Although I was never a close friend of the recently late Joe Sprauer, I always felt a particular kinship with him. I met Joe 14 or 15 years ago, when our kids were at Little Star Montessori School together. We never got to know each other well, but we’d chat easily when I’d pick up a kid from his house, or he from mine.
One such time we stood in the parking area at my house looking out at the field where our girls were playing. The wild rye in our field was high, and we watched the ripples our two girls left in their wake as they ran through the grasses chasing each other. They’d disappear from view, two little tow-heads occasionally emerging from between the stalks, giggling. Weren’t we lucky, we’d agreed — to be able to raise our kids this way, running barefoot in dusty fields.
Years later we watched our girls on dozens of different grassy fields across the state — manicured, tidy fields — chasing soccer balls. The wild abandon of the toddler years gave way to a more disciplined intensity, but we still felt lucky, watching our girls run.
Over the past decade, I’d sometimes run into Joe in the backcountry playground that we both loved. He’d be enjoying the place in his own way, and I in mine. He’d catch up to me or we’d cross paths, and we’d share bits and pieces of our day. Weren’t we lucky, we’d agree — to live in this place, with so much to explore and discover, and even the familiar spots offering something new every time.
There are some people who you only see regularly in certain places, and you come to associate those places with them. For me, Joe’s places are the soccer field sidelines and a few specific backcountry areas. When I’m in those places I don’t always expect to see him, but when he shows up I’m never surprised.
Last Friday I was meeting a friend at TwispWorks and as we stood in the parking lot, pearls of hail pelting us, a wiry, bearded man wearing a ball cap, glasses, and a mask walked past. My friend and I each did a double take, then turned to each other with the same thought: Joe.
I think it’s going to be this way to me for a long time, especially out in the wild. I’ll see a familiar figure approaching and for a split second I’ll think “Joe.” I hope it feels that way always — that split second before I remember that it isn’t him. And for a fleeting moment he will be present in those places that meant so much to him, on the verge of descending into that next valley, forever poised to crest that next hill.