This page, this hike, this entire day is dedicated to a friend.

My "thing" in high school was music: more specifically, it was marching band. We practiced for months: from hot afternoons in band camp in the late Summer to cold, frigid nights in the late Fall, we became a tight knit family. We traveled, we marched in parades, we played at the football games, we competed, it was enough to form strong bonds.  

I stayed in touch with band members to various degrees over the 13 years after graduating high school. I would see some at holidays, I would become the wedding photographer for others (a real treat) and mostly I would stay in touch with via Facebook. 

One of my dear friends was the most talented musician, with a great heart and coolness for days. His name was Jonathan Wills. Extraordinary on the alto sax, but pretty special with any instrument you placed in front of him. He was always a stand out in Jazz Band, improving solos that would get you to your feet. He just had "it." He was also flat out hilarious; he could keep you gut laughing with just a few words, a perfectly timed quip or quick facial expression.

In the years since our graduation, Jon had moved down to Bainbridge, GA. He had a few health problems over the years. I never quite knew the depth and extend of it all, but I would always see a few posts from time to time that looked like he had bounced back and was doing well. He was teaching music down in Georgia and he was a very beloved instructor. 

On the morning of July 3rd, 2015, I was out Uber driving. I had just dropped off a passenger at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, CA. I left the airport and turned left onto Empire Ave. Not safely, I instinctively opened up my Facebook app on my phone (it really is a terrible habit). One of the first things I saw on the news feed were condolences and goodbyes to Jonathan Wills. I was in disbelief. I immediately pulled over, went to Jonathan's wall and there were more and more condolences and people saying goodbye and that they'd miss him.  It couldn't be. 

I texted two of my friends, Josh and George, with severe wonderment and confusion, but as the minutes passed it was clear that it was real, not a joke or a hoax. Jonathan was gone. I tried to stay strong and a prayed a few prayers for Jonathan's spirit, like I do when anyone passes. I thank God for who the person was and for what their spirit still is; I thank God for loaning us the person He created. I thank Him that we had the chance to know that person here on earth. But that stoic prayer and "keeping it strong" quickly gave way. I realized what had happened. I didn't just lose a friend. Our bond, our circle, the tight knit group we had from years ago, was now bruised. We lost a member of our family. He was the first of us to leave. I am writting this page in 2016, but at the time of Jonathan's passing we are all either 30 or 31 years old. I cried selfish tears because the selfish thoughts came in: we were "supposed" to see each other again. We were "supposed" to all grow old and look back on our high school days 50 years from now and recount all the fun we used to have we were "just kids." But "supposed to" wasn't and never is in God's plan. 

A few days passed and I as much as I thought I'd be "okay" the pain and bruising was setting in. I'm not an expert about grief, but I've faced death a few times and I think grief is a right of passage for any maturing soul. Grief, I my opinion is something that never leaves you. Much the same as love, anger, joy or any other emotion, I think grief is an innate set of feelings and chemical responses that rests inside of all of us at all times. I think it just takes encountering a real life moment, the death of loved one, for it to come to life and be activated. Grief is like any other emotion, you feel it, and you learn to manage it and control it. Not to diminish my love for Jonathan, but I lost a grandfather and a mother within 6 months a few years prior to Jonathan's passing. I know what it looks and feels like.  Grief woke up again in the moment of losing Jonathan. Its sting was not easier to take, but the familiarity made it easier to manage. I thought to do something that always brings me joy: go on a hike and shoot. 

I had known that I was due for a good hike anyway, but now I had the right meaning and motivation. I needed to get away, to think a little bit about my friend and just clear my mind. Much like a few other fun southern California hikes, I consulted the website DiscoverLosAngeles.com. Actually, I scan their Facebook page and check out their "photos of the day."  Usually there are a few great images of a breathtaking view and the page will mention the location of the image. I had come across an image for Sandstone Peak and decided that this particular day was the day. A special fact about Sandstone Peak and the hiking trails therein is that you could ascend Mount Allen which is the highest peak of the  Santa Monica Mountains. At the top, you're pretty steep 3,111 ft above sea level. If you ever decide to do this hike, I'd describe it as a low-difficulty mountain hike with a spectacular payoff at the end. 

Well worth the short drive to the start of the trailhead in Malibu. A beautiful day to remember a friend:

I was captivated with the "pretty red and white blooms" on the mountain. After a little bit of google searching I came across the California Native Plant Society. After clicking through about...950 of the 2000+ species they have on the site, I recognized it...California Buckwheat: 

Camouflage is pretty cool, isn't it? Hello my lizard friend: 

After much hiking and climbing, a very worthwhile view from the top: 

Gotta give credit to the iPhone for creating a great shot up there...

I'll conclude with this one. Here is life from the peak of Mt. Allen. I had this shot in mind from the very beginning. It was so high the temperature changed. Much cooler air and breezes up there. I could feel my friend's spirit with me. I went on this hike solo, so yes, a tripod and 2nd body came along to create this shot. 

 

Rest in Paradise, Jon (center): 

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