Farewell To Steve

Having friends who are sky divers, scuba divers, river runners, cavers, and climbers, surrounds you with people who do not cede their lives to stress, unmanaged diet, cancer, heart disease, renal failure, or the simple, inevitable breakdown of our cells. They choose to lean forward into life’s embrace, not stand in the corner waiting for it to greet them. This creates a spot far back in the unnamed recesses of your psyche that is a placeholder for that day-which-will-never-happen when some snafu might send their earthly energy into the cosmos sooner than expected.

Happily, all of my friends excel at checking their knots, packing their chutes, and reading gauges and rapids. This frees me up to worry about the vagaries of aneurisms, coronaries, stray gunfire, bad drivers, overworked doctors and air traffic controllers, and banana peels–the things we accept enough to give them a placeholder much farther forward in our psyche. Neither spot has a place for bees.

When my friend Steve Johnson turned up missing, my mind went to both places, checked off the lists, and rejected all possible outcomes. He had gone out climbing–alone–but a climbing accident wasn’t possible. Steve was one of Tucson’s more elite climbers. He had all of the right skills, all of the right equipment, and all of the right experience. And he was careful, always careful. But none of the other things were possible either because Steve was a good guy. Good guys die warm in their beds surrounded by their loved ones.

When I say he was an elite climber, I mean that he could cruise 5.12 when he had a mind to. Otherwise the word elite didn’t apply to Steve because everything else about him was grounded. When you went out climbing with Steve, he put your projects first. He could go anywhere on the mountain and climb anything he wanted. But if you wanted to spend the day getting your nerve back by leading 5.8, then Steve climbed 5.8. If you didn’t know thing one about bolting a route but wanted to help him set new routes, he would take you along. It was Steve’s calm voice floating up from below, and his competent belay, that gave me the courage to on-sight my first 5.10a, my breakthrough into advanced climbing. And when you rapped off a route he had set, the greatest compliment you could pay him when your feet hit the deck was to tell him that it was fun. Steve was an avid, passionate climber. And he loved it most when everyone around him was having as much fun as he was.

Last weekend Steve went to an unfrequented climbing area to develop some new routes. When word spread that he had not returned, a few more of Tucson’s elite climbers went looking for him. I admire them, knowing as they did when they set off that they were not looking for a friend who had twisted an ankle or run out of gas. When someone like Steve doesn’t show up for work on Monday the possibilities narrow to just a few things. Really, to just one thing.

So when they found Steve on that cliff in the middle of the night, they confirmed what I think we all knew: Steve had not made a mistake, or gotten in over his head. Then they found what we didn’t expect: the swarm of bees that Steve had disturbed. With darkness and cooler temperatures on their side, they avoided doing the same. Circling around to the bottom of the cliff, they climbed up from below, and kindly, gently brought Steve back to us.

Later in the week friends of Steve gathered for a beer at that place where we all stop for a beer because it’s close to the climbing gym, the climbing gym Steve often went to on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The climbing gym where I talked to him frequently and casually–casually because Steve obviously was going to be around forever. After all, people like Steve don’t die. They always come back to tell us about that great route, that monster wave, that school of barracuda, that first jump from a King Air. Except when they don’t. Then we stare into our suds and mumble what we hope are comforting words and, seeing all the people that loved him, wish all the more that just one thing in that strange string of events had happened to change the outcome.

When I told Steve that I had a jackhammer, his very first thought was how we could use it to help climbers. If he could find someone with a portable generator, we were going to chip off some of the tire-chewing, axle-busting rocks on the road into that climbing area north of here. One day in the not-too-distant future someone will blow a tire on that road. They will blame bad luck. They will never know that it was because of bees. And because there was only one Steve Johnson.


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