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Know the West

Carrying your own load

Lessons from off the grid


My friends live way off the grid, buffered from civilization by miles of dirt road that twist along the narrow ridges of Northern California's Coast Range. I first traveled to their place 25 years ago, sitting behind Kerby and Irene in their battered Volkswagen bug, listening to the contrapuntal sounds of Kerby's easy chat and the pulse of panic in my temples. I was terrified we'd slide right off that funky road to our deaths.

Kerby parked on the small flat where he'd built his workshop. Inside, welding torches crowded against wrenches and chainsaws. Heaped nearby was an array of dented, two-wheeled metal carts of the kind most often used by old ladies rolling their groceries home. Some of these had sprouted outsized axles and heavy-duty wheels. Because their house lies below the road, a steep third of a mile down-canyon, and is accessible only by foot, Kerby and Irene put a lot of energy and creativity into carrying loads up and down the hill.

We set out toward the cabin, following a path that weaves through oak, madrone and bay laurel. The trail is so steep that more than once I slid to earth and shot forward on my keister. Kerby, sure-footed as a goat, calmly pulled me back upright.

We stayed up late, talking by the light of kerosene lamps, and then I sacked out on the living room floor of the tiny cabin. Just after dawn, Kerby came romping downstairs stark naked, grabbed some water jugs and headed out to the hand-hewn spring house. Frogs sang as he ducked his head under the lintel, where he'd carved the words "give thanks" deep into the wood.

Over the years, their place evolved. They built an addition that dwarfs the original cabin, a quirky structure that bends at odd angles to follow the branches of the ancient oaks he'd never consider pruning. Photo-voltaic panels appeared in the meadow below the house, the kerosene lamps went into retirement, Kerby and Irene got e-mail accounts. They continued to trek between the house and the road carrying every kind of burden. Kerby, who weighed perhaps 150 pounds at his heaviest, routinely packed staggering weights on his back: loaded propane tanks, stacks of salvaged windows, a queen-size mattress.

Once, when I returned home with Kerby on a moonless night, he headed off down the trail barefoot, with the only flashlight switched off in his back pocket. He was halfway down the hill when it occurred to him that I lack his talent for navigating in utter darkness, and he came back up to guide me with the light.     
In 25 years of friendship, I remember one specific piece of advice from Kerby. Make up your own rules, he said. The corollary was unspoken but obvious: Be ready to carry your own load.

Kerby began learning to fly in the late 1980s, using borrowed and rented planes. He's piloted activists and members of Congress over California's last, controversial stands of old-growth forest. He'll take to the air for any good cause, but most often for the plain joy of it. In flight, boundaries vanish, and the only relevant limits are the laws of physics.

He was flying with Irene in the mountains of western Idaho this past June when he made a single mistake, and physics defeated him. That morning he looked down at a network of creeks and read them wrong. He turned one drainage too soon. He meant to head to a safe landing strip; instead he flew up a narrow box canyon. The little Cessna lacked the power to climb out, and there was no room to turn around. He realized they would crash. Irene says he put all his focus into setting the plane down in a way that would protect her.

Kerby suffered massive head injuries on impact. He never regained consciousness. Irene stayed at his side, wrapping him in her shawl, singing to him, desperately administering rescue breathing when his strong body stopped. Later, when it became clear that the pilots in passing planes could not see the crash site, Irene conquered the pain of a broken vertebra, shouldered a full pack of emergency supplies, and began to climb. She was rescued four days after the crash, 1,500 feet above the wreckage.

One hundred or so of his closest family and friends gathered to bury Kerby beneath the laurels and madrones. A few weeks later, I went back to visit with Irene. On their front porch, I strapped two empty propane tanks to a pack frame, then walked and wept my way up the trail, passing the turn-off to his grave site. I dropped my load in front of the old workshop. When Kerby had welding to do on a hot day, he'd work there nude except for a regulation face shield.

I didn't slip as I moved up and down the hill. My steps are much surer than they were in those long-ago days before I knew him. Kerby taught me a lot about carrying weight in rough terrain.  

I've  found my way through the black-out of grief before, but Kerby was always there to anchor me. This time, he can't turn back and light my way, not unless I summon him from my own mind. I know there are many facets to loss, that there are places where the warmth of memory can outweigh the pain of disappearance. I'll make my way there eventually, but I'm in no hurry. I'm making up my own rules.

In the interest of privacy, the names in this essay are pseudonyms.