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Home >> Articles >> Remembering Galen and Barbara Rowell Sunday, April 20, 2014 
Chris McNamara

August 2002

Remembering Galen and Barbara Rowell

© Chris McNamara
© Chris McNamara
 
 

I’ve never had someone close to me die. Right now, 24 hours after hearing that Barbara and Galen Rowell have died in a plane crash, my mind is blank. I can’t feel a single emotion. All I can think to do is write about the amazing things they both brought to my life.

Galen and Barbara Rowell graced the planet with the passion of their being. They radiated an intense excitement so strong that it overpowered some people and pushed them away. In my case, it sucked me in. As soon as I met them in the summer of 1998. I knew that I would cherish every moment that I spent with them. I remember vividly almost every time we hung out, from the first time I ran with Galen in the Berkeley hills to parting hugs at Galen’s “Return from China” party two weeks ago in Bishop, the last time I saw them. The memories are so strong because the air around them was filled with a distinct hum of energy. In their presence my mind became more alert, my senses more attuned.

I met Galen on a run in the Berkeley Hills with photographer Jerry Dodrill. I was a half-assed runner until I started running with Galen, whose drive transformed my mild interest into a full-blown obsession. How could I not be obsessed? The man had an infectious passion that made you love the outdoors, adventure, and life in general.
While I cherished my morning runs with Galen, I discovered a disturbing fact: Galen’s joints were indestructible and mine were not. After six months of trying to keep up with him my left knee failed. I was 19 years old and had been run into the ground by a 57-year-old. I gave up trail running for less knee-intensive passions.

Galen may have been 61 when he died but he had the body of a college athlete. He frequently displayed this by handling on one try a climbing problem that took me 20 tries. Or running down hills with an aggressive speed that would make an orthopedist cringe. I often joked with him that he was part of a secret government study in joint replacement. There was simply no way his body could have been made from the same stuff as the rest of us.

Last year, when I lived in Bishop, I remember one morning when I had just completed rolling my leg up and down on a piece of hard foam. The exercise was part of my physical therapy to heal the knee that Galen had, indirectly and inadvertently, wrecked. I stood up from the living room floor and moved to the large bay window that overlooked a vast expanse of sagebrush. A hundred yards out in the sagebrush, something flashed across the landscape with the speed and determination of a cheetah. It was Galen. With his shirt off, exposing a body that easily looked 30 years younger than his age, he sprinted across the desert as if on a serious mission. Without breaking stride, he leaped over a small shrub, turned his head, flashed a huge smile, and waved to me. Then he vanished.

It seemed like he had timed his appearance with my physical therapy session for maximum effect. I could have felt depressed that he was out on a running adventure and I was moving my leg back and forth over a piece of foam, but I didn’t. He was so close to superhuman that there was no point in feeling bad about not keeping up with him.

Galen’s physical gifts were a small part of him. Even more impressive was his intense curiosity about…well…everything. He told me he dropped out of college because he wasn’t learning enough; U.C. Berkeley moved too slowly and was too restrictive for his hungry mind. Instead, he embarked on a self-education process that makes most Ph.D. programs look tame. He devoured books on everything from natural history to physics. I savored any book he loaned me from his extensive library. Every so often a page would be a wash of yellow highlighter with a small commentary in black pen starting with “bullshit!” followed by a note suggesting that the book’s author had not done his homework. I often read his highlighted passages and commentary and ignored the rest of the book.

His incredible intellect was matched by a desire to share with others. He was one of my greatest teachers. He knew more about more things than any of my professors at U.C. Berkeley. Learning about the world with Galen was not a duty, it was a profound pleasure, and every time alone with Galen was a small classroom session. As we would drive to a climb or trail run, the conversation ranged from the political history of Mono Lake to latest theories on how the brain interprets light (the subject was rarely climbing).

It is hard to imagine anyone who could keep up with Galen, yet there was one person who could: Barbara.

Each time I visited her home she would spend but a few minutes on conversational formalities before showing off her latest project. Whether it was her prized bird Miguelito’s latest trick, a new way to network all the computers of Mountain Light, their photography and publishing company, or a book on the writing process she had read, she always had the same demeanor: quick movements across the room, a steady stream of well articulated commentary, and an occasional sharp look to assess whether I was still with her. There was no predicting what would grab her next. I loved it. I knew every visit would be exciting.

Barbara and I were once cohorts in an attempt to trick ourselves into making daily chores fun. We regressed to the preschool system of making a chart and giving ourselves little colored star stickers every time we accomplished one of our mundane daily tasks such as “make phone calls” or “write in journal.” For a few weeks we greeted each other with the question, “So, how many stars did you get today?” Barbara usually had more stars but she admittedly padded her list with items such as “get out of bed.”

Barbara was a gifted pilot who had flown to the tip of South America and back — alone. At one airfield in Colombia she noticed a pair of drug traffickers casing her plane, a CessnaTurbo 206 that was a hot item in drug trade. Although completely alone, she stayed calm and was able to elude the would-be hijackers and continue her journey.
My favorite memory with Barbara was when she flew Galen and me to Yosemite for an ascent of El Capitan. The cockpit of her plane was a very special place for her. Despite her professional demeanor as she conducted the preflight check and radioed the tower, it was clear she was in her element and having a blast.

For ten minutes we circled above Yosemite Valley. As El Capitan and Half Dome came into view, I pasted my face to the window with a smile that nearly touched my cheeks to my ears. I thought I had seen El Cap from every angle, but this was a whole new understanding of the term “Big Stone.” I maneuvered around in my seat like an anxious five-year-old on a long drive, desperately trying to take in everything at once. Every so often, Barbara glanced back and smiled.
When we landed, Barbara suggested that I take flying lessons.

Sure, I would love to fly one day, I replied.

But from the intent look on her face, it soon was clear she meant we can start teaching you to fly today! She knew a great flight school and, as a matter of fact, the instructor might be in and he could brief me on the whole program. I should meet him immediately. I mean, what was holding me back?

They both lived that way. If you had an interest, why not passionately immerse yourself in it, right now, right this very moment..

 



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