You pick up the phone on the 1st of October, 2002. No one has heard from Kenny in four days and Kenny’s mom is scared, she asks if you know where he is. She calls back on the 5th. Searchers have found his truck, parked near the top of a rocky bluff. They had combed the area for days, with no luck, and then one of the searchers had looked down and seen a bear at the bottom of the cliff. It was feeding on Kenny’s body.
When Kenny’s mom is going through her son’s things, she finds a note. It’s addressed to you. It’s a goodbye note. He didn’t want to go back to the hospital. He hated his pills. He didn’t see any other way out. You give the eulogy, on the banks of the American River, where Kenny loved to hike and fish and raft. You tell the 400 mourners that you have lost your best friend. Three other speakers say the same thing. Weird, how such a young man, carrying so much sadness, could have so many best friends.
After Kenny’s friends speak, the preacher rises, walks to the front of the crowd. He begins to talk and at that instant a flock of ducks flies overhead, quacking, and they land behind him, on the river. He raises his voice and they quack louder. The preacher keeps trying, but the ducks quack so loud no one can hear what he’s saying. You and Michelle look at each other. "It’s him," she says.
It is a terrible winter, a season of grief, and Michelle is worried sick about you, she hopes spring will bring healing, but it doesn’t. The next winter is terrible, too. You write to Kenny’s mom. "How do you go on when you lose your best friend?" You talk to her once a week and she tells you she has lost a son and you have lost a mother, but now you have each other. You can’t sleep. Mornings, you’re bone-tired. The times you manage to drift off, you wake screaming. You wake Michelle. And some nights, Michelle wakes on her own and finds you staring at pictures of Kenny, holding the scrapbooks with records of your hikes together. You avoid other people, spend more and more time alone. She doesn’t know what to do. Ever since she met you, she has worried about you. But she never worried when you were with Kenny. She tells you to get outside, to hike, to climb. Michelle knows the climbing community in Santa Cruz, they’re her friends, so she calls them. She calls people she knows, asks them if they’ll climb with you, then tells you–okay, maybe she nags a little–that they’re waiting for your call, but you don’t call. Sometimes, desperate, she prays. Not to God. She prays to Kenny.
You and Michelle break up in February–it just got too intense–and you don’t have any work lined up, or anything else tying you down, so you try again. You leave Mexico April 22, 2004. You’re not sure you’re going to yo-yo. You’re not sure of anything.
On the trail, you grieve for Kenny, but you don’t worry about him anymore. You don’t have to. And you don’t have to worry about how sick your mother is, or what she wants you to do with your life, or the sadness she carries behind her dark sunglasses, in her dark little room. You don’t have to worry about your next job, or packing, or whether you are going to attempt the hike again. All you have to worry about are water and food and shelter and it’s liberating. Maybe no man is an island, but god the waters can be choppy, they can drown a man if he’s not careful and there is something to be said for hiking alone in the Sierra in early spring, with no girlfriend, no job, no family, no skinny kid carrying unbearable sadness in his stripped-down, strapless pack. You have your beans and corn chips and tarp and sleeping quilt. You think you have everything you need. You’re so wrong.