• Heather Mills Messner

Oceanic


Kendall’s lived in the Caribbean for fifteen years now, while I’ve been tucked away in a high-alpine valley in Colorado. The mountains called to us first. We found ourselves in Santa Fe, at the same time in our early twenties. The frozen landscape of the Sangre de Cristos called and led us to log miles on worldwide rivers such as the Box Canyon of the Rio Grande, the great canyons of the Colorado, Yampa and Green, the American in California and the Gauley in West Virginia. Rivers in Oregon, Washington, Belize, Bolivia, New Zealand and Nepal…guided us through many seasons of challenge and change. Mandela is released, Bobbitt takes revenge, and we lose Jerry. Recently, on the brink of another season of change, I went to visit my dear friend at his ocean home.

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On the ferry from St. Thomas to West End, Tortola, I send a text to Kendall that I managed to make the 8:30 a.m. departure. Not an easy task my first morning of vacation after a few drinks at the hotel bar the night before. I heard customs officials can be quite strict in the British Virgin Islands, and Kendall’s reply gave me specific instructions to say who I was visiting, the name of his boat, and that was not a charter.

“If they ask how you know me, well, tell them the truth,” he texted back.

Truth is, the first time I saw Kendall, he was surfing the frozen slopes of the Santa Fe ski area. I was hanging out at the Doghouse, the snow-cat drivers’ slope-side shack, drinking a beer with my neighbors from town.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“That’s Kendall,” said Kevin. “He’s a hot-shit surfer from Miami teaching Mitch and Jarred how to snowboard.” Surfers invented the sport in the ‘60s and by the ‘90s, snowboarding caught fire, spurring a new hipster mountain culture.

On my way home that day, I picked up that ‘snurfer’ hitchhiking and dropped him off at Ten Thousand Waves, a Japanese Health Spa a few miles down from the ski area. He lived in a rock house built on borrowed land right across from the place. The roof he constructed from a tree branch growing out of a corner rock wall, pinon and juniper vigas. He used a perfectly formed natural rock ledge for a bed. The ‘coyote’ door was small, south facing, and good for letting in the winter light but not the snow.

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I didn’t see him again until raft-guide school that spring. Afterward, new guides did their best to get miles on the river however possible. Even on days off, I would often see Kendall on the river, with a spontaneous crew he gathered in Santa Fe. Women are often attracted to men who can lead them on an adventure, and sometimes, men follow women that way too.

At the take out for the daily section of the Rio Grande, a five-mile Class III stretch of river near Pilar, he approached me with a pretty girl in tow and asked if I was still looking for a roommate. I was. Jackie was from LA, looking to move to Santa Fe. Recently graduated from art school, studying photography, she was on a trip with her friends when she met Kendall at the Plaza Cafe where he waited tables.

The night she arrived to the house on Alameda with her boyfriend from LA, Kendall came over. Quite a few friends came by that evening and most guests left by the time Kendall arrived. We sat in the kitchen with only a wall separating us from where Jackie and her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend lay.

“So,” he said. “Did Jackie get here, yet?”

“Yep, she’s in there,” I said. “With some guy who came with her from California.”

It wasn’t long before he and Jackie were splitting time between her room and the rock house, and eventually they were out of my house entirely and into Kendall’s lime green VW van.

One day, after working a Racecourse trip together, I went to the grocery store with Kendall. He discovered dumpster diving at the new health food superstore on the corner of Cerrillos and St. Francis could produce ample harvests - amazing the amount of fresh fruit, daily deli specials, bread, expired canned goods, and vegetables thrown away every day. Although the mission went far outside my comfort zone, Kendall assured me the thin line between stealing and repurposing was all good in this instance. Besides, we were dirtbag river guides and did not come from money nor make much. We chose this lifestyle because it fed our souls. Back in the van, a homeless-looking man approached Kendall’s window and asked him for some spare change. Kendall has a way of drawing people in, engaging them in conversation as if casting a spell. Forty-five minutes later, the only change the man walked away with was how he could change his life.

“Listen, brother, I would walk into that grocery store with you right now,” said Kendall who spoke with a slight lisp. He often pronounced his R’s as W’s. “Buy you whatever you want for food. Or, we could walk over there, and I could buy you some shoes, or a coat. Do you want me to do that for you? I will.” The man stared at him, entranced. “But you see, I don’t think that’s what you are going to do if I give you money right now. I think you are going to walk right over there,” he drew the man’s gaze away with his index finger and pointed, “into that liquor store and buy some alcohol. So, I’m not really helping you out by giving you any money right now. You see, my friend?”

In college, I changed my major four times my freshman year, finally landing in English literature with a minor in painting. The course of study served me well in the free-styling guide lifestyle of my twenties. Work of late, however, for Kendall and me is all about business. My visit prompted questions for each of us about where to go next. We counseled each other on being in love with younger people and figuring out how to split time between the ocean and the mountains. How to find compromise and balance in work and play.

>>

He picks me up from customs in a white rubber dinghy with a sixty-horsepower motor on the back. His curly Cuban locks blowing in the wind, the same sparkling-blue eyes, like the aquamarine color of the Marsyangdi in Nepal, and his eternal grin flashing effervescently.

“Packed light,” he says.

“Always do,” I reply.

I hop in, and after a big hug, we shove off.

“Here, take the wheel,” he says. “Anywhere you go in the Caribbean, you’ll need to know this.”

Navigating through the harbor and anchor lines of yachts and sailboats in Soper’s Hole, I throw the dinghy into neutral, landing at the stern of his forty-two foot catamaran. I catch the brief silhouette of a woman in the cabin. Franny comes out to greet us. She’s petite, stunning with her long, sun-bleached blond hair, tan skin, sky-blue eyes. I expect nothing less. The three of us sit for hours of easy catching up conversation in the cabin. Kendall tells the story of taking Chama, his now twelve-year-old son, to a pro-skateboarding gig in Miami six months ago. Tears stream down his face when he says he hasn’t spoken to him since.

The tears turn his eyes the color of the harbor we’re anchored in. I’m reminded of when I met those oceanic eyes as I walked into the hospital in Pokhara, Nepal. I hadn’t seen Kendall, Jackie, or Corina—my first real friend in Santa Fe and roommate in the Alameda house—for over a week while I worked a Marsyangdi trip, and they trekked to Ghorepani. In a time before cell phones and the Internet, we made plans to meet back in Pokhara six days later. Eight days later, no sign of them, but I didn’t mind much because I was enjoying the company of an attractive Swiss co-worker.

Hanging out with fellow guides at the only late night ‘club’, Moondance, in Pokhara - Indian hip hop music pumping, low circular tables occupied by locals, expats, and travelers - I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around to see Corina.

“Corina-bean!” I jumped up and spun to hug her. I hadn’t seen my American travel companion for over a week.

She was crying. I pushed her to arm’s length and looked her over from head to toe. The front of her jeans were covered in blood. I felt her trembling.

“Corina, what’s wrong?”

She shook her head, and all she could sputter was, “It’s Jackie. She’s in the hospital. It’s bad, Heather. Really bad.” The only memory she could recall was catching the last bus back to Pokhara, riding on the roof when something hit Jackie, and she fell into her.

Walking into the emergency room of the third world hospital, I saw Jackie on a stretcher surrounded by doctors and nurses. Lots of people were running in and out of the room. My eyes searched for and found Kendall, who was sitting on a table against the wall with his head in his hands. I gravitated to him when suddenly a tall man with a British accent intercepted me.

“Who are you?” He poked my clavicle.

“I’m her friend. Been traveling with her!” I spoke rapidly. Kendall lifted his head, just a few feet from me.

His eyes were the color of despair. “I’m done.” He mouthed the words and his hand made a slicing motion across his throat.

“Ok, you!” said the doctor, a facial surgeon on sabbatical in Nepal studying the epidemic of cleft palates. He grabbed me by the shoulder, shoving me toward the stretcher carrying Jackie. “Take her to X-ray!”

At the head of the stretcher, wheeling Jackie down the gray hallway, I watched her right arm fall out of the sleeping bag and dangle alongside the stretcher. I saw that her arm was broken in two places, one near the wrist and the other just below the elbow. I scooped up the mangled appendage and tucked it back in. She moaned.

Maybe she sensed the familiarity of my touch.

“What the fuck happened to me?” She slurred, through a severely fractured mouth, trying to look at me upside down. I concentrated on keeping my composure while looking down at her broken face and wondering what other injuries lurked inside that sleeping bag.

“I don’t know, sweetie, but you are going to be fine.” I soothed. “I’m here, and I’m not leaving you.”

Three days later, a Swiss helicopter landed on the lawn outside the hospital with half the town of Pokhara gathered to watch. I’ve never been so happy to see medics with morphine, ever. They flew her to Zurich, where a Learjet carried her gently back to LA, to her family.

Despite opportunities to continue following international river seasons, I returned to LA with a traumatized Corina. I needed to stay the course with my friends. Kendall and I stayed at Jackie’s father’s lemon-tree farm in Ojai, each in our own repurposed homes. In the backwoods on the property we tried to live together in a camper trailer until Kendall discovered an abandoned sailboat nearby and moved into it’s landlocked cabin. Horse jobs were out of season and Kendall got the cold shoulder, and we, separately and at different times, returned to Santa Fe. Kendall stayed with me from time to time on the horse ranch I managed for the owners of Outside. I taught him about horses. He kept me company.

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The pelicans circle overhead, their flight paths within arm’s reach from time to time. The old wreck covered in rust and graffiti sits partially submerged fifty yards away near the shallows where Franny and I snorkeled yesterday. She kindly understood my fear of fish and never let me out of her sight.

My alarm clock this morning is the sporadic splash of pelicans diving outside the porthole for baitfish. I sit on the portside stern watching millions of glimmering fish black out the bottom of the ocean. The mass disguises itself as the ocean floor, but when a tarpon swims through, they part, and one can see much deeper. The transparency of the ocean can be misleading.

One pelican sits perched atop the bow of the nearest vacant sailboat as if he owns it. Large, paddled feet grip the rails, and as Franny pointed out, they look humorous underwater through the mask of a snorkel—their beautiful, speckled feathers and purple throats attached to pencil necks. They fly with precision, tucked in a moment of suspension, before hurling like a torpedo toward the surface, scooping up long mouthfuls of bait, tail feathers toward the sky. Eyes reemerging first, filtering fish through their gullet. Then sitting upright, gulping, they look satisfied before taking off to begin the cycle again.

I think about how many times I’ve taken flight, going after the abundance of life. Kendall has always been part of my adventure tribe. We traveled and guided rivers all over the world. We played in the mountains of Colorado and traversed desert arroyos on fast-moving horses. Our bodies were always on the fast track to adrenaline sports, competitive, intimate at times. Lately, I worked a nine-to-five office job, and he was still a guide, teaching watersports in Cinnamon Bay, St. John, living on a boat and surfing the Caribbean.

Kendall goes to pick up his laundry and returns with Steve, an Aussie-born South African who owns a surf shop on the north shore in Cootan’s Bay. The four of us take the dinghy across the ocean to Norman Island for an ass-kicking hike to the south rim. Returning to the deserted dock at dusk, we swim, crack open beers, and watch the clouds turn into whales at sunset. A single, lonely charter boat thumps techno music in the distance.

We cross the open water in the pitch dark, drop the Aussie at the West End dock, and return to the catamaran. Blissfully exhausted, Kendall and I take to the top deck to talk under the stars: similar stories of burnout in careers, breakdown of relationships, what to do next, and the price we pay for playing all those years. Trying to incorporate passion into paychecks is risky.

I closed my riding school recently. Kendall will only teach windsurfing, sailing, SUPing, and snorkeling, but not surfing. He saves that for himself, a humble surfer who always strives to learn more about the glide.

“The ocean’s waves make me light up under all of her moods. She has never let me down when I have paddled out. This is why I always choose to come home to her. As much as I love other sports, nothing even comes close to making my heart sing.”

I will ride again soon, too.

>>

The next morning, we pack for a day trip with a tentative plan to visit Fallen Jerusalem. Kendall puts the dinghy into high gear, hugging the north shore, always staying within a certain distance from it, to Steve’s surf school. Cootan’s Bay is abandoned, like most we passed along the way, due to the off-season. For me, this is the perfect time to be there. Kendall shows me how to set an anchor, and we swim to shore. Steve pulls out a kayak for me, and I paddle out and around the point break, just floating at times, seduced by the ebb and flow of the ocean waves. After much deliberation, the day is cooled with beer, and we eddy out at Steve’s shack overlooking Cootan’s Bay, cooking massive amounts of frozen dumpster fish and ribs, drinking in the BVI-backcountry lifestyle.

Instead of driving, the next morning we hike down to the surf shop via Steve’s secret jungle trail, passing by old ruins and petrified cannons. We swim our gear out to the lone dinghy still anchored fifty yards offshore. On a roundabout course scouting surf waves on Virgin Gorda, a stop at Aragorn’s Gallery affords Franny and I some shopping time. Kendall and Steve know the artist, and we visit for a while. He offers Franny a job.

It’s midday, getting closer to late afternoon, and back in the dingy, Franny asks Kendall if we still have time for Fallen Jerusalem. The mystery of this place has been building for two days now and I’m thankful he says, “I think so.”

Kendall was serious when he said it could take forty-five minutes or three hours to circumnavigate the island. Anchoring the dinghy in a small cove on the northeast point of the island, we load up a trash can with our dry shoes and leftovers from the night before and swim through the waves to shore.. After a quick snack, the tone gets real serious.

“Dry shoes stay dry. If you have to walk in the ocean, take them off,” Kendall says and I’m thankful for choosing to pack my favorite rock climbing shoes, Chuck Taylor’s. It’s scalding hot when we set out, climbing onto house-sized boulders with rounded edges revealing crevasses stories deep.

Within the first five minutes, I see this hike is materializing into a Class V bouldering expedition, and our first problem questions Franny. Kendall pushes her, repeatedly instructing her how to make the moves. She won’t do it and holds her position. It’s like trying to coax a headstrong mare by strong-arming her. Women finesse rivers differently, too.

Suppressing the urge to reach out to her, I stay quiet, sit back with Steve, and watch the test of their relationship. This is not an unfamiliar scene. Not everyone is like us. Not everyone spent their life chasing adventure and gaining experience in the outdoors, and not everyone chooses that life forever. I’ve seen him push others past their boundaries, through physical and mental obstacle courses, coming from only the purest intentions.

Franny is not comfortable and will not do it.

This is a test for him too, and I can see him working on himself. I watch to see if he can change his tune. She works his impatience in a gentle way until they come to an agreement, and Kendall finds her an alternative route.

I meet up with her on the other side.

“Stay strong, sister.” I’ve only known her for three days, but I have her back. Just like she instantly had mine.

Four hours later, maybe five, we scale a narrow, crumbly, cliffside trail in the dark, rounding the northeast point, arriving back where we started. Drinking our rationed two beers, we let go of the exhaustion and let the buzz creep in—celebrating our accomplishment. I wonder what the outcome of Franny’s balking will be. We swim through the opaque water in the dark to the dinghy. Back on the north shore of Tortola, we drop Steve in FLO bay, next to Trunk Bay, as close to shore as we can get him.

My fourth day in Tortola is a rest day, and Franny will depart for St. John, two days overdue. Kendall and I are both sad to see her go. Anyone could sense they needed some private time, so I offer to take the SUP for a harbor tour. I’ve only SUP’d once before, about a month ago on the San Juan River. Mentioning this to Kendall, my intention to give them time turns upside down.

“Wait a minute.” Kendall, a perpetual guide who has chosen this lifestyle much longer than I, and follows his passion on a shoestring budget. It has been a tough and humbling existence to maintain over many years. He takes the paddle from my hand and steps onto the board. A thorough, demonstrated description of how to stand, paddle, kneel, sit, turn, back up, walk the board, keel the board, ensues. As he presents the information, I find myself in awe of the guide in him, still.

“Keep moving your feet to different positions every five minutes, like this, see?” He demonstrates.

“Ok, I got it. Now give me that thing.”

And don’t let her go; but go to her.

>>

I shop for gifts while Kendall does a load of laundry and scavenges the dumpster, returning with a backpack full of food and my ten-year-old Converse looking brand spanking new. He joins me at Pusser’s bar where I’d made acquaintance with some novice charter owners. They invite us to dinner. Kendall orders a cheeseburger, not on the menu, and the waitress brings him one. Conversation is pleasant until Kendall gives unconventional advice, crafted from years of experience and observation, as to how to run their boat. Coming from compassion, yet, pushing people once again.

My last night and I’m not quite ready to leave. We lie under the stars on the top shelf of the three-tiered yoga deck he built in preparation for his upcoming specialized charter business.

“Fifteen years I’ve been here and been with some really amazing women, and relationships…and I fucked up every single one of them,” he says. “I think it’s time to figure out what I’m doing wrong. You know?”

I understand what he’s talking about because I am in the same boat, not just the SV Chamonie in West End, Tortola.

>>

Corina and I remain close and see each other quite often. I saw Jackie recently in LA with her husband and two children, and Kendall asked if she asked about him. For a second, I thought about saying yes.

“No, she didn’t.”

“Really?” He giggled.

Time heals wounds, but some remain. Jackie’s severed radial nerve still prevents her from moving her right arm from the shoulder down, and I could see the concave depression in her jeans where her femur came out of her skin. The eighty-plus facial fractures, broken palate and teeth, have healed and been repaired. I find her beauty even greater now.

The trip solidified something I already knew and something I needed but didn’t know I needed. I felt an urge to be with someone from my tribe. Once again called to the water, to a lifelong friend who, in many ways, I’m thankful hasn’t changed much. Kendall afforded me a necessary escape from my place in the mountains. Unplugged and rebooted, in this saltwater environment, I could refill the reserves. Not just with abundant ocean water but nourishment from a loving, lasting friendship.


Copyright 2020

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