Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Bill Hearne

We lost one of the good guys a few days ago. His name was Bill Hearne.

Bill was a good friend of my sister Debbie’s, and I first met him years ago, back when I was living in Rochester. He and several of his running friends were going out to the Adirondacks to camp, hike, maybe do a little rock climbing, and just generally relax in the woods and enjoy each other’s company. My sister was part of this yearly tradition, and she invited me to come.

So I went. And that’s when I met Bill, and learned his unique definition of the term hiking.

See, for many people, hiking means going for a nice walk in the woods, maybe zipping up a little ridge, taking some pictures, going back to the tent and roasting marshmallows. That’s definitely what it meant to me, at the time.

For Bill, hiking meant waking up at some ridiculous hour of the morning – one that my mind has since blocked out – and heading out in a rainstorm intense enough to drown a carp. As we headed down the muddy trailhead, we passed another hiking couple, already in full retreat. As they passed us, the husband announced: “It has been decided. We are going shopping.”

But Bill led his group onward, and we jogged straight up a 4000-foot mountain (they don’t seem to understand the concept of the switchback in the Adirondacks, so I mean straight up), then down the other side, then up another one, then back again, down and up and down, the whole way back. Jogging. It was 14 miles. I counted.

That hike is one of my favorite memories, and the last thing I remember from that day is passing out in my tent as Bill and the rest of the Old School stayed up and partied.

The next morning, again godawfulearly, Bill invited me to join him for an actual jog. I politely declined. Mostly because I still could not feel my legs.

To say that Bill was an athlete is an understatement. Bill was the athlete. Back on that trip, when I was 19 and full of amazement at my own athletic skillz, Bill was around fifty, and I remember seeing him for the first time. He just looked like a normal guy. A little paunch around the belly, even. I did not yet realize that he was, in fact, the Terminator.

But there are lots of great athletes out there. The thing that was so great about Bill was how completely humble he was about it. Living in San Francisco, you get the idea that athletic ability gives you some sort of license to carry a chip on your shoulder and indulge in endless self-appreciation. If they put it to a vote, I’m willing to bet a good percentage of the population here would opt to have the city covered in mirrored surfaces.

Bill was not like that. For Bill, running, climbing, teaching spin classes, and just basically being a perpetual motion machine was fun. And it was the kind of fun he loved to include other people in. It was a welcoming, patient, laughing, goofy, grinning, all-inclusive fun. He was just one of those guys who met you and made you feel like an old friend in the same moment. There aren’t enough people like that around anymore. Especially now.

I was never very close with Bill, but I got an email from him a few years ago. I had just climbed Mt. Rainier, and he had heard about it through Debbie. So he sent me an email, telling me he was training for a climb on Denali, and wanting to know if I was interested in joining up.

I have to admit, I had a hard time writing a response that did not include the phrase “completely nuts” in it. Not for Bill’s sake – the guy was a machine, and I had no doubt that he’d make his way up Denali. But I had barely finished my Rainier climb, and I could not imagine the discipline I’d need for Denali. So I wrote back, saying thanks, but no thanks, and keep in touch, and good luck.

After years of preparation, Bill made it to Denali, where he died suddenly in the middle of his climb, carrying supplies from one camp to another. They say he went quickly, and without suffering. They say he died doing what he loved, and in one of the most beautiful spots on Earth. I’m glad for all those things.

But most of all, even though I didn’t know Bill as well as some of his many friends, all I can say is that Bill is one of the best people you could ever hope to meet, and if you never got the chance to go on a hike with him, then you really, really missed out.