Special to the Aspen Times Weekly
“It just proves what they say,” our friend Don Newbury told me with a sad sigh when I called to tell him John Morningstar had died. “You get your nose fixed and your asshole falls out.”
Don wasn’t happy about that conclusion, but there was some truth to it. After a full life of running it hard, John had come in from the cold, gone to treatment and spent his last year and a half clean, being the clear-headed, kind and funny guy we hadn’t seen enough of in recent years. The payoff for that? What it sometimes is: He dropped dead from a heart attack on May 28 while hiking in Cambodia, one month short of his 57th birthday. It was a huge loss to his family and friends. He had loomed so large for so long, against such tall odds, we all just assumed he was invincible.
John Michael Morningstar (he loved his name) was born on July 1, 1951, in New Hampshire. It was not, contrary to popular legend and the Rolling Stones song he admired, “in a crossfire hurricane.” He was adopted into a loving family in Illinois that soon moved with him and his sister Molly to Aspen. His mother Kay and his father Ned were both teachers here and it probably wasn’t easy for John having his dad as the middle school principal. When his parents broke up and Ned moved to Boston, John used to go back for visits and loved to go with him to watch the Bruins play hockey. It was something he worked hard to share with his own son.
Kay Morningstar was a brilliant, progressive woman who continued raising John after Ned died, instilling in him an enduring love for travel and a strong sense of right and wrong. She taught me a lot in the years I knew her, and I only got a small piece of what John did. He was deeply influenced by her his whole life. In spite of his determined efforts, Star (what else could you call him?), with his long blonde hair well below his shoulders, graduated from Aspen High School with me in 1970. We were a star-crossed generation and collection of friends. Many of them are gone, and now our Star has crossed, too.
A pack of us roamed Ajax and Highlands every winter for years, bombing down the mountains like wild spirits, making pains of ourselves with the patrol and enjoying being that mystical age when you can get away with almost anything. Not everyone was lucky enough to pull it off, of course. We lost a few young and tried to learn from it, but I’m not sure we ever did.
John went to work on one of the local garbage trucks the summer right after high school for his good friend and neighbor Vic Goodhard. I’ve spent many years giving him the benefit of the doubt and believing that he lasted at his only paying job, ever, for about nine months.
I wasn’t keeping close track. His sister, however, insists that it was only for three and that he exaggerated. I believe her. What I know for sure is that he never forgot his brief adventure in the labor pool and never tired of talking about it. “When I worked on the garbage truck,” he’d tell people, like he was recounting a war experience. After he recovered from the thrills and trauma of it all he went off to junior college in Chicago and the University of Colorado in Boulder and traveled frequently with his mother to far parts of the globe.
The ’70s were exciting and fun. We went to hear Bob Dylan and the Band at the Coliseum in Denver, the Stones in Fort Collins and Jethro Tull at Red Rocks. And legendary music came right to our own backyard in Aspen: Freddie King, Ravi Shankar, the Don Ellis Orchestra and ZZ Top, at places like The Gallery and the Aspen Inn. When nothing else was happening we’d pack a keg, a generator and a crowd of friends into the hills and hook up a stereo system to a huge set of Altec Lansing speakers. We’d listen to Jimi Hendrix and the Allman Brothers and watch a full moon rise in the east while the flaming sun sank in the west and you could actually see the earth rotating. It was a gilded life, growing up in paradise, and we all felt so lucky I’m not sure we ever got over it. We loved wild women, protested wars and nuclear explosions, flew hang-gliders, skied deep powder, enjoyed ourselves and trod the terra like we’d live forever. One of the classic t-shirts of the day was, “Soft Snow, Hard Drugs And Casual Sex.”
John’s sister Molly married Lindy Patterson, who started the Village Pantry in Aspen before he died tragically. Molly went on to marry Larry Gerbaz and the Morningstars merged with one of the valley’s oldest families. Larry used to show us how to throw knives and axes and other useful things, and pulled Star’s ass out of the fire more than once, including on one of his first hunting trips up East Maroon Creek. Molly and Larry still live in Carbondale and have two beautiful daughters who made the trip to Montana to hear stories they might never have heard otherwise as we said goodbye to their uncle.
It was in the mid-1970s that Star became permanently entranced with Montana and soon made the full and smitten commitment: He bought property, fell madly in love with a wonderful local girl, built a home in Virginia City and named his son Madison after one of the spectacular local mountain ranges. (Fortunately it wasn’t the Tobacco Roots.) John had tired of the glamorous, over-crowded-by-comparison Colorado scene. Once his mother died and he moved full-time to Montana, he rarely returned, except for an occasional raft trip, to attend an event for his nieces, or to bury an old friend like Raoul Wille. He had so much anti-glitz in him that you would have thought he had come from five generations of hard-working Ruby Valley stock, in the part of Montana where we all went to his orchard ranch to celebrate his life.
The proudest parts of that life, the people he loved the most and who were his entire reasons for being, were always his wife and children ” Leslie, Annie and Madison. Leslie, in turn, loved and put up with him for nearly 30 years. The kids, who at 23 and almost 21 aren’t really kids anymore ” especially not now ” are a tribute to what’s still right with the world and a testimony to the love and devotion of their parents. There are also two small dogs who John loved and who wonder where he’s gone. They were used to him being AWOL, it’s just the permanence of it this time that we’re all having a hard time dealing with.
Star loved other things in his life, too: the mountains, his Harleys, a great ski day, Budweiser in a can, English rock ‘n’ roll and the blues, chicken-fried-steak (he thought it was chicken), talking story, hiking, rafting, cutting firewood, their orchard, his friends, people in general and traveling. He was one of the biggest people-people I ever knew and made friends all over the world, from Battambang to Baltimore, to paraphrase Mick Jagger in “Wandering Spirit.” Star was definitely a wandering spirit, even when he was home in Madison County.
He’d cover it from one end to the other some days, just cruising and talking to people. Other days I swear he put in a good hundred miles just driving around tiny Virginia City.
He was restless, sometimes for the wrong reasons, but it was also his nature. His home and family were the most important things in his life. But they weren’t the only things, and we all have demons that have to be served.
Getting out into the world he did because of his mother, because he loved people and knew that travel made him larger than himself and nurtured his soul, along with his need for good stories to tell. He’d been from Johannesburg to St. Petersburg, Sturgis to Daytona, Makalu to the Monashees, Alaska to Cabo, Kathmandu to Kauai, Prague to Chile, New York to New Orleans, Mongolia to Butte, the Great Wall to Angkor Wat, to hell and back. That last one took 20 years and was his greatest trip. Returning from it alive and intact was his biggest achievement and a huge gift to everyone who loved him.
Harriet and I wish we had gone with him and Leslie this spring to China and Cambodia on their final journey together, but it wasn’t to be. She said he was so happy, wearing that huge, easy grin, scampering up and down the temples of some faraway land, being the big kid he always was. In spite of CPR for an hour and a half, John never regained consciousness and was cremated in Siem Reap where it took Leslie, by herself, nearly a week to clear up the paperwork so she could return with his ashes to Montana.
Now there’s not much of anyone left to keep me from telling my lies and to correct my faulty stories. When I asked her about some date recently, Leslie answered, “I don’t know. My memory died in Cambodia.” And I realized mine did, too. Star always remembered the past better than any of us, and I always wondered how. I suppose it’ll just get worse because I’m not as eager to remember things now that he’s gone and they’re sad memories instead of fun.
I try to remember the bad things as well as the good, so I don’t miss him so much. The times we’d wait for him to call because he said he would, but you knew he wouldn’t. All the reasons we named him Mr. Maybe So for years: the raft trips or hikes or drives in the mountains when you’d ask him if he wanted to go and he’d say, “Maybe so,” which was usually a way of telling us not to hold our breath. His daughter Annie said he’d have probably even missed his own big sendoff, on a typically sunny-rainy-snowy Saturday in early June in a big Montana pasture with snow-covered mountains all around. Or he’d have been late, or at least come and gone a bunch of times. That was just John. But he’d have been proud and honored by everyone who was there, knowing it was all for him. And as Madison said, he’d have had his big mug in every picture except the ones we wanted him in.
I knew John, as it turns out, for most of my life and most of his. It was a wild road and it took us a lot of places I wouldn’t trade for anything. He was always one of the best people I knew and one of my best friends. Maybe because he put up with me for a lot longer than most people, and I never did figure out why. I always thought I’d have more time for that. But now he’s gone on ahead, where a lot of friends are waiting already, and I’m not sure some of us who are left will ever recover. He was kind and good in his soul and I wish I’d been a better friend.
“Place my body on the funeral pyre/cut it loose to float downstream/Leave it frozen on a mountain top/suspend it high to be picked clean/You said never to grow old/but you forgot to tell me how/You said never to grow old/and then sank your teeth into those final feet.”
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