Todd and Mark circa 1961 photo courtesy of Mark Russell
(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2016)
My friend Mark Russell recently sent me a photograph taken fifty-four years ago at a pullout on the Tioga Road halfway between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows—a spectacular shot of the Sierras, the deep blue sky awash in billowy white and gray clouds, Lake Tenaya shining in the distance.
Mark is thirteen in the picture, I am twelve, and we are on our way with our fathers to backpack from Tuolumne Meadows to Cathedral Lake, there to fish for trout and commune with the nature spirits. In this picture, I am a few inches taller than Mark and we are both skinny boys on the cusp of becoming young men.
Two years later, Mark and his family moved away and I would not see him again for twelve years. I had gone to New York to meet my first and finest literary agent Dorothy Pittman in-person for the first time, and to lunch with the three magazine editors—Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, Gallery—Dorothy had convinced to buy one or more of my short stories. I was funding my excursion with money earned from landscaping a freeway overpass in Medford, Oregon, and on a whim, I called Mark’s parents in Connecticut, they gave me Mark’s phone number in South Carolina, and I called him to see if I might come for a visit.
I had no idea what Mark had been up to since I last saw him, but I remembered him as funny, friendly, extremely creative, and adventurous, and I wanted to see him again. In junior high school, we played baseball and football and basketball together, and he helped me live through the tedious classroom hours by passing me brief little stories he’d written about naughty children doing silly and gross things, and I would nearly bust a gut trying to contain my laughter until class ended. Thus I thought of him as a fellow writer, which was what I aspired to be.
A woman with a strong southern accent answered the phone, I told her I was an old friend of Mark’s, Todd Walton, and she went to fetch him. A moment later, Mark came on the line, his voice an octave lower than when I had last heard him speak. “Todd Walton. I was just thinking about you.”
A couple weeks later, I detrained in Camden, South Carolina late at night and was met at the station by Mark and his beautiful wife Carrie, Mark sporting a dark brown beard and towering over me. He had married into a family of folks who raised horses, and he and his wife lived with his wife’s sister and mother on two thousand acres of woods and meadows and swamps. Mark had become a maker of fine wood furniture, and I ended up staying with him and his wonderful family for a few glorious weeks in November before I headed back to California.
The climax of my visit was attending The Colonial Cup, a famous steeplechase, where I ended up betting on the winner, a spectacular horse named Grand Canyon, and I won a couple hundred dollars. I might have stayed with Mark and his family longer, but my mother called on Thanksgiving and asked me to fly to Palm Springs to take care of my grandparents who were reeling from the suicide of their son, my Uncle Howard.
Thereafter, I heard little from Mark for several years, though I did get a letter from him saying he and his wife were now members of a Buddhist community in which the renowned teacher Pema Chödrön was a leading light. When the Canadian government granted permission for Pema and members of her community to immigrate to Nova Scotia, Mark and his wife moved there.
I’m not sure if Mark and Carrie had their two daughters before they moved to Canada or shortly thereafter, but two daughters they had, and now Mark is a grandfather. He also has a successful garlic and squash and kale farm called Garlic Mountain, lives in the second home he built since moving to Nova Scotia, raises fine horses with his wife, plays the banjo, and has built a number of spectacular wooden boats.
I know these things about Mark from a handful of letters and emails and photographs he has sent me over the years, and when Mark recently sent the picture of us when we were boys becoming men in the California Sierras in 1962, I fell into musing about why he was so important to me and why I have endeavored to stay in touch with him over all these many years despite the great distance between us.
Mark liked me and I liked him. He would come over for supper and to spend the night, and we would camp out under the old olive trees behind my parent’s house, build a fire, and talk about life and the myriad unsolvable mysteries. We went on long bicycle rides together, pushing the boundaries of our known worlds. Mark got me started collecting coins: pennies, nickels, and dimes, and I became fascinated with the history of money, which led me to reading about the history of everything else.
His parents were always kind to me and honored me for being who I was, and they laughed at the funny stories I told, whereas my own parents were routinely disapproving of me and disappointed I wasn’t more studious and academically ambitious.
Mark was an avid Dodgers fan, I a diehard Giants fan, yet our passion for baseball, our interest in the details of the game, was a bond. Mark loved Sandy Koufax, I loved Juan Marichal.
But transcendent of everything, I think, was that we found each other interesting and funny and thoughtful, and when one is eleven and twelve and thirteen, such a bond is golden. I haven’t seen Mark in forty years, but I have no doubt should we ever meet in the flesh again, we will have no end of things to talk and laugh about.