We all have our daily parent personas - wiper of noses, helper of homework, teller of stories, and kisser of boo-boos. But most of us also still remember ourselves in our BC (before children) lives. Those hobbies and activities that we had more time and money for before the house was filled with the pitter-patter of little feet.
One of Stuart's and my BC personas was that we loved going off-road in our Jeep. It started with my Isuzu Trooper. I loved it because it was 4x4 and could make it up a crazy-steep hill outside our apartment complex in Arlington no matter how icy or snow covered it was. But surely a 4x4 vehicle can do more than that! We wanted to play around with it some and find out just how well it could handle going off-road. We attended a meeting for a club called Ft. Worth/Dallas Four Wheel Drive Club (aka FWD-FWD). We didn't know anyone there and felt a little awkward in our Trooper with all of these other folks in their souped up Jeeps, Broncos, and Toyota trucks. I'm talking big tires, roll cages, big wenches, etc. But this one couple, Darrell and Marla, went out of there way to greet us and tell us more about the club and off-roading in general. They invited us to go off-roading with them sometime with their friend Mark.
Mark is a quiet guy with a quick-wit and dry humor that always makes us laugh. He always wears a hat, and either a t-shirt or a flannel button down shirt, and usually has a can of Dr. Pepper in his hand. He is a true McGyver when it comes to fixing things (anything!) and he's always willing to jump in and help you out, even if you are a total stranger. He seems to know something about everything and amazingly seems to know someone everywhere he goes. He is a genuine person and a true friend that you can always count on.
We had a lot of fun with our new group of friends. But my Trooper was my daily driver and not something I really wanted to take off-roading on any serious trails. So around 2001, we bought an old 1985 CJ7 Jeep that was strictly our fun vechicle. She is a sweet vehicle. Classic look, completely stock, and very well cared for.
Darrell and Mark helped Stuart make a few modifications to the Jeep and we started hitting the trails with her regularly. We went with our friends to go off-roading and "rock crawling" in Gilmer and Muenster, Texas as well as Clayton, Oklahoma. My fondest memories were in Clayton with the FWD-FWD club. Twice a year they scheduled off road events in Clayton where we would run on old logging trails through the mountains. Our found a small collection of one-room log cabins in the woods and we each rented a cabin for the weekend. It was in a quaint little part of town (actually, it's all rather quaint). It was fun hanging out with friends on their cabin patio, grilling hot dogs and burgers, and just relaxing in the mountains. For the event, the club would have a designated trail boss for each trail and you could pick the trails you wanted to run based on their level 1-6 difficulty. We'd sign up for different trails, go out with a large group, everyone would help each other get through the trails by spotting for the driver or helping if someone broke an axle shaft or needed a tow strap to get pulled out of a sticky situation, then we would head back to the meeting grounds or our cabins and share stories of overcoming giant boulders, running into trees, and occasionally roll overs (Don't worry, Dad. We never did any trails that put us in danger of rolling over). It was a fun sport but the comraderie was what made it really special.
Over the years, we did more trails with these guys. Mark even traveled with Stuart and me on a trip to Las Cruces, New Mexico in 2003 to attend the Las Cruces Chili Challenge. You can't help but to get to know someone better when you are on a long road trip with them and Mark made it fun. Along the way, he went with us on some detours to Carlsbad Caverns and Hatch, NM (chile pepper capital of the world) in addition to the off-road event. New Mexico has different terrain than we were used to but we had a great time. And the scenery was just incredible.
After Nicholas was born, we made one more trip to Clayton when he was about one year old. I stayed at the cabin with Nicholas during the day. We had fun hanging out on the patio, exploring the woods, visiting the Choctaw nation, and looking at animals.
Stuart spent the day with our friends out on the trails. Stuart is a great driver and our Jeep is really fantastic at maneuvering these particular trails. I dare say that our friend Mark is an even better driver than Stuart (sorry, babe!) but his Toyota truck was longer than our Jeep and sometimes that gave him a disadvantage when his back end couldn't keep up with the direction his front end was trying to go.
Brace yourself! Here it comes....
Fortunately the kind of trails we went on were always very slow moving so the people were rarely in danger of any sort of injury and the vehicles that got into trouble like Mark's here, would typically not get more than some scratches, but the occasional dent was not uncommon.
After this trip, Stuart decided to do some more upgrades to the Jeep. He got well into the project but then lack of time and money got in the way of completion. We still have our Jeep but it sits lonely in our garage awaiting the day when Stuart has some "free time" once again to finish putting it back together. Maybe in 15 years or so...
Even though we haven't been off-road with our friends since 2007, we have still kept in touch and still consider this group to be dear friends to us. Recently Mark was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. By the time it was discovered, the cancer had already attached to his spine and was inoperable. He gave it a hard fight and even tried several different experimental drugs. But a few weeks ago, Mark lost his battle and passed away at his mother's home in Canton. The family had a ceremony in south Louisiana but none of us were able to make the drive at the time. So we had our own little get together here and invited lots of friends who had known him and ran on the trails with him. It was amazing how everyone commented that they always remembered a time when Mark was helping someone fix a vehicle out on a trail. He was always the first person to jump in to help even when he didn't know the person. He was just happy to do it.
I worried about bringing the kids to a memorial but they were great. Nicholas played on his Leapster and Rachel drew pictures. There was some running around later but overall they were well behaved.
We all passed around scrapbooks and pictures of Mark, watched videos of us out on the trails with him, and shared lots of wonderful stories about the fun we had. I love that it was a happy get-together and not sad and somber (even though that's how I felt at times).
Our motley crew: Marla, Darrell, Paul, Rhonda, Nicholas, Kim, Rachel, and Stuart. It's sad that we never got a group picture of us that included Mark.
Cherish and celebrate your friends now while you can. They are a gift in your life. Take pictures of them and hold your memories with them close to your heart.
This is our friend, Mark. This picture says it all. Hat - check, flannel shirt - check, helping fix someone else's truck - check.
I started to write a long sappy post about being sad and missing our friend. But instead I decided to write it in celebration and memory of the good times that we had with him. For this is what friendship is all about. I can't look at our Jeep and not think of our friends and all the fun we've had with our friends.
We love you and miss you, Mark!