And then Mary said, “There’s something else I must tell you….Kelly died.” I’ve known Mary for over forty years, Kelly even longer. I loved Mary the instant I met her way back when, and that has only grown richer as she, my spirit sister, and I have weathered every conceivable joy or grief. We are linked by a golden thread of friends that go back to the dawning of the Age of Aquarius—-and then some.
Sometimes years go by before we may hear from one another. Sometimes a visit out-of-the-blue brings the distant past into coffee-present on the patio with an all too brief reunion, such as that time in Sonoma when dear friend Janet visited on a professional conference run. That was only a few years ago. Janet hadn’t heard from Kelly in a long time. But it was she, only days ago, that called Mary with the news of Kelly’s death. It happened in August in the heat of Summer, out in his beloved hermit’s house in the desert that stretches from the mesas of western Colorado to the wilds of an endless Utah.
I last saw Kelly well over a decade ago, passing through Grand Junction Colorado on my way to the Bay area. He was living in a smoky, alcoholic haze in a little house perched on the edge of a beautiful, boulder strew, barren canyon somewhere out on one of the Mesas. I felt then as I often did with 'Kelly' (as many called him then) that his level of awareness too often made day-to-day consciousness an excruciating and painful event. And, there were times when his hermetic despair would retreat as it did then when I found him.
For years I tried to contact him, but was largely unsuccessful. Sometimes he had a phone and too often when he did he never answered it. In many ways Michael, always ahead of the human curve, was the quintessential Luddite, surviving on air and basics while, ironically mastering with grace and ease the most complicated technological development. He knew the true Matrix and yet chose to live like a modern Bodhisattva in its maw for the betterment of his community, to whom he devoted his life..
Michael was my first 'best friend'. We met well over forty years ago —sometime in the 1960's. In his youth he looked a bit like a black Irish version of Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings. His eyes were not saucer blue, however, but deep and wise like those of another exceptional being— Yoda. I had started undergrad studies at the University of Colorado and worked Summers as an assistant lineman for The Denver and Rio Grand railroad. We were centered in Glenwood Springs and repaired communications lines all throughout the western slope from Dotzero/Minturn to the western reaches of Grand Junction and the Utah desert.
Back in those days Grand Junction had long been abandoned to its last boom/bust: once orchards and sheep, Uranium, dry oil, and then oil shale. Back then it was a beautiful, sleepy little provincial town nestled in a thermal valley famous for its peach orchards and temperate climate. I fell in love with the place and enrolled in the local community college there as an art student, where I met Professor Pat , who often entertained students at her large adobe homestead perched on a arid shelf high above the valley. It was there that I met Michael Kelly. It was there that I learned to see the desert and its beautiful depths. And it was there that I first learned to understand the essence of color in the wash of brilliant sun light or the blue glare of winter .
Michael opened a world for me that has ever set my path to the abstractions of eremitic desert beauty and the practicalities of a shaman’s way. It was he who showed me how to be a stranger in a strange land. Michael knew the desert and mesas like his own soul and in the earliest days of our friendship revealed in patient mentoring all the treasures of his experience. We were both eighteen.
It is only now, some days after learning of his passing that I recall the bonding moment that forever set my heart grateful for its release. It has been decades since remembering. It’s uniqueness has been buried beneath a moldering leaf pile of accumulated years. If ever I know another spring it will be this memory of Michael Kelly.
On one of our hiking forays atop the Mesas one early Autumn day, we made camp at dusk, when Kelly caught the chills and the beginning of a fever. We were there to observe a lunar eclipse or meteor shower or some celestial phenomenon, now lost to memory. When his teeth started to rattle I doubled our sleeping bags and bundled him, parka and all. It was the first time I had ever put my arm around a man before, other than my dad or little brothers.
The experience was unreal. I had the feeling I was holding a still, wild bird—as light as a feather. Michael, who never wore scents and often smelled of whiskey and tobacco, gave off an aura of orange blossoms, roses, and spring flowers. It was an extraordinary experience and it was then I knew he was a shaman, a magical and luminescent creature, whose existence occupied that space between the other and earth.
The next day when I woke, he was already up boiling a pot of bitter hot coffee. I missed the celestial event, but lived one instead. We never spoke of it after. What a great gift of the heart to remember all this now.
He was and will remain in my memory as one of the most brilliant, heart-deep, and subtle thinkers I've ever met. I would often observe him in his youth writing furiously into the night, like a Nostrodamus phoneme, scribbling poetry or commentary on Plato’s cave. Then at the crack of dawn would throw the whole pile into the wood stove. I actually read some of his thoughts and they were thrillingly lucid and utterly dazzling to the educated mind. He could have cut a large swath of accomplishment in the greater world had he chosen, but I sense his love of the dessert and a mastery of events at hand suited his hermetic nature.
We had a group of friends to pal around with in those days—called the "Junction Function." They included Tim (now deceased); Gary; and Rick. It Rick, who spanned the years and saw Michael through his last painful days of illness. Ironically, we all had sequential birthdays—April 6,7,8 except for Michael and Rick. Some of us were drawn to the Bay area during the "Summer of Love," where we met our progressive doppelgangers and started a commune in San Francisco. That is where we met Janet, Mary and others, who to this day, still communicate and nurture those enduring bonds. Recently an old friend held a wonderful memorial gathering in his honor in Santa Fe. Kelly bound us all in a lifetime of affection.
Michael stayed home in Grand Junction and led his life accomplishing significant achievements in his community. We, like so many of our generation were busy exploring a larger life, often with far flung adventures and multiple careers. We did at one point manage to get Michael to Japan when living in Kyoto. But, by-in-large Michael was fixed in the immensity of the desert and the mundane complexities of Grand Junction. As is the case with most Byronic passages, the entropy of maturity brings most of us to leave the ethereal and engage the survival of adulthood. Michael was the case of a sage who never had to leave home.
He died peacefully at home in the company of his last best friend, Amanda. Lee, a childhood friend wrote the following obituary. To my dying day and into the eternity to which he lead me Michael Kelly will always remain my first best friend.
Michael “Mike” F. Kelly died Aug. 15 at the home he loved on the Redlands. He was 61.
Born in Fruita, Mike grew up in Grand Junction and attended Grand Junction High School, where he showed sharp intelligence and a great aptitude for words and writing.
From his early youth, he exhibited a genuine and sincere character of altruism, and wished to make his role in life that of a helper to anyone who was in less fortunate circumstances than himself. It was literally true that Mike would give anything he had to anyone in need of it.
He had an insightful and appreciative eye, both for the beauty and for the absurdity of things. His talent for lateral thinking, together with his droll and witty way of expressing his observations, made him a popular personality all of his life.
Mike was an innovative thinker. He was student body president at Mesa College in 1966-1967, then transferred to study at the University of Colorado in Boulder. By the 1980s, Mike was serving as a Mesa County commissioner. The design and planning of the new airport at Walker Field was one of the projects for which he was responsible.
Mike also did much to advance the cause of progress toward more enlightened ways of dealing with the social problems of criminal behavior and the rehabilitation of his fellow human beings. He made vital contributions, both intellectual and practical, to the improvement and modernization of the county’s formerly antiquated and overcrowded criminal justice arrangements, which culminated in the replacement of the old county jail by the new Mesa County Detention and Community Correction Facility, recognized as the first of its kind in the state of Colorado.
Mike felt particular concern that the justice system should adhere to the constitutional principles of American law. His research and his understanding that almost anyone can, under the right circumstances, find themselves incarcerated while justice takes its course, led him to argue convincingly for the importance of making sure that no one should ever be maltreated or subjected to living in inhumane conditions.
Mike also felt sympathy and concern for young people. His work did much toward establishing judicial practices that would assist juvenile offenders to move toward a better and more hopeful future.
During the hard times that followed the collapse of the shale oil boom in the ’80s, Mike organized the Gleaning Project, which helped many people and families get and store food during the difficult winters of that period. Far from being a remote bureaucrat, he went into the fields himself to help pick the food left over after harvesting, and then participated in a hands on way in the kitchens of the State Home to cook and preserve the gleaned food in jars.
Later, he worked with Mesa County in any number of other ways to improve the amenity of life in the Grand Valley. His accomplishments were many and significant. The material rewards that he claimed as compensation for his contributions to the public benefit were few and modest, yet in harmony with the generous and un-mercenary nature of his spirit. Both those who knew him and those who have come after him are indebted to Mike for his efforts to make our part of the world a more comfortable, better socialized, more just and humane place than it was before he was born and lived out his life here among us.
Mike was always ready to laugh, ready to help us put things in a saner perspective, ready to lend a hand to a good cause. He was much loved by his many friends. We will all miss his unique sense of humor. And we will remember the wonderful times we had in his company.
Peace at last, my dear friend.