The healthiest person I ever knew died last month. It seemed unfair that a guy who lived so vigorously would pass so soon, but he never appeared self-pitying.
Mike Dennison saw too many rare and breathtaking places for that.
He spent most of his 61 years on a mountaintop, literally and figuratively.
A wake in Dennison's honor will be held Saturday at Weber State University's Stewart Library, 2 p.m. You can count on a lot of healthy-looking people being there. The type who figure you only get one shot at life, so they do things others only read about, climbing mountains, crossing deserts, sailing seas.
Dennison surprised me the first time we met. Not that he didn't look like he could run a marathon in the Grand Canyon which he did several times but that he was so unpretentious. When I sheepishly told him I had hiked to the top of several Utah peaks, he reacted as though I had completed the Mt. Everest Marathon which he also did more than once.
We talked about conditioning, altitude sickness and trails in Utah. Amazingly, for a guy who had climbed Kala Pattar, an 18,000-foot peak in Nepal, he didn't act bored. When I said I envied his travels, he asked if I'd like to go along next time he hiked around the world. And he meant it.
He packed light, lived modestly and cherished the view. Of life.
But he didn't just live for himself. He devised a one-wheeled cart so he could pull a friend who was a partial quadriplegic to the top of Ben Lomond Peak.
Mike was with his wife, Jodi, in India nearly three years ago when it was discovered he had colo-rectal cancer. They were in a remote village that had few medical services. It took several days to get him to a real hospital. After numerous surgeries and setbacks, the cancer spread.
Through it all, he would send cheery e-mails to friends and associates, sometimes describing in detail the latest catastrophe to hit his body. He once sent me a picture of a tumorous mass that had been removed. To him it wasn't so much a tragedy as a curiosity.
He concluded all his letters with the word namaste, a Sanskrit greeting that acknowledges the divinity in everyone.
I have to admit, I had a mild Walter Mitty complex about him. He was always doing things I only fantasized about. After he returned from one excursion, someone at the newspaper's front desk called me at home, saying rather warily that a gift had been left for me.
"And it's kind of scary," she said.
Dennison had brought back a knife with a leather sheath that said "Nepal." When I called to thank him, I asked how he got it through airport security. "I just put it in my bag," he said.
That was the thing about Mike. He never let nagging details stop a good plan.
At various times he was a college instructor, personal trainer and gymnastics coach. He waterskied, snowshoed, biked, ran, lifted, rafted, kayaked, skied, played racquetball, dived and wrestled. I half-expected to see him on "American Gladiators" or "Survivor," but those were probably too phony for him.
He lived most of his life in Utah, except when he was on an expedition.
Of course, to him, life was an expedition.
"He was always out for adventures, every day of his life," said his friend Josh Jones.
Among his favorite places were the forbidding reaches of Nepal, India, Tibet and Thailand, but also the imperial Mountains of the Moon in Africa. He explored Europe, Asia, the Pacific Islands and South America.
Even after he fell ill, he insisted on chronicling his adventures. His first book, "Back from the Edge: A Backpacking Trip Around the World" was followed by a book he wrote specifically to pay for his funeral expenses called "Almost Back from the Edge: Living the Dream in Asia and Dying with Cancer." Both are available at mikedennison.net.
He died four blocks from his childhood home in Ogden, in a care center where he had become a celebrity of sorts.
After all, not many people have lived in Kathmandu.I don't know why I'm still around and Mike isn't. But I figure when I die, somewhere there will be mountains that look a lot like the Himalayas. I'll climb through the dizzying vertical beauty until at last I reach the crest. There at the top will be Mike, waiting for me to catch up. And exclaiming there's one more peak I just have to see.
E-mail: [email protected]