[The following is a letter that was written by Lee Meyer on October 31,2007, about the funeral of Mark (Gonzo) Lemke, who died on May 14, 2007. Other information about Mark's life and death was provided in an earlier post.]
I thought I would write a short letter here about my recent to trip to South Texas and the funeral of Mark Lemke. As you know he died last spring and the funeral was delayed until this fall because many of his friends were River people like Gonzo and returned to the Terlingua area after a season of leading river rafting trips in other places and rivers in the United States. Please pass this along as you see fit.
[Six photos of the funeral are in Lee Meyer's Picasa album.]
Jeff Taebel and I arrived early enough to allow to two full days of hiking in the Big Bend National park and the adjacent State park. The landscape is high desert with mountains that range up to 8,000 feet. The valleys and plains are covered with desert fauna and the higher altitudes look more pine forest like. It is a wide open area, including deep narrow water cut cannons, distantly remote, (the nearest decent grocery store is a 100 miles away) and a hard and wonderful setting to be in and as I learned a place to live a life.
His name was Gonzo -- with the name Mark and the place of this birth, Seward, unknown to most who knew him in this town. As I mentioned information about his background to some of the friends in Terlingua, they seemed polite but generally uninterested for it seemed it was irreverent to what they knew the person who was Gonzo. It matters more what he was than where he came from. These details and facts were not important to those living in the moment.
He was a powerful personality with a love of fun, the people around him and living fully. I was told about this wild blond hair, his wonderfully colorful sweaters, about adventures and experiences and enthusiastic friendliness toward all. He may have epitomized this place for, in my experience, every conversation and encounter with the people of Terlingua was full of friendliness and kindness. One woman told me how she threw herself at him only to be spurned because he had a girlfriend.
One Buddhist told me he was Buddhist-like, with a strong spirituality. It was a place where some of the assumptions of living in United States -- including organized religion, life as a consumer and a health-insurance-dependent culture -- are to some degree to be thrown asunder prior to settling down here. Other virtues of self-reliance -- the importance of knowledge and doing something well -- are in evidence.
At the same time the attendance at his funeral was a monoculture, for it was completely white, high-tech yet oriented to a low-impact life, heterosexual in its orientation, mostly childless, more than likely at least 2nd or 3rd generation born to the United States, oriented toward marijuana use combined with herbal medicine with the common element of beer. While the area had a large population from Mexico, as we had seen the pervious night at the Friday night dance at the Boathouse, that part of the population was not present for his funeral.
Gonzo lived on the other side of a small range of mountains from the town of Terlingua on a 40-acre tract of land, down a long gravel road adjacent to several of his friends who lived, it seemed, in other single shelters spotted around his local.
His place included a roof-covered parking area that was mainly for rain catchment, a small outbuilding, a covered eating area and a structure that was called a Yurt by those gathered with us, but really appeared to me be a high-tech tent-like structure, 20 feet in diameter and 18 feet tall with a frame of wood and a skin of rubberized fabric that included screened flaps for ventilation. With the inclusion of a solar-panel system, the yurt featured both air conditioning and heating and a refrigerator. The furnishing included a Lemke-family cast-iron frame bed, table, old wonderful dressers and storage units for food and the other essentials. The deck located on the east side included wonderful desert plants and a built-in hot tub. Friday evening out at his land we enjoyed many stories about Gonzo and the life, the setting sun and rising of the full moon.
The service was straightforward and untangled with any religious rituals that are the basis of most funerals. It started around 5 p.m. in front of the Starlight Bar with people gathering on the porch and adjacent parking lot. Gonzo’s cremated remains were placed in a life jacket in the middle of his large rubber raft set on a trailer pulled by his white Toyota truck. His brother John drove. The sound of the tires crunching on the gravel was the only signal beyond the slowly moving truck that the procession was on its way down the main rocky road of the town to the ghost-town cemetery, a five-minute walk from the Starlight Bar.
About 200 folks followed the raft. Once at the gates of the cemetery, his closest friends lifted the raft. I joined in but was feeling more like a representative from the life Gonzo came from than a member of this community. One of the raft carriers was a woman by the name of Kelly who was holding a brilliant display of red roses. In response to my inquiry, she told me with a passion in her voice that she loved Gonzo as so many of us did. I could feel her love and loss.
After John's reading of a few e-mails from friends of Gonzo that recalled events in his life, a few lines of remembrance by others, a reading of Be Here Now from Dama Ras and the singing of a sweet ballad by James Taylor, the assembled group took turns placing handfuls of the rocky clay earth over the created remains, which were placed in a small hole had been dug the pervious day by one of his friends named Taz.
People then moved off to the Boathouse Bar for a potluck dinner with music, Keg beer, fireworks and a personal highlight of a “ring of fire”. A Ring of Fire is a riverboat tradition to entertain your customers at night. It consists of stuffing steel wool in the fat end of a kitchen whisk, attaching a long string to the handle end, soaking the whole thing in lighter fluid, lighting it up and then spinning it to make the ring of fire. In this case there were a dozen or so people doing this at once on the exterior dance floor so that it appeared to be a field of fire all at once. It was a commemoration to Gonzo. A long evening of eating and drinking ensued but ended for us by 10 p.m. since we needed to leave by 5 the next morning so I could be back in the Twin Cities by Tuesday morning.
Gonzo choose a path in life that was completely different than anything I could have remotely imagined. It did seem like that life his father led in Seward, which included a man with a friendly manner, given to good times, lots of puns and jokes and a goal of living life to the fullest.