I have a distinct memory of visiting my great grand parents when I was 7 or 8 years old. They had a tiny farm house that was on what seemed at the time a vast sea of farm country somewhere in the French countryside. During hot summer visits we played on giant jeep like big wheel toys for days upon days throughout their extensive property. One of the most exciting activities came each evening before dinner when we heard the distant toot of the train that passed through the region. We would drop what we were doing and scurry out to the tracks via the old farm trails to hopefully make it on time to watch the trains go screaming by. One of the most distinct single memories from this time and place came during the after dinner activity of watching movies with the family. I remember watching with absolute terror a movie that took place almost entirely on a giant mountain cliff face that did not end well for most of the characters. One by one they fell into an endless abyss and when they fell they would scream a most hysterical scream. To this day I don’t know exactly what movie it was. It could have been a French drama, because the French definitely love drama, but I think it was The Eiger Sanction, a classic American mountain climbing movie starring Clint Eastwood. What I realized was that I was not scared because I was afraid of heights or that I was worried that the characters were going to die but I was scared because I was fascinated by it and I knew that mountain faces like those would be in my future.
Flash forward to May of 1999 – I was being considered as a contestant to work as a mountain climbing guide for a company called South West Adventures in South Western Colorado. I remember showing up impossibly nervous to attend the two week guide tryout. I remember stumbling into the office the first day convinced that there was no way they were going to hire me. It was then that I met the boss and owner, Clay Patton and was immediately put at rest. The interminably laid back and relaxed Wyoming native was a man who loved to tell a story that was always fun to listen to. Clay’s endlessly humored perspective with just the right amount of off colored language was the perfect recipe to keep everyone’s attention. I remember Clay explaining to us new guides how the tips can be quite good if we provide a service above and beyond what is expected, “but then sometimes you get these fricking people that don’t know a fricking thing” he would explain in a matter of fact framework.
Michelle and I moved to Durango together straight from Prescott. All of a sudden we were nestled in the big, rugged snowy and wild San Juan Mountains. There was no city, no urban area, no Interstate Freeways. Durango was the only bit of civilization anywhere around. In all directions, up, down east, west there were lifetimes of mountains, cliffs and ice to climb and explore. We had endless expanses of desert and mysterious canyon country to adventure in. I had finally moved to live, work and play in the mountains and we found a fantastic community of people to do just that with. Actually when we lived there we thought we would never leave. Why would we?
Within a year of being there we adopted a dog… a Super Dog. We found Sunder at two months old in the local pound. Sunder is the Hindi word for handsome – he was not just a pretty boy and not just a good dog, he was Sunder the Wonder Dog, our first boy. Sunder was present at each of our children’s births and protected and loved them as much as he did Michelle and I. Although, he passed away last July he lived a big full life and we loved him deeply. We have carried his ashes with us on this trip through the whole country up to this point. As we let his ashes fly in the wind on Animas Mountain above Durango all of those sweet moments of his younger years came flooding back. He was a close friend and devoted companion. We love you Sunder.
After Two years in Durango Michelle and I got married and soon after had our first son, Jacob. We were certainly crazy back then. We lived in this tiny A-frame cabin way up in the mountains above town. We were completely set on having Jacob born at home on our own sans midwife. We bought a giant metal cow trough that we filled up with heated water where Michelle was going to give birth. We stayed curled up and watching movies as Michelle labored for one, two, three days. Finally we called our midwife/ birthing coach to come and help us. After much work this crazy alien spilled out of my wife into my hands. I had no idea what the hell was going on, I was waaaay out of my league in this moment. Everything changes in such a short instance when your first child comes into your arms. It’s like all of a sudden your decisions and actions and even thoughts affect more than just you. It will never be the same again.
December of 2001 the reality of living in a small community with temper mental seasonal work hit us hard and we left Durango. Now twelve and a half years later we arrive back into town and the realization is clear…. part of me had never left. When I close my eyes and put my head back for a rest I feel it the most. Rest is just better here. Nobody locks their doors in Durango. Actually you don’t have to ever worry about losing your keys. Your car keys you just leave in the ignition. House keys you don’t need. What would it look like to move back?
As we drive into town to have a busy day of sharing meals with old friends and hiking in the hills I ask Jacob, “Jacob, do you want to see where you were born?”
“Surrre”, he replied. We were so excited to show him and we couldn’t help but to be wondering what was going on for him.
We drove down Lightner Creek road and soaked in the sights, the memories were tender. Everything looked similar, so picture perfect but wild enough in a rustic sort of way. As we wound down the road Silver Peak came into view of the La Plata Mountains and then there they were up and to the right: The A-frame cabins. They looked the same as before, thankfully: Tiny, simple, brown and all lined up in a row. We wanted so much to share this place with our little boy who is now becoming a man. To share a little piece of who we were back then. Looking at him you couldn’t tell that the magnitude of it all was sinking, but it was. This is where his life started. Later when he drew the cabin on a Mother’s Day card for Michelle with some sweet words, we could feel his understanding and the significance of the visit.
Showing Clay, “the outcome” of our life, was another important mission of our Durango visit. Clay sold South West Adventures several years ago and now worked at the Crow Canyon Archeological Center. He was super excited to show us around the place after following our adventures this year via the blog. There were so many things to catch up on. I was proud to be sharing my big family with him. We were excited about his invitation to visit the Center with the kids.
As we followed his directions that morning to meet him I had to laugh as I could picture him saying it all as if he were there. It could be that just about everything he said had some undertone of humor mixed in. While summing up very detailed directions he writes “Take road L all the way west and you’ll come to the big highway 141. Carefully crossing 141, as it is a major, 4 lane highway. All this will test your guiding skills, but you can always call if you run into troubles.”
“We’re walking towards the building”, I text him after we’re parked and walking in.
I walk in and we don’t see him so I ask the receptionist. She runs off and after a bit, a very distraught older woman walks out. She has us come outside. “How do you know Clay?” she asks.
This is weird, I think to myself. “We’re friends and he invited our family to show us around for the day. I haven’t seen him in twelve years.”
“I am so sorry”, she answered, “He passed away last night.”
Clay had suffered a heart attack the night before, quietly, while watching TV. There was a flood of emotion that took me by surprise. It had already been a week of allowing memories to go further in than they do on a day to day basis. I had to walk away for a bit. After being gone more than 12 years he passed away right after sending me directions the night before. He had managed to give me one more thing before moving on. Thank you Clay
Moments later a friendly looking younger woman walked up and introduced herself as Shawn Collins. She said she was going to give us an educational tour in Clay’s absence. I think she and the rest of the staff were just as shocked as our little family. It was a crazy moment in time. Everyone was clearly affected by the current circumstance. This was what we had to do. This is what Clay was going to do this morning. Thank you Shawn for a beautiful tour of the Center, we look forward to coming back.
Several days later was Clays’ memorial. It was on a picture perfect, typical sunny early spring day in Durango. The White peaks of the La Plata Mountains cradled us to the West and the Twighlight Peaks were looking wild like always to the North. The Lion’s Den, an open air structure atop Fort Lewis College was overflowing with people wanting to share stories about their friend at rest. Chris, David, Bob, Tim, Amos, Marcus all of these faces and people I had spent my time with 12 years ago were there like none of us had ever left. I looked out over the Animas Valley and it really hit me how quick and fleeting it all is. I showed up in this place so long ago with big ambitions to climb all of these crazy walls and mountains throughout the world. In my youth I had thought I was going to devote my life to just that but it turns out the climbing is just a side show after all. What I found in Durango was much better.