John Colella, Age 24

John Colella, my best friend, died five years ago this December. He was 42 years old at the time, and I remember simply not being able to process the information when my father called with the news. My dad might as well have told me that he’d just canceled the family subscription to the color blue and figured that I should know. I understood the words, but the concept was foreign to the point of incoherence.

John and I had been friends since seventh grade. We went through junior high school, high school, and then college together. We cut classes together. We spent our weekends and lunchtimes together. We took our vacations together. We did our obligatory cross-country drive as 20-somethings together. Over the years, we drank several plantations worth of coffee together. I was the best man at his first wedding, and we got fall-down drunk together at the party following his second. If I were ever to get married, I was going to ask him to stand up for me. But that’s not going to happen, as he died half a decade ago and took a good part of me with him. And he died in a way that is tough to understand unless you’re willing to openly consider that God can be a real son-of-a-bitch.

In December of 2007, John was living a settled, love-filled life. He shared a dental practice with his father and had recently purchased a beautiful old farmhouse outside of Ithaca, NY. He had an amazingly cool wife and a beautiful infant son. And then he caught a cold. Having had colds before, he didn’t do anything about it other than trying to get bed rest and keeping his fluids up.

Over the course of a week, the cold turned into pneumonia, but John was legendarily stubborn when it came to his health and didn’t want to make such a big deal out of it, so he didn’t go to the doctor. After a few more days of feeling like hell and generally declining, his wife put her foot down and drove him to the hospital, where he was immediately admitted to the ICU. Shortly after admission, his systems began to fail in series.

The doctors were pumping him full of antibiotics, but John’s immune system was shot to pieces, and the meds didn’t have anything to grab onto. He died a few hours later as his dad held his hand. No other underlying causes were found in the autopsy. No autoimmune stuff. No hepatitis. No major organ involvement — with the exception of the standard-issue wear and tear that comes along with the wine, whiskey, and song of early middle age. So, my best guess is that John died as a statistical outlier from complications of having a sore throat, a fatty liver, and a pig-metal head.

John’s death has been with me every day now for half a decade. I think about him a lot when I’m alone. I try to gain some wisdom from his absence: to see what I’m missing when I see he’s not there. When old friends get together, a glass is always raised, tears are shed, and (as John was profoundly given to scatological humor) fart jokes fly. Among our close circle of friends, we don’t get down into the weeds of those awful days in December much anymore. Rather, we retell favorite stories. We do John impersonations. We laugh. Over the past few years, the person I’ve spoken to most about John’s death is his dad. Doc is also one of my closest friends and has been for nearly thirty years.

Doc is convinced that John died from something called General Adaptation Disorder, also known as the Selye Stress Syndrome. The argument states that if a person is placed into repetitive “fight or flight” situations through genetic predisposition or a stressful environment, the adrenal system constantly ratchets up to new levels of “normal.” In the end, that puts enormous stress on the body and can lead to overall collapse. I don’t know what to make of that, but the boy was wound tight. Hell, John positively vibrated. If he were a cartoon character, you would have drawn him in frantic, squiggly lines. So maybe Doc’s right.

One thing for certain is that Doc and John had a special connection. Many sons, if we’re lucky enough to have the opportunity, eventually get to become brothers to our fathers. But John and Doc had that from the jump. When we were in high school and planning on hanging out for the day, John was as likely as not to show up at my house with his dad. Which was great. Doc never judged us. He loved us. He tolerated us. He broadened us. He showed us how to do cool stuff. He was complex, thoughtful, and unique. He recited poetry and shot an old, repro Colt .45 like a cowboy. He taught us how to most effectively turn a bored-out log into a cannon. It was always like that, from our teenage years, right up to the end of John’s life.

One of my favorite memories is when we were juniors in college. John and I had come home to Binghamton with another friend, Ted Rennenberg, for the weekend. Ted was an English major who had spent a few years between high school and college as a diesel mechanic and forklift operator — but he loved literature, so he got himself a partial scholarship and headed north from Long Island to Syracuse University.

As I cracked a beer in the Colella’s backyard, Doc and Ted were both bent over, half inside the engine well of an old Chevy Suburban, fixing the alternator and arguing the depth of Chaucer’s bawdiness. The quote that sticks with me from that afternoon is Doc, half shouting as he blindly reached out for John to pass him a socket wrench, “Christ, Ted! What do you think Chaucer meant by ‘her nether eye’?!?!”

So, yeah, with the Colellas, propriety was at the bottom of a lonnnnng list of concerns. I remember one evening that summed up that aspect of the family philosophy perfectly. John was kicked back in his chair in the kitchen, with a smoke in one hand and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick in the other. Doc was cleaning a gun. I was doing the crossword. Then John started laughing so hard that he snorted and choked. When he tried to take a sip of coffee to wet his throat, he spilled it all over his shirt. Doc asked him what was so funny. John, getting his laughter somewhat under control, set up the scene wherein President William Daffodil-11 Swain encourages the citizens of the United States to say to anyone they don’t like: “Why don’t you take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut? Why don’t you take a flying fuck at the moooooooooooon?”

It was the funniest thing we’d ever heard, and the three of us sat there laughing like hyenas and repeating the line over and over again, harmonizing on the “. . . at the moooooooooooon!!!” crescendo.

Not surprisingly, it became a catchphrase to explain a central part of the family creed.

But I don’t want to leave the wrong impression. John wasn’t a yahoo. He wasn’t trailer trash who made it a point to insult folks or undermine their social standing for no reason. Nothing could be farther from the truth. He just generally didn’t give a damn what people thought about him, or, for that matter, what those people thought about themselves. What he believed, and what I learned hanging out with him and his dad, was that when societal expectations collide with individual character, then unless there’s a really compelling reason, the individual spirit should prevail.

Miners on the Chilkoot’s “Golden Staircase,” 1897

There was a Colella family story called “The Parable of the Bricks.” Doc must have told it to us a thousand times. He was in Washington Square Park in New York City when he was a young man, and he saw this crazy person hammering the cobbles with a heavy rubber mallet. When Doc asked him why, he responded, “Because some of the bricks stick up higher than the others.”

That was a serious warning to both John and me that we’d better be ready for a world that loved nothing more than grinding down the rough bits, the pieces that don’t fit in. According to the creed, forming a core trust in yourself that could stand up to those challenges is a good part of the reason we’re knocking around on this pretty blue marble in the first place. For some folks, those personal ethics find their roots in the conventions of abstract belief systems, be they religions or philosophies, but neither John nor I thought any of them were worth much.  So, with Doc’s help, we tried to piece together our own.

A good part of that process took place around a campfire up at Doc’s farm outside of Owego, New York. The farm was a largely unimproved 200 acres of evergreens and American hardwoods with a small cabin and a shooting range that Doc leased out for a buck a year to the local sheriff’s department. Not too much happened up there most days other than the consumption of heroic doses of coffee. Occasional we had sightings of black bears, which caused some interest and excitement, but mostly if we were up there, it was to hang out, shoot guns, or help Doc spread the coffee grounds he collected from the county jail in a deal to help them reduce their garbage stream and provide him fertilizer.

But the farm was also where we’d gather on the Winter Solstice, a day we called Midwinter’s Eve, to make new copper rings, twist ribbons into the colors of the four corners of the universe for hanging in the highest tree while singing until dawn to encourage the sun to return for another year. At the farm, we’d openly speak of portents and omens. We’d cast bones. We’d only tinder our fires with Goldenrod, and if you had to use more than one match, it foretold dark challenges in the coming year. We spoke of spirits and the soul-stealing witches who haunted our histories.

One summer, John and I even made a half-hearted attempt to learn Seneca. Doc had been working on it for a few years so that he might better understand the Paleolithic origins of the hero-savior-redeemer myth. That sounded reasonable, so we gave it a shot.

Neither John nor I ever got too far past conceptually understanding that each word in an Iroquois language is a complete sentence. But one funny phrase does abide in my echoic memory, and that’s the word sentence: “yeh-nunt’-gwis,” where the “t” is a glottal stop.

It means: “She’s got big ones.”

That might not seem like a terribly valuable thing to know, but if you’re a 19-year-old kid wrestling for a way to express the concept of “world mother” in the local indigenous tongue, then it had its place in the curriculum.

We weren’t pagans in the New Age, weave-a-dream-catcher or light-the-bowl-of-jasmine-incense kind of way. We didn’t sit and meditate. We drank and sang. Our offerings to the gods were tobacco and whiskey. We did what we did because it was something we could figure out on our own, away from sacred texts and hierarchical expectations. And Doc’s farm provided the space. I remember my first Midwinter’s Eve at the cabin. Sometime after our third pot of coffee, Doc tossed me the coil of copper wire. He’d just finished making himself a new ring. I asked him what I was supposed to do with it. He said, “Whatever the hell you want.”

Whatever this was, it was not the Catholicism I’d fled like a scalded cat a few years earlier.

I sat there for an hour, having not the slightest clue what I wanted to do. Then I started working. Over the years, I came up with a ring design that was a physical contemplation of my temporal path through this existence. (I know that sounds like a tumbler of huffenpuff mixed with a double shot of argle-bargle, but it means something to me — and that’s the point.)

Generally, we each did our own thing together. John had his stuff. I had mine. Doc had his.  If you wanted something explained, you asked. But in the end, we all had our private rituals that resonated at our own frequencies. Which, given enough whiskey and tobacco, could turn into beautiful harmonies by dawn. I can’t say with certainty that we had anything to do with it, but the sun always did keep rising.

I haven’t celebrated a cardinal day up at the farm in years, but it’s in me now at my core, and I’ve got John and Doc to thank for that. You never know what you’ll discover when you spend your nights around a campfire with a family-practice dentist who also happens to be a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking druid and his grinning, raised-finger-to-the-world son.

Up at the cabin is also where I first heard about the Chilkoot Trail. The story of the Chilkoot is in equal parts a story of adventure, struggle, loss, and redemption — which is convenient, as it was presented to John and me as a metaphor for understanding the purpose of human existence. The primary poet of that trail was a man named Robert W. Service, though others like Jack London wrote about the travails as well. Here’s the opening stanza of Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee. The first time I heard it, Doc was reciting solo, but not too long thereafter, the three of us would charge through it together.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales that would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights, but the queerest they ever did see,
Was that night on the marge of Lake Labarge, I cremated Sam McGee.

The first time I heard those lines, I was sitting at the table in the cabin, fiddling around with a kerosene lamp.  A full moon was reflecting a bone-white light inside the room. It was the late 1980s, on a crisp fall evening. John and I were likely home for Thanksgiving break from Syracuse. I asked Doc who wrote it, and that question started the engine on a story that would become central to my life over the coming decades. But to get it, first, you need a little history.

In the fall of 1896, gold was discovered in Canada’s far northwestern Yukon Territory, near the town of Dawson City. Lots of it. News of the discovery made its way to the other prospectors in the region shortly thereafter, and they flooded into the creeks around Dawson to stake their claims. By the next spring, when a few million dollars worth of the metal made it to the ports in Seattle and San Francisco, one of the largest gold rushes in the history of the world, The Klondike — so named for a tributary of the Yukon River where the gold was first discovered — was off and running.

The Yukon was a forbidding and distant place at the end of the 19th Century. Dawson City, the destination point for the gold rushers, is just 150 miles shy of the Arctic Circle. That far north, the ground is in permafrost; they generally schedule summer between noon and three on the second Wednesday of July so as not to disturb the natural order of things. Still, the gold was tempting enough to send a few hundred thousand men and women thronging over the mountain passes and down the Yukon River in the following two years. None of the routes (the All Canada, the White Pass, the All Water, and the Chilkoot Trail) were easy, but by far most popular was the Chilkoot.

Panning For Gold, Bonanza Creek

By the early summer of 1897, Canadian authorities realized that if they didn’t do something, the Yukon was going to see mass starvation come winter. So they set Mounties at all the passes to control the flow of cheechakos (tenderfeet, or greenhorns, in Athabaskan) entering British Columbia on their way north. There wasn’t a chance that the wild remotes of the Yukon could provide for so many folks from Seattle, Cincinnati, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, or Louisville. But the Mounties couldn’t stop them, either; it was and remains an open border. So a decision was made to require that any man or woman entering Canada on their way to the Klondike would need to carry at least “one ton of goods” on their backs.

This, obviously, presented a problem for the prospectors. But it was the law, and the Mounties had guns, so all of those gold rushers needed to hump the 2000 pounds of goods up and over the trail. The only way to do that was by getting a kit together in the Alaskan boom towns of Skagway or Dyea. From there, the prospectors set forth, a mile at a time, with as much weight as they could carry.

Though many started solo, no one made it to Dawson alone. Each individual needed to join a team of prospectors for protection if nothing else. They had to do their own work, but they did it together. Each hopeful miner would lug 100 pounds of gear a mile at a time, then lay a cache and return the mile for one more load. Thus, for every mile traveled, the men on the Chilkoot would have to walk forty: twenty laden with sinew-straining packs on the outbound mission; twenty in numb exhaustion on the return trip to gather more goods.

It took months for those men to move the 33 miles over the Chilkoot. And at the pass, it snowed 40 to 70 feet in the winter. Then, once they made it over the Coastal Range mountains, the teams of prospectors had to build themselves boats with logs harvested from the forest surrounding the headwaters of the Yukon River. Then, after that, they had a 700-mile float downstream, facing rapids that could, at several points on the journey, make wet matchsticks of all their hopes and dreams.

There are chilling stories about a preferred means of suicide that developed in the winter of 1897 along the Chilkoot. When all was lost, a man would write a final letter to his loved ones back home, then trudge through the snow some 50 feet off the trail, pin the letter to the inside of his coat, and lash himself to a tree in hopes that after the snows melted in the spring, his body would be high enough off the ground to not be eaten by wolves. Then he’d stick his gun in his mouth and end it, once and for all.

Over the two years of the Klondike Gold Rush (in 1898, a fresh strike was discovered in Nome, diverting the gold rushers elsewhere), nearly half a million people attempted the journey. But, when it came to the gold, it all turned out to be for naught. By the time even the first of the cheechakos made it to Dawson, all of the productive stakes had been claimed. The sourdoughs who lived way up north got there first, so not one of those folks who hiked the Chilkoot ever even got a taste of gold.

I learned all of this from Doc. I can remember well how his eyes grew thin and piercing as he approached the crux of the tale:

“But none of that mattered a damn. They’d already found their gold. They found it on the trail. You see, once you cross the Chilkoot, then nothing else matters. You just spend the rest of your life floating downstream to Dawson.”

I can’t possibly express what power that metaphor had on a couple of kids trying to figure out how not to be ground down by the world.

In the summer of 1994, John and I decided that, after hearing about the Chilkoot since we were teenagers, it was high time to go climb the bastard. I’d just finished my second year of teaching Social Studies in Brooklyn. John had just graduated from dental school and was to join Doc’s practice in the fall. We had about seven weeks to kill, so we packed up his truck and headed west. Our plan to reach the Chilkoot, such as it was, involved driving cross-country, making it to the Pacific Ocean, and then turning right.

The trip out west took a few weeks and involved several 48-hour driving jags where we drank endless cups of coffee, burned through the entire Social Distortion discography half a dozen times, learned to pee into empty bottles of Sunny-D in order to “save time,” and hung out for a few days in Colorado with our buddy Sean. We camped out most nights, including one towards the end of the trip on a beach outside of Tillamook, Oregon.

The Author and John Colella, A Very Long Time Ago

John and I were as close as brothers, but he wasn’t a big talker. He’d intuit. He’d react appropriately. He’d give advice if asked. He’d give you space when necessary. He’d listen. But he wasn’t one for giving soft purchase for an emotional landing. I knew that, but still, as we sat on that beach and I looked out over the Pacific for the first time in my life, I was overtaken by the cavernous enormity of it all.

We had a twelve-pack between us and more in the truck. And somewhere in the course of the night, I finally just opened up to him. I said, “John, man . . . I think I’m lost. I’ve got a job but no one to love. No place to call home. You, you’ve got it all. You’re gonna be working with your old man. You’ve got a beautiful woman you’re gonna marry. You’ve got a place in this world. That’s what I want: just a place in this world. Something to call my own.” 

John stared out over the water for a few seconds, then grabbed a beer, cracked it open, and passed it to me. Then he said in his staccato, machinegun voice, “Shut up, faggit.”

I’m pretty sure they could’ve heard us laughing all the way up in Dawson.

The next day we made it to Portland, where we met up with a friend who took us out for a night on the town. We dropped off our gear at his place, and then all headed out. It was a brilliant night, one of our finest, but at the third or fourth joint, John finally fessed up to me that, come tomorrow morning, he was done with this trip. It was time for him to head home.

“But what about the Chilkoot?” I pleaded.

“I just gotta head home,” was all he said.

He was final.

I was pissed off.

We’d talked about this plan for years. I was quiet for a time, brooding. Then, unable to contain myself any longer, as if living through a bad scene in a worse movie, I climbed up onto a table, glowered down at John, and announced to the bar that I didn’t “. . . give a damn what that runt is doing tomorrow! I’m going to fucking Alaska and hiking the fucking Chilkoot Trail!”

At which point, someone bumped into the table, sending me spilling ass-over-tea-kettle and landing on the floor. I’m fairly unclear on the rest of the night. But I do remember the following morning in crystalline detail. At around 11 AM, I was awakened by John, who was standing on the bed, gently tapping me in the temple with the toe of his Timberlands. When I peeled open my eyes, he hopped down and said that there was a cup of coffee for me on the nightstand. I should drink it quickly, he said. Then come and “get my shit out of the truck.”

He said he was leaving for home in fifteen minutes.

Then he headed out the door.

I hopped out of bed, sloshed half the coffee on my shirt, and flailed around the room, trying to find my pants. It took me 10 minutes just to get to the front door, and there was John, calmly tossing all my gear out onto the driveway of our friend’s apartment building.

While talking to him, I kept throwing my stuff back into the truck. “What the hell you mean you’re leaving? And why the rush? Come on! Lemme have my damn coffee. Let’s talk about this.”

“Nope,” he said. “You’ve got five minutes. Pick out what gear you want.”

In fear and confusion, I grabbed my pack and bedroll, hiking boots and cook kit, a Primus stove, and my water filter. All of which I had cradled in my arms, like Navin Johnson in The Jerk. Then John hopped in the driver’s-side door, lit a smoke, backed out of the driveway, and shouted, “Say hey to Bobby Service for me, would ya?” as he drove away.

Then he was gone.

I know that sounds heartless and cruel, not the actions of a best friend, but it was so very much the right thing to do. For years in our friendship, I’d been something like the younger, dumber brother. I was a follower of both John and Doc. John knew, he absolutely knew, that if I was allowed to sober up and pull the cobwebs from my eyes, I would have decided to go home with him rather than hike the Chilkoot. I’d have found an excuse, a way to promise myself that I’d do it next year.

But next year would have been another new excuse.

So, rather than letting me quit, he forced my hand by leaving me stranded in a driveway 2000 miles from home and 2000 miles from Dawson.

I caught a plane to Juneau two days later. In all, I spent about three weeks in Alaska and on the Chilkoot that summer. Once stuck with nowhere to go but forward, everything fell into place. At the Sea-Tac airport, heading to the gate, I ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen in over a decade. He was just returning from a trip back home to the East Coast and agreed to put me up in Seattle when I got back to the Lower 48.

I hadn’t done any serious camping or hiking since I’d been in the Boy Scouts, but did manage to find an experienced hiker, who was also a doctor, with whom to share the trail. And — on a water taxi heading toward the trail’s entrance near Skagway — I met a “thrivalist” who had been living in a teepee in the remote Yukon for 15 years. I had some fears about being in bear country and asked the fellow about the critters. He assured me that I’m “a whole lot safer around four-legged neighbors than around the two-legged kind.”

The trail itself was hard, and that was just making the crossing once, in the summer, with modern gear, freeze-dried lasagna, and a cup of hot cocoa every night. It was nearly impossible to imagine how the men and women of the gold rush did it with 2000 pounds of gear. Still, I made it. I crossed the Chilkoot and, a few weeks later, was back in Upstate New York, driving up to Doc’s cabin for an end-of-the-summer catch-up. Also, I wanted to present Doc with a gift that I’d brought him from the trail: The walking stick I’d carved to use on the trail. It was heavy enough to be used as a club and was whittled with symbols and signs.

I knew Doc would be thrilled to receive it.

It was early September. The leaves were changing, and my heart was light as I hiked through the forest to the cabin. John and Doc were already there. I could smell the coffee from 100 paces away.

I threw open the door and dropped my bag. John handed me my mug of coffee, and I slapped the cap off his head, calling him a dick for leaving me in the middle of nowhere. Then we bear-hugged. After our embrace, he sat down and kicked a chair in my direction, saying, “So, how was it?”

I told him it was pretty great.

Doc was in the armchair by the woodstove, drinking coffee and doing the crossword.

I presented him the gift – the walking stick. I told him that I’d used it to cross the Chilkoot, and I wanted him to have it.

Nonplussed, he said, “That’s great. What did you learn?”

I was surprised and a bit hurt by his lack of reaction to the gift. In response to his question, I stammered, “Ummmm . . . I learned that it’s one hell of a hike. It took me nearly five days.”

He said, rather disappointed, “Hmmm. Well, good to have you back.”

Then he went back to his crossword.

It wasn’t the hero’s welcome I’d been expecting. What the hell did he mean: What did I learn?

It took me a long while to understand.

I didn’t have an answer because I hadn’t thought about it enough to even formulate the question. But it’s become clearer over the years. As hippy-dippy as this sounds, it’s all about the duality of the trail.

The Chilkoot Trail is a measurable, definable place. It’s 33 miles long, and it runs from Dyea, Alaska, to Lake Bennett in British Columbia. It is a thoroughfare in the mountains. It’s really pretty. It’s difficult. It has a unique history. But hiking in the mountains is always difficult, generally pretty, and — no matter where you are — you’ll be in a place with a unique history. That’s all stuff you know going in. Now, it might be wise to spend time on pretty trails in the mountains, but it doesn’t, in and of itself, represent wisdom. Wisdom is found in the metaphors and how you see a clearer truth through them. Once you know the story of the physical world, it’s up to you to churn the metaphors into real meaning.

In the fullness of time, I think I’m getting close.

As to John, he never made it to Alaska. He never set an actual, physical foot on the Chilkoot, but he did cross it in the end. It’s just that for him, the Chilkoot wasn’t thousands of miles away from home. My brother John had other stuff to learn and different metaphors to use in order to do so. I think, in the end, he found his gold. He found it in thumbing his nose at convention. He found it in chopping his own wood for the stove at that big, old farmhouse outside of Ithaca. He found it from loving his wife and holding his infant baby in his arms. I found it by having a laugh with his friends and knowing when to push them beyond their limitations. He found it from being a pig-headed son-of-a-bitch with a heart of gold.

Just a few weeks ago, when I was back in the States, I got to spend an afternoon with Doc. We talked again about John and the Selye Stress Syndrome that took him from us. We talked about the cabin, the farm, our friends, my folks, his other kids, and Guatemala.

And for the first time in a long while, we talked about the Chilkoot.

I told him how a few days earlier, my family had a reunion at brother Ed’s house in Virginia. We were three generations of Tallons, all of us hale and hearty. All of us are happy to be spending time and sharing love. My parents, Jim and Norma, were there. Brother Jay was there with Mary Anne and their two amazingly brilliant kids, Patrick and Julia. Ed and his wife Kirsten were handling the responsibilities of hosting the lot of us while also taking care of their charmingly insolent two-year-old twins and Colin, the tiniest Tallon, still all swaddling clothes and brilliant eyes at three months old.

The dozen of us were crowded into Ed’s living room, telling stories and laughing. As it happens, most of the stories were about the summer following my first trip north. I’d come home enamored with Alaska and the Yukon, so the following year, I returned with my brother Ed. Along with other adventures (including one where we had to search, at midnight, for a friend who got “moose-chasing drunk”), we climbed the Chilkoot together and then hitchhiked our way to Dawson City.

In the living room, we had Patrick’s and Julia’s rapt attention – just like Doc used to hold ours around the campfire years before. We could see their amazement, so we dug into the tales. We told them about confusing a marmot for a grizzly bear in the fog. We told them about getting stuck on the side of the road between Whitehouse and Dawson for two full days. We told the wildfires raging around us in teh woods. We told the ragtime piano player named Bob, who taught us sea-shanties at midnight in a full and crazy bar.

While telling Doc about that family reunion, I finally stumbled on an answer to his question from years before.

“What did you learn?”

What I’ve learned along the trail – the long, long trail – is that no one makes it across the Chilkoot alone. Life is a team sport, and the absence of so many brothers, like John, only throws that reality into starker relief. His absence, their absence, serves as a reminder to love these moments of togetherness more passionately in the ever-evaporating now.

The other lesson is related, and it is always remembering that this metaphorical Chilkoot Trail is a terminal process. No matter when or where, or how we climb it, the passage is impossibly difficult and astoundingly. All of our Chilkoots will have their own unique history, and all of them will kill us in the end. None of us will ever stake a claim in the frozen earth, as our gold doesn’t come from below. Our gold comes from recognizing that, despite the losses and the horrors of the trail, we still have brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, spouses and infants, fathers and sons, wives and mothers out in the snow — struggling, dreaming, lugging gear, fearing and wondering how they’ll ever build their boats for the long, slow drift downstream once this trial is through. My family is out there, and some of them are still the greenest of cheechakos.

They’re gonna need an old hand when the nights turn cold.

So Doc, if I didn’t say it clearly enough over coffee a few weeks back, here’s what I figured out so far: No one finds the gold on their own. Now, before I pull out my bedroll and get some sleep, I’m gonna sit by the fire a little longer. You can set down right here next to me if you want. The Northern Lights are dancing. The air is crisp and clear. It’s a perfect night for a couple of sourdoughs like us. What say we move in a little closer to one another for warmth and raise a bottle to John?

We can drink a toast to the day when we’re all together again.

In Dawson.

  1. Holy *@#$! This was wonderful! I could opine about how beautiful the writing is but that would be restating the obvious. A whole bunch of memories came back from those days back in Syracuse, most notable is the weekend John and his Father “invited” me to the cabin when I was considering joining the State troopers and they held an Intervention as John wisely believed that this would be a major mistake for me considering what he knew of the job and of me as a friend. I will never forget the long line of people who arrived, from the local judge to law enforcement and others who shared stories from their experiences over the years which convinced me that this particular line of work was not for me. For this and in general for his friendship I am grateful and miss him also. Nice job Mike. You too were a good friend to John and I recall him speaking highly of you when I knew him. Close friends are hard to come by, and you should consider yourself lucky to have known him. I do.

  2. Thanks, Jacki. And Tedly, too! I’d forgotten about that intervention. Christ, I’m sure I know many of that cast of characters. Rick Gorman, Gary “Howie” Howard. John was a special kind of bastard. Miss him everyday.
    Oh, and I’ll be back up in NYC in a few weeks. Beers with Jim Gorman and a few others? Would love to see you, too, Jacki!

  3. Let me know the exact dates as I will be traveling stateside on and off for the next few weeks. Would like to catch up. I am not far from NYC (about an hour by train / car). Let me know when you get a chance.

  4. You did it again! A mix of tears and laughter and another glimpse into that beautiful head of yours. Love you brother and look forward to seeing you soon.

  5. You’re an AMAZING writer Michael, Love LaCuadra and this article!!! Keep it up :) Happy Holidays and by the way, I miss having you for my Landlord, the new one is a cop…and boy oh boy do i have some stories to tell ya about that!!! Sorry for your loss Michael, John sounds like someone we all would have been lucky to know, he certainly enriched your life eh.

  6. Hi, I had the greatest pleasure in meeting John in 2000 and hired him as a Fellow in Special Patient Care at Helen Hayes Hospital. After 2 weeks of working and, after work drinking, with him I knew,and told him, we will be friends forever. And we were. John gave my sons their first nicknames and they still refer to him as Uncle John. A finer gentleman I’ve yet to meet. I have him with me daily.

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About the Author

Michael Tallon, Editor-in-Chief, head writer and delivery boy, of La Cuadra Magazine, expatriated from the States 11 years ago. After spending a year in Antigua gasbagging about wanting to start an English Language magazine, he hit the road and wandered about South America, India and Nepal before finding himself sipping tea in Darjeeling and realizing that maybe it was time to head home and pick up the career path. That ill-fated adventure in New York lasted about 6 weeks before he headed back to Antigua, Guatemala, where John Rexer had actually started the magazine in his absence.

After a few months, Mike took over the magazine and has been going slowly broke since. On that note, Mike would like to invite advertisers, readers and potential patrons to send him free money.