Gregory was my friend. We worked together for a year or two at a Kinko’s in downtown Austin. We were both in our early twenties and I think, now with the benefit of a little perspective, that this is when many of those truly deep friendships are formed.
Neither of us had to worry about mortgages, marriages, children or soccer practice. We were free spirits and equally free to be idiots if we felt there was a laugh in it.
Those options fade as life moves on.
I moved to California, he took over my apartment and we eventually lost touch. This was pre-internet. If you wanted to keep track of someone, you called on a landline or wrote an honest-to-gods handwritten letter and mailed it. I was a geek but Gregory would have rather stabbed himself in the eye with a rusty fork than touch a computer and we just kind of drifted apart over the years.
The last time I saw him was in 2002, when I visited Austin. It was purely by chance — he was working as a door man at one of our favorite pubs. He was proud as hell of his new son and showed me a dozen photos from his wallet.
There was talk of moving back to Houston — his wife had been ill and that was where their families were. He slipped me a free beer or two and I walked away thinking that, of course, we’d cross paths again.
We never did.
His last name was generic enough that any online searches returned thousands of hits, none of them relevant.
Then about six months ago, I received a ‘friend request’ on Facebook from William, a mutual friend of ours (and who knew him far better than I) and after the usual “what have you been doing the last twenty years?” banter played out, I asked him.
“Whatever happened to Gregory? I’ve been looking for him for years but no luck…”
“Sit down. Gregory OD’d on heroin back in 2004, I just found out about two months ago. I didn’t believe it until I saw the obit.”
This news –to be perfectly honest– fucked me up. Maybe it was because he was the first of my true gang of good friends to go. Perhaps it was because I’d been looking for him for ten years only to realize that he’d been dead for eight of those.
It put me on my heels. It knocked me on my ass.
Maybe something happened with his family that drove him to heroin. Maybe he was just experimenting — God knows there was nothing he wouldn’t try twice. I’ll probably never know.
So, if you’ll forgive me a little self-centered navel-gazing, I’d like to pay tribute to my friend in the only way I know how: I’d like to tell a story.
There are a couple of reasons for this.
One: He was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. He loved the absurd. He was the kind of guy who could flirt with your girlfriend right in front of you, knowing that he could charm his way out of any discomfort. He was a force of nature. He was an inspiration. And I believe he deserves to be recognized.
Two: It’s selfish, but I can’t let it go. This is not a plea for sympathy or “Sorry for your loss” comments. I just have to get this out of my head.
It’s 3AM and we’re pounding down I-10 in a rented Plymouth at 90 miles an hour. A piece of rubber molding has come loose and is beating a rat-a-tat tattoo on the windshield. Truckers blast their horns in annoyance as we roar by.
Gregory is driving and catches me eyeing the speedometer, now needling towards 100 (the speed limit is 60). He gives me his trademark shit-eating grin and says, “God loves a fool.”
We’re both dumb enough to still know it all and young enough to live forever.
We’re already off-plan (and I use that word in the loosest sense). The Plan had been to lay low the night before, finish our evening shift at 11PM and drive through the night to the deserted desert of Big Bend National Park, 500 miles away.
It’s one of the darkest places in the US and thus a perfect place to watch August’s Perseid meteor shower. It’s also one of the hottest.
The Plan: We’ll get there at dawn, drive up into the cooler Chisos mountains and hike up to a place I had been before, called Boulder Meadow. This is a lovely spot filled with pines, cedars and house-sized blocks of granite — we’ll find us some nice shady spots and sleep through the heat of the day at the higher altitude. Then, after the day has cooled, we’ll head down to the flats to camp, cook, smoke a lot of pot and watch the show.
Unfortunately the night before, one of our favorite pubs, the Crown and Anchor, was offering two-for-one pitchers of Shiner Bock beer and we ended up closing the place down, shit-faced by the end.
Ironically this will be the last place I ever see him, some many years later.
Hungover and sleep-deprived, we limp through our shift at work, cram our gear into the cheap rental car and head out around midnight.
Fifty miles out, we stop at a convenience store in Fredricksburg and load up on coffee, Mountain Dew and Mini Thins, (“trucker’s speed” they called it at the time — ephedrine. This was when it was still legal and long before the plague of crystal meth).
Now we’re screaming down the highway (it’s a straight shot for the first 400 miles) and we’re determined to make it there before sunrise. Part of the reason Gregory is driving so fast is to make up for the time we keep losing — we’ve both eaten far too many Mini Thins and feel the need to pee constantly. So we’ll pull to the side of the road, dance about and curse every fifteen minutes, doing nothing more than splatter a few drops on our shoes. It’s like trying to pee through a coffee stirrer.
The same truckers roar by, leaning on their horns as they pass, knowing that we’ll be doing the same dance in another 15 minutes. Amateurs.
By some fluke, we manage to reach the park intact and before dawn without being arrested or killing ourselves. Looking back now, I have no idea how we did it. God loves a fool.
We drive up into the craggy mountains as the sun rises, spilling yellow and gold on thousands of yuccas, agaves and cacti. At the time, I think it’s the loveliest sight I’ve ever seen. I’ll soon be proven wrong.
There’s a story that the original natives of the area tell of how the Chisos mountains came to be. They rise up out of the flat desert unexpectedly. They don’t belong, but there they are — one of the peaks is the second-highest in Texas. The legend goes that when God was finished creating the world, he had some rubble left over and this is where he decided to dump it all.
The Chisos are also the southernmost host of Arizona pine, Douglas fir, quaking aspen, Arizona cypress, and bigtooth maple trees — all remnants of the last Ice Age. It was these trees that we hoped to shelter under. But that is –yet another– flaw in our Plan.
By the time we’ve arrived and parked at the trailhead we both have to admit that what was an “easy half-day trek” is decidedly uphill and neither of us has the energy for it. We’re wrecked. Five hundred feet of steep climb seems, at that moment, to be equivalent of scaling Everest.
We need a Plan B and neither of us has really thought that far ahead. But downhill options are looking pretty damned good.
In the other direction is a trail that leads to “The Window”, which is an easy hike that goes to a great overlook for watching the sunset. It’s 8AM, so that’s not really an attraction for us, but the side canyons are filled with shadows that whisper of cool, shaded shelter.
“Let’s walk down there, turn right into that canyon and find a nice ledge to crash out on,” I suggest.
Plan B is a go. We hike down for 15-20 minutes until we spot a clear path to the first side canyon, crossing a shallow arroyo. From a distance, all of the green stuff looks soft and cushy but we both know better — everything in the desert “stings, sticks, or stinks” as the saying goes.
We find a small game trail and begin to climb upwards, towards the slowly-disappearing shade.
In the end, we’ll climb far more than if we’d stuck with our first destination but –again– we’re young, dumb, sleep-deprived and wired to the gills. And we still haven’t pee’d.
We climb and we climb. Being the genius budding outdoorsman that I am, I’ve brought one quart of water, which we finish in the first thirty minutes. The sun is rising, carrying the temperature with it and the shadows are rapidly disappearing.
Now, I feel more than a little responsible for this situation. Gregory is a city boy from Houston — he’s not a backpacker. I have talked him into coming out to the desert and experiencing the wonders of nature, so I sincerely want him to have a good time.
I had told him to bring boots or sports shoes, long pants, a long-sleeve shirt and a hat. Instead, he’s wearing Dickies pants cut off at the knee, some silly black slippers he bought in Houston’s Chinatown, no hat, over a dozen facial piercings and a brown T-shirt that is tie-dyed with big red splotches.
He blends right in. Better than I know at the time, actually.
By this point, we’re dusty and dehydrated and the sun is really starting to lean on us but we’ve long since passed the point of reason. We’re following a trail that –at best– leads to the top of the mesa where there is still no shade. We’re on autopilot, plodding ahead.
I look back.
What they call a “jumping chollo” has done what it has evolved to do: a small, round nodule with barbed spines has latched itself to his leg and pulled away from the rest of the mother plant. Eventually, it will fall somewhere else, spread roots and start anew.
When he pulls it from his leg, his skin stretches a half inch and there is an audible snap as the barbs pull free.
Blood streams down his leg but is quickly mixed with sweat and absorbed by dust. I can tell he’s close to his breaking point but I don’t know what else to do. There are only hints of shade at this point as the sun climbs higher, and those are rapidly disappearing. There are no caves, no oases… there’s nothing ahead but heat and sun and pain.
It’s a very high, treacherous trap where the slightest slip can send you tumbling down through hundreds of sharp, pointy cacti.
That’s when I make my last mistake.
But it’s precisely this mistake that makes everything worthwhile in the end.
I’m hoping to distract him from the fact that his leg is bleeding so I point out over the canyon –we’re a good 400 feet above the floor now — and I say “Dude, check it out. We’re actually looking down on the birds. There’s a crow and that’s a turkey vulture and… wait… I think that’s a peregrine falcon!”
That does it. That breaks him. The realization that we are so high on the side of a very-perilous cliff that we are looking down on birds in the air takes it that one step too far. I’ve pushed too hard.
“I…. I think I’m ready to stop. I don’t want to go any further.”
So we find a nearby ledge that still has a hint of shade. The ledge is about eight inches wide and we have to brace our feet into the soil to prevent tumbling to a bloody death. The canyon wall rises steeply behind us and we’re surrounded by a huge honeysuckle plant which smells fantastic but is a little hard to appreciate at that time.
Gregory is pale and shaking just a bit. He’s so far out of his comfort zone that he’s almost catatonic. I feel like shit for putting him here in this place and in this moment. The shade from the cliff has already creeped up to our knees. In 30 minutes we’ll be in full sun. Welcome to the desert, my friend.
We’re scrambling for purchase 400 feet up the side of a canyon where the slightest slip will turn us into pin cushions, we’re out of water, haven’t slept in at least 36 hours and we still haven’t pee’d.
“You know what we ought to do?” I suggest. “We should get stoned.”
“That sounds like a good idea.”
So we pass the pipe back and forth a couple of times. We don’t go crazy — God knows we don’t want to be irresponsible, sitting on the edge of certain death in such a degraded mental state. I’ve just started smoking — he is an old hand.
His shoulders drop, his color returns and he starts taking in the raw beauty of a desert canyon that is all ours.
We spend time pointing out imagined images in the bare, worn rock of the cliff faces. He points left and says “There’s a Viking riding a camel” and I look to my right and say “Yeah, I see it too!” The sun creeps higher but we no longer care.
And then it happens.
There’s a keening sound from far above and behind us. I’ve never heard anything like it. It’s something you’d expect to hear if a leprechaun was riding a weed-eater. He and I look at each other but we can’t really turn and look behind us without risking a spiky fall. It rapidly grows in volume.
A blue-green blur shoots out over the canyon from behind us like a missile and makes this huge, looping arc over the open space, rocketing back to where we sit by the honeysuckle and our two inches of shade.
It stops less than a foot from Gregory’s face, black beady eyes boring into him. Floating in midair, in the way only they can do, is a glorious hummingbird, sheathed in iridescent blue, green and turquoise, with its wings a’blur and it’s head somehow perfectly still.
It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
Then the hummingbird drops down and stares at the bright red tie-dyed splotches on Gregory’s T-shirt, which –in retrospect– look like flowers. It ponders these for a second, then pops back up, even closer this time, staring him in the eye. Six inches away.
Maybe it’s a trick of memory but I think that it tilted its head a bit as they shared that moment.
I like to believe that it thought “You’re no flower, but you’re alright”. I can never know, of course. In an instant, it’s gone, leaving nothing behind but a blur and memories.
We sit there, unmoving — how long, I can’t say. Neither of us is willing to break the silence. Certainly not I — this is his moment. He’s just been welcomed to the desert.
Time stretches, a hot wind blows and birds soar. Finally he speaks, saying simply and slowly, “That. Was. So. Fucking. Cool.”
Eventually, we somehow make it down that cliff intact, high in both senses of the word and exhausted.
That night we lay our sleeping bags out on the desert floor and laugh and howl and gibber as pieces of cometary ice, billions-of-years-old, make their last ride across the sky, trailing blue and green and gold. And at some point in the night it all finally –blessedly– goes black.
I often find myself these days, thinking of that phrase: “God loves a fool”.
I like to think it’s true.
And if it is, my friend, I hope you’ll save me a seat.