “God almighty!” I yelled, held the shaking wheel to finish the curve. In the rear view mirror, I saw nothing. But I knew the highway was going. I muttered, “Where the hell is WYDOT?”

“Are you coming up?” Andrew asked in a hateful voice.

“Yes,” I said. “What do you need?”

“Dad’s guitar. That’s all.” 

Late afternoon, a WYDOT administrator in Buffalo reported a substantial crack at Milepost 39.5. Heading home to Sheridan, I slowed, saw the curvy crevice that my tires struck earlier. To prevent accidents, truck drivers formed a barrier until the police could re-route traffic through Banner on Hwy 191.

At 8:00 p.m., a 300-foot section of the southbound lane, enough earth to fill an Olympic swimming pool, slid into the valley, in four minutes. A $3,770,036.71 loss to the State of Wyoming.

Andrew and I pounded the sidewalk bordering Rimrock Rehab.

“Do you want me to come up next Saturday?” I asked.

“You decide.

“I love you.” I reached through my tension to hug him.

“What the fuck ever.”

Parents’ Week, late October. A psychologist talked about co-dependency and enabling behavior. I told her I was not an enabler. I loved my son. I wanted to help him.

After a sleepless night, eyes swollen from crying, I admitted it: I am an enabler.

A geologist gave his take on the landslide: “It just went slip, slip, slip, slip, then sliiiiide!”  He crouched and threw his hands up like a surfer. Unstable rock.

A few days later, doing eighty, eighty-five south to Sheridan, just past the sign that reads “Wyoming Like No Place on Earth,” I hit a snow squall. Watery blobs froze on the windshield. I blasted the defroster, blinked away tears. I-90 had been slick since Billings, and I was still far from home. I should have slowed the car, but I didn’t care what was ahead.  The counselors told us that 50 percent of the kids would be—or should be—back in rehab in a year. Andrew would re-enter our family but might not exhibit “stability.”

Eighty-five thousand cubic feet of rock and earth rumbled into the valley, and every WYDOT worker I talked to said, “That stretch of the highway is prime for landslides. Inevitable.” They figured repairs would take at least the next six years.

I yanked the car to the slushy shoulder, got out. Across the valley, the Big Horn Mountain range, a product of ancient, unstable, and shifting ground, loomed dark, ominous, stygian behind the veil of pelting snow. I screamed at the mountains, “Why are you so fucking complacent?”

A Montana state trooper pulled up. “Ma’am, are you all right?”

“I am,” I said and got back in the car, furious at the challenge the dark cliffs hurled in the storm. WYDOT workers said repairs would start soon.

“We’re wondering if we’ll ever get it stable, get it right,” said one.


From the parking lot, we ascended the narrow path to the Snowy Range peaks. I had wanted a gentler hike, but Evann, John’s younger sister, wanted the gusts, the thin, throat-scratching air, the gravel that invited skidding, the vast sky. As if she needed to continue a fight not yet won. She had nearly lost a son and a daughter. Her husband was slowly dying.

The high path plateaued. Ahead of us, on the left, was a cairn.

“A sheepherder, maybe,” I called out, “but it seems so high up.” I placed a hefty rock on the existing pile.

To Evann’s why, I answered, “Hope. A sign of belief. The power of all this. Some say that sheepherders built them just to mark direction.” I didn’t share that a rock’s impenetrable heaviness calmed me. Rocks, even in Wyoming, don’t blow away.

She stared at the thigh-high mound, tapering from its wide base. The nomadic Basque sheepherders, living in total human isolation, called them arri mutillak. “Stone boys.” Companions, or possibly guides.

“But why add a rock?”

“I do it all the time. For the boys. To keep them safe.” I added, “Because we don’t go to church anymore.”

I cannot pass any cairn without adding to it, whispering my sons’ names. John walks on ahead. Choice and placement is solemn and private, satisfying my need for belief in something. In the electric isolation offered along mountain trails, I breath forth what the theologian Paul Tournier described as the most sincere of prayers—a mere sigh, but one that comes genuinely and from deep within.

I’ll just be a minute,” Evann said, and we trotted on ahead. I glanced back only once. Clutching rocks to her breast, she shoved one after the other into the cairn.


On September 3, 2012, we drove to the Sugarloaf picnic area, just below the Snowy Range peaks. Daniel’s choice. Our youngest, he would leave in a week to study music at the Birmingham Conservatoire in England. The wind was fierce, cold. He said the unthinkable, “I’ll miss the wind.”

We headed down a trail, our destination the glacial lakes, blue-green from mineral deposits in white quartz. Daniel led us, our silence thick with our emotions and worries.

We came often upon cairns, built by hikers in the likeness of those created long ago by Basque sheepherders, in their aloneness. I added to each one, whispering Daniel’s name, then the prayer, in a single sigh. My world and Daniel’s would soon have little in common. Our trail was at 10,000 feet. Birmingham’s highest point is 1,000. Soon, Daniel’s time would be, for me, at seven hours plus. When I nodded off to sleep, clutching my novel, he would be stirring. How would I mentally hold him through each day?  Another cairn, another rock. His name. A sigh.

As we walked, I stumbled over roots, my gaze steadfast on the back of my son’s head, my shoulders tight. The wind blowing us forward, I tried to remember when I last held him, and his stuffed panda, on my lap.

We topped the final hill, saw the glacial lakes, surrounded by quartz and green boulders. Daniel and John sat on the hillside, boulders shielding them from the wind. I hiked on, in search of something to mark the day. Past the hill’s peak, by the trail that would circle back to my husband and son, I spied a small chunk of blue-hued quartz, riddled with small green flecks. I pressed the stone tightly in my fist, said Daniel’s name, shoved my fist into my jacket pocket.


In my bedroom are three tiny cairns. By a framed phot of Daniel, age 2, are the blue-hued quartz gathered on the hike days before Daniel left for England and a piece of white quartz, shaped like a heart.

On another dresser is a ceramic dish, made by Andrew in elementary school. The bowl is filled with ten colorful, smooth stones gathered a summer ago on a turbulent, gray, windy Pacific beach, after we bid farewell to Andrew, a social worker in Seattle, and headed back to Wyoming.

That same dresser displays two rocks, shaped like mountain peaks. One is rosy quartz, the other granite. For Robbie, my oldest son. Challenges stretch ahead of him.

The cairns fill my aloneness, my empty nest. Arri mutillak.


In 2001, just after the concrete called I-25 Eastbound cracked and crumbled to the valley far below, I sat, an empty and confused parent, with other parents and family members, all of us wondering how the descent into drug and alcohol addiction had begun, if a way out existed. We watched a video in which a priest said, “Long after the Bible is no longer remembered, the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous will be with us.” He added, “The higher power need not be anything more than a tea cup.”

Stones in a garden. Stones in a stream. Tiny cairns. These awesome, silent stones are my tea cup.


Pamela Galbreath holds an MFA in Creative Writing and, until recently, taught writing courses at the University of Wyoming. Her writing has placed in competitions, and in 2011, she was awarded the Wyoming Arts Council Creative Writing Fellowship in Creative Nonfiction. In 2015, Under the Sun Online nominated her published essay “Toward Eternity” for the Pushcart Prize. Her essays have also been published in the anthology Unruly Catholic Women Writers: Creative Responses to Catholicism and in literary journals including The North American ReviewThe Vermont Literary Review, South Loop ReviewSaw Palm, The Emerson Review, Lumina, and Weave. She invites readers to visit her website pamelagmusings.com, where each month she posts a new essay. She is presently seeking an agent for her memoir, Plus Seven:  Musings from an Empty Nest, from which “Leaning Into the Rocks” is derived. She lives in Laramie, Wyoming with her husband, three horses, and two Labradors. 

"Untitled: Southern Wyoming" is by Kelly Elder. He is a Research Hydrologist with the US Forest Service in Colorado. This photograph was taken at 38,000' from seat 31F over southern Wyoming, on his way to do fieldwork in Alaska. You can find more photos from his journeys and studies on Instagram at @elderfoto.

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