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Scott Ellis 5:15 a.m., Aug. 5
My friend J.R. passed away almost nine years ago, but I still miss him. He was a classic character... he stood 5'7", weighed about 120 lbs. soaking wet, had long hair (which he cut short only once in decades, as I recall), and was cynical in the extreme. Rail thin and somewhat down on society, perhaps, but with a heart of gold. A good vertical skateboarder, master archer and dart thrower, down-to-earth philosopher and fellow climbing partner... I knew him for 25 years, and even though we had our differences we still respected one another. Ours was no fair-weather friendship, that's for damned sure. This humble blog entry will serve to remind myself what a good friend he really was, and how much I miss him today.
I met J.R. in '78 when I was a student at Coronado High School. The two of us hailed from broken homes and we were social outcasts, but we both rode skateboards: that was the common bond which brought us together. His family was better off financially than mine, but that made no difference to us. I won't dwell too long upon that era, as I already wrote about it in my blog entry "TRIX ARE FOR KIDS". Know that we rode together for two decades, and that's not a bond I take lightly... blood, sweat, and tears all the way, with moments of supreme satisfaction as we pulled off various maneuvers or rode under perfect circumstances. He was with me when we rode the VertiBowl in Coronado, the gnarliest rideable pool this town has ever seen, with over 4' of vertical in the deep end.
J.R. lived down on First Street, in a house with a cool upper-story view of San Diego Bay and the downtown area. We partied like sonsofbitches in that house, and that's the unvarnished truth. J.R. always liked his booze, and he could put down an astonishing amount in relation to his body weight. I've always been a "beer man" when it comes to drinking, although I can throw down shots with the best of 'em when so inclined, but J.R. was more of a "mixed drink man" and he enjoyed a steady diet of stiff cocktails whenever we partied hard. Usually, this meant hanging out in the garage, which was well-appointed and well-equipped for use as a tool or machine shop, but also rigged with amenities.
These amenities included a primo dart board setup, with the finest board and darts available, a carefully measured and illuminated venue, the whole nine yards. I can't begin to tell you how many times we threw darts in that garage, with kick@$$ tunes playin' and only good friends present. J.R. was one of those hands who could hit "Triple 20s" and "Bullseyes" at will, and he often made money down at the nearest saloon by competing with drunken sailors on liberty... I used to rib my friend on a regular basis with regard to this "serial armed robbery." He would just laugh, and it goes without saying that, as adults, we all make choices... J.R. was pretty low-key, and the sailors never failed to underestimate his ability. Of course, once or twice I played the part of a shill, and J.R. deliberately threw wide to entice suckers into dart matches.
Since we often shared wilderness excursions, I introduced J.R. to technical rock climbing. He took it to it as I knew he would, although the two of us were worlds apart that way... he was mellow and laid-back in the field, I was always looking for something else to tackle. Oddly enough, we made a good team, and we shared many an outing at local crags, not to mention annual weeklong trips to J. Tree which we heartily enjoyed. On one moonlit exploration of an outcrop high over Hidden Valley, we came across a good-sized gap or crevice, which I promptly leapt... J.R. didn't quite make the leap, and I heard him splat before sliding down into the abyss. Luckily, the opposing wall was slanted, so he only suffered a gnarly "hipper" reminiscent of our skateboarding days. I located him afterward by the sound of his moaning emanating from the deep crevice.
Lest you think he wasn't committed, know that he cranked "Nutcracker" at the Gorge, as well as "Rock On", "The Hangman", "Apostrophe" and "Orange Waltz" (not to be confused with "Orange Walk", which he also pulled with ease). Together, we did over 30 routes at the Gorge, and we also climbed at Woodson, Lawson, Stonewall, Rainbow, and various other local venues (by local, I mean in Dago County). He sussed the Lowenbrau Pinnacle in McCain Valley Recreation Area, and he joined me on many trips to the Valley of the Moon. We used to visit Valley of the Moon quite regularly, as its relative proximity made it a good objective.
A classic memory of J.R. involves bivouacking in the boulder cave below Tahe Peak (the cave has now been decorated by Mexican graffitti). In those days, there was no Border Patrol presence, no steady flow of illegal aliens through the area. We used to bring J.R.'s arsenal of weapons and target shoot in the area, doing so in a responsible manner as per Infantry range guidelines. After blasting sh!t with the 12-gauge, .22 bulb-barreled pistol, .357, .270 rifle, and various other weapons, we'd wrap up by policing all brass, shotgun shell casings, riddled targets, etc. One night around the campfire, J.R. was hammered and I mentioned our friendly neighbors to the south... he promptly pulled out the Winchester .270, jacked a round into the chamber, aimed skyward at an angle, long hair streaming in a light breeze, and discharged the rifle in the general direction of Mexico, saying: "Here's a present for Pedro..." Dark as the night was, the muzzle flash on the .270 must have been 16" long.
When J.R.'s mom unexpectedly passed away, he and his sister put the Coronado house on the market, and he ultimately wound up moving to Deerhorn Valley. He lived in a cabin in a veritable paradise of oak trees and boulders, a meadow nearby full of flowers in season. He set up a 3-D archery range, and started cranking out custom crested arrows as an arrowsmith. These he would present to his friends, or sell to them if ordered by the dozen. No finer arrows have been made in this county, and that's no lie... primo helical fletching (left or right, as necessary), state-of-the-art components, nasty broadheads or razorheads for those interested in hunting or home defense, the whole nine yards.
Obviously, the broadheads were not used for 3-D target shooting; they would tear up a target pronto, and targets cost money. We used various field tips for our impromptu archery contests, and those contests used to be so much fun... picture us in a primo setting, shooting at fake foam animals from every point of the compass, while kickin' it and partying to no end. Man, those were the days... we would start by warming up, shooting from the back porch, then move into the surrounding wilderness, blasting shots from boulders high above or wingin' arrows through the trees. Every 3-D target can be shot from 360 degrees, you understand, or damned near 360 degrees, which is one reason why 3-D archery is so much fun.
I should make it clear that J.R. was into "traditional archery." He owned several compound bows, which were the best available on the market, but he always referred to them in derogatory fashion as "cheater bows." He preferred his custom-made Black Widow longbow, and he was a master with that weapon. I used to call him "The William Tell of Deerhorn Valley." Black Widows are some of the finest "stick bows" made on this planet, and all serious archers already know that the best hunters only shoot stick bows to prove their mastery. Anyone can shoot a "cheater bow"---let that hand make the same shot with a "stick bow" before crowing about his or her success. And that's a big ol' backhanded bitchslap to each and every kook with a cheater bow who ever squawked about traditional archery... don't worry, girls, one day you'll figure it out!!!
When I was running hard for a trucking outfit out of Iowa, I used to REALLY appreciate going up to Deerhorn Valley and spending a night or two up there, partying, BBQing, and shooting my splendid recurve bow in impromptu contests with J.R. Here's how that worked: I would stop and pick up all necessary supplies "down the hill" before heading up to J.R.'s place, including steaks with all the trimmings, a sh!tload of imported beer, and a bottle or two of booze which I owed him from our last archery contest. That was always the prize: a bottle of booze for J.R. or some good imported beer for me on those occasions when I actually beat him in our contests. Damn, we had some good times in that place, and the setting was beautiful. This all happened before Deerhorn Valley got crowded... those were the days, I reckon.
J.R. took a trip over the road with me, a nearly-5000-mile jaunt from CA-WA-IA-CA. We started out by hauling a truckload of avocados from CA to WA; J.R. referred to this as "The Guacamole Load." We then dragged a wagonload of frozen foods to IA. On this second leg, which was filled with beautiful scenery, we visited Devils Tower and Mt. Rushmore. We arrived at Rushmore before dark, parked the truck nearby, and walked over beneath the monument. While we were standing at the rail, cold beverages in hand, the lights suddenly came on, illuminating Rushmore in all its glory. On the return trip from IA (always an IBP load bound for CA), we detoured to Cabela's in Sidney, NE, drove through the Eisenhower Tunnel and Glenwood Canyon in CO, hung out on the San Rafael Swell in UT, did the Virgin River Gorge in AZ, and rode the coasters in Las Vegas, NV. It was a cool trip, and J.R. enjoyed it.
His decline began when he met a gal up in Deerhorn Valley... J.R. was a down-to-earth guy, and he didn't really fit the role of "Sugar Daddy", but he was a soft touch where women were concerned. This gal bled the accounts dry, then she and J.R. moved to Parker, AZ, for some reason I never wholly understood. I only visited J.R. once in Parker: the gal was already history, hauled off after some sordid scene in which she stabbed J.R. in the leg with a knife. I saw the blood stain on the carpet, and my friend was lucky to be alive... the blade of the knife came very close to severing his femoral artery. I wound up asking my friend if he wanted to relocate to central MO, as I planned on going there to hang out with my brother. Ultimately, we made a rendezvous in a little town called Taos, just east of Jefferson City.
Here we had some good times, setting up a 3-D archery course in my brother's beautiful yard. A broad second-story deck made an excellent firing platform, and the three foam animals were carefully positioned on the slope below with staked bales of straw behind each target. Very professional, with coyote, red fox and large buck offering a nice sweep of targets. Cedar, hickory, and oak added beauty to the setting, and bird feeders brought in all kinds of wildlife. Overall, it was a good setup, and we enjoyed many impromptu archery contests there. J.R. continued crafting his custom crested arrows, and we all had bows, so we were set as far as equipment goes.
One weekend, the three of us were shooting our bows out back. My brother (one of seven), who had served over 20 years in the Army, was having a less-than-stellar day in the scoring department. Setting down his bow, he walked inside momentarily, then returned with his 12-gauge... raising this to his shoulder, he proceeded to blast the targets with 00-buck. We all took a turn, reloading each time, then my brother went and got his lever-action .44 Magnum Rifle, and a fine shooting contest began. We had just finished trimming the antler tips of the buck when a Deputy Sheriff walked around the corner of the house. Fortunately, all weapons were resting in plain sight, cleared with open breeches and ejection ports, while a sh!tload of beer bottles and J.R.'s cocktail glass stood upon the table.
The deputy looked at the archery range and nodded in approval; our bows were slung on pegs under the rail, and our quivers of arrows neatly hung from hooks. The guy knew a good setup when he saw one. Problem was, even though my brother's house was outside city limits, with nobody around and all shots fired downward into solid ground, "discharging a firearm while intoxicated" violated a state ordinance. J.R. and I were marginally okay, but my brother was hammered, and the nearby table was full of bottles; I told the deputy we would immediately secure the weapons, which we did in short order. Once the dude split, we resumed firing our bows; I'll always remember that incident because the deputy voiced his appreciation, thanking us for keeping all firearms properly cleared in full sight when not in use. Not only that, he dug the 3-D archery course...
I wound up going back to CA a few months later, and J.R. eventually flew out to American Samoa, where his dad was a big wheel in the judicial community. His dad was a judge, but he also served as Lt. Governor at one time, so he was well-connected and he had a place out there for J.R. Sadly, I never saw my friend again... he had periodically suffered from pancreatic trouble due to his heavy booze consumption, and a violent incident which occurred in the islands aggravated that trouble to the point where my friend wound up in the hospital. We had already corresponded for over a year, but he never mentioned his slow decline once he was hospitalized. One day, I received a call from his sister here in San Diego County, and she tearfully told me J.R. had died... I was shocked and saddened by this news.
It's not very often that I cry over the death of another man, but I cried when J.R. passed away... 25 years of memories aren't so easy to let go, I reckon. I have other friends I've known for equal or longer lengths of time, but J.R. and I went through some serious adventures together, and it's not so easy finding a good reliable climbing partner. Months after his death, I pulled a bad-@$$ tribute solo on a striking granite crag high above Horseshoe Meadow in the Sierras, not far from Mt. Whitney and Lone Pine, CA. A tribute solo is where one uses only shoes, chalkbag, fingertips and brain to ascend a route, laying everything on the line as a means of showing the ultimate respect... this tribute solo was sent on a perfect day, the granite was exquisite, and the view was incredible. I think my friend would have appreciated the quality of the rock, as well as the exposure, hanging off primo granite high above the surrounding forest... a good way to acknowledge a profound friendship, had we still been climbing together as partners. I miss my friend J.R., but I reckon we'll be hangin' out together soon enough. I'll end this tribute with a quote:
"There is an old belief,
That on some distant shore,
Far from despair and grief,
Old friends shall meet once more..."
Here's to you, J.R., wherever you are... you always rode hard, climbed hard, drank hard, shot heller darts, archery and firearms, and hooked up with the best-looking women. I salute you, my friend, and I look forward to partyin' with ya once again in the not-too-distant future. Know that though you may be gone, you are not forgotten, and I still employ your classic quotes whenever they are appropriate. I still break out classic anecdotes of your behavior at times, and I reminisce hard over our heller vertical skatin' days... one day, I'll pull a tribute ride to ya at "The Extreme" in Louisville, KY, tearin' up that 24' full pipe and its flanking vertical bowls in your honor. I'll probably ride an adult BMX bike as well, working the hell outta that place the same way we did in various skateparks back in the day. Like the Africans say: "I SEE YOU, J.R., I SEE YOU!!!" And I hear you as well, CLEAR AS THE RING OF CLIMBING HARDWARE ON A FROSTY FEBRUARY MORNING IN J. TREE...
Note: I'll try to post some photos of J.R. here in the near future. I don't have that many left, since I sent most of 'em to his dad out in the South Pacific. I may have posted some shots here of that crag above Horseshoe Meadow... can't remember, since I was only paroled yesterday by the website staff after being banned. ("BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!! WHO WOULD'VE THUNK IT?!?!?!?!?") You can find shots of that bad-@$$ crag at TRUCKFORUM.ORG, in the thread titled "Got Chrome??? How about Armor???" Just scroll downward on the home page till ya find the thread, then go to Page 11 (I'm pretty sure that's the correct page) and look for "LONE PINE REVISITED" (I broke the thread into two parts, one dealing with the Alabama Hills and one dealing with Horseshoe Meadow, up at 10000'). Adios!!! "THE F__G RAILSPLITTER"