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 cant 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
Galens 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
While I cherished my morning runs with Galen, I discovered
a disturbing fact: Galens 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 didnt. He was so close
to superhuman that there was no point in feeling bad about
not keeping up with him.
gifts were a small part of him. Even more impressive was his
intense curiosity about
everything. He told
me he dropped out of college because he wasnt 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 books 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 Miguelitos 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
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..