I'd just gotten home from a disgusting day of making and hauling crates for the Great Gift Company of Milwaukee. I was looking forward to one of the Milwaukee's Best's sitting in the fridge of the Eastside apartment I was temporarily sharing with my brother, Dan.
I took off
my shoes and put on the Soft Machine album that we'd picked out of a 50-cent
record bin. Neither one of us planned to be in
Just after I'd put down my first gulp the telephone rang. I usually got home from work an hour before Dan did, and sometimes he'd call for a ride.
"Dude, can you come and pick me up?" he asked.
"Sure, 5 o'clock cool?"
"Now," he said. "Listen - Paul Wolfert skied off a cliff in Telluride. Derf's dead."
The words hit me like an anvil. "Our Paul Wolfert?" I asked, "Derf? You sure?"
"Yeah, man," he said, "You gotta come get me outta here. I can't take this here."
I tried to collect myself, but the emotional surge was overwhelming. "Alright, man," I said, "I'm on my way."
I hung up
the phone, took a couple swigs of my beer and jumped back into my rusted out
Horizon to navigate the snowy streets of downtown
The Casa was out to conquer the Earth, but the Earth had decided to take one back.
I finally made it to the front doors of Discovery World, the children's museum where Dan gave tours and made sure kids didn't destroy exhibits. Dan was leaning up against a pillar with barely enough energy in his legs to support his body. He wobbled over to the Horizon and flopped himself in the seat as if he'd been shot in the arm. I'd been holding back tears, but with the two of us looking at each other with weeping faces, we both let go. A van behind us honked at us to get a move on and we simultaneously screamed at the guy to fuck off.
I put the car in gear and pulled away but I had absolutely no business being behind the wheel of a car. I took a back route out of downtown and as soon as we got out of heavy traffic Dan started in.
(our sister, a TV news producer in Milwaukee) got the news over the Associated
Press wire -- 'A 23 year-old Milwaukee
man, Paul Wolfert, died yesterday in a skiing accident in Telluride, New
Mexico.' Barb called Mom and asked her what Paul Wolfert was doing. Mom told
her he was skiing in
arrived on scene during our youngest brother Bagus's junior year in high
school. His father had been transferred from
We knew he was smarter than he let on, but he was the quintessential high school stoner. He enrolled at Tulane after high school and proceeded to flunk out of his first semester because he kept going out on tour. This didn't sit too well with his parents who strapped him down for a summer and made him study. When he went back to school he still took the occasional 2,000-mile solo drive to go on tour, but he started studying. He graduated from Tulane in four years and got a 4.0 his last two semesters.
was just a transition before he would start working for his father. The
Wolferts had high hopes for their son, but those hopes had been swept away by
an avalanche in the
California Zephyr pulled out of
transferred trains in
sun finally set, my appearance changed from an honest-faced hitchhiker to a
shadowy figure on the side of the road. I was hungry and anticipated crashing
somewhere in the desert. There was an IGA just off the exit from where I was
hitching, so I tucked my sign away and went in to buy some groceries. As I
stood at the checkout line a thirty-something mustachioed cowboy asked me if I
was the guy trying to hitch a ride to
"Yup," I said, "That's me." I pulled out the sign tucked into my bag and smiled hoping he was on his way there.
"I'm not on my way there," he said, "but I do know there's a Trailways headed that way, and we might just be able to make it."
"Hey, that sounds great," I said. "How far's the station?"
"Don't worry," he said. "I'll give you a lift. Paul Preston's, the name."
"Tom Haig," I said. "Thanks for the offer. It was getting cold out there."
out to the parking lot, and I tossed my bag and guitar in his pickup.
"Hey, you wouldn't be watching the basketball games would you?" I
asked. It was the weekend of the NCAA semifinals and after years of getting
bonked out in early rounds, the Illini were playing
boys are crazy about that stuff," he said, "Seton Hall just beat
We pulled into the bus station, I thanked him for the ride and pulled my gear out of the back. The station was closed, but he assured me that buses came and went all the time whether or not the doors were open. I walked up to the schedule on the door and discovered I'd just missed the last bus. The next one wasn't until 2:00 the next afternoon.
I said. "Well I'm going to find a bar and try to catch the end of the
"Hold on," he said. "I got three boys at home who've got their eyes glued to the TV. Why don't you just come watch it with us?"
"If it's no bother," I said. "I'm dying to catch the second half."
think twice. He threw my gear back in his truck and drove me to his house on
the outskirts of
"Yup," I said, "I spent five long years there - all for this. How we doin'?"
"Flat!" I said. "How we doin'?"
"It's real close," he said. "Ain't very flat around here is it?"
"Thank God no," I said. "I can't stand flat."
Paul had walked into the kitchen to explain the situation to his wife who didn't seem too thrilled with unexpected wild card company. I sat down on the couch between the boys and focused on the game. Paul's wife came out with cheese and crackers and the boys jumped all over it.
"Now mind your manners boys," she said, "Tom's likely to think we're a bunch of trailer trash. Jimmy, ask Tom if he wants some first."
Jimmy offered me the tray, I took some and thanked Paul's wife.
"Lynette Preston," she said offering me a coke. "Sorry to hear about your misfortune. We're just having hamburgers tonight. Is that all right?"
"Hamburgers sound great," I said. "Can I help out in there?"
"If you can just baby-sit the boys here that'd be all the help I could ask for."
"Sure thing." I said.
turned out the boys were baby-sitting me.
Dammit!" I screamed. Then I looked at the room and the boys were all
silent with Lynette standing in the doorway to the kitchen. I could tell that
kind of language wasn't allowed in this house. "I'm very sorry, I just
lost my cool - it's just such a hard way to go down - to
Jimmy's face was smiling ear to ear as I tried to explain myself. He was about to crack up when Lynette said, "Now those things happen. Let's just get to the table."
Jimmy knew if it had come out of his mouth he wouldn't be waltzing over to the table for hamburgers.
We sat down to dinner and Paul had us all hold hands for grace. The grace was a long solemn speech taking in the events of the day and the lessons we had all learned about hospitality and emotion.
"God has lessons for us every day if we are wise enough to accept things with an open mind and a contrite heart. So bless this food, Jesus, and shed your divine light towards us so that we may accept your coming. Amen."
After Paul's sermon my verbal splurge didn't just seem unwelcome, it was downright blasphemous. I ate my hamburger on best behavior and was quick to pick up the plates and do the dishes. Naturally Lynette wanted to intervene, but I insisted.
"So are you on vacation, Tom?" she asked.
of," I said, "I'm really just between jobs. I've got a job in
why are you on your way to
"I've got a friend living there and I haven't seen her in a long time."
"An old friend who's a girl or an old girlfriend?" she asked.
"Yeah, she's an old girlfriend," I said, "but it's been a couple of years. Nothing serious."
romantic to me," she said, "You're coming all the way from
"Oh, she's special," I said, "but I'm not going there with any expectations. I just want to see her."
"Did you call her from the train station?" she asked. "I bet she's worried sick."
"Well what's her number?" she said, "You men are always leaving us women in the dark. I bet she's sitting at home looking out the front window for you right now."
I gave Chloe a call and explained the situation. She said she thought I might not make it down and wasn't really expecting me. She'd be waiting tables by the time I got in so I should just go to the bar where she worked instead of her house. By the time I'd hung up the phone Lynette had fixed me a bed on the couch.
"You're staying with us tonight," she said. "No reason for you to find a motel. They're all disgusting around here."
"Wow," I said, "That's incredibly hospitable of you. I really hope I'm not putting you out."
"Not at all," Paul said. "Now suppose you play us some guitar."
"Yeah," the boys screamed. "Do you know some country tunes?"
I had to think about that one for a while, but I came up with a couple Grateful Dead cowboy standards that did the trick. The only problem with the Dead's cowboy tunes is that they're not about God-fearing Christian people, and I was definitely in the midst of God-fearing Christian people. The boys got a kick out of me singing about whisky drinking, card-playing gun-toting cowboys but I could tell Paul and Lynette weren't exactly comfortable with my set list. I finished off with "Ripple" and they seemed to be much happier.
"We'll be up early," Paul said. "We go to church on Sundays. You're welcome to join us."
"Sure thing," I said, "Good night." I hadn't been to church in years, but my bus didn't leave until 2:00 and I didn't want to put them in the position of trusting me in their house with them gone. Church it was.
I woke up with the sun and showered the train ride off my body. Paul's family already had breakfast on the table by the time I got dressed. I apologized for not having any church clothes with me but Lynette assured me that this wasn't a very dressy church group.
We drove to
the church and everyone greeted Paul and Lynette like celebrities. This wasn't
any simple Paul. I had been staying at the home of Pastor Paul of the
services started we split into groups for Sunday school. I went with Paul's
group which was talking about
concluded his lecture, then we gathered with all the other Sunday school
classes for services. Paul led the congregation in song and scriptures while
they still wondered who the hippie was sitting with his family. Paul finished
the service, but I still had three hours before my bus left. I told them that
they could just drop me off at the bus station, but they wouldn't have anything
to do with that. Lynette had made some sandwiches for lunch, and Paul insisted
I see the
We packed a
cooler into the pickup and they drove me deep into the plateaus and canyons of
I'll be damned," he said. Lynette slapped his hand on the wheel and told
him to be polite. We pulled over to picnic high above the
"God be with you on your travels, Tom," Paul said.
"Thanks," I said, "You've been incredible hosts - I don't know how I can repay you?"
"One day you'll be rich and the lord will send you a hitchhiker," Paul said. "Take him in."
I shook their hands and stepped up to the bus. They waited at the curb until the bus pulled out. I waved out the window as if I was saying goodbye to old friends. Ever since dropping Catholicism I've had a real tough time with proselytizing Christians, but the entire time I was with this pastor he never tried to push anything on me at all. He simply laid out his life for me to examine. I could take from it what I wanted. I assumed I was going to get a speech somewhere along the line but he never went for it. Paul was everything that was right about religion. A preacher who didn't preach. The Prestons were a rare spiritual gift but only the first of the long week to come.
Chloe said she'd be working, but it was a casual bar and she'd have plenty of time to visit. I walked in the door and saw her standing at the bar. She dropped her tickets on a tray and ran over to give me a great big hug and a kiss.
"Listen," she said, "It's getting really busy. We're having an open mic night and it gets pretty packed. Throw your stuff over there and I'll put you on the list. You're going third."
She pointed over to a pile of instruments lined up on a small stage. Without even asking me she ran up to the chalkboard on the stage and wrote my name down. The only reason I brought my guitar was to play at a campfire. I wasn't really sure I wanted to go on stage with a bunch of kick-ass mountain guitar pickers.
"How good are they?" I asked.
"Oh, they all suck," she said. "You'll do just fine."
Dan and I
had been playing quite a bit in our cramped apartment, and I actually had 15 or
20 tunes worked up. The last time she'd heard me play was three summers ago in
the Ozarks. I'd done a lot of busking in
Chloe ran around taking orders from the bar as it began to fill up. I was tuning my guitar when she slid a beer onto the table next to me. A couple of minutes later she dropped a burger and fries on the table and said, "Eat this but don't burp when you sing."
Almost every guitar case on stage had a Dead sticker on it, so I knew I was in the right crowd. I was just hoping nobody would steal my set before I got up. The first guy got up and proved to be an obnoxious crooner who tried to pull off a Roy Rodgers set. He was a faux-cowboy, and it showed with every note he sang. The second act was a duet, a guitar player and a woman singer. Had they rehearsed they would have been really nice, but she kept choking on the lyrics and was even more nervous than me. Chloe was right - they did suck. I wasn't going to be much better but at least I wasn't out of my league.
an acoustic pick up from the first guitar player and did a sound check into the
mic. "Check, Check 1, aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh, Check." I didn't know
what I was doing with a mic, so I just did whatever I'd seen other people do. I
strummed the guitar a couple of times and the guy at the soundboard gave me a
thumbs up. "How's everyone doing tonight?" I said. "I'm Tom. I'm
a friend of Chloe's from
"Blame it on me!" she yelled across the bar.
Dan and I had worked out a great version of "Jack Straw," and I had it down cold. It didn't sound nearly as good without his leads, but I played right through it and didn't crack once on the lyrics. Chloe walked by the stage and told me to sing louder. The music teacher nun I had in third grade told me my voice was so bad that it might be better if I pick up a horn instead of singing. Pushing that voice over a house system almost paralyzed me with fear, but I had no choice. Next up was "Scarlet Begonias” into “Fire on the Mountain." I turned up the guitar and tried to project myself through the mic. A tiny stage monitor below me let me hear myself sing. As long as I kept my voice within the volume of the guitar I was okay; if I tried to belt it out it was gonna really suck.
Three songs down the tube and time for my finale. I could have stayed conservative, but it had been going well enough so far. I gritted my teeth and went for the long version of "Terrapin Station." It's a long complicated tune with a pile of lyrics and three, big, completely different sections. I figured if I made it through the guitar parts correctly at least they could forgive my singing. I rarely played it through at home without choking on one part or another, but the crowd scared me straight and I made it through without missing a note.
I looked up at the bar clock towards the end and saw that I'd been up there for a half an hour. That was plenty. I closed the tune on a soft note then leaned into the mic and in my best Elvis voice said, "Thank you very much." I didn't get any standing ovation, but the full crowd applauded and a couple of Chloe's friends looked over at her and winked their approval. I got off that seat as fast as I could.
Chloe came over to my table, gave me a beer and big hug and said I was the best act so far. "How'd the singing sound?" I asked.
"Oh that whispering you did under the guitar parts?" she said. "It was fine."
I turned red and slammed my beer. I was happy to have gone when I did. The next two acts were polished performers singing original tunes. They were the reason for the full house. At least I didn't chicken out.
Chloe poured me a couple more beers and waited for the dining crowd to finish eating. Her boss let her take off early, so we piled my gear into her pickup and headed to a one-room cabin she was sharing with a ski instructor from Purgatory. We cranked up the space heaters, smoked out and got to know each other again. If I was going to make any moves on Chloe this wasn't the place. I'd been up and traveling since 6:00 and I was ready to crash anyway.
In the morning the ski instructor took off, and we had the cabin to ourselves. I climbed in bed with Chloe and we started fooling around, but she put a hold on it before it went too far. "Can we just go slow," she said. "I'm just a little screwed up right now and now that you're here I just need to take things slowly."
the best news I'd heard, but who was I to push anything. She'd just ended a
long-term relationship and needed to be independent for a while. We chilled out
and made breakfast then she took me on a tour of
Chloe had to go to work, so she left me with a key and a mountain bike. I'd never been on a mountain bike before and was kind of pissed off at how slow it went. I went for a big climb high outside the city and wondered why in the world anyone would want such a slow toddling bike. I dropped from a mountain pass back into town but couldn't get any speed at all. Mountain biking was new in 1989, and I didn't get the idea that you were supposed to ride on trails. I was riding in one of the top mountain biking areas in the world but taking the thing out on highways as if it were a road bike. I'd love to have that ride back right now.
came back that night it was clear that she wasn't in the mood to do anything
but talk. I was hoping to kick-start something and invite her to come stay in
morning I dropped her off at work and took off in her pick-up past
A few miles past the 10,000 ft. Lizard Head Pass I took a right and turned towards Telluride village. I came across a young athletic woman walking on the side of the road, and thinking what Paul Preston told me, pulled over to offer her a ride. She wasn't hitchhiking, but the road dead-ended into Telluride. There was nowhere else she could be going.
"Need a ride into town?" I said.
"Sure," she said. She took a second to size me up then figured I looked safe enough. I opened the door and she climbed in.
"Hi,' she said, "I'm Janice."
"I'm Tom," I said. "This place is incredible. I've never been here before."
"Yup," she said, "Telluride's the best. Ski season's over, and I gotta leave tomorrow. I'm really gonna miss it."
"Hey, you don't know where I could find Cassidy's Bar?" I asked. "I've got a friend who used to work there, and I want to see if anybody knows him."
"Cassidy's?" she said. "That is so freaking weird. That's where I'm going. I work there. I've got to pick up my last paycheck before I head out."
"No shit," I said. "How long have worked there?"
"All season long," she said. "And it's been a long season."
"So you knew Paul?"
"Paul who?" she slowly said.
"Paul Wolfert - from Tulane - he died in an avalanche last month."
"Who are you?" she said.
friend of Paul's from
"I was Paul's roommate." She said.
We stared at each other with dropped jaws. I almost ran the truck off the road.
"You were Paul's roommate?"
"Yeah," she said, "I was going out with his friend - he was going out with my friend. We all worked at Cassidy's. The four of us shared a condo."
never found out what happened!" I said. "His parents never called us.
"Holy shit," she said. "This is really weird Can we pull over?" I pulled the pickup over just before entering the city. "You're really Paul's friend right - you're not a cop or anything."
cop? Do I look like a cop?" and then in my best
"No, but Paul's friend is on trial for manslaughter, and we don't want any more shit to come from this. Here's what happened. It was the day after Valentines Day and we were all super hung over."
"And I'm sure Derf went for a little wake and bake," I said.
"Wake and bake?" she said. "I did, but he didn't. Paul never smoked. And what's this 'Derf' name."
"'Derf' is Paul," I said. "I don't think I ever called him Paul in his life - and what's this you're telling me? Derf wasn't getting high?"
"Nope," she said, "He drank with us, but he never got high - not while I was with him, and I was with him all the time."
Derf's academic turn around came at the heels of quitting dope. He was a
perpetual stoner, and apparently he'd had enough. The last time I saw him was
"So anyway," she continued, "We were all hung over, but the weather was starting to warm up, and he knew the big out-of-bounds bowls were going to get dangerous in a couple of weeks. Paul, a Kiwi he used to ski with, and our friend Billy had made a pact to ski Temptation Ridge before the season was out. The three of them took that lift over there (she pointed to a lift at the far end of the cavernous Telluride horseshoe valley) and hiked up to temptation ridge - over there. You can't see it from here. It's on the backside of the mountain."
"So they got to the top of the ridge, ate lunch then got ready to go. The three of them jumped off at once, and it knocked a big chunk of snow off the cornice. Billy skied to the side of the trail, but Paul and the Kiwi were stuck in the path of the avalanche. They tried to get out, but it caught up to them. They tumbled and screamed all the way to the bottom. Billy went for help, and the ski patrol found them frozen stiff. I was still in the condo when the news came on the radio. I couldn't believe what I was hearing."
welling up in her eyes then we both started to cry. I reached over and gave her
a hug. "Sorry, I had to make you do that," I said. "In
"God, that sucked," she sniveled. "I haven't thought about it for a couple of days. I thought I was over it. I've never lost a friend. You know what I mean - it's not like you can pick up a rule book and deal with it."
"I think that's the only rule," I said. "You have to deal with it. You can't just pretend it didn't happen. It won't go away until you give it some peace. Now we've got some peace."
"You want to go for a hike?" she asked. "I've got some stuff to do in town, but I was going to go up the mountain one last time before I took off."
"Sure," I said.
even entered the city of
"Everyone's gone now," she said, "but when this place is hopping, it's a mob scene. Everyone here is rich and they'll throw money around like it's confetti - Sting's house is right next door."
"So this was Derf's hangout," I said.
"And this is where they had the memorial service too," she said. "It was really upbeat. His parents and his brother flew in, and they had what I guess you'd call a funeral right here at the base of the mountain. We were all crying, but then at the end it was really sweet and hopeful. Paul's gone but we're not going to forget him."
Janice picked up her check then asked me if we could do one more errand before hitting the mountain. She had to pick up the mail for a friend who was house-sitting for some locals during the off-season. The friend was out for the weekend, and she said she'd watch the place until she got back. We went to the house, but the door was wide open. She was a little freaked until she saw a young guy installing a ceiling fan in the living room.
"Hi," she said, "I'm Janice. I'm supposed to pick up the mail for Carolyn."
"Go ahead," he said, "I work for the owners, I want to get this thing up today. I'm outta here tomorrow - Hey, you work at Cassidy's don't you?"
"Yeah," she said, "I thought I recognized you. This is my friend, Tom. He was a good friend of the guy who died in the Valentine's Day Avalanche."
Kiwi or the guy from
knew Paul Wolfert from
"That's weird, man," he said. "I work ski patrol. I pulled him out."
"Yeah," he said, "I was working ski patrol that day. My dog and I went up in the helicopter. The dog found him and I dug him out. It wasn't pretty. I don't need to…"
"No," I said, "go ahead. What did he look like?"
"He was a frozen bag of broken bones," he said. "Completely pulverized. The hill didn't spare one bone in his body. I don't think he suffered though. Avalanches do quick work. He probably rode it for a while then got hit in the head by a rock."
I'd been in Telluride for less than an hour and I'd only met two people. One was Derf's best friend and the other was the person who pulled his body out. If I'd shown up a day later I never would have met either of them. Derf had to be hovering above the ceiling fan. I could just hear him say, "Psyche!" - then giggle with his stoned red eyes barely open.
Janice and I said goodbye to the ski-patrol worker and walked out of town high above the valley. She was as freaked out as I was. We smoked out in a deep canyon where the four of them used to bring beers and build huge bonfires. The fire scar and log benches were still there. From on top of the canyon we could see Temptation Ridge and the gigantic bowl that took Derf's life. I'd solved my case before I'd barely even opened it. In two short hours I'd seen it all. It was time to head out; I had a story to report back at the Casa. Paul died pushing the envelope - just like the rest of us always tried to do.
Janice and I hiked back to town, and I drove her to the condo unit that she'd shared with Paul.
"I won't be renting this unit next season," she said. "I don't even know if I can come back here. Maybe I should just to exorcise the demons."
"It's not Telluride's fault," I said. "I can't think of a more beautiful place to die either."
"We'll see," she said. "It's a long summer. Life changes."
I gave her
one more hug, and we exchanged meaningless addresses. I waved to her as I
pulled out of the driveway and headed back to
Now he's gone...
Now he's gone... Lord he's gone
Like a steam locomotive rolling down the track,
He's gone, he's gone and nothing's gonna bring him back.
Nine mile skid on a ten mile ride.
Hot as a pistol but cool inside.
Cat on a tin roof, dogs in a pile
Nuthin Left To Do But Smile Smile Smile.
Now he's gone...
Now he's gone... Lord he's gone
Like a steam locomotive rolling down the track,
He's gone, he's gone and nothing's gonna bring him back.
Goin where the wind don't blow so strange.
Maybe off in some high cold mountain chain.
Lost one round but the prize wasn't anything
A knife in the back, and more of the same.
(He's Gone 1972 Hunter-Garcia)