My Tribute to Wally

I met Wally working together at an Adventure Cycling Association Leadership Training Course (LTC) in Virginia in April of ’05. At the end of the LTC, he said to call him if I needed anything during the TransAmerica (TransAm) tour that I about to lead from Virginia to Oregon and that he’d probably come meet my group when we got to Colorado, where he lived. I said ok, thanks, but didn’t think I’d need anything. I had no idea how wrong I was. I had no idea I was about to lead what at that time came to be considered the hardest tour in the organization’s history. 

Three weeks and five emergency room visits into the tour, I called Wally. He offered support and encouragement. When the group dynamics started to crumble under the stress and with the emergence of an abusive alcoholic, I called Wally. He again offered support and encouragement. And, then, when the unthinkable happened and a participant (Bill) was hit by a car and killed – in Colorado – I called Wally. I can still hear his instantaneous response: “Do you want me to come out there?” 

And now, not quite 15 years later:

Yes, Wally, I want you to come out here right now – to this fresh winter wonderland of northern Arizona. I want you to come play in the snow with me. I want you to enjoy nature’s beauty with me. I want you to tell me a joke, even to tease me. And most of all, I want you to give me a hug and tell me it’s not true.

Back then:

He didn’t even have to think about it; without even a moment’s pause, he just offered. I said not tonight…Two days later, he came and met my group in Hartsel. He helped comfort them and offered me insight into the group dynamics. Even more importantly, long after everyone else had gone to bed, he stayed up very late talking with me before driving back home. I was still numb with shock and grief, yet I suddenly knew the meaning of heart of gold. 

And two days later, he did it all over again. When my friends and family didn’t know what to do or say other than “I’m sorry,” when the tours’ office was asking if I was okay (uh, no, actually it would be a very long time until I could say I was okay), and when I didn’t know where or to whom to turn, I barely had to turn and this man I’d met only a couple months previously was there. Again and again; he showed up another couple times on my TransAm, while driving to and from leading a tour of his own. 

After my TransAm ended, I cycled down the coast. What I’d planned as a celebratory ride had turned into a memorial ride. And when my life fell even farther apart, Wally showed up and rode with me for a week. He showed me presence and compassion and the true meaning of friendship. And in the midst of deep loss, he even showed me how wonderful bike touring with a compatible travel partner can be – an experience that had been missing from my life until then, having usually toured either solo or with groups.

It is still unfathomable to me that it is his heart that killed him. 

Yet if life isn’t measured by the number of years we have on this planet or by the number of times our heart beats but rather by the number of hearts we touch, he lived a very long life. 

Perhaps because the bond of our friendship was forged over a death, it wasn’t unusual for us to talk about death. He always said “just take me quickly,” that that was the way to go.

Damn you, you got your wish. Just decades too soon.

I once asked you what you think happens when we die, and you said, “Nothing. That’s it.”  I understood. There have been times I’ve had my doubts.

Yet two days after Bill was killed, my TransAm group got back on our bikes. As I rode along behind everyone else, I felt a presence like I’d never felt before. And that day I knew. I knew it was Bill looking out for us – and I knew what remained of our group would be safe for the rest of our trip. And we were. Not always happy but safe.  

Two days after Wally passed, I went walking in the woods. I forged my way through fresh, unbroken snow. I made my way up the hill, sometimes altering my path when the snowdrifts almost reached my knees. At the high point in my hike, I asked for a sign. A starburst appeared from behind some pine trees and flashed rapidly. I stood there watching it until I got deeply chilled. Then it was as if I could hear him saying, go back inside before you get frostbite.

I wish I could poke you in the ribs now and tease you about how wrong you were. And I wish I could say to you – well, I guess I can, just not in person or over the phone – I hope you now know how wonderfully wrong you were: not only were you never just a “regular guy”  but you were also always a being of love and light – and you always will be.

I was at a meditation retreat in northern Arizona when I heard the unfathomable news. The week’s focus was receiving blessings. It seemed so incredibly cruel that he would pass then.  I couldn’t even sit through all the remaining sessions and walked out of some and skipped others completely. 

Not quite five years after Bill was killed, I returned to Colorado for a conference and Wally took me back to the site of his death so I could say good-bye in a way I hadn’t been able to while leading the tour. 

“It’s a beautiful spot to go,” he said, “I wouldn’t mind dying here.” 

I cringed at the time. Now I wonder if he had a premonition, perhaps only subconsciously, that he was also going to just go – unexpectedly and without having a chance to say good-bye to anyone, like Bill did – somewhere, even here in his beautiful Colorado, someday.

One of the things he taught me was to turn toward rather than away from grief, certainly not to seek it out or go looking for it if it wasn’t there, but to turn toward it if it was rather than to turn to denial.

And, so now, I open my heart rather than closing it – and receive the blessing of Wally’s life. 

Yes, it sucks that I can never pick up the phone and talk with him again, never lean on him for support, never tease him, or ride bikes with him again.  Yet I and the many others whose lives he touched are also all so blessed.

We are all so blessed to have known you.

We are so blessed to still have you in our hearts.

And, the luckiest amongst us are blessed to have you as our newest guardian angel, even if you don’t yet quite believe it.

Driving to his service from northern Arizona, I looked ahead at my projected route – and saw it crossed the TransAm only 19 miles from Hartsel, where he’d first come to meet my group. It was only after I drove past the turn to Hartsel that I realized I was driving the exact same route to his service that he would’ve driven going home so late that night. 

As I drove along – with the same bike I rode on the TransAm and down the coast all those years ago in my rental car, the setting sun started to softly light up the sky and clouds shades of pinks and purples. I wished I was on a bike and could just, as he would’ve put it, “put my foot down and stop anywhere.” Instead, I drove on, as the colors deepened, until I got to a pullout. And there, as golden hour turned to blue hour, I experienced the most brilliant sunset of my life. He was there in the pink and purple light of the Divine showing me his heart of gold beating on.

Miss and love you always, my friend and kindred spirit.

12 Responses to “My Tribute to Wally”

  • Evie:

    Thanks for sharing such a beautiful heartfelt story! I didn’t know Wally but feel like I now do know the essence of his beautiful soul! Rest is Peace Wally!

  • Rich:

    What a beautiful remembrance. I didn’t get to know Wally but I am grateful to have met nim.

  • Leslie:

    So glad you were finally ready to write about Wally. You were so lucky to experience his friendship and to know the amazing person that he was. May you continue to feel his warmth in sunsets and safety and basque in the wonderful memories. We were lucky to have known him, even if briefly. He was truly special, and a great role model & inspiration.

    • heather:

      Thank you for your beautiful sentiments, Leslie. You two were lucky to have known him briefly both on tour and as a LTC instructor. As a fellow leader put it, his life is still creating beautiful ripples in the ponds of so many lives.

  • Virginia:

    So nice to “hear” your voice again. So sorry it was for such a sad occasion. You wrote a beautiful tribute to somebody who was obviously very special.



  • Leanne:

    Beautiful share of love and a vast connection to all of life and beyond. Thank you for sharing your heart Heather!!

  • Terri:

    Beautiful tribute to your beautiful earth friend and heavenly angel. Thank you, Heather, for sharing your journey with Wally. May your souls continue to connect beyond the physical world

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