The Rarified Air of Love and Compassion

Our diverse hiking group included five women and seven men from different parts of the country. Some of us had never met, though four were related to James Rightmire. All of us were representatives for both branches of James’ parents Bill and Rhonda. The eight who were not related by blood or marriage were such close friends with the Rightmires, there was no disputing we too belonged in their family tree.

At the trailhead of Woody Creek all thoughts became aligned with our feet and our collective mission to support James. This was the 10th anniversary, July 8th, of the plane crash that took his pilot father Bill, his mother Rhonda, his 16-year-old brother Keith, and Keith’s best friend Eric. Bill, a veteran captain for United, had flown them all to Aspen that morning. They had only been in the air a few minutes on their return flight to Denver when the accident happened. The crash site is located several hundred feet off the trail, a few miles from the trailhead.

Earlier this year James had sent out a welcoming invitation for us to join him in marking this poignant occasion. Each of us knew making pilgrimage to the crash site would be one way for us to show our respect. It would also allow each of us to connect with beautiful memories of love for the Rightmires and for Eric. As is the nature of visits to a cemetery or grave marker, we were hopeful this hike would provide an opportunity for some healing solace for a void that will always remain unfilled.

This anniversary would also highlight a significant point in James’ own life, as he gave voice to moving forward. James had shown he had transcended an unimaginable grief process with the help of many relatives and friends and he wanted everyone to know he was able to go on and live his life in peace. The gift of having parents as marvelous as Bill and Rhonda is that they had given to James an unshakable foundation for how to walk with courage, faith and grace. He has mastered all three, and so so much more.

The essence of pilgrimage is enduring tests of body and spirit, surrendering all ego so as to merge with and be filled with the Divine. We knew we were on a spiritual journey that few will ever experience. There was no doubt the hike not far from Aspen would be challenging, but none of us could have envisioned the breadth and depth of this physical and emotional trek.

The youngest in the group was my 27-year-old daughter Jesse, who has been best friends with James since middle school and was very close with Eric and Keith. The oldest was James’ free-spirited grandfather Chuck — Rhonda’s father — who at the age of 76 indulges a long-held passion for smoking, silly riddles and jokes. The shortest was Marilyn at 4 feet 11 inches. Marilyn is a friend of Rhonda’s sister Joiceann and very close with James. Marilyn was as undaunted by the many steps she would have to take just to keep up with us as she is about turning 65 later this year. The tallest was Ryan, who hadn’t changed a bit since I watched him, Jesse, James and Keith perform in their high school marching band. If there’s anyone who seems to have cracked the anti-aging secret, it’s Ryan.

The middle height and middle-aged hikers included Roger, an F-16 fighter test pilot who revered Bill as a mentor; Jim, who had been Bill’s roommate at the Naval Academy and a kindred spirit; Chip, the brother of James’ maternal grandmother, came with his daughter Tiffany, a pilot with Continental, and his wife Lynn. She is a physical therapist who has spent many days hiking the Sierras and described Woody Creek trail as the most beautiful; and Dick, Ryan’s father whose task was to keep head count and bring up the rear. After the tragedy Dick and his wife Vickie had graciously invited James to live with their family and helped James finish his senior year of high school.

But of everyone present, it was Chuck who unexpectedly grabbed all of our attention and admiration. Chuck had ached to see where his beloved daughter, grandson Keith and son-in-law Bill had been. Watching Chuck struggle to catch his breath and hold a steady balance as he crossed back and forth over the makeshift log bridges spanning the gushing mountain stream was simultaneously painful, unnerving and ultimately inspiring. He became an unforgettable example of the power of mind over matter.

As we walked single file along the narrow path, trying to catch up with Chuck who had bolted ahead of us minutes earlier, the bond that emerges from a shared loss suddenly became visible. Our desire to pay our respects instantly became secondary to helping Chuck arrive at the most sacred place his heart would ever know, and to also be sure he made a safe descent.

Despite all of our obvious differences, we were not separated by genealogy, gender, height, age, religious denomination, sexual preference or political affiliations. Rather we were united as one mind and spirit — twelve disciples of love and compassion.

It took us 6 hours to complete the 8 mile hike, covering an ascent of nearly 1200 feet to reach our destination over 9500 feet. For many people much younger than Chuck, walking at Denver’s mile hi altitude of 5280 is enough to create fatigue and discomfort. Those who are not acclimated to the thinner and drier air would have felt some pain or may have found the hike too difficult to finish in a day. But the twelve of us were lifted by powerful forces of love and a decade of grief that became transformed by the majestic beauty of the forest, its stunning wild flowers and the cleansing white water of Woody Creek.

There are maybe a handful of days in the span of a lifetime when one knows the meaning and glory of each step and each breath one is taking through every minute. Accompanying James on his breakthrough hike is such a precious memory. We were fully alive and conscious of the unique blessing: to be able to learn by James’ example of Divine Grace. From that we have grown stronger in courage and in faith.

Giselle M. Massi © July 14, 2010