When I first met Denali, I found him to be a handsome young man with a polite spark hiding behind long locks of hair held in a bandana across his forehead. His appearance told of the outdoors and a history as a ski bum or of dangling from rock walls. He talked delicately about the Sierras and the quiet of the winter woods just after snowfall, holding the words in his mouth as if they were precious gems. He spoke about the mountains with an admiration and respect that could only be acquired with time and experience—they were no passing pleasure, but an entire life.
Denali had come to CCA after a few years of ski patrolling and community college to study painting. He was the kind of painter who walked around in public covered in colorful splatters and knew what paint tasted like because he often chewed at the end of his brush. He loved painting—it jived with the beauty he had found in nature and his gestures came from deep down inside. The type of gut driven expression made sense with the grunt of the climb—the drive came from a similar place.
Once, when I was first getting to know Denali, we were having dinner with a mutual friend and somehow mid conversation he whirled off on a tangent about life beyond our planet. I will never forget him saying, “what if we really are alone in the universe, the only life that exists?” His blue eyes wide and distant, “Or even the only life that exists for millions of light-years?” Concluding how precious and special that would make our planet and the human race and how we must really take our time here seriously and do the most with what we’ve been given. “But I’m just a romantic,” he shrugged it off and came back to the reality of our normal dinner conversation. I remember staring at him, taking in the depths of what he had unveiled and pondered what equivalent depths were hidden inside him as he ate his pizza unaware. This is the moment I began my fascination with Denali’s fascinations.
As I got to know him better I began to understand the necessity of his rugged facade to protect a soft and vulnerable interior. He had an overly developed peacemaking nature and was easily swayed by the opinions of others. In the painting department at CCA, with both design conversations and the contemporary art world swirling around him, I watched as he grasped at ideas like moths. Catching each one with fascination and pleasure only to realize it was not quite right and regretting the effort wasted on such defenseless creatures. It was a struggle to watch someone who had experienced so much and breathed so much life into his experiences—speeding down slopes, catching waves at daybreak and clinging to the face of immense peaks—could be struggling with such menial and self reflective issues as that of the art world.
In his final semester he was still spinning with these frustrations, searching for something he did not know he was searching for, when a friend, a best friend, died paragliding, reaching for those same heights he had reached for throughout his adventurous young life. All the gears stopped for a moment and then click, it happened. He stepped back from everything and saw it for what it really was, continuing on with the clarity that comes in the brief period after mourning, a recognition of what really matters. I saw it sparkle in his eyes—maybe it was Zach in those eyes—he spoke eloquently, confidently, after years of confusion he suddenly seemed to know, not necessarily exactly what he wanted to do or to be, but knew that the path was right there at his feet all along. No matter where he stepped he would treat it as if it was the last step he would take.
As I write this, three months later, Denali is climbing K2 in Pakistan, arguably the most difficult mountain that can be climbed, second in height only to Everest but far more challenging. And even way up there in that unimaginable place he speaks of the intense beauty of the stars, the softness of the misty snow fall, the familiarity of cragged rock, and, most astonishingly, his art. He speaks of all the things he wants to do and never of the things he does not want to do. He sees things no one else can see, an artist on the side of a peak. Simultaneously a dreamer and a doer, way up there in the pale blue sky.
Sometimes, he calls via satellite orbiting a planet we are on opposite sides of. He tells me he has been collecting flowers: yarrow for a dinner and foreign wildflowers from an oasis for a woman who lost her brother. Soon the landscape will refuse to yield any more blooms as they go up and up and up, closer and closer to the sky. He will collect rocks instead, making stacks and writing out the word ZACH in the most beautiful stones he can find.
Now days, I sleep with a heart-shaped rock he carried down from last summer’s mountain at the foot of the bed in my childhood room, just to feel another’s weight beyond my own.
I repainted the room I am sleeping in, making it a softer, more distant blue than the one I had chosen in elementary school. The mural I had sketched out but never completed, holes left from the images I surrounded myself with, stains from where my body touched: around the light switch, along the bed when I would press myself up against the wall on hot summer nights, all enveloped in a layer of paint.
Over time, spaces become ingrained with certain patterns of movement. Each freeway marked with its own set of grooves directing drivers into inlaid patterns of speed and lane usage. Likewise, When I come home, no matter how much I resist, I begin to slow down, I sleep for at least ten hours a day, I walk around the house aimlessly, frustrated with my inability to act.
On our mantle in the room we shared, amongst the desperate daily flower offerings, we kept a photo of Zach hugging a heart shaped boulder—I wonder who taught whom the habit. It’s been over two months since he died. We never expected him to be mortal; a hero gravity will never allow to fly again. I brought flowers to their home, helpless, answerless, as if the stems could change anything but there was nothing we could do. Nothing anyone could do but to keep on trying to fly the way he did so effortlessly. Next came the conversations, the tears, and the decision to go away to climb an unbearable mountain.
Each day he is gone, I carefully arrange a mandala of flower petals or whatever I can find, guiding each piece into its own rhythm, slowly composing a pattern as I try to imagine what its like on his side of the world. Today’s was the seventeenth, a collection of simple pebbles and shells found at the beach I loved as a teen, it wont be long before I will have made nearly ninety of them.
I doubt my imagination is good enough to properly interpret the words he sends me across the globe, instead I bide my time twiddling my thumbs and staring into flowers. Sometimes, I wonder if I am closer to him or the satellite.
Two days after Christmas of last year, I was in Arizona visiting grandparents who could no longer make the trip to our house as they had every Christmas I could remember. I was driving south on Interstate 19 under the glow of a big desert sky filled with the kind of clouds that make you wonder how such massive bodies could float so effortlessly. A storm had just passed through leaving deep dark forms wrapped in a halo of sun that failed to penetrate their core.
I had just gotten lost trying to return a necklace my parents had given me. A gold chain meant to replace the one they gave me when I was 16. The original was lost to the sea in the uncaring recklessness of the waves, and the new one was not the same. The delicate glimmer of the first one was so perfect and refined, while this one was so clunky and forced. At that point, I was adamantly questioning my attachment to objects and whether what had happened that day on the beach was meant to be.
In my wanderings I stumbled upon an old cemetery decorated for Christmas, the faded marble contrasted with the neon red and green plastic trees placed on almost every grave. Somehow both sad and beautiful in all its temporary holiday gaudiness, a multicolor carpet of Christmas made in China covering the drought ridden yellow grass.
Considering I had found myself there due to the illnesses of my grandma and grandpa and the year that had crippled them both at once, the scene resonated with me. While we were so sobered and discouraged by their sudden decline, here was a culture that celebrated their loss in bright colors and flashy ornaments. It’s amazing sometimes how diverse the human experience can be—that kind of collision of occurrences can make you question the purpose your culture has prescribed for you.
As I drove back to their home, under that immaculate sky, pondering what it means to mourn, searching through Christian, Country and Mexican radio stations, I stumbled upon a segment on the fiscal cliff. Which, from my understanding through avoidance of mass media newsfeeds, was a growing fear that no one quite understood but took as a sign of the continued hopelessness of the American economy.
The host was more or less declaring the end of our country as we know it. “Rome didn’t fall in day,” he said, “and neither will America.” So here it was. A long slow painful decline openly and unabashedly announced on national public radio as if it were a simple and unsurprising reality. The words shook me in my perceptive state; I felt as if something I long suspected but never wanted to believe had come true. After everything that had happened that week—our humble Christmas and the reflection that comes with the changing of years—for that moment, I shared the exact feeling that all of America felt. An entire country daring to hope but knowing to fear.
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