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The death of a friend

July 5, 2006—I had known all along that after the week-long social maelstrom of the Golden Caravan I'd be feeling overwhelmed, in need of some quiet time alone or perhaps with a few friends. The place Kate and Jonna had picked out turned out to be ideal, although it didn't look too appealing at first glance. Near the small town of Wheatland, Wyoming is the massive coal-fired Laramie River generating station, part of the Missouri Basin Power Project. The plant needs nearly seven billion gallons of water a year for cooling. That water is supplied by the nearby Grayrocks Reservoir... which is also a nature preserve boasting plenty of wilderness camping sites.


Our first sight of the 1.5 gigawatt power plant was somewhat awe-inspiring. Kate was in the lead, driving her Tracker. As she's done before, she scouted ahead, checking out all the available sites, and then phoned back to tell us that while there were plenty of sites down at the water's edge, they were crowded with fisherman and vacationing families—to be expected on this Fourth of July weekend. But Kate had found a really good campsite up on a hillside overlooking the reservoir, and it was completely deserted... so that's where we went, forming a mini get-together of six Lazy Dazes.

LDs at Grayrocks

I was looking forward to relaxing here for a few days while the rest of the RVing world crowded into packed campgrounds for the long weekend. But my peace of mind was shattered by the first email that came in after I'd set up my satellite internet dish. It was from the sister of my good friend Bill Haas, and it read:

Dear Andy - We have sad news. Bill died last night unexpectedly but peacefully. Would you pass the information on the Lazy Daze network? He mentions you often as he did the others who came through Patagonia recently.

Bill Haas

I was stunned, and so were the others when I told them—we'd all known and loved Bill. Soon we were all sobbing on each other's shoulders, trying to deal with the loss of a dear friend. Later that evening, typing through my tears, I posted this to the Yahoo Lazy Daze group:

Bill was a friend to so many of us, and helped so many of us, that it's hard to quantify his loss. He was the gentlest, most thoughtful, most generous man I've ever known. When Gertie broke down in Tucson, Bill drove all the way up from Patagonia, collected me and my cat, and brought me home to live in his rig for a week while Gertie was being fixed. When I had symptoms of appendicitis, Bill took me to the emergency room. He helped me, too, in a hundred smaller ways. I'm sure many of you can tell similar stories.

Bill had been a much sought after videographer in his younger days; two of his documentaries won Emmy awards. (In one case he lived with homeless people for a month while documenting their lives.) He described himself back then as "a real 'type A' personality"—aggressive and always in a rush.

But a massive heart aneurism in his thirties, which he barely survived, changed Bill's life—or more accurately, Bill changed his own life. When his doctors told him that his high-pressure lifestyle would kill him if continued, Bill deliberately changed his whole personality, remaking himself into the gentle, laid-back, considerate man we all knew.

He took up RVing as a way of relaxing, and was working his way toward fulltiming. His current trip to the Pacific Northwest was another step in that direction, as he traveled and photographed migrant workers and their living conditions. Bill died peacefully, living the life he loved and doing the work he loved. May we all be as lucky.

That night we shared dinner in back of our rigs, looking out over the reservoir as the setting sun set fire to the clouds and turned the water to dancing embers, and talked about how Bill had helped each of us. Besides rescuing me, Bill had helped me add four solar panels to Gertie, and had generously shared his extensive knowledge of local wilderness camping sites and scenic vistas. I remembered the fun of working with him on his rig, when we sawed his couch in half to make room for a glider rocker, and then added a pantry cupboard like mine, so he'd be able to keep himself well stocked while fulltiming.

Watching the glorious sky, the more spiritual in our group imagined Bill in the Heaven he believed in and surely deserved. Not being spiritual myself, I just missed him. Bill was deeply religious, but he never pushed his beliefs on anyone. He never let his faith—or my lack of faith—get in the way of our friendship. Among his other virtues, he was a remarkably tolerant man who set a shining example. I wish he were still here, so I could go on learning from him.

My friend Ernest Murphy said it best: Bill was "one of those rare people who transcended the bullshit and came very close to attaining buddha-hood."

Grayrocks sunset

The next day I set out to explore the campsite. A short distance away, a "scenic overlook" gave a wonderful view of the dam built in the Seventies to impound the reservoir's waters. But a glance told me that something was terribly wrong: the dam stood high and dry, with no water within a quarter mile of its spillways.

Grayrocks dam panorama

Wyoming is in the middle of a five-year drought that may be the worst in its history, and certainly is one of the worst in the US today. Remember those seven billion gallons a year? If the water level in Grayrocks Reservoir drops much further, the Laramie River power plant may have to scale back its operation or even shut down altogether. You can imagine what the loss of more than a billion watts of electric power would do to the region.

We had warmish weather the next morning, but then a drenching thunderstorm came through, bringing cooler temperatures. We were in the supermarket in Wheatland at the time, and you should have seen those people when it started pouring down buckets! They were like kids on Christmas morning—practically dancing with glee. You could tell how much this rain meant to them. It'll take a lot more storms, though, to bring Grayrocks back up to normal levels.

The afternoon's thunderstorms brought something I've never experienced before: three rainbows in one day, in three different parts of the sky. None was a knockout spectacular, but to see three in one day was a real treat.

Later that afternoon a brushfire started on the other side of the reservoir from us—maybe caused by a lightning strike, or by human carelessness. We phoned it in and then watched it develop. It was small at first, but then the wind reversed direction. By sunset, clouds of smoke were towering up in the western sky. Fortunately for us, it couldn't jump the reservoir and get near us... and anyway, we RVers can move our homes if threatened!

The next afternoon brought another heavy downpour; we watched this one from a distance as sheets of rain poured from the leaden-gray clouds.

Rain streamers

But the wildfires continued to burn in multiple locations. All day and into the night, we watched trucks with flashing red lights scurry back and forth trying to contain the flare-ups. It gave me a small taste of how difficult and frustrating it must be to fight fires like these.

After four days, we'd still had only a few sightseers at our campsite— no other campers came to stay. They'd park, walk out to the overlook and then walk back; in fifteen minutes they'd be gone. Apparently most folks wanted to camp by the water, where they could fish. Looking through binoculars, we could see them parked cheek by jowl in tight little clusters down there, while we spread out and took our ease, enjoying the magnificent view from our hillside.

The only drawback was that the temperatures seemed to be increasing day by day, and while the others could run their generators in order to power their air conditioners, I didn't have that option with Gertie. Since the Fourth of July holiday was over and we need no longer fear crowds at other campgrounds, we decided to move on. Some went one way and some another, but Kate & Terry and I decided to stay together a bit longer, so we headed down into Wheatland to dump our tanks, replenish our supplies and spend a night at the town's municipal park, which generously offers up to three-day stays with free water and electricity. It's a good way to bring outside dollars into a small town, and we certainly spent enough money in Wheatland on groceries, gas and propane.

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