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Last summer, as my fiance, Jessie, and I moved to Brookings, we planned a visit for our friend Walter. He had visited us in Washington, and we regularly visited him in Florida. Walter was a Boy Scout leader, a Venture Crew leader and a 6-foot, 4-inch puppy in hiking clothes and boots.
Although we came here for Jessie’s job, we also came here because Brookings and this area of the coast looked to us like an endless Boy Scout camp. We imagined ourselves on the rivers, by the rivers, in the rivers, under the redwoods and under the stars.
We own little and travel light, but the first things we packed were tents, sleeping bags and hiking clothes. I think we bought kayaks the day after we moved in.
The next day, we hit the Chetco River after work and terrified ourselves. We were a little early in the river season and things moved fast. We paused before and after to send pictures to Walter. He responded quickly and couldn’t wait to come.
We camped under the redwoods at Jedediah Smith and along the water below canyon walls on the Smith River. Moonlight glowed in the canyon, the owls began their long sad song, and we put our drunk butts to bed in the tent.
In the morning, we sent pictures to Walter. Our new friends stood beside kayaks in a group and toasted Walter on video. Jessie and I kayaked the Chetco or the Smith seven times in nine weeks.
Back at our rental home on Cape Ferrelo, tucked in the woods, the dark of night was absolute. The stars nearly touched our faces. We relished the beautiful silence.
Then, four weeks before his visit, on our usual Sunday call, Walter told me he would have to postpone. Just a little throat cancer. Easy to treat. But he wouldn’t be able to eat well for a while or drink the long list of craft beers we planned to consume. The breweries and rivers would have to wait. Radiation and chemo came first.
Then, a wildfire jumped out of the wilderness and began to burn through our wonderland. Walter had trouble talking, and the Sunday calls grew shorter. Then he couldn’t talk at all. We texted constantly.
The skies darkened and ash rained on our house. We were evacuated and Walter was hospitalized. I looked at my phone constantly for Chetco Bar updates and texts from Florida.
Jessie and I stared at the sky in dead silence; our eyes clouded with tears.
Without warning, on the last day of treatment, after texting, “all is well,” Walter choked to death in the hospital. We moved back home on a Level 2 evacuation. We held each other and cried and cried.
Jessie and I hiked every day we could and took pictures for Walter’s sons. We cried aloud as we walked. Walter’s funeral was postponed twice — once because they couldn’t book a place big enough to hold all those who loved him, and the second time because Irma was trashing south Florida.
The rains came and ended the fire, and we began to heal. We flew to Florida to celebrate Walter. We flew home. Brookings now was home. Our friends and co-workers here had cared for us well.
We camped below and then hiked Humbug Mountain. We took Walter with us. We laughed at how his poor Florida legs would have ached from the climb. He always smiled and laughed in the sunshine. He used to shake our tent and screech “Sunshine!” first thing in the morning. We cracked a good beer at the summit.
The next weekend, we drove to Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park and took our picture at the trailhead of Boy Scout Tree Trail. We hiked in and sat at Boy Scout Tree and went on to the falls. We left no trace. We packed out other people’s litter. Walter taught us to hike and camp, and love the wild and leave no trace.
We sat down later at SeaQuake in Crescent City and had a flight of beers and potato soup. Somewhere from the back of the bar area, I heard a man laughing. Jessie was smiling as she sipped a great red ale.
Welcome home, Walter.