Watching the Hands

Idaho Magazine Oct. 2009 Vol. 9/No. 1

I look at the hands before me. They belong to a man with the temper to match the country he loves. He has guided, packed, and outfitted in Idaho’s Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area for over a decade. It is a land made for men who despise roads and easy traveling, men that are, out of necessity, part mountain goat and part mule. He is a tough man, scarred by life.

His legs, twisted by hours spent upon the backs of horses, become more bowlegged every year. They stretch out from under the table, no longer cramped by trucks and saddles. Worn blue jeans show me what he has done today. Mud, manure, and oil a testament to hauling horses to winter pasture, another example of the tireless spirit inhabiting the man before me. Despite the mud and grime hauling stock has been a nice break for him, for his hands.

The finger joints bulge awkwardly, victims of freezing weather and a knife that slipped, sunk into bone and cartilage. Joint fluid leaked from these wounds for weeks. He wrapped them in duck tape and kept going. He did not have time to be in pain. Thumbs have been smashed with shoeing hammers, due to jerking horses, multiple times. The result of having a few wild ones in the herd.

The knuckles do not belong to the hands of a man with a desk job. Crushed bones that healed without the help of doctors sink low under weathered skin, silent proof of youthful brawls. Back when he was a prospect in a biker club, a different lifetime full of stories that we hear from time to time. I know he does not tell us them all. That’s fine; people are entitled to their secrets.

Arthritis tortures the injuries of past and present. On both hands, middle fingers look angry and swollen. One happened breaking a branch on the trail. A habit you fall into after hours in the saddle, it passes the time. The branch snapped back breaking his finger. The doctor said there was probably nerve damage as well. The other finger hooked in the halter of a spooky horse. Nerve damage was not a question. Bone completely severed the tendon. A doctor sewed it together when he went to town. He was down the trail to hunting camp the next morning.

He says it’s harder to shoe now. He can’t get a firm grip on the hammer or rasp. Gloves don’t fit his hands anymore. The fingers are still too swollen to squeeze into the narrow confines of winter gear. Instead he uses socks with the ends cut off. He does physical therapy every day, bending stiff joints to save some flexibility in mangled fingers. The cold hurts them, like it hurts the metal plates in his face, one of those tales from another lifetime.

The hands wrap around a coffee cup, warmth soothes aching joints. He smiles. His winter beard half an inch shorter than summer’s fu Manchu, brown hair now overgrown by white and gray. A lot of that is my fault. Building my own vault of stories has been hard on him.

Blue eyes resemble mine, his are paler though. The blue the sky is when wisps of clouds float through it. We have the same temper, inherited from a volatile combination of German, Irish, Dutch, and Cherokee ancestors. An identical love for wild country and a parallel gypsy wanderlust that makes our feet itch to see what lies over the next mountain.

His clients say he was born in the wrong century I disagree. We need men like him in today’s world. He is my dad, a tough man, resilient and hard, with a soft heart that adults do not see but children do. Time will tell me if I have his toughness, honesty, and strength to battle life everyday. I hope that I do.

©Kaitlin Ens

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