I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe… Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion… I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.
…all those moments will be lost in time… like tears in the rain.
At the edge of my parent’s porch I sat, watching the last remnants of a purified sky, once bright with light and unscathed from impurities now fading into darkness on the last night of my trip. Pink Floyd played through my headphones, the set of soft lyrics and mild chords leaving me with a myriad of thoughts circling around in my head, as was its intention. Thoughts of the past, thoughts of the present, and thoughts of the future…
It was in July of 2013 when the tradition began. The city of Spokane, Washington along with its neighboring towns had strangely become overrun by a massive yellow jacket infestation, Kanye West had just released his latest album, the highly acclaimed yet controversial “Yeezus,” and the one and only Bill O’Reilly was in town, quite possibly the biggest celebrity ever to step foot in Eastern Washington since Sarah Palin’s speaking engagement with Republic High School. And the best part, my mother had somehow managed to commandeer a few tickets for my dad and I to see him at the Spokane Arena! Thus, I made the venture home for the weekend, for there was no way I was passing this up, not with such high-demand items in our possession, especially when O’Reilly’s in town!
Apart from the weekend’s political punditry, all other affairs had been pushed aside for the time at the expense of a screenplay. Over the course of a year and a half, countless nights had been spent crafting my masterpiece, a well-entrenched story with twists and turns about an eclectic pair of police detectives on a quest to put an end to a cat burglar’s reign of terror—going from house to house around Brown County, Illinois and stealing his victims most treasured possessions… and then using their bathroom… and not flushing (I know what you’re thinking, how in the world did I ever conceive of such an idea?). Like many nights before it, “Turd Burglars” had once again sucked away the majority of my focus, deeming all other matters as insignificant.
My fingers typed ferociously across the keyboard, determined to meet my next self-imposed deadline, foolishly set to be the first of many postponements, a habit I fear I’ll never break as a writer. My mind ran on overdrive, fueled by the Pink Floyd kick I had developed a few months prior as my go-to choice for running music (there’s something about having the ability to explore the city and explore your mind all at the same time that creates stimulating effects…). Every part of me, heart, body and soul was set on it—this one goal, working overtime amidst an immanent bee assault, driven by the waning synthesizer rifts of “Have a Cigar,” and pushed by the answering guitar solos, a proclamation of war between me and my screenplay, that I shall continue to press forward into the late hours of the evening, that I would not stop until one of us was utterly and physically defeated.
It was a climactic and abrupt stop followed by a soft fade into nonsensical chatter. The song ended and my head shot forward, much like a diver would to catch his breath before sending himself back into the murky depths of treasure and discovery. In front of me was a bulge of orange light, the sun’s final stand against the overwhelming forces of night. “Hmm, that’s pretty,” I said with a shrug, ready to delve back into another writing surge.
I took a sip of beer and placed my fingertips back onto the keyboard—something was different this time. Goosebumps suddenly formed all over my body; my forearm hair stood straight like a thousand tiny needles pointed outward. I attempted to strike the keyboard, to input a series of legible keystrokes that would translate into prose; it was impossible. I was completely frozen, struck by the subtle and graceful guitar introduction to “Wish You Were Here,” and gazing into that same bulge of light I had tried to ignore a moment before, lowering itself against the scattered trees of the Dischmann-Mica valley. I sat back on the deck and succumbed to the power of the moment, any more attempts at writing would be useless from this point on.
There was no other sound but the soft melody of the song, no other soul around to break the concord, and no other movement but the slow fade of the red summer sun fighting against a pure sheet of darkness until its very last breath. I watched in peace and silence, and I remembered…
So… so you think you can tell
Heaven from Hell
Blue skies from pain,
Can you tell a green field,
From a cold steel rail
A smile from a veil
Do you think you can tell…
Cambray and Lauren watched from a stumped log as I waded knee deep in the water, the sun’s reflection sending an ever-changing fuchsia glaze over the lake’s surface. Soft ripples broke its plane, the last account of a flash rainstorm that had left Lauren’s side of the tent drenched and the raging winds that made paddling through Sawbill Lake nearly impossible, a small sample in a number of mishaps that nearly defined our rookie Boundary Waters trip, including a failed attempt to hang our Duluth Bags out of the reach from bears. But now, nearing the end of our journey, looking out across the lake of which I stood, saturated with an array of purple haze over a stilled marriage of wood and water, we were given a new definition.
The constant sound of breaking water drew louder with each push, a warm presence closing in on my position—Cambray and Lauren had joined me. Bantered words were exchanged amongst us after a few splashes and missteps had caused a squirm that wetted the tips of my cut-off shorts. I assessed the damage, scanning the areas of clothing I had failed to keep dry after so much care was given, then to the source of my failure. There was something different in the water, an evident aberration—a sudden diversion to my attention. Something had overcome; something had turned.
The water gave off a blood orange tint, a counter image of the sky. A heavy build of clouds moved across it, covering the girth of the setting sun. Not to be outdone, the sun sent out beams of light, pultruding beyond edges and piercing through at any point possible. We watched as the rays widened, bursting through the cloud cover and pushing them aside, revealing a message:
“Welcome to the End of the World.”
In an instant, blood orange turned blood red, and the clouds regrouped, darker, denser, and ready to charge, to eradicate all of the hate, evil, and destructive forces plaguing the world for so long—further proof that God was good on his word. We stood that evening in the middle of the Boundary Waters, amongst a most beautiful sunset placed at the edge of our world…
…And we welcomed it.
“I wish they were here to see this,” I thought to myself as the song’s chorus progressed. It had been two years since that evening in the Boundary Waters, and it was certainly a travesty that they, or anybody else for that matter weren’t able to see the potential on display, possibly the reason why it was so personal. Fortunately, it would only be a matter of weeks until our next reunion, where we would once again be surrounded by the unspoiled beauty that had been so captivating two years prior. I smiled a simple smile, for we were on the eve of another Boundary Waters trip.
Nearly a year later I found myself in the same position, gazing out at a similar sunset. Nate, one of my best friends from my childhood had just gotten married, following a weekend that consisted of bibulous behavior during a bachelor party (at least on my behalf) and a wedding scenario of which I got suckered into becoming a Star Wars Jedi Knight. With “Wish You Were Here” playing through my headphones, thoughts of the past swirled through my head—our many sleepovers staying up to conquer games from the many iterations of Nintendo consoles, building and destroying our creations in SimCity 2000, devising plans to cheat our way into a win at Monopoly, feasting on Pizza Hut pizza and drowning ourselves in Mountain Dew while drawn to a perfect TGIF lineup, and what kind of sleepover would it be without sneaking in a quick viewing session of the nudey scene from Titanic?
I thought about the present, how much fun it was to reunite with old friends, and wondering how in the world I got snookered into the whole Jedi Knight routine. And then there were thoughts of the future, where I was, where I was headed, and how I was going to get there. “How is my story going to play out?” I sat and wondered, watching the sun dim like a candle on its last cord of wax while listening to the simple, yet elegant progression of chords fade out, attempting to piece together another part of my life. I sat and watched, smiling a simple smile.
And now, here I was, another year passed, sitting in the same place with the same tune in my head after a long journey, with much to ponder…
Upon my arrival to my parent’s house two days prior, I learned that a memorial service was being held for an old friend I had met in college. It had been a while since I had seen Jon; moving away occasionally causes that sort of thing happen. However, you could always expect a hug and a smile from the man, no matter the amount of time spent apart, and as an accomplished, raspy-voiced blues guitarist with a skill set that always left you in awe (and with a hint of jealousy I must admit from time to time), there was a good chance that I, as well as many others would be graced with an original song or two whenever there was a get-together of sorts. Knowing the kind-natured spirit that Jon was, coupled with the fact that I was in the area, attendance to his memorial was mandatory if there was any shred of honor left in me after such a notorious trip.
A man with a heart of gold trapped in the body of a brute, there were very few people in the world that could say they didn’t like Jon at first sight, and those who did (if any) were most likely of the bro-type, envious of his striking resemblance to a Nordic Viking. Much was the case with our first meeting.
In a small apartment in Moscow, Idaho, where an eclectic group of skateboarders and University of Idaho students were gathered, in walked Jon to the spectacle of a strange boy singing the Red Hot Chili Peppers song, “Can’t Stop.” For some reason or another, choosing to heed to the song’s advice instead of affording our newly arrived guest the proper etiquette he deserved, I continued with my obnoxious singing (something that never happens. I mean, c’mon!). Any normal person would’ve countered walking in on such odd behavior with a look of disturbed perplexity, but not Jon. With a stroke of brevity, he immediately stepped up next to me and began beatboxing the bass rhythm of the song. From there and for the next couple of minutes, we performed a near perfect, and well-received number for everyone in attendance, neither one of us skipping a beat, as if we had spent years in preparation for this moment. Within a matter of minutes, we had become friends.
At the young age of 28, Jon had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, one that despite a fierce battle and multiple efforts to fight on, ultimately took his life a few months later. So on that Saturday in mid-July, I traveled to Princeton, Idaho and joined an already large gathering in honor of our late friend.
While some expressed excitement upon my somewhat surprise arrival at the Teeter Manor located on the outskirts of the small Idaho town, Mike Gibson brandished a look of disappointment as I drove passed and motioned his foot as if he were about to perform a curb stomp on my car’s frame with the intention of causing permanent deformation. The violent gesture put a smile on my face like no other person was capable of doing.
Arthur, an old skateboarding friend (and quite possibly the closest living reincarnation to David Bowie) started the memorial alongside Jon’s father with a procession of songs. About a hundred of us, friends and family listened as they played their guitars and sang with passion, songs about life, friends, and memories that emphasized Jon’s influence. The crowd favorite was a song about how you can “drink the beers to make it all go away,” an original written by Jon himself.
After the songs were over, a group of his closest friends, Jaired, Henry, and Destry joined Arthur to share a couple stories and their thoughts about the type of man Jon was—somebody who would never betray your trust; a man who took a promise to heart, who understood the sacred conviction of “your word.” He was quick to forgive, yet not to forget, as to ensure you were held accountable for your actions, for the better of your soul. And most of all, as elegantly reaffirmed by his mother, he was a man who always put others before himself, who would make your wellbeing his number one priority, even as he neared death.
As the evening came to an end, we made our way to the edge of the manor that overlooked the west, home to hundreds of acres of forest, rolling hills, and colorful farmland spread across an area of the Washington/Idaho border called “The Palouse.” Jon’s father led us in one last song, “Que Sera Sera,” a song that Jon would end each set with whenever he performed a show as we watched the sun set over the Palouse, bringing an even more vibrant string of colors to the already unique plot of country.
“To a life… lived without compromise!” They were the last words spoken during the sun’s final descent, a mighty and powerful toast given by Jon’s brother Mike, of which everybody accepted and drank to.
It was a celebration of life, and celebrate we did, well into the wee hours of the morning. As it had become widely known over the years in the Moscow area, there was a certain set of individuals who had developed a somewhat “infamous” reputation for partying during their tenure at the University of Idaho. Although some would view that behavior as nefarious, I contend that it simply amounted to a group of friends who enjoyed each other’s company, and expressed their sincere adulation for each other with an elevated sense of generosity whenever they were in the presence of alcohol. Many of those people happened to be in attendance, and being that Jon was a calm and collected individual, he wasn’t exactly one to participate in such outlandish behavior after a couple drinks. However, he was a friend to all and could tolerate the antics with love, no matter how unorthodox the night’s festivities would get. So the tradition continued on Jon’s behalf. As instructed by the words of his most popular song, “we drank the beers to make it all go away…”
But perhaps the thing that stood out to me that evening after all the haziness had settled were a few thoughts Jaired had shared about his late friend.
“…Jon was such an amazing person; somebody who wasn’t content with just settling. He was somebody who wasn’t afraid to follow his dreams… There were many nights that we spent out here at the manor. Jon would come sit outside for hours with his guitar, and he’d… he’d create some of the most beautiful music I’d ever heard. Music about life… his friends… and about living. We’d sit out with him, and we would just listen…”
Those words went through my mind as I sat on the edge of the porch that next evening after the memorial. To Create… It’s an integral part of living, almost a duty for being human. The very essence of nature demands that we create in order to survive, the most basic of these being sustenance, shelter, and tools to progress our lives.
But beyond that is a drive; an ambition to go beyond, to do things the world has never seen or even dreamed of, to prove the impossible as possible. It’s a drive that inspires revolution and ideas, ideas that turn into invention and art, the fundamental parts of us that make us human—that separates us from the rest of the animals. It’s a drive that allows us to create life… and a drive that above all, creates memories.
I couldn’t help but look back on the time I had just spent on the road, even if it were in some God forsaken place such as a Motel 6 in Rock Springs, Wyoming. What I would give to be sitting next to Shaun with a 40 in my hand, no matter how disgusting the beer was, or to be taking Saki Bombs with Eric in a new-age sushi bar in Denver. How awesome would it be to sing just one more song at the 1029, or completely drench another dress shirt in sweat by means of dance. It was barely two weeks ago that I had left for my trip, and I was already missing the very moment we had said goodbye to Megan Mills in Boise.
I missed it all; the sharp, snow-capped tips of the Gran Tetons, the comforting feeling of contentment nestled in the cornfields of Kansas, the slew of hotel antics intentionally and unintentionally pulled, the beautiful sights, the glowing stars on the crystal clear nights, and all of the magical places of which we made a solemn vow to someday make our return. Even more so, I missed the people that made those times even more special; Beth, Blake, all of the gatherings of friends and family in America’s dairy land, Cambray and Lauren, aka the Boundary Babes and everything they embody (Oh how I miss the Boundary Babes!), and especially Bill, my partner in crime through the whole thing. I wished they all were here, sitting next to me and sharing the same complication of thoughts rummaging through my head.
But I guess in a funny way, they were. And they always would be…
And only because it wouldn’t have been the same without her, and not to make a big deal out of it or anything but I, uh, I… Oh God, I can’t believe I’m actually going to say this… I kind of, sort of… miss Gretch… I mean, not like a lot or anything, don’t get me wrong! She dragged us through hell and back, almost killed us a few times, said naughty things—look, all I’m saying is that there was a lot we went through, and maybe we grew a little because of the experience. Besides, I don’t think you necessarily have to like somebody to miss them—in fact, you can probably hate em’ and still miss em’ at the same time! I’m sure it happens with people all of the time! And it doesn’t have to mean a lot either, just a thought that you keep in the back of your head every now and then to keep you on your feet, so I wouldn’t say that I exactly miss Gretch, but it’s just—
Ah, who am I kiddin’? I really miss Gretch… big time.
And while we’re at it, I might as well go out and say it. I even miss Ben Wood—
Screw that. Nobody misses that kid.
I think it’s natural to feel a little sad and emotional at the end of a trip, to look back at all you’ve done and created along the way. But it’s memories that remind us why life is worth living, especially through the dark times. Though they can never be recreated, they hold potential, they encourage us to move forward when the opportunity presents itself. Within weeks, I was to return to Wisconsin with the rest of my extended family to celebrate my grandpa living 90 years on the Earth, and a few months later, I would be back again, this time to Green Bay with my mother to watch the Packers finally beat the Shi—I mean, Seahawks (I swear, one of these days I’ll get it right) after years of unjust torment!
Mom and I before and after the game.
There was even another wedding on the books in Bend Oregon, another chance/excuse to drink, dance, hang out with babes, reunite with old friends, and meet new ones, all in the name of celebrating the love between our friends AJ and Lauren, and the years of memories in the making because of it.
“Wish You Were Here” had faded, and the sky was black now, with only the glittering of stars shining through as light, millions of them a million miles away, fragments of a large puzzle that would take an entire lifetime and beyond to solve. I sat and watched, smiling a simple smile, feeling as though I had just solved another piece.
A number of text messages were waiting for me the moment I entered the lodge at Schweitzer Mountain Resort in Northern Idaho, each one setting a more frantic tone than the one before it. I had only a few minutes to check them and make a failed attempt at a call before my phone died, the cold weather preventing the battery from staying charged properly. In walked my friend Brian, having made the unanimous decision to end our day of snowboarding with a mix of beer and college football, giving me time to recharge my phone and wonder what it was that was so important. An hour passed before I was able to make the call.
“Hey Cambray, what’s going on?” I asked.
“Where are you?”
“At a ski resort, what’s wrong?”
“…Call me when you get home. It’s better if you hear this when you’re alone…”
“…I understand. I’ll call as soon as I can…” I didn’t understand, and my imagination further intensified the severity of the situation, a fleeting thought that ran through my head during the 2-hour drive back to Spokane. I kept my composure, playing the urgency off as if everything was all right, hoping for the best, yet furtively planning for the worst.
The thought went through my head as a worst-case scenario—multiple times in fact. However, such a thing just didn’t seem plausible, and surely it wouldn’t be as bad as my mind had built it up to be.
My heart pounded a little faster than normal the moment I shut the door to my room and dialed Cambray’s number, the ongoing dial tone feeding my anticipation. Then, she spoke and my heart stopped. I took the news in shock, barely able to express any emotion whatsoever; nothing could’ve prepared me for what I had just heard. Like millions of others across the world, I too would find myself spending New Year’s Eve in an over-indulgence of alcohol, but not in celebration…
That evening, I learned that Lauren had suffered from a cardiac aneurysm. She had passed away that morning.
It wasn’t until the next day when the reality of her passing fully sunk in. My mind had run itself into an inextricable knot, unable to interpret—even process what had just happened. None of it seemed real—It wasn’t real… So I did the only thing I knew how to do. With Pink Floyd playing in my iPod, I ran, escaped into the forest, away from everybody and everything, looking for answers.
My feet sank with each step through the deep layers of snow, the heavy exertion of force used to trudge through quickly alleviating the chilled effects of a 14-degree New Year’s Day. The eerie introductory tone of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” converted the convolution of thoughts and frustration into propulsion, pushing me deeper and deeper into the forest. I worked on pure, animal instinct, up and over fallen trees and debris, slipping up and down slopes, breathing, sweating, moving my arms and legs back and forth, furiously and repeatedly; not thinking—just acting… moving, farther and farther away from reality, farther away from sanity.
The music progressed, as did my body, now a robotic being, its purpose pre-programmed, working with mechanical movements that could outlast any and all elements. I ran, inching closer to some unknown destination without an operator to stop the machine, running and waiting for a major breakdown or an expended fuel source, the only two logical events that could stop the madness.
The final hill was a grueling affair, one ignored by the limitations of my legs. Somehow, they kept pushing, finding ways to move passed each obstacle and gather traction through the dense and snow-packed areas of forest. I moved, faster and harder, until I reached the top where a clear opening was exposed.
I stopped and looked out across an immense valley as though the changing of songs on the album had simultaneously flicked my body’s “off” switch. Above me was a bright, cloudless sky of pure blue. In front the air sparkled, thousands of water vapor molecules frozen by the stagnant chill of a winter day, and beyond it laid a fresh blanket of snow covering the Dischmann-Mica valley of Spokane. I let the cold penetrate my skin, bringing about a strange sense of comfort as I gazed out in amazement at a sight filled with pines, firs, spruces and junipers, all buried under the white powder and lining the edges of a valley that spanned for miles, all of it untainted by any human existence except for a set of tracks I had made behind me… and I imagined she was there.
I could imagine her standing right next to me, looking out at a sight of natural beauty that no eyes had ever seen, able to realize the extraordinary view in front of us that so few had that ability to appreciate, just like we did those many years ago when we set foot in the Boundary Waters for the first time. I imagined her beside me with a radiant smile spread across her face, a reflection of a perfect sky shining over an untouched indent of the Earth. I imagined she was there, seeing exactly what I was seeing…
The well-recognized guitar introduction from “Wish You Were Here” started to play through my headphones. Suddenly, I was swallowed by reality…
…I would never have the chance to show her this.
Tears filled my eyes as my neck and face tightened. I let out a whimpered burst, followed by a string of choppy breaths that battled against my body’s natural reaction to weep. The shallow tears accumulated, turning into a steady stream that fell down onto my rosy cheeks, and I cried. Deep in the forest, miles away from the nearest form of civilization, I cried out a series of embarrassing cries—cries of desperation, cries of hopelessness… cries out to God in an attempt to find any sort of reasoning, that maybe I could find him, somewhere in the depths of the valley. “How can a world so beautiful be so unjust?” It was the first of many unanswered questions. “Why?” I simply put. “God, what must her family be thinking?” I couldn’t even begin to imagine.
“…What do I do now God…?” I asked, feeling as though my life had lost all purpose, that every piece of the puzzle had been blown apart, unsure of where to start again… unsure if I wanted to start again. “What do I do now…?”
I stayed out in that open area of the forest for several minutes, staring out at the sunny, snow-covered valley, and letting the music repeat itself, waiting patiently for an answer. I remained outside, waiting until the combination of sweat and tears had formed frozen chunks onto my head and beard; my sweat-drenched shirt was only a few minutes behind. I returned home that day, having received no answers; unsure if I ever would…
The night of her passing I stepped out onto the porch as I had done many times before with an old fashioned in hand. It was the third one I’d had that night, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. I stood out in the cold, alone, staring out into a black, lifeless night, letting the crystallized air molecules pierce my lungs like a thousand tiny needles, attacking my body with each breath—jeopardizing my survival in the bleak and frozen world. Every now and then, it takes the threat of mortality to remind us we’re alive.
There was no other sound except the occasional rattle of ice from my alcoholic beverage, no movement anywhere within the spread of the forest but for the precipitation of breath, and absolutely no soul to disturb me in my silent remonstration of justice, the still air doing nothing to untangle the web of thoughts muddling about in my head. In acquiescence to the freezing temperature, my hands dropped into my coat pockets where they clasped around a thin, metal frame. It was my iPod, a possible catalyst for clarity; at that moment, I was desperate for anything.
I pressed the home button and swiped the screen with a potential album in mind, but a song was already playing. I’ll never know quite for sure why that particular song happened to be playing at that time, whether it was by miracle or a malfunction caused by a pair of sports headphones that had been the root of frustration during my most recent runs. I contend that it was a little bit of both.
I placed the headphones in my ear and heard the soft stroke of guitar chords playing behind a familiar, raspy voice, each plucked string from the guitar cutting into my heart unlike it had ever done before. For a brief moment, I was brought back to a simpler time, a time of warmth and love; two friends singing their hearts out, an ode for a fallen friend unto an audience filled with fans, strangers, lovers, and most importantly, Boundary Babes; a complete antipodal from which I stood… a time where two friends unknowingly embraced the true meaning of life and what it meant to live…
…Two friends, simply living in the moment without fear, without apprehension… without compromise. For a brief moment, I stood and stared into the cold night. I listened, and I remembered…
Ain’t it funny how the night moves,
When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose.
Strange how the night moves…
With autumn closin’ in…
For a brief moment, I stood and stared into the cold night. I listened, and I remembered…
How lucky we are to be alive. How blessed are we to know the people we know in the places we’ve been…?
…What an opportunity we have…