I lost three more friends this past year.
It’s something that happens more frequently with age.
There are three major lessons I learned from their dying.
1.Don’t wait. Do it now!
I can’t count the number of times that Larry Schreiber and I said, “We must do a hike.”
I ran into Larry while hiking this past fall.
He was hiking up and I was hiking down the South Boundary Trail.
We stopped to chat and made the same commitment again, “We simply must do a hike.”
That “some day we’ll . .”. will never come now.
Larry died two weeks later.
Couldn’t believe it. I was twenty-one years older than Larry.
We were sure we had plenty of time to work out a hiking date.
How I regret we’d never tried harder to find time to take the hike we’d talked about so often.
If it wasn’t proof positive of this lesson, then maybe Jock’s death was.
Final proof of this first lesson — I shouldn’t wait, but do it now.
Jock Fleming and I were exactly the same age, my birthday just one week earlier than his.
He’d spent his entire career in the outdoors.
First as a lumberjack and road builder for a timber company.
Next as a ranger in the Carson National Forest, where he served for a time as a heroic smoke jumper, one of those daredevlls who parachute in ahead of wild fire to try heading it off.
He loved the forests.
But as he aged he had hip and knee problems so painful that he was unable to hike more than a few hundred feet from his truck.
While he and I spent a number of those mini-hikes in the forest so that he could tell me about the trees and their growth patterns, he could only reminisce about the good old days and regret he couldn’t take me further into the wilds to show me more.
Jock the perfect messenger sent to show me how important this first lesson is —
Don’t wait; do it now.
And then there was Glenn Hobratschk
Glenn was really the “kid” among us.
He was already wise to this lesson.
He asked if he could join me on one of my easier hikes — to see what he could do.
He did just tine.
We went on a couple of easy-does-it jaunts. And Glenn did some workouts in between them.
We thus raised the limits and went on some really fine five-to-seven milers.
Glenn wisely did it while he could.
And did it now, before he suddenly passed away without any warning.
Way too early at 62!
Which brings me to the second thing I learned from the dying.
2. Don’t push away. But welcome everything.
As life deals us situations it is so much better if we welcome them and not try to push them away.
Deal with them face on.
My father went through a long struggle with his deteriorating health in his last years.
This caused him to give up his annual winter respites in San Miguel, Mexico because of the altitude.
Dad did not want to wheel around even a portable oxygen tank.
One thing we did to substitute for more glorious days in Mexico was an annual late-winter camping trip to deserts of the Southwest.
Dad and I would meet at an airport, rent a Jeep, fill the gas tank, load the Jeep with a huge supply of food and water and lose ourselves out into the roughest low-altitude deserts we could find — Arizona, Utah, Death Valley, .
On one of those treks we actually did get lost.
I mean really lost.
We’d taken a wrong turn on a two-rut dirt track someplace in southern Utah.
We spent all day believing we would come out somewhere near where we wanted to go.
By late afternoon we came to a stream and forded it to what seemed like a perfectly natural place for a two-track to cross, drove on a bit further up in a dry wash and decided to stop at beautiful place for dinner.
We built a fire, ate our dinner, and while the sun was settling in the horizon behind us, we laid out our sleeping bags for the night.
And with cups of hot chocolate we chatted until the stars came out brilliantly into a moonless sky.
We intentionally avoided talk about where we were or what we would do next.
Why waste a great evening in the desert with worries about tomorrow.
Yes, we knew we were lost.
And while neither of us said anything about it, there was a risk we would be unable to find our way back out and end up dying out there.
I am sure that, if asked, we both would have said something like, “What a great place to die!”
I mean we were next to a bubbling crystal-clear stream.
There was a wide expanse of endless desert with magnificent red and orange rock outcroppings in every direction.
The air was comfy warm and dry.
In the morning we ate a hearty campfire breakfast, packed our gear and only then did we begin to talk about our situation.
I doubt I know another person who could take this situation as calmly and casually as my dad.
The only map we had was an old paper Rand McNally Utah state road map
This was years ago before GPS and cell phones.
We’d noticed where the sun had come up and figured that was somewhere East of us.
So with these two indicators we oriented the road map and saw power line towers we’d seen near-by were headed toward the nearest road on our map.
Figuring that the crews who built the power line had to get in someway to build the towers, we decided to head out cross-country following the power line the best we could.
We had enough gas, food and water to take us several days if necessary.
So why not give it a go!
We could travel no more than a walking pace of two to three miles an hour cutting in and around sage, cactus, ironweed, yucca and mesquite, dodging rocks and arroyos.
Well, this turned to be one of the best times my dad and I ever spent together.
Adults – man to man.
We puttered along, stopping often to rest and dawdle over long drinks of water and snacks of salty nuts and pretzels.
After two more nights camped out under stunning desert skies, we eventually found the two-lane blacktop road.
It was easy after that to find our way to a town,(i.e. single gas station and grocery with post office in the rear.) In that part of Utah towns are far and few between, with most townspeople living on ranches miles away from it.
What made this trip so enjoyable was our welcoming everything that came along, pushing away ‘what-if” thoughts.
To this day, I don’t know of anyone who could have taken this episode any calmer than dad.
He’d grown up on a homestead, which may be what gave him such grounding in a “take whatever comes along” attitude.
Thank God for that adventure with my dad who I’d never had a great relationship as a child.
A couple of years later he was on dialysis and knew his time was now definitely numbered in days.
From time to time i joined him while he waited for the machine to withdraw all his old blood and fill him back up with fresh blood.
It was a tedious process sitting with others who looked as if they too were dying.
We chatted about many things.
One that I brought up was about how I had gained such a love of the outdoors with him.
Sure, Dad had taken us all to the woods many times.
A few times over the years he had taken me rabbit or squirrel hunting.
Thing is, we never ever fired a shot.
And it would be late November when we’d do the squirrel hunt.
I loved to hear the crunch of our boots in the dead brown oak tree leaves as we moved slowly through the woods.
At noon we’d stop, have a home-made meatloaf sandwich and drink some hot sweet tea from the thermos.
Then Dad would lean back against an oak tree and fall off to sleep.
He’d have me watching a squirrel nest up in an oak with my twenty-two rifle across my lap and permission to take a shot if a squirrel popped its head out of the nest.
None ever did, of course. But I got a love of the stillness of the woods on those days of November on these hunts.
Whenever I wasn’t there chatting with Dad while he was on dialysis, I spoke with him daily by phone.
That year I spent Thanksgiving weekend with Dad and my step-mom.
After Sunday breakfast Dad said, “Take me to the hospital. I’m ready to go.”
He’d quit dialysis the week before so we knew this was it.
I had to leave that evening to be at work next morning.
So once he was settled comfy in his bed and had sipped the brandy he’d asked the nurses to bring him, I went over to say good-bye.
This was not just, “So long.” I knew it really was, “Good-bye.”
I leaned over, gave him a big hug and said, “Don’t worry, Dad. I’ll also be over there with you soon.”
He looked me in the eyes.
Smiling, he said, “I know. And when you come I’ll take you squirrel hunting.”
Relating this story really illustrates my third message from the dying.
3. Live each experience with your whole Self.
I mean, give it all you’ve got.
Just as Dad and I did on our Utah desert adventure, live each minute as if you had no more. Live it intensely.
Embrace whatever experience you are confronted with as if this was the last breath you would ever take.
I find this is a whole lot easier to say, than to do.
Sure, when you get into an intense situation requiring you to pay close attention, we are ordinarily able to observe this lesson.
Recently, when I was crossing a stream on wet slippery stepping stones I had no problem giving this experience my whole self.
But stepping along an easy trail tread, it’s very very difficult to keep my attention fully upon my feet doing the walking.
I learned a lot about this lesson from three people who were actually dying before my eyes.
The first was my grandfather.
I was the last person with him while he departed his aged body.
He was gently passing away, his eyes would blink open a moment or two, then close.
He wanted me there with him, just someone to share his departure.
If you’ve been with someone actually leaving the body, you know how intense this moment can be.
Another friend, Wayne, was in his last moments for the better part of a week.
There were two of us who sat with him during this time. I was Wayne’s friend. I don’t think Wayne hardly knew the other fellow, they’d just met in the hospice.
One of us seemed to stay awake while the other dozed off.
When Wayne was about to go, I was there by his bed watching, listening.
Like my grandfather, Wayne’s eyes would blink open for a moment then close as if in sleep.
One of the last times he opened them, he asked, “Is it alright to go?”
I assured him that it was and he closed them again in deep repose.
It was only a few more of these blinks before he was gone.
Actually a nurse had come in and was there with him closer than me when he actually passed.
These moments call for our whole Self to be there.
They are precious, intense moments.
But then this may be just me.
I don’t think so.
My Geezer Book is in the Works
I am in the process of writing a book on Geezer Hiking.