Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
Aspen, CO, Colorado
A couple of weeks ago, during a news discussion on Aspen Public Radio, we briefly touched on the case of Jeff Walker, an apparently wonderful man whom I did not know at all.
At the time, he had disappeared and was still missing, and it was generally assumed that he had died in a skiing accident on Highland Bowl.
My thought at the time was, if that indeed was what had happened, it was tragic but that tragedies of that sort are an occasionally unavoidable consequence of the life people have chosen to live here in the mountains.
I don’t want to congratulate any of us – most certainly not myself – for our adventurous spirit, but the people who live here have mostly made a conscious decision to abandon some level of safety and certainty in order to enjoy a greater measure of freedom.
People in Aspen – and certainly other mountain towns – ski hard and party hard. They climb mountains and run whitewater rivers. They take chances, not the least of which was the chance they took when they decided to move here. In making that decision, they often turned their backs on the security of a solid social order with a steady job and a knowable future.
The rewards are great. The risks are unavoidable.
As I said, this was all on my mind when I thought Jeff Walker had died skiing.
And now that we know he took his own life, my thoughts have not really changed.
It was a tragedy. And it was a tragedy of the sort that is apparently unavoidable.
I do not know what personal pain drove him to his final act, and it is none of my business.
All I know is that it was a pain he found unendurable.
He had, by all accounts, a wonderful life and many close friends who loved him dearly. But still he somehow reached the point where he had to escape.
So he did.
It is tempting – and oh so easy – to say we must always choose life, but that is simply not true.
How can any of us tell someone else that he must endure the unendurable?
We all have a breaking point, and if we reach it, we break.
I have led, so far, an unjustifiably charmed and happy life. I have no idea how I might react if that were all to change; so how could I even begin to judge others for the choices they make when their lives go terribly wrong?
I have watched friends fight to live with stubborn good spirit against overwhelming odds.
I have watched friends die with good humor and good cheer.
I can only admire courage of all kinds: the courage to fight against all odds and the courage to know when it is time to walk away.
As I said, I did not know Walker, but, like everyone who followed the story, I learned that he deeply loved skiing Highland Bowl.
I recognize that neither that love nor that skiing is a trivial thing.
And I can only salute him for his decision to make one last run down the Bowl. I have to think he was acknowledging the best of his life even in the moment of choosing to end it.
That was an act of courage and triumph.
And from The Aspen Times story about his memorial service, I learned that he apparently was deeply fond of the Grateful Dead song “Ripple.”
That song was played at his memorial, and according to the newspaper, many were moved to tears.
“Ripple” is profoundly important to many of us.
I know that may sound odd to those who do not know the song or share the feeling, but the words of the song touch on deep truths that cannot be ignored or explained.
“Ripple in still water, when there is no pebble tossed, nor wind to blow.”
I often comfort myself with those words in my own dark moments. Life, I think, is that ripple – unexplainable but undeniable.
“There is a road, no simple highway, between the dawn and the dark of night. And if you go, no one may follow. That path is for your steps alone.”
So we live. So we die.
I don’t want this column to sound sad. It’s not meant to be. Those of you who know “Ripple” know that its words are profound, but its melody is light.
This week there was a very different story reported in the Aspen Daily News, part of their regular series of stories about “Aspen ski bums.”
This week’s story told about one man who seemed to be almost the perfect representative of all those who came here almost accidentally, loved what they found and stayed on.
It was the story of Mark Tye, who has been here almost 40 years.
Rapidly approaching age 60, Tye is keeping the faith to a degree that most of us old codgers cannot match: He still skis almost a hundred days a year.
And, again keeping the true faith, he refuses to complain about all the changes in Aspen that so many of us obsess about.
Tye said he doesn’t really notice the high-end stores or the people who don’t care about the mountains. In what seemed to me to be the perfect metaphor for the ski bum’s focus on what really matters, he said, “I’m in the trees, so I don’t see the forest.”
When you’re skiing the trees, you cannot break your focus – or you might break your neck.
Those who knew and loved Walker will mourn him and miss him, of course.
But the sadness that accompanied the end of his life should not overshadow the sheer joy that filled so much of the life he lived.
That should be the message we take from his choice to make that one last run down Highland Bowl.
He ended with an exclamation point.
No simple highway indeed.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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