Less than a month ago, on October 25, I lost a friend. The last 20 years I didn't see as much of Tad as I would have liked, but in days before we shared things that have always made me feel close to him. This story is one of those experiences.
I didn't hear about Tad's death until several days had gone by. I found out about the gathering in his memory hours after it had wrapped. But below is what I would like to have shared.
Tad Merrick. A good man.
In 1992 Tad and I took a long hike together out of Sequoia National Park in the Sierras. With a few other of Tad’s California friends we hiked the High Sierra trail for several days, over the Great Western Divide and into the Kaweah Basin. We had several beautiful days there before the others had to go, leaving Tad and I to spend another week exploring. We climbed Mount Stewart and Eagle Scout Peak, each a story unto itself. Then we headed south to Little Five Lakes, which would be our new base camp.
The funny thing was that neither Tad nor I had a camera on this trip. Tad was one of the most serious, and best, photographers I knew, and I’ve carried a camera with me most of my life too. I did buy a cheap disposable camera before we left, but I used it up in the first two days as we passed Angel Wings, Valhalla, and Hamilton Lake... some of the most beautiful places in the Sierra, or anywhere. But time after time, especially after our other friends had left, Tad and I would be staring off and mentioning what an amazing picture we were missing... the alpenglow on Black Kaweah mountain in the minutes after sunset, the early morning glow filling the basin as if the rocks themselves were emitting light. Seeing a herd of wild deer high on Eagle Scout. We started a little practice between the two of us -- when either of us saw an opportunity for a photo we would both pause, look, breathe, and let the vision sink deeply into our memories.
We already had quite a few of these images stored in our grey-matter film by the time we found a lovely campsite above one of the Little Five Lakes. We set up our camp... me with my little tent, Tad with his characteristic tarp on the ground and a little rainfly above his sleeping bag just to keep off the dew. As I remember we had finished making and eating dinner, soaking in the charms of our new spot, when we heard the sounds of breaking twigs nearby. We investigated, carefully, and from a distance saw a bear approach an old fallen log that wasn’t far from our camp. He started to paw at the rotten wood, and as we watched he licked the newly exposed areas, having a snack of the bugs there. It was pretty fascinating to watch...
When the bear had his fill, he started to wander again, this time toward our camp. Fortunately we had hung our food, so we were not too worried about that. But as we watched he started to explore our stuff, sniffing our cooking pots, coming close to my tent, and then heading to Tad’s tarp. He walked around it, then started to paw the bag. He went to the head and when he stuck his nose right into the bag Tad decided that was enough. Following the recommended protocol he grabbed some rocks and started to throw them near, but not at, the bear. I joined in too... We got his attention, and, in no great rush, he squinted at us and then lumbered downhill, away from the camp and toward the lake. Tad went over to make sure that his bag was OK, which it was, and we looked at each other and laughed. It was a pretty cool thing to have witnessed.
We went to the edge of our campsite to see if we could spot him again, and for the first few minutes thought we may not. We could hear him, but not see him. Just the lake, and the mountains beyond started to gather rosy light from the setting sun behind us.
And then he appeared. He appeared at the lake’s edge, then wandered toward a little peninsula that jutted into the waters. In no great rush he made his way toward the tip, where it was only a few feet wide. There he paused, and then started to have a drink.
From where we sat, everything fell into perfect synchronicity. There was the bear, in perfect silhouette. There was the bear’s reflection before him, in the perfectly still waters. There were the high Sierra peaks beyond, also reflected, now deeply colored with that light that you only experience at 10,000 feet, and only the briefest while at sunset.
We looked at each other, and looked back. We paused. We breathed.
I miss you, Tad. Be well. I hope the light where you are is just like the light then, and your tarp is safe.