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.
[top photo courtesy Susan Rule]