Sunday, May 24, 2009

Profile: Remembering my friend Jack Fair

Jack Fair

Some folks say that to build a meaningful friendship takes months or even years and to a large degree I also subscribe to this belief. I'm also open minded enough to know that's not always the case and certainly not for the 3 hours that I spent visiting with Jack during my 2001 thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, Mexico to Canada. My first acquaintance with Jack (and my last) came on the 26th day of my hike on the parching hot afternoon of May 21, 2001 at Jacks home just on the edge of the Mojave desert in southern California.

For many years Jack was a well known character on the trail who opened the doors of his home for tired PCT hikers and a crucial last stop before crossing the hot and unforgiving Mojave desert. He would give hikers a ride to the nearest store to re-supply their packs which was about a mile from his house and he'd wait there until they were done and take them back to his house or the trail. From reading various hiker journals some people had a hard time understanding how to befriend Jack who was a former motorcycle rider adventuring to most parts of North America. Yeah, Jack had the vocabulary of a drunken sailor with every sentence uttered from his mouth and he often referred to himself as a philosopher evidenced from all the hand painted signs covering his house with some pretty sharp and perhaps shocking messages to some. The more that I've thought about it the more that I now believe that this was a test... Jack's way of finding out just who you were.

Jack at the door and a hiker

A lot of hikers would just fill their water bottles and leave wanting no part of what they assumed was just a crusty old eccentric man whom they didn't understand. I arrived at his door waking him from a nap as I gradually heard his loud grumbling voice saying over and again, "I'm #$!!!$#@%% coming". When the door finally opened he instructed me to go to his nearby open garage to take off my backpack and he'd be there in a minute.

At this point I was still the only hiker at his house so I enjoyed the shade of the garage and browsing through some hiker journals and some scrap books that were full with newspaper articles written about Jacks illustrious past motorcycling adventures for which he was obviously proud. Jack eventually came out to the garage and after elaborating on some of the articles for me he asked if I could help him with a small chore in the house, putting the paper tape back in his calculating machine. As we walked to the house he grumbled about how his vision was failing and he just couldn't do the simplest of chores anymore.

When I was finished Jack invited me to have a seat in a chair next to his revered recliner and gave me a notebook of poetry written by a past female hiker that had also developed a good friendship with him. Meantime he went to the kitchen and brought me back a glass of ice cold sprite cola. As I was reading the poetry about Jack some other hikers had begun to arrive at the house and it was obvious that they only wanted some water, a ride, and a little rest and Jack just let them drink the hot water from the tank in his yard as he continued to serve me iced sprite and cold water.

Bishop and Jack's dog

After a while Jack drove the other hikers to the store and I hung out in the garage with an 8 year old boy named Bishop. As we talked I learned that the school bus dropped off Bishop each afternoon at Jacks house until his dad could pick him up after work. Jack later told me that boy worships the ground that he walked on and it was obvious they thought a lot of each other. I'm not sure if Bishop completely understood the concept of my hike from Mexico to Canada but I sure enjoyed talking to him and listening to his enthusiastic stories about his encounters with rattlesnakes.

It was somewhat ironic about the contrast in age between this 78 year old man and an 8 year old boy. My heart goes out no stronger than to the very old and the very young. Perhaps it is because these two extremities warrant more compassion and I found myself located somewhere in the middle. Perhaps it is because I grew up with a dad who role modeled compassion for the underdogs, the weak , and the most vulnerable. For whatever reasons it was an interesting contrast of ages that I thought about for a long time.

Jack waving goodbye

After a few hours I had to get going since the late afternoon and nighttime was the coolest time for hiking off into the Mojave desert which was ahead of me. As you can see from the picture above I think that Jack was waiting for me to turn back and wave to him and when I did we both exchanged a huge wave and smiles to match. From the beginning of my visit I knew that Jack respected me and I greatly enjoyed his company. He was definitely a unique man and at 78 years old he wasn't changing for anyone but a friendship awaited anyone willing to accept him for who he was.

Me beside the L.A aqueduct entering the Mojave desert

The PCT follows the L.A. aqueduct for several miles into the Mojave and you can hear the loud flowing of cool Sierra water underneath and no way to get at it. The sound of that flowing water was like the soothing sound of being on the beach and I walked for the rest of the day thinking about my short time with Jack and considering his failing health I hoped that he'd be okay. Some time after my hike I learned from various hiking message boards that Jack was found dead from a self inflicted gunshot about a month after my visit. Like a lot of folks along the trail I was at first shocked and saddened but then I felt so grateful to have had the opportunity to have met him and to honestly say that Jack Fair was a friend of mine. I remember him almost 9 years later and I will remember him forever. Jack wasn't a perfect man but he was a good man.

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