My Pal Mick, 1958-2012

My friend Mick’s heart stopped working last Sunday. He died at the age of 54, not knowing that the night before, I had sat around a campfire in the desert, telling a friend, Of course you can ride a bike across the country. My friend Mick borrowed my bike trailer two years ago, hitched it to a full-suspension mountain bike, and pedaled it 1,600 miles to his hometown in Michigan from his driveway in Colorado, just like that.

When people die, we say stuff like He was a good man, It was too soon, and He won’t be forgotten, and all that stuff is true. Then we turn it on ourselves, saying things like You never know, Hug your loved ones, Every day could be your last, trying to make sure we’re doing it right, hoping someone’s death will teach us how to live. And then we tell stories about that person, maybe realizing their life taught us how to live.

The day after Susan, Mick’s wife, called me to tell me he was gone, I had a million things to do and an overflowing e-mail inbox, same as every weekday. My brain kept saying I’m too busy to deal with this right now, I’m too busy, I’m too busy, I’m too busy, and then suddenly I was sitting in the parking lot of the UPS Store blinking back tears, typing Mick stories into my phone with my thumb. Then I was driving up I-25, sighing and letting them stream down my face, thinking about nonsensical stuff like Shit, I don’t own a suit to wear to the funeral. But Mick probably didn’t own a suit, did he?

I have a hundred stories about my friend Mick, and it’s hard to understand that all those stories are now about who he was instead of who he is.

He was an arborist, among a dozen other things. That was what he did for a living: climbed trees, limbed them, sometimes hanging from the top of the tree and chainsawing off an upper section as it was pulled away by a crane. I wrote the longest story I ever published about Mick, House of Trees. It was printed in a literary magazine and told the story of how he built a house out of logs over the course of eight years, without ever having peeled a log or so much as helped build a house before he started, pure balls and stubbornness. My favorite line in the story was:

He seems more proud of his most recent wildflower photo than he is of the house he built with his own two hands in the middle of a country where no one builds their own house anymore, even though most men abstractly like the idea of doing it.

The house is not some rough log cabin someone threw together. It’s a goddamn cathedral of a house out at the end of a dirt road running by the foot of a butte in Douglas County, Colorado. It’s a big deal, like writing a book or sailing across the ocean, or hiking the Appalachian Trail. And that was only one of the things he did in life.

As a photographer, Mick had a gift of being able to make hundreds of beautiful photos without ever going more than 50 miles from his house. He had all these shots of Pikes Peak and the prairie east of it, where he spent almost all of his adult life. He printed off the photos at home, big, and stuck them to the walls with a thumbtack. If you stood there and looked at them, you’d think he just whipped the clouds into a perfect shape like that an hour before sunset, pulled his truck over to the side of the dirt road, let Cassie out to run around, cracked a beer and shot a landscape photo that should have hung above every fireplace in the West and sold for $2,000 a print in a gallery somewhere.

Mick did all that stuff everyone always talks about doing: built a house. Spent a month in Baja, tooling around in his RV. Ran a 4:21 mile. Rode his bike around for four months to get over a girl. When he and Susan bought some property on the side of a butte down the road a couple years ago, he cut a road to the top of the property so he could park his old Winnebago Warrior up there. The first time it snowed enough, he skied a line through the trees all the way to the bottom and joked about building a resort.

He was a natural storyteller, and he didn’t love to write, but when he did, reading his short stories was like sitting next to him at a bar and listening. He was quick to tell me what a great writer he thought I was, and I had to tell him that I borrowed the rhythm of a lot of my writing from reading his stories. I told him I was no better a writer than he was; I was just more prolific and comfortable promoting my stuff. Which was true.

Our conversations often turned to me trying to get him fired up about selling his photos somewhere, or entering contests, or writing a book about building his house, sort of a how-to/memoir. I would tell him he owed the world all those photos and those stories, and he would shrug, or laugh, and say You know maybe you’re right. But no memoir, no Mick Rule Art Gallery in downtown Castle Rock. And that’s because Mick knew how to relax, something I never learned from him. Maybe I had Drive, but Mick had Drive and Park. Neither of us had Reverse.

Before I left on a cross-country bike tour in 2010, he gave me the best advice I’d get from anyone: Just keep spinning. Don’t try to muscle through anything. And that was the way he traveled, too. He always had time to drop in here, chat with those folks over there, take the blue highways. Car breaks down, no worries, we’ll get it fixed.

We took a nine-day road trip in his RV in 2009, climbing Mt. Hayden off the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, his fourth day of climbing ever. I think I had to review belay techniques with him at the base, and I handed him a nut tool, saying, Hey, this looks sharp and pokey, but don’t worry about having it hanging off your harness, it won’t stab you anywhere if you fall. And he said, I usually have a chainsaw hanging off my harness.

It was one of the longest, most tense days in my then-young climbing career, and after all the bushwhacking back up to the rim just before dark, I sat down exhausted. Mick sprinted to the RV and grabbed his camera to try to snag a sunset photo.

I’ve listened to Blood On the Tracks a thousand times, but after that trip, I only remember the scenery of the desert east of Capitol Reef rolling by the windshield of the Warrior as Mick drove and I sipped coffee, as we both guessed where the hell Ashtabula was during “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.” I flipped through the back of the atlas, finally finding it in Ohio, where it’s always been.

I never told Mick how many times I told his stories to other friends, starting sentences with “My friend Mick …” And it’s in the hundreds. He collected adages the same way I like to, “So-and-so friend of mine said one time …” My favorite one was something like this: “You know, Mick, I used to think I was gonna change the world. Now I just let people onto the freeway.”

Mick did own a suit. He wore one to his son Dan’s graduation from the Air Force Academy a few months ago. That day must have been the proudest I’ve ever seen that guy, getting to watch his kid shake hands with the President.

Goddammit, Mick, I miss you already.

-Brendan

[top photo courtesy Susan Rule]

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19 Comments

  1. November 29, 2012

    That is beautiful, Brendan. So sorry that you will not get to enjoy more experiences with Mick. You will, however, have the joy of cherishing all of those times that you did get, and that no one else got, that you can relive over and over again in your mind. My suspicion is that Mick thought of you the same way you thought of him. Those bonds are tough to break, whether in life or death. Be well.

    Reply
  2. November 29, 2012

    I am sorry to hear about the passing of your friend, Brendan. May we all take a note from your recollections of Mick on how to live our own lives.

    Reply
  3. Brian
    November 29, 2012

    I’ve heard “My friend Mick…” quite a few times from you.

    Very nice piece.

    Reply
  4. November 29, 2012

    Sorry about your friend passing. What you wrote is beautiful and made feel like I knew him. Prayers are with his family and friends.

    Reply
  5. November 29, 2012

    Thanks for sharing – he seems like a lovely guy – I hope that we can all keep the cycle of life alive for him and ourselves as long as possible! :)

    Reply
  6. Kevin Burnett
    November 29, 2012

    Not sure what to say. Sorry sounds so small and impotent against this news.

    You did very well by your friend Mick with this. I think anyone would be honored to have a firend remember us in such a way.

    Reply
  7. November 29, 2012

    Journey in peace, Mick.

    Reply
  8. Joe McDaniel
    November 29, 2012

    What a terrific tribute. You captured Mick so well. I wish I had known him better. I could have learned a lot.

    Reply
  9. J
    November 29, 2012

    I read House of Trees a little while ago and kind of forgot about it.

    Came on here like I do every week and started reading the latest. Then I got to that paragraph and I realized – oh shit, it’s that guy – and teared up the rest of the page. I didn’t realize a blog about climbing could do that.

    Reply
  10. Cindy
    November 29, 2012

    Wow! Nicely done! Makes me wish I was friends with him and you. Sorry for your loss. May God bless you and yours.

    Reply
  11. Jeff Stucker
    November 29, 2012

    Talented, driven and adventurous. Sounds like a great friend.

    Mick looks familiar to me. Do you know if he volunteered for Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado?

    Reply
  12. Eric O'Rafferty
    November 30, 2012

    I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend. By telling your story and powerful connection to Mick, his power and spirit is now touching many others who never knew him. I’m honored and inspired to have heard about his life.

    Peace.

    Reply
  13. November 30, 2012

    I found this posted on Facebook. Its the beautiful story of a friendship. Perhaps the details of which we so often take for granted. A mutual admiration club of sorts. Thank you for telling us about it.

    Reply
  14. Amy
    December 1, 2012

    Beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  15. Vanessa
    December 3, 2012

    Brendan, thank you for sharing your friend Mick with us. He sounds like an awesome guy and you are lucky having known him and been able to experience so much with him. Take care of yourself and remember all the things you gained from being his friend.

    Reply
  16. Agnes Mueni
    June 30, 2013

    Pole, I feel you . I agree with you friendship is all we need , please be happy and celebrate that friendship ,true friendship is rare ,and trust me Mick is happy where he is for having had you A TRUE FRIEND.

    Reply
  17. Susan Rule
    December 6, 2013

    I don’t know if I ever thank you for this! TY

    Reply
  18. Mandy McMaster
    December 6, 2013

    Mick was my Uncle and I miss him so much. This brought me to tears, but in a good way. I love reading about him and this was absolutely beautiful. Thank you so much. He really was an inspiration to everyone.

    Reply
  19. Candace Rule Ebbinghaus
    December 6, 2013

    This was an amazing tribute to my brother…he was loved, and is missed, by so many. I believe I heard Mick tell his share of “my buddy Brendan…” stories as well. Thank you for sharing him with the world.

    Reply

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