We meet a lot of people in a lifetime. Most of them we forget within hours or even minutes of a first encounter. Those who stick with us are woven into our neurons by repetition, over the course of years, through shared experience — a parent, a significant other, a best friend from childhood, for example. But there is another sort of person, those with whom we share much shorter, simpler relationships, who leave unexpected impressions on us, too. Their presence sticks in our subconscious like a fine cactus needle unwittingly picked up on a desert walk. Only a brief encounter, but then, later — sometimes much later — we touch the spot where the needle has nestled and feel its sting. To me, Garrett Smith was one of these people.
Garrett died a year ago today in an avalanche. He we swept away in the backcountry, ironically and unbearably while testing snowpack stability. He was with his wife and several of his friends, experienced and cautious backcountry skiers. His loss was particularly painful, because Garrett was only twenty-six years old. He was young and driven. He followed his passions — photography, skiing, and climbing, among many others — with an intensity few would or could match. It is cliché to say someone was taken in their prime, but here it is hard to avoid the expression. Married less than a year, just coming into his own creatively and professionally, Garrett seemed poised on the cusp of great things. But in the end he found himself on the wrong side of the line when that slope fractured and gave way. When his friends dug him out fifteen minutes later, he was already unconscious, unbreathing, without a pulse. They performed CPR enough to bring his heart back online, but his brain never followed. When his body arrived at the hospital, it had just enough life left in it to offer a final gift to the world of the living; his organs were given to others in need.
Looking back, I didn’t know Garrett that well. Mostly, he was my co-worker. Less than a year after I was hired he passed. Our encounters were limited. We both went for pho lunches on Mondays with a small crew of co-workers, we both went to Mexico for an international climbing festival hosted by our employer, and I once participated in a photography workshop that he led in Big Cottonwood Canyon. Other than that, we spoke briefly around the office and nodded to each other on the train when commuting to work. Our conversations were never exceptionally personal, mostly snippets of camera and climbing chat. But still, his memory sticks with me. I feel its sudden twinge from time to time. I felt it just the other day.
* * *
Garrett was six foot seven, bass-voiced, with a ruddy nose that seemed always to be running, and a rotating selection of facial-hair configurations. He wore unorthodox outfits — Hawaiian shirts and sandals with socks, colorful scarves from the Middle East. After pre-dawn ski runs, he’d come into the office and work in his thermal underwear, one long-boned leg pronged unabashedly up on the desk, much to the chagrin of his co-wokers in neighboring cubicles. He was expansive in both physical form and in his passions.
One of the first times I encountered Garrett was on a northbound train, heading from Salt Lake City to Clearfield, where our office is located. On the bench seat, his knees came up towards his chest, like an adult sitting in a child’s chair. His bike rested next to mine at the end of the train car. He was quiet, and we didn’t speak. When we got off the train and mounted up, I started to pedal hard, interested to see how this lanky introvert would keep up. Within seconds, he had opened a large gap between us. I eased off a few blocks later, realizing I’d have to go all out just to catch him. Clearly, I was outgunned. Later, I learned he biked miles to and from the train every day, through rain and heat and the slushy Salt Lake City winter, all in an effort to save up for a car. But that was his way: he had plans and refused to compromise. At the time, I didn’t think much of encounters like these, but, it turns out, they were leaving impressions in my subconscious.
Now, Garrett’s memory needles me, inspires me not to just kick back in front of the TV with a beer at the end of the day, but to create something. He is one of the reasons I started writing this blog, taking photography more seriously, and believing that there is no time to waste when it comes to going after what you want in this world. The fact that he died while in the thick of this pursuit only makes me want to work harder, write faster, think bigger thoughts.
* * *
I went up into the foothills surrounding Salt Lake City the other day. It had snowed at elevation, but the valley was dry. I chugged up the steep, rocky path with my camera bag, my blue heeler Bodhi out in front. After a while, I arrived at the snow line. The cover was thin and muddy at first, but soon grew thick, until I was breaking trail shin deep. On the high ridges, the snow was up past my knees and every step was a battle. Even Bodhi, hyper-active by breed, looked exhausted by the slow, damp progress.
Heart hammering and quadriceps burning, something triggered my memories of Garrett: flying away from me on his bike; in Mexico, loaded like a burro with bags of camera gear; in Big Cottonwood during his photo clinic, bounding over teetering granite blocks in search of the perfect composition. He was perpetually kinetic, happiest when he was moving forward, constantly working towards something. My bag felt lighter at the memory. I pressed higher, to a peak with a view of the entire valley. The whole of downtown was just a little pile of rectangles, with the Great Salt Lake laid out like an old, tarnished mirror beyond and the snow-capped Oquirrh mountains beside it.
I remembered some of the landscape photos Garrett had taken, which I hadn’t really appreciated until after his death, probably blinded by a stubborn sense of competitiveness. I stood in the snow with my camera and starting snapping, changing lenses and snapping some more, letting the snow melt and soak my pants and shoes. My fingers went numb but I kept shooting. Cold, wet, it was no problem; I’d be warm again as soon as I started moving. It wouldn’t have stopped Garrett. The light wasn’t perfect, and I knew the difference between me and Garrett is that he would have been up here hours earlier, just as the morning was igniting the valley in its first, golden light. He would have gone the extra step to get the shot.
I told myself next time I’d do it that way, too.