There are moments in time when you are forced to stop, to realize the fact that another’s life is interwoven with your own–a vivid thread swerving through the tapestry of your narrative.
I was twenty-four and decidedly overwhelmed. I had recently married, moved states, and now was attempting not only to guide the minds of eleven students (my first year with my own classroom), but keep them safe, as well. We were standing on a path in the woods–feet firmly planted on a clear, delineated section of trail that practically shouted “this way!” with its very existence.
And Clay White, a man I had only just met, veered right, straight into the underbrush, away from said trail, throwing out a c’mon over his shoulder. I remember a kid turning toward me at this crossroads, saying something along the lines of are there snakes? and my murmur resembling something like I mean… before scampering after him.
Clay was not one to follow the beaten path. Over the eight years we led hikes and overnights together, I tried to keep up with him around boulders and to river edges, down ravines, and to the cusps of mountain ridges. When I moved here, I didn’t know how much I needed to trace the lines of this land, to be in forests, and strain my muscles against switchbacks. It was a balm to learn the history of this place–for Clay to point out a window and tell a story or with a few facts, allow me to see an old mill working in my mind’s eye. He gave me the gift of place. Almost every trail I follow in Georgia was given to me by him.
There’s no question that Clay gave to children: that was his life. But lately, maybe selfishly, I can’t stop thinking of all he gave to me, to the Hess community itself. Maybe just what he offered humankind. I liked Clay the second we were introduced and shook hands. I hope we get to meet up again somehow. He’ll be wearing a ridiculous Hawaiin shirt, like he did at
every holiday party. He’ll give me a hug and roll his eyes at my jokes. He’ll tell me a story about his old crew or a jam session long gone. Maybe we’ll discuss politics, disagreeing as always, and walk away laughing and shaking our heads.
I can still see him throwing a rope down to me in the early days. “Let’s go, Ricci. You’re
gonna do it, too. C’mon now.” He was always asking those around him to challenge themselves, to reach, to find joy in the conquering of the new. I think I’ll always hear him saying ohh, Ricci, you’re one of the good ones.
Thanks, Clay. You’re one of the good ones, too. I, and a multitude of others, are so grateful for your story and all the ways yours became ours.
May you rest well and adventure well.