Get Big Pivots

“…my heart went out to lonely sounds in the misty springtime night of wild sweet America in her powers, the wetness on the wire fence bugled me to belief, I stood on sandpiles with an open soul, I not only accept loss forever, I am made of loss―I am made of Cody, too.”

― Jack Kerouac, Visions of Cody

by Auden Schendler

Adam Palmer is sitting next to you on a chairlift. You are lost in thought. But you feel eyes. You turn, and there’s that smirk, the penetrating stare, waiting for you to respond to the wisecrack that was so dry you already missed it.

“I just can’t stop thinking of his smiling face,” my wife, Ellen, said.

It wasn’t quite a smile, though. It was the sly grin.

Along with two companions, Adam died Feb. 1 in an avalanche near Silverton in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.

Adam was the Norse God Loki of Eagle County, the Coyote of the climate movement and of our community. He was a trickster, an Odysseus, a delighted warrior, highly dangerous to the status quo, whether that status quo was the serious thread of your conversation or the global order. If he had been born in China or Russia, I can tell you where he would live: in jail. Instead, in America, he was a town councilman, utility board member, a family man and leader on climate solutions for the country.

His chosen work was serious indeed, incredibly discouraging labor because it is so hard, and yet Adam performed it with energy and joy because he saw in it a hopeful future for the world. It wasn’t his community Adam cared about so much as everyone.

He achieved what the physician and anti-poverty activist Paul Farmer described as an almost unmanageable task, which was the ability to love a stranger’s child as your own. To love your community as your family.

Yes, he struggled and succeeded mightily for his wife, Kalie, and his daughters, Montana and Savannah, but he did it just as much for you. His friend Jason Blevins summed up the Palmer worldview: “He would haul a cabinet-style speaker down to the surf wave in Eagle he fought so hard to build … blasting his punk tunes, he would set up lights on towers and we would surf all night long, drinking beer and shredding … (well, he was shredding … most everyone else, except for the pre-teens and Adam, were crashing.)”

For such a jokester and a funny guy, Adam was insistently mission-driven.

“The two most important days in your life,” he quoted from Mark Twain, “are the day you are born, and the day you find out why.” But you’d be forgiven if you weren’t quite sure which was Adam’s why: the mission, or the joke. Making them almost equal was the core of his resilience and his empathy. Tacked onto an email on the social cost of carbon and clean energy percentages, he’d add a picture of himself in a new ‘Energy Smart’ trucker hat, or his “badass Freddy Mercury” moustache he was admiring while poring over some code document.

A memory I recalled to him often was not a happy one, but because of that it defined who he was. He is sitting with his head bent in his hands, in despair over a plate of huevos, 15 or so years ago at Breakfast in America in El Jebel with Randy Udall and me. He had just been disqualified from running for the board of our utility, Holy Cross Energy, because his petition signatures had been invalidated. It was a nadir for us: It felt like we would never win this fight, would never turn the ship of this coal-based utility, would never make progress on climate change and clean energy. Randy and I were there to give him succor and counsel. Over a decade later, Adam had become an essential element in what led to Holy Cross’s complete transformation and commitment to 100% renewables.

But it’s hard for me to know if I was his mentor or he was mine. I never knew someone to so persistently care about the success of others, to so joyously celebrate and foster their progress, even as he himself excelled.

When I wrote a book, my Eagle County party was at his house, he insisted. When I had a new idea, he brought me over to speak. And then in-between it was Adam who kept our friendship going: “Amigo, (this was how all his emails began) we had an email thread going around soil carbon sequestration and they were suggesting a Zoom meeting which I said blows and meetings on the slope are much more productive. It looks like Friday, Feb. 26th works for us, can you join us hiking the bowl?”

This active connection is why so many of you loved him so much, but it is also the rare trait of a good and great friend: he’d as much as say, as Paul Verlaine wrote to poet Rimbaud: “Come, dear, great soul. We await you. We desire you.”

Adam was massively talented, but his talent was beyond himself, a talent for the world. He was a music prodigy (I think he actually was a prodigy as a kid.) Our friend John Gitchell first learned about his skills when Adam played keyboard at John’s grandmother’s nursing home some 25 years ago. He biked across America, but spent summer weekends building single-track in his neighborhood. He was known as a dreamer and a doer, as one fan wrote to the newspaper.

He was a physical animal, but unlike some of the vapid people we know in the Colorado backcountry, who are just out for the stoke, Adam’s badassery was laced with a potent drug: kindness and an outward focus.

Jason Blevins again: “he would always break trail when skinning … he was oblivious to gear … wore his bike helmet skiing, a jacket from the 90s. He was indefatigable … literally could not be worn down …. he fought hard for his community… every time you saw him you were stoked … Every. Time.”

His talents were also imbued with humility and self-awareness: “We just got the baby bike trailer thingy hooked up and took Montana out for a ride. It was awesome until I rode by a big store window and saw our reflection. I suddenly realized I had become the dad-with-the-munchkin-in-the-trailer-with-reflectors-who-cruises-on-the-bikepath guy.”

Adam liked to quote his dad. “As my dad, who spent some quality time on the front of a Patrol Boat in the Mekong Delta says, always be ready for an ambush.”

We got ambushed by Adam’s death. As we age, especially if we are involved in a difficult, maybe impossible battle greater than ourselves—which, well, we all are—it is hard to escape the creeping and desolate feeling that the world takes the best, and leaves the rest of us to muddle along, lonelier, slightly crippled. I have to remember Adam’s relentless faith in us, his urging and encouragement and certainty in our eventual success.

Some years ago, Adam was playing with his band at Bonfire Brewing, wearing a big floppy Mad Hatter top hat, singing and moving from keyboard to guitar, five o’clock stubble glistening with sweat, accepting beers and joyously reveling for hours and hours, the king of the room, Robin Hood of his merry band, the groom at the wedding, the center of the world.

And yet, if you looked his way, he’d grin and wink.

Maybe I will leave him there.

Auden Schendler, of Basalt, is the senior vice president of sustainability at the Aspen Skiing Co. and author of “Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution.”

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