Milepost 60: College students are not supposed to care very much and I didn’t. Summer would be over soon meaning it would be back to class. Physics and history. Who cares? These were little more than compulsory hurdles placed by the world leaving you to prove you are worthy of something more than selling shoes or flipping burgers. My high school years seemed much more fulfilling and interesting than the real world evolving before me. Now, reality felt like a burn or a sprained ankle. Heading back home to small town Utah for one last week before the start of the next semester was a mixture of anticipation and sadness. The feeling of the last shore-leave before going to war.
Milepost 32: It was Friday afternoon, August 19, 1983. Highway 257 in the middle of nowhere, 80 miles an hour with The Clash playing loudly in the cassette player of my maroon Camaro. The red sedan far ahead of me was an anomaly in the brown desolation this place. I would catch it soon.
Milepost 26: I passed the red sedan without looking. What were they doing out here anyway? One doesn’t just end up on this road on an afternoon drive. Anyone on highway 257 has intention, a premeditated objective. They probably were going to a funeral or to visit relatives. Maybe they were running from something like I was. Maybe we had that in common.
In high school I had many friends. Carefree nights cruising main, socializing, sometimes getting into trouble. Life was a club sandwich of basketball, school plays, track, jokes, girls, parties, cross-country, and I took the biggest bite I could. Why was it over and how could I go back? I think I had my mid-life crisis at age 21.
Milepost 16: I saw it up ahead. It was a white car but not any white car. Even from a distance this car was out of place. It was not on the road but far off to the side, and at a strange angle. For some reason I imagined what someone might think in a thousand years when they accidentally find an abandoned rover on the surface of the moon.
I was a nice person most of the time. Actually I was an asshole. I was your friend if you could offer me something, anything. Reputation, popularity, if you could increase my standing before my peers I accepted you. If you could not do these things I tolerated you. What’s another word for selfish?
Milepost 15: I could see it clearly as I slowed, the mangled remains of the white car. I saw parts strewn in various directions, a twisted bumper here, an orphaned wheel there. How did this happen on a clear, sunny day in the wasteland? I stopped in the middle of highway 257. The red sedan was miles behind me and nobody else was in sight. I turned off the third installment of Rock The Casbah, rolled down the window, looked at the shattered white car and listened to the silence. For just a moment, I considered getting out for a closer look at the wreckage but I squashed the urge. After all it had probably been here for several days and they were trying to arrange for a tow truck to come all the way out here to clean up the automotive carcass.
Milepost 9: I was almost home and had already forgotten the ruined white car. Plans for the weekend would involve finding some friends and hanging out. What was Kim Williams doing? Maybe we would go for a ride in the mountains. I would give him a call tonight. Home wasn’t a geographic location or a structure. Home was people – people who fit me. People who fed me. People who constructed my ego. People I asked to provide my selfishness. Yes I would call Kim Williams, a friend always full of liveliness and fun and energy. And I ate that up. I didn’t want to think about next week and Kim could be counted on to not remind me about it.
Kim wasn’t really that outgoing, he was just likeable. He had that rare quality few have, making you feel included, a part of something. Comfortable. Never did he seem to talk about the negative, and most everything ended with a laugh or a wink. If you screwed up he would tell you, yet somehow you knew it wasn’t malicious. Not judgmental.
He wanted you to be better.
Milepost 0: Milford, Utah. The edge of the world. Home. A town with nothing from an outsider’s point of view. A town that was either a stopping point for gas or for those few like me who made it an intentional destination.
Even in 1st grade a crowd of kids followed Kim around, impressed by his friendliness, his never-ending smile, and how fast he could run. Not much had changed in high school. Like me he was an instigator. If a food fight started in the lunch room, odds were good he started it. If someone found spit wads on the chalkboard, chances were high he shot them there. Kim was creative. He had a talent for shifting the blame for anything away from himself, the mastermind of harmless fun, never malevolent, looking quite innocent with his dark Navajo skin and shiny jet black hair and constant smile. At times in his life he struggled, but Kim never lost his optimism and enthusiasm. I loved him. I loved his laugh. I saw myself doing the things he did and being who he was.
I called his number to find no answer. An hour later I repeated the call and was again unsuccessful. No matter, I would catch him the next day.
We had time.
The following day at breakfast I found out Kim Williams was dead. It turned out we didn’t have time after all.
Kim had died the previous day in a horrific solo car accident north of town. He had lost control of his car at a high rate of speed. I didn’t ask how it happened – I didn’t want to know. At milepost 15 he was found by people in a red sedan who unselfishly stopped to make sure everyone was okay. It turned out everyone wasn’t okay. While I couldn’t be bothered, those in the red sedan found Kim’s body behind some sagebrush and flagged down a train which radioed for help.
A few days later I dressed for a funeral when I should have hanging out with Kim. I dressed up but I didn’t go. I didn’t want anyone to see me and I didn’t want to see anyone.
I didn’t want to cry.
Epilogue: Two decades went by quickly. It was August 19, 2003. I was driving home on highway 257 in the desolation between Delta and Milford. At milepost 15, this time I stopped. It was exactly twenty years to the day since Kim died on this spot. Despite the years, remnants of that horrific moment remained scattered about. Rusted bolts and pieces of broken glass. A broken mirror. A bent windshield wiper. The only sound was the wind through the sagebrush. I wandered around and gathered the small rusty pieces of the white car and placed them in a pile. This awkward little shrine seemed grievously inadequate compared to the emotions I felt inside.
Right out loud I asked Kim for forgiveness. Somehow I was sure he could hear me. I wasn’t there for him twenty years earlier but more importantly I wasn’t there for him for his entire life. Perhaps if his life had taken a different path it might not have ended so early and suddenly. I had an opportunity to help him traverse that different path, a better path. Instead, I followed Kim when I should have led him. I imitated Kim when I should have set an example for him. I failed him. For all of Kim’s amazing qualities I failed to save him from himself. I found myself partially responsible for his death.
On that day, in that place, at that moment, I told Kim Williams I was sorry.
Twenty years later I cried, not just for Kim but for myself.
Everyone around us is influenced by our actions. Shouldn’t we take some responsibility to make their lives better, richer, and more complete? In the bits and pieces of the white car Kim Williams taught me something I could never have learned without him. Even twenty years after his death, he taught me to be a friend. Not a fawning, selfish friend, but a real friend. A friend who would do anything he could to make relationships unconditional and without gain. A friend who would encourage others to travel a better path.
I know he was there with me that day, twenty years later. I could almost hear his laugh again. I hope he forgives me for failing him. Yet I will never forget Kim Williams and the lesson he taught me.
He taught me to save ourselves we need to save others, and we can do this every day of our lives.