One afternoon in late December I was standing in a swirling snowfall thinking about the afterlife. I don’t spend a lot of time contemplating the hereafter. It’s a fuzzy concept. That day, though, I was in Madera Canyon. Every year, on whatever Saturday fell closest to his birthday, my friend Dave would go to Madera Canyon to gather mistletoe. This wasn’t for Christmas kisses. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant, actually a hemi-parasite, that sinks its roots into the host’s vascular system, eventually killing it. Dave would go there with family and friends to help relieve the high desert oaks of their parasitic load.
This particular Saturday actually was Dave’s birthday. But Dave wasn’t there. Dave had died in late October from cancer, another evil growth that kills its host.
The mountains rising above Madera Canyon were in rare form that December afternoon. Old Baldy, the craggy main peak in the Santa Rita Mountains, was standing like a referee in a dual between the pale late-December sunshine and an unsettled snowstorm. Driving into Madera Canyon from the north, the duel was a spectacular display of light and weather.
But by the time Dave’s family and friends had gathered at a picnic pavilion near the open mouth of the canyon the snowstorm had cast the world in twilight and sent icy flakes to melt in our eyes. Everyone nodded knowingly. “Dave,” they said, “this is Dave’s doing.” And they may have been right. I’ve spent a lot of days on that mountain. And in some marginal weather. But I’d never seen a spectacular display of sun and snow like it put on that morning. And, being from old-school Iowa, Dave would have been quick to tell you that he had walked to school, uphill both ways, in the snow, with barbed wire wrapped around his bare feet for traction. So, sure, why not depart leaving us a little taste of the same?
So was Dave off in an afterlife somewhere? Was he in good with a cosmic weather wizard? Had he arranged this for some sardonic combination of our discomfort and delight? If so, he was safely beyond the range of human senses. What was in the range of things we could feel and know, though, was a life lived.
You can’t exactly swing a cat and hit a hillbilly philosopher. If you could find one, they might sum up that life this way: Be useful; Be reliable; Be honest; Don’t think too much of yourself. Good advice. The question is how to hang on to those ideals when you leave the enclave of the hills. And this is especially true for me. I get distracted by shiny objects. So when we left Pennsylvania for Tucson I spent time wondering what the people here would be like. Or, more to the point, how I might change.
Happily, one of the first people I ran across was Dave. Dave was practical, sensible, honest—almost to a fault, just a little sardonic, and more than a little bit stoic. You could have dropped him into any holler in the hills and he would never have made a ripple. But he was from Iowa. He was the first of many people from Iowa I would meet.
Waves of refugees have come to Arizona. It was once a spa. You came here for tuberculosis. Or anything else that dry air and sunshine might cure. Then retirees filtered in. They still come. A huge wave came escaping the oppression of housing inflation in California. Dave had come with the Rust Belt wave. Long before the leakage of manufacturing jobs was derailed into the thin air of political platitudes, Bruce Springsteen had penned the words: “These jobs are leaving, boys, and they ain’t coming back.” He was talking about the Rust Belt; about the simple jobs being done by simple people. They were happy to do the work, asking in return only to be able to feed their family, own a basic home, and fund a modest savings account. But Wall Street isn’t run by people who wanted the same for them. So the jobs drained into maquiladoras and drifted into Shenzhen. Until then, had you flipped over a tool or crawled under some farm equipment, you would have seen that it was made in places like DeMoines, Ames, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids or Davenport. The jobs left. And the people, like they had done during the Dust Bowl, followed the Mother Road west.
So Dave was the first Iowan I met, but not the last. He came to represent what I began to think of as Midwest sensibility. And it hewed closely to the ideals of: Be useful; Be reliable; Be honest; Don’t think too much of yourself. Dave—unwittingly—became a bit of a lodestar for me, helping me to see when I was drifting.
Dave introduced me to the song catalogs of John Prine and John Hartford. And for a bit of the cultural touchstones that people bond over, we both enjoyed A Prairie Home Companion.
Life is life. It is rarely constant. And, naturally, through all the changes, Dave and I often wound up on different paths. But at one point I ended up again at a company Dave had never left. So we began chewing on the intervening years. Dave summed it up with a favorite tidbit of ours from the Lake Woebegone stories. He said, “Gerry, what do you do when you were raised to be a stoic and life turns out good?” That was a heartwarming moment. And it is one I will always remember and treasure. But for you folks who didn’t tune in to A Prairie Home Companion, I’d like to quote from a longer version of Garrison Keillor’s words:
They raised him to bear up under hardship and sadness and disappointment and disaster, but what if you’re brought up to be stoic and your life turns out lucky—you’re in love with your wife, you’re lucky in your children, and life is lovely to you—what then? You’re ready to endure trouble and pain, and instead God sends you love—what do you do?
What Dave said was just a shorthand for the above. He had a wife that he loved; a child that he adored. He had steady work, and a roof over his head. He was happy.
So, no, I wasn’t standing in the swirling snow thinking a lot about the afterlife. I was huddled in a picnic pavilion with the woman he loved, the daughter he adored, the son-in-law he thought of as a son, the grandchildren that warmed his Sunday afternoons, and the friends that thought Dave was a pretty okay guy. I was huddled with the core of Dave’s good life. If that doesn’t focus you on the here and now, well, then I don’t know what to say.
I hope that Dave was playing a weather joke on us that day. More than that, though, I hope that I always remember the value of living simply. And I hope I will always value people who do the same.
So long, Dave. Thanks for the snowflakes. And thanks for reminding me that life did turn out good.