an ode to joe crowe: and others of his kind

by tobias crabtree

joe crowe. jose cuervo.

i first met him in the marine corps. he came bald and wild eyed, like some kind of feral thing trapped outside and brought inside.

i was in recon and he was assigned to my platoon. joe was wrapped like a wire cord around an oak stick. if there was fat on his body, he burned it while he dreamed. and god did he ever dream. in fact, dreaming is what killed him.

he was always weird. his officers didn’t really know how to treat him. he was too tough to make quit and he was to powerful to turn off. he burned. oh man, did he ever burn.

he froze to death 5 years after i met him. he was soloing a route called zodiac on the face of el capitan in yosemite. it was christmas 2002 i think. i had just been climbing with him. i went home to see my ma in colorado. the phone rang and it was a ranger. he said he found a piece of paper in joe’s pocket with my name and number on it. it was back before i carried a cell (none of the wild bunch of fellas i was with carried phones…we spent hours talking to sweethearts and mamas and relatives on the pay phones located outside of bars and eating establishments; plugging quarter after quarter in so that we could say the things that we thought of, or stand and listen to the silence of the people who missed us.) and the phone call came to my mom and dad’s house. the ranger asked if i was a relative.

no, i’m his friend.

well, joe’s been in an accident. he died last night around midnight from hypothermia.

where do i come?

well, if you know his next of kin? we need to talk to them.

i worked it all out with the ranger that night. i left home and picked up another friend, brian foster, and together we picked up joe’s ma. she got drunk on tequila as we drove to get the body that once walked and talked and lit fires; the body of joe. joe’s dad would have come but he was high on meth. he cooked it and sold it and smoked it. he killed himself two weeks after joe’s funeral.

this next part seems like i made it up. even now, i can’t believe it happened. as we wound our way to mariposa, dropping down toward yosemite valley, i looked up into the sky and saw a swirling mass of crows. there were literally, thousands and thousands. i’ve never seen so many birds of one specie together, not before, not since. they were on every power line from pole to pole. they filled every tree. they were in the streets and overhead and as far up as i could see. we stopped the rig and looked at them. brian and i looked at one another, then we drove on.

joe’s connection with crows was known to us all. his eyes twinkled as he connected his last name to them. once, a year before, i had to go find joe in the  headwaters of the amazon. he had gone off and not come back. i had some feeling of responsibility for his crazy ways. i told him before he left to paddle the amazon from it’s higher origins to it’s end, that if i didn’t hear from him in 6 months, i would come looking. 9 months later, i went looking. i followed the route he said he would follow and, after 4 weeks of showing people pictures and hearing stories of some long-haired, blue-eyed, wild man. i found him. he was in a small village, dressed in the clothes of the villagers sitting in a little square at the end of a path. when joe saw me walking toward him he threw down the book in which he was writing  and walked up to me. with big tears in his eyes, he simply put his hand over my heart and said, “brother.” i told him a lot had happened. i told him about the world trade centers being hit and the death of our other friend, christian regenhard. (christian’s story is another on it’s own, too much for now.) i asked him to come back with me. he did. we flew back and joe was different. he was always different.

my buddy, foster, still drives joe’s red toyota truck. he’ll never get rid of it. i still walk around with joe’s shoes and backpack and climbing gear. i use the stuff all the time. i had drawn nine crows at joe’s request, to tattoo onto his arm. he never got them, later i had brian tattoo them onto my arm instead.

we’ll never know what bright colors joe saw as he walked through this world. his candle seemed to burn so bright that it made me nervous for him. i always thought we might lose him young. i was right. now i grow old and he stays young and bright and wild in my mind. he leaves a cache of men behind that burn with his memory; brian foster, thomas arnold, roger sparks, curtis caton, johnny thomson, josh crowe, frank pickering, james terwilliger, scott young, ed mcgee, tim bundy, dave kenneally. surely there are more and women as well. i don’t know all his exploits but i carry some with me in my memory. more than the memories, however, are the marks he left in my heart.

they are like the scratches a bear might make,

reaching high as he can reach, in the bark of some old pine.

these here thoughts are for joe crowe,  and the others of his kind.