I was afraid to open the package when it arrived. An ominous star image was emblazed on the front, and the words “Sheriff’s Dept., Grand County, Colorado.” The return address label read, “Rodney P. Johnson, Sheriff.” Slowly, I slid it open and inside found my blue Guatemalan-made fanny pack along with my Arkansas driver’s license. I’d lost them the previous week while hiking and fly fishing in Colorado.
I thought the pack and license forever gone, and was surprised to see it again, but that shock was nothing compared to the accompanying letter.
“Dear Mr. Harmon, Enclosed is the denim belt pack which you reported lost. It was brought to the Sheriff’s Office by an unknown party…The items included are all that were retrieved with the belt pack. Less than one ounce of marijuana, the possession of which is illegal in the state of Colorado, was in the pack and was removed and destroyed. We have no way of knowing whether this belonged to you. Very yours truly, Patricia A. Agnew, Investigations.”
By the time I finished reading the letter, I was trembling a little but grateful that I’d narrowly escaped legal troubles and retrieved my license. What luck!
Even though I lost a little Mexican marijuana – along with $75 cash that wasn’t mentioned, but I assumed was my “get-out-of-jail” fee – I never misplaced the memory of that Colorado adventure. I kept those recollections, along with the sheriff’s now-faded letter and a handful of photos, because I never want to forget the last hike to King Lake with my friend Jeff Gann.
Long And Winding Road
The road to King Lake is rough and rocky, and only the best four-wheel-drive vehicles should attempt the trek. I wish I’d known that before I drove my 1978 Volkswagen van many miles to the trailhead, located at the top of a dangerous switchback track that winds uphill toward the treeless, towering Continental Divide.
No tow truck can reach your stranded vehicle there in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. No flat tires can be changed on that steep mountain slope and there’re no turn-arounds for a dozen miles. Once you start driving uphill you can’t stop until you reach the top, and the road is so narrow you cannot even pass an oncoming vehicle.
Ignorant of those dangers, the treacherous road didn’t scare us, however, because we were young, fool-hearty and determined to reach King Lake no matter the effort required. My friend Jeff Gann, my longtime girlfriend and my blonde Labrador dog Cassidy all traveled nearly 20 hours from our Arkansas home to reach the Rocky Mountains. I don’t know why or how I selected King Lake and the 76,000-acre wilderness around it for our destination. I’d never been there or known anyone who had made the trek. There were no feature stories in fly fishing magazines, with glossy photos of fish taken from the lake’s alpine waters. The only motivation I had was to ensure my friend Jeff enjoyed life as fully as possible, because, at just 26 years old, his days were already numbered.
The year before, in 1993, I got the sad call no one wants to receive from a good friend. Jeff called from his home in Kansas City, Mo., where he studied at the Kansas City Art Institute. He didn’t sound happy, and his voice quavered as he oddly explained – in third person – that, “a friend had contracted AIDS” while exploring that city’s promiscuous homosexual culture. I asked Jeff directly if he had AIDS, and he gingerly confessed, “Yes.”
Bad news burns moments in time like branding irons onto our memories: Deep-scorched marks that linger and last. Nearly 30 years later, I still recall placing the phone receiver back into its cradle after Jeff gave me the sad news, and wishing that life wasn’t as terrible and unforgiving. I remember the phone’s color (1970s yellowish plastic) and the wooden paneling that covered the walls of the room where I stood, unwilling to believe the bad news despite the undeniable phone confession.
That day I determined to do what I could to help Jeff live the best life possible with his remaining years. I invited Jeff to live with my girlfriend and I in our Fayetteville, Ark., rental house. There, Jeff could live rent-free and focus on being healthy and happy, and I could spend time with my old friend before he died. Years before, when I was a teenage runaway during the summer of 1986, Jeff’s mother allowed me to live in their home. She fed me and ensured I was safe and no longer sleeping alone in a tent in the woods, up the hill from Jeff’s house. I wanted to show Jeff the same kindness his mother offered me, he agreed and moved to Arkansas.
Jeff and I became close friends the moment we met in homeroom class on the first day of school in 1985. That same year, my parents moved our family from Springfield, Mo., to Evansville, Ind., and I was a stranger in a strange land. After growing up in the same town with the same friends my entire life, I suddenly lived in another state where I had no friends. Such drastic changes are never good for a 16-year-old trying to navigate high school and teenage struggles.
That day in homeroom class, I knew immediately Jeff was different than the other kids. He was winter-sky pale and bean-pole thin, with long, dark bangs that he combed downward over his eyes. He also wore a gray trench coat festooned with both a Eurythmics pin and a U2 pin on the lapel. Jeff’s hairstyle and clothes were not socially acceptable in the mid-80s, even if such symbols seem hardly radical in today’s American culture, where people are mostly free to express identities. As an aspiring punk rocker, I dressed differently too. I wore black army boots and ripped jeans that I’d written on with pen and marker, and a sloppy T-shirt with a long-sleeved, flannel shirt wrapped around my waist, like a flag declaring that I was “alternative.”
That was the code-word of the day, “alternative,” an umbrella term that incorporated a variety of social misfits, from Goths to punk rockers and anyone in between. If it didn’t fit the socially acceptable norms of the early 80s, it could be called alternative, even if there was vast chasm between the ideas. For example, when buying music in the 80s, a person who wanted selections beyond top-40 bands, perused the small offerings marked simply “Alternative.” Those included music as disparate as Bauhaus (English art-rock that Jeff adored) to the hardcore, fast-driving guitar and drums of punk bands that I enjoyed. There wasn’t much alternative music that even made it to the record store shelf, and all genres were crammed together, regardless of the musicians or musical style. We took what we could get in isolated Evansville and were happy for the music, even if options were few.
As Jeff and I grew older, and our musical and cultural influences diverged, we grew closer rather than distant. Each person influenced the other musically and in lifestyle. Jeff migrated to dark-growling, grungy bands like Skinny Puppy and Jane’s Addiction, while I discovered the Grateful Dead. (My sister once asked me as a teen what old punk rockers become. I instantly replied, “Hippies!”) By the early 1990s, Jeff expanded his musical taste to include the Dead, and he and I saw at least half-a-dozen shows with Jerry Garcia playing guitar before Jeff died.
After Jeff graduated with an art degree, he enrolled in the Kansas City Art Institute to pursue his dream of attending a well-known art school. Meanwhile, I attended the University of Arkansas and enjoyed life in the Ozark Mountains and learned to fly fish. In 1991, I traveled to Colorado to backpack in Rocky Mountain National Park and sample alpine lake fly fishing. I was stunned by the experience and determined to return as often as possible to explore Colorado, and a few years later I took Jeff on his first – and last – hike to King Lake.
Located in the Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forests, the trailhead to King Lake begins where the rocky road ends. My Volkswagen’s engine smelled like hot oil after climbing thousands of feet in elevation up toward the Continental Divide. Although inanimate, the van was likely as glad to be parked and done with the uphill journey as I was to be done with that dangerous, white-knuckle drive. Sheer-stone cliffs rose on the left, while equally steep walls dropped off into oblivion to the right, all without guardrails to prevent vehicles from plummeting to certain doom below.
That rough road was just the beginning of the journey. Next, we had to hike more than five miles to reach our campsite at King Lake, where I hoped we’d find fishing and fun for three days. We packed our bags, grabbed our gear and headed uphill with Cassidy-dog leading the way, white-tipped tail ever wagging. The trail follows the track of a now-forgotten, narrow-gage railroad bed up the mountain and across the Continental Divide. Above the tree line at nearly 11,000 feet over sea level, there is no shade among the rocks. And the same death-bringing drop-offs that shadowed our drive up the mountain followed us all the way to King Lake. At one point, the trail crossed decrepit train trestles that shook and shimmied with each step, and we took turns carefully crossing the chasm below on those antiquated pine timbers.
Halfway up the mountain, we could see the high ridge of the Continental Divide ahead. That humbling sight didn’t make up for the strenuous hike at high altitude with scarce oxygen for weary hikers. I turned to see Jeff sweating and huffing, looking down at the ground as he struggled to traverse the trail. “How’s it going,” I said a jokingly, knowing that he was neither built for such strain nor a happy hiker.
“Fuck you,” Jeff declared, as he angrily met my gaze with sweat running into his eyes. I still laugh to this day about his crass reply. Far from insulting, it was a funny and very appropriate response there in the hot sun, hiking high above the green valley below. Unphased about the outburst, I grinned, and we hiked onward to King Lake.
King Lake Camping
We learned two important facts about King Lake when we arrived. First, it was exactly as lovely as I imagined. Nestled in a glacial cirque at 11,431 above sea level, the lake is surrounded by granite boulder slopes and year-round snowpack on two sides. An adventurous skier even slid down the slope, while we watched amazed that someone would travel all that distance to reach the summit, only to ski for about 30 seconds on the tiny section of snow that remained! Skiing must’ve been as important to that person as fly fishing is to me, I realized. The lake’s other shore offered easy access to the water, which looked like a flat, silver disc set into a field of gray rock and white snow patches, like a strange obsidian mirror gleaming at the sun.
Besides the lake’s beauty, we also learned far too late that a road offered easy access to King Lake, with a parking lot perched just above on the nearby mountain ridge. When Jeff and my girlfriend realized the lake could’ve been accessed without a grueling uphill hike, my companions weren’t too happy with my adventure plan. Their dissatisfaction vanished after we’d set up camp, and I explained that we could only reach the nearby roadway access by driving a full day around the mountains. Lucky for me, the alpine meadow’s beauty quickly replaced their frustration.
Below the lake, a meadow full of wildflowers and soft grasses rose between the boulders and offered a perfect place to set up tents. The lake’s outflow meandered through the meadow, creating small falls and plunge pools as it flowed downhill to become the headwaters of the South Fork of Middle Boulder Creek. That night perched high atop the rugged spine of North America, we could see the lights of Boulder shining eastward onto the Front Range. Mortality didn’t matter there under the stars, and Jeff’s illness didn’t seem to affect his health or spirits that night on the mountain side. Those might have been the last truly healthy days of his short life, although we didn’t know then that Jeff would be dead the next year.
The next two days, I learned how to fish King Lake while Jeff and my girlfriend hiked and explored the area with Cassidy-dog. She loved the water, like all Labradors, and could always be found running in the stream or laying in a soothing, cold-water pool. Jeff always wanted a dog, but never had one as a kid. Cassidy was his adopted friend, she slept on his bed at night and loved retrieving tennis balls endlessly for Jeff. As an angler, I was happy they distracted Cassidy from jumping in the lake and spooking the fish, a skill matched only by her ball playing.
By the second day at King Lake, I still hadn’t caught a fish. The hike to our campsite consumed my efforts the previous day, and I didn’t even wet a line. However, I witnessed a hopeful sight as I walked to the water’s edge, fly rod in hand: I saw more trout rising than I thought possible. In fact, the entire lake was covered with concentric circles, each formed by a cutthroat trout as it sipped insects from the surface. Stunned by the thousands of circles dotting the entire lake, my awe was echoed when I heard another angler shout from across the lake, “I’ve never seen anything like it!” That declaration was an understatement.
The cutthroat trout in King Lake are not native fish. The only native Colorado trout is the greenback cutthroat, which were rare and threatened with extinction until recently. Luckily, the efforts of fisheries biologists and supportive anglers have increased greenback trout numbers and restored them to much of their original Colorado habitat. The King Lake cutthroats are not native, but still wonderful to see and catch in that high-altitude habitat, where they are stocked by dropping them from the sky with fixed-wing aircraft. The fish in King Lake are not large. That’s because the lake’s altitude keeps the water frozen much of the year, and the sluggish fish don’t eat much or grow quickly. That lack of food most of the year is why the cutthroat feed nearly nonstop when ice is off the lake’s surface. Still, heavy feeding didn’t make the fishing easy. In fact, it took me another full day to learn how to catch a fish from King Lake.
The bright sun and clear water worked against my trout catching efforts, and the flies I brought were not appealing to the fish. I tried dry flies, including bright attractors that I thought no fish could resist, especially given the thousands of surface-feeding trout I’d seen the day before. No luck. Then I tried streamers, which always caught even the most selective trout, again, no luck. Finally, I tied on a yellow-bodied, pheasant-feathered soft-hackle fly and found the trick to catch fish on King Lake. They liked a little color in their food, I realized, and they didn’t want to feed on top of the water, but just below the lake’s surface. The thousands of rippling rings I’d seen the day before were caused by sub-surface feeding on emerging insects, not eating bugs floating on top. I had to present the correct fly, and simultaneously place it in the proper part of the lake to lure fish into biting. King Lake taught me many lessons about fishing that trip that I carried home onto other waters.
By the third day camping at King Lake, I’d caught about a dozen cutthroat trout. Our food ran short, we packed up and hiked downhill to the waiting Volkswagen van. The entire hike was unexpectedly difficult and we were exhausted, but the journey was worth the exertion. There on the shores of King Lake, I both gathered lessons about fishing and enjoyed a few happy days in the wilderness with an old friend whose time was limited.
We stayed in Colorado a few more days before heading home and explored the Rocky Mountain National Park and the upper Colorado River. Our last day in the state, we stopped along the river, and I fished while Jeff and my girlfriend ate lunch. That’s where I lost my fanny pack, which contained my driver’s license, the last $75 to my name and our tiny weed stash. When I discovered the bag missing, we were nearly an hour down the road at a gas station.
We backtracked and spent hours retracing my steps along the river and beating willow thickets surrounding beaver ponds, without luck. Desperate to retrieve my money and license, I reported the loss to the sheriff’s office, before giving up and heading home. We’d spent a little time on the mountain, as the song says, and bummed to be broke and budless, we drove back to Arkansas.
Jeff’s Final Journey
The backpacking adventure to King Lake was Jeff’s final hike. It also was the last meaningful journey he and I ever enjoyed together. Although we’d been to Dead shows, the Rainbow Gathering in 1992, and hiked, camped and explored a half-dozen states – and turned high school friendship into lifelong bond – we struggled to remain close as Jeff’s illness closed in and his life struggles increased.
One night about 3 a.m., I woke up to police pounding the door. Jeff was in jail, arrested for cruising the town park for sex buddies. I went to bail my friend out of jail and got good and harassed by a cop whose real name was Officer Slaughter. The bail bond company asked for my Volkswagen van’s title to cover Jeff’s bail, and I balked. The bond fellow called cops over and said, “He’s being difficult.” Next thing I know, Officer Slaughter is forcing me to stand at attention like a drill sergeant and asking why my eyes are so red. “It’s 4 a.m. and I woke from a dead sleep to get my friend out of jail,” I replied desperately, hoping he would let me leave with my friend. I didn’t want to share a cell with Jeff, and I complied with all stupid commands, although I felt humiliated.
After I was sufficiently demeaned by the officer, he grew bored of the mental torture, and we arranged a bond agreement without my VW title involved. Jeff appeared disheveled, cussing and angry at his misfortune, but apologetic that I’d been roused to his rescue. That afternoon, I’d been scheduled to take the GRE test for graduate school admissions. With only three hours of sleep, I did poorly and blamed Jeff directly and bitterly. That wasn’t the last time we argued as roommates and friends.
I’d offered Jeff free rent to ease his economic burden a bit while he tried to stay healthy and fight the AIDS virus, but he still needed extra cash. My girlfriend was a waitress at The Grill restaurant in Fayetteville, and got Jeff hired as a waiter. Jeff worked as his health allowed, but still borrowed money from my girlfriend to drink and have fun at the gay bar. By spring of 1995, he’d borrowed hundreds of dollars without repaying a penny. My girlfriend complained privately about lending Jeff money he didn’t repay, and I confronted him angrily. That was a mistake I regret to this day, because Jeff soon moved back to Indiana. Sadly, we never had time to repair the rift because his mind and body failed shortly thereafter.
Years later, I wrote Jeff’s mother about my money-talk regret and explained that I wish I’d never concerned myself with a few hundred dollars in the face of losing my friendship just before Jeff lost his life. She wrote back simply, “Thanks for trying to teach Jeff to be responsible with money.” I appreciated her exoneration, but still carry the guilt. Today, I would laugh at such a small debt and focus on enjoying our friendship, but that lesson only came from years of reflection and regret about the loss.
Luckily for Jeff, Fayetteville had a progressive approach to treating HIV and AIDS. He found a good doctor at the local clinic to monitor his health and give advice on living longer with the disease. No smoking. No bad diet. No unsafe sex to keep others from contracting the virus. Jeff only followed the final rule, and his body suffered from cigarettes and junk food. His body didn’t receive the care necessary to fight the illness, and he felt worse with each passing day. Shortly after we argued about money, I found him packing belongings into his Ford Festiva. “I need to go home and be with my mother,” Jeff said through tears. I cried too, hugged my old friend and said goodbye. I knew the best place for Jeff was with his family. Even though I considered Jeff to be the brother I never had, and welcomed him into my home during his AIDS struggle, our friendship could not heal him and save his life.
That wasn’t the last time I saw Jeff before he died. That same year, I visited him at his mother’s house in Evansville, Ind., but the man I met that day was not the same person I hugged as he left Fayetteville months before. Rather than engaging and talkative, Jeff was stoic and distant as he walked slowly to the front porch and sat beside me on the metal swing. The medicines he took for AIDS complications had fogged his brain, and Jeff’s slow movements matched his brain capacity and slurred speech. Strange warts had grown on his face, symptomatic of his body’s failing immune system. The man who was once vain to a fault – who cared more about how hiking boots looked, than how they functioned on the trail – would’ve hated the sad sight of his mirror image by August 1995.
The Volkswagen van we’d driven to King Lake was parked on the street, and Cassidy-dog roamed nearby. Jeff always loved that dog, and tirelessly spent endless hours throwing the spit-covered tennis ball for her to retrieve. That day at his mother’s house, Jeff barely noticed Cassidy as she nudged his hand with her wet nose for a pet. He was too sick and unable to enjoy life, even the simple act of petting his old friend Cassidy was too much mental and physical exertion. After a half-hour visit, it was clear that the Jeff who hiked to the top of the world with me the previous year was gone, even though his body remained. I embraced Jeff one last time, loaded up the dog and drove away through tears, knowing that my old friend would never return.
Jeff didn’t live to see the New Year. By December, he was dying in a hospital bed surrounded by friends and family. Jeff was never a healthy man, always a little too skinny, he had few reserves to fight AIDS. He’d also contracted toxoplasmosis and his brain and body couldn’t compete. Today, most people with AIDS do not die, thanks to a potent combination of life-saving drugs. Good for those people and the people who love them. Unfortunately, Jeff missed those treatments by about six months. His mother appealed for early access before FDA approval for widespread use of the drug cocktail, but her desperate plea was refused and Jeff died.
Jeff’s father was chief of police in Evansville, and very distraught by his son’s illness. Before Jeff died, a steady line of uniformed officers filed through his hospital room to honor their boss’s son. Even FBI agents arrived to show respects to their colleague’s ailing child. I don’t know if Jeff was aware of the colorful cop parade, but he would’ve been honored, and thought it was funny that a pot-loving freak like him would get such attention and respect from uniformed police officers.
I don’t recall that comical scene because I was not there. Even though I’d managed the 5-mile hike up a mountain to King Lake by Jeff’s side, I couldn’t complete the final journey to his funeral. I got the call that Jeff died when I was at The Grill restaurant, because we didn’t have a home phone. Standing there in the busy restaurant, I listened to my friend Sarah Wolf explain that Jeff died the previous night, and that the funeral was upcoming. Even though I wanted to attend, I had no money to travel. Worse yet, my beloved VW van was broken down and I had no transportation. If it weren’t mid-winter, I would’ve hitchhiked to Indiana. With so much distance and no resources, I could not make the journey to Jeff’s funeral, a necessary choice that I regret to this day.
At just 27 years old, Jeff was in good company as a young dead artist. That dangerous age is known for taking many lives, including Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and even Pigpen, a keyboard player for the Grateful Dead. Jeff was not always a happy human, and he shared depression and disillusionment with those famed artists, too. Although suicide seemed sexy when Jeff was a dress-in-black Goth teenager, I believe Jeff would’ve enjoyed surviving AIDS and spending more time among the living. The world today is far more difficult to endure than 30 years ago, but I wish Jeff had the opportunity to see it for himself, alive and thriving.
Jeff’s grave is difficult to find in the crowded Evansville cemetery where he was buried, but Sarah Wolf showed me the headstone in 2004. She and I were headed to see the remnants of the Grateful Dead perform the next day, and we stopped by the graveyard to say “hello.” Silently, we stood for a few minutes as we stared down at the simple stone, depicting a female in flowing robes. “He should be at the show with us, god damnit,” I said through slow-falling tears. That night at the concert, we danced extra hard for Jeff because he couldn’t dance with us.
In 2013, I again spent time at Jeff’s grave while visiting his mother and other old Indiana friends. Alone and armed with a guitar that day, I sat on the cold winter ground and leaned against his gravestone. Endless tears flowed as I struggled to sing and play for three hours. I smoked a fat joint and told a story or two about good times together, but I know that only the passing birds heard my words. Jeff is gone and “nothing’s gonna bring him back,” as the song says. And like our last hike to King Lake, today only wonderful memories remain of that friendship we once shared among rocky-ridges, high above the world, along Colorado’s unforgettable Continental Divide.