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John Skinner died just four days after we last hiked. He wasn't supposed to. He was supposed to keep beating the odds. He didn't. This time he walked into the hospital for a minor procedure and he didn't walk out. I got a call that day telling me the news. I looked at the phone incomprehensively. What? No. John?
The last image of Skinner was at Lake Tahoe, with friends, on a forever-blue California day. We hiked from DL Bliss to the campgrounds on the edge of Emerald Bay and it took eight hours to go seven miles. We ambled. We laughed. We took pictures that reflected camaraderie. He wore a purple shirt. At the end, in the parking lot, John and the others piled into a car and drove away to find a good meal. I went home. That was the last I saw him.
I went to his home and noticed his belongings. His hiking boots, caked with mud and unlaced, were next to the door. One boot lay haphazardly on its side. His watch was tossed on top of a bunch of magazines scattered over the coffee. A confusion of notes laid waiting on his desk along with several pens and a pad. He'd been working on another article. But it was the car that startled me most. His wife asked me to get something from his blue Subaru. I went to the driveway and opened an unlocked door. The keys were in the ignition and a half cup of cold coffee sat in the holder next to the steering wheel. It was though we were all waiting – waiting for Skinner to come back and pick up his stuff.
Skinner's high school picture was displayed at his Memorial. It was a poster- sized black and white of a slightly bashful, un-mustached boy with polished cheeks and an air of hope. Next to it was another picture that highlighted John in his 1st lieutenant's uniform all serious brass and creases. He looked somber – a clean-skinned, child-soldier.
John's face had more character fifty years later. It was wizened, framed with thinning hair and a white mustache. Positioned next to the chapel podium an image of that man was displayed too. In full color, a blow-up revealed a man no longer pressed and scrubbed, but weathered. His eyes were the same though. They were a young boy's eyes in an old man's face.
I hiked with John for a couple of years. We'd take trails in the Sierra Nevadas or in the American River canyons. He'd tell stories about the mountains, the characters he knew, and the experiences he had as a forest supervisor. He'd tell his tales in a gravely voice with wide-open hands, and arm-wide gestures. He was my friend.
Now, unexpectedly, and at odd times, I see images of him in my mind's eye like flash cards playing through memory: John- gloveless and cold, the snow several inches thick on the top of his back pack; John- nattily dressed, a lopsided grin on his face; John- maps laid out, a stubby pencil and a note book in hand. I can almost hear him, "Marce the cell phone is my right pocket, the nitroglycerin is in my left. I have the newest bandages for wound care in my backpack under the space blanket and flashlight. Pretty sure you won't need it though."
One made-up scene, like a bad home video, keeps playing back in my dreams. John is walking that distinctive walk, loose jointed and uneven. His legs take long messy strides. His back is straight and crisscrossed with patriotic suspenders all blue stripes and white stars. He is wearing REI pants, the waist fabric dipping where the ubiquitous camera and water bottle pull them down. The pants are tan, nylon jobbies with zippers at the knees so they can be unzipped and turned into shorts. He's crammed his deep brimmed, floppy hat on crooked. He put on a bright, plaid shirt purchased at the Salvation Army for two bucks. He turns around smiles at me between bites of pizza leftover from his wife's Mahjong party. He says, "You never know when someone's going to take a picture so ya better look good and colorful." Then, " Good-bye." He turns and is gone.
My friend John.
~ Marcelle Cecchin
John was a friend to many. He was generous with his time and his extensive knowledge of the Central Sierras. He never had a bad word to say about anyone, always looked forward to an adventure, and made friends where ever he went. He is greatly missed.
~ Melony Vance