When Rhys notified us of his illness last summer we were busy leaving Williamsburg for Albuquerque, New Mexico. As I explained to Rhys, we’d learned to appreciate Virginia’s water and trees in no small part thanks to him, but somehow our souls still ached for mountains and dry air. I told him we now had massive pink granite escarpments in front of our house, and although I wasn’t yet in shape to climb big walls, I was working hard on it, thinking of him each day as I hiked and scrambled over the boulders toward the crest. I imagined the afternoon sun hit these huge cliffs as it did those above the Cape in Rhys’s youth.
In September I left for Peru and Bolivia to spend part of my leave in the archives of Lima and Potosí, home of the Cerro Rico, but I also had snowy mountains on the brain. As soon as I landed in Lima I took a night bus to Huaraz, hit the ground hiking next morning, and in subsequent days plotted a way to get up one of the big snow peaks that poked up to the east. At last I met a couple of fellow gringos looking for adventure, and we paid a local guide named Willy to lead us into the Cordillera Blanca.
The hike through an enchanted Polylepis forest was exciting, but it was as we approached a massive hanging glacier at the head of the Ishinca Valley that I thought, “Good God, Rhys, you would just love this!” That night about midnight, after about a gallon each of soup and coca tea, we zipped our tents and took off up the hill toward mt. Ishinca, not the citadel I had hoped for, but at 5,560 meters, not a bad hoof after less than a week at altitude. At dawn we reached the (fast-receding) toe of the Ishinca glacier, where we stopped to snack and put on crampons and tie in. Since my new friends had never climbed, I helped one gear up and Willy helped the other. I would take up the rear on the way up, and be first down.
Suddenly I looked up and saw the sun hit a massive snow peak called Tocllaraju, a mountain so fantastically steep and corniced it must have inspired Dr. Seuss. A kind of rush swept over me, making my scalp tingle. “This is it, Rhys,” I said to myself. As we trudged slowly up the glacier, expending as little energy as possible except to hop over crevasses, the sun at last hit us head-on. It wasn’t yet blinding, but rather warm and reassuring after the long dark night stumbling through the frost-shattered scree.
With each step the view became more breathtaking, with jagged peaks over 6,000 meters on all sides, tiny blue-green glacial lakes below us surrounded by mouse-brown till. The moraines looked as fresh as mine tailings. most amazing were the hanging glaciers, but there were also the blue chasms, the 500-meter granite cliff faces wherever the snow refused to cling. It was simply unbelievable that such a place existed, and so close to the equator. At last we reached Ishinca’s modest summit cone, the very top blocked by a crevasse. Willy sorted his gear and climbed up over it with his ice tools, with no more effort than if he were a handyman climbing onto the roof of a house.
We stood dazed, taking in the scenery as Willy chopped out an ice-block belay station at the very top, bits of ice and snow rolling down past us and off into thin air. I helped my friends tie back in, and Willy all but pulled them up over the chasm. When it was my turn, I asked for slack (“una poca de gracia, por favor”) wanting to savor the chance to climb a little ice at altitude, surrounded by the big blue sky. Coming over the top was like discovering another world. In front of us was yet more fantastically sculpted ice and snow, more unseen peaks, more glacial valleys. The great twin mountain Huascarán (norte y Sur) bulked huge behind an also-great peak called Copa to the north. There was not a cloud to be seen, only jagged “nevados” and endless horizons. We stood dumbstruck in brilliant sun amid snowy stalagmites called penitentes, and again I said to myself, “This is it, Rhys; the real thing, man!”
I sent Rhys pictures as soon as I got back to the States. I thought they might help him meditate, help transport him into an Andean version of yogic mountain serenity. Next I heard he was gone. I think of him every day when I hike and climb here in New Mexico, trying to imagine his favorite hikes there in Australia, his scrambles and climbs with his brother in the Cape. He remains for me the embodiment of youth, optimism, boundless curiosity. Yet as we all know he was never blind to the harsher side of life. In the brief time we knew him we watched him grapple with that old Virginian—or American—beast: slavery, and its handmaiden, racism. It wasn’t that Rhys hadn’t thought long and deeply about or written about these things before dealing with Landon Carter, of course, but he seemed especially determined in his last years at Colonial Williamsburg and the College to investigate this painful legacy in a special way, one aimed not at revealing or exposing some new outrage but at finding a kind of psychological rapprochement, in a word: healing.
My wife Pamela liked to half-joke that even if it were the last job on earth, she’d never be a slave at “CW.” Yet Rhys knew that there had to be slaves—actors playing them as subtly, even subversively, as they could—at CW. Otherwise, the whole thing was a sham. Instead of criticizing the many shortcomings of this strangely “all-too-American” experiment in living history (a huge barrel of fish for anthropologists with guns), Rhys sought a means of facing down its most troubling aspect, as much with the actors’ own personal fulfillment and psychic catharsis in mind as the impossible-to-gauge “learning” of the many thousands of transient visitors.
Somehow, impossibly, it seemed to me, he cut through a thousand layers of posturing, historiographical pontificating, and miscellaneous bullshit to find genuine relationships, fouled as they were by slavery, class hatred, bullheadedness, sexism, and racist fantasies. not only did Rhys write about “uneasy kingdoms,” he reenacted them; he even played the Devil’s role and made that hateful old Landon Carter’s selfdamning words into living, breathing history, compelling, real, “Oh my God, I know that guy” kind of drama. more than this, though, Rhys rescued from obscurity and contempt the many clever, willful, delightfully complicated and conflicted people whom Landon Carter thought were his property and made us imagine not only their plights but their thoughts. Rhys used old Landon’s angry observations to make moses and so many others come alive. Rex Ellis understood.
When it came to discussing these and a thousand other things, Rhys was always ready to dive in, and our best times were arguably had at lunches in the History faculty lounge in Blair Hall. Rhys listened carefully to everyone present or who dropped in just to chat, and despite a lot of laughs, he did not hesitate to demand clarification of a fuzzy idea. With a mind like Rhys’s in the room, you couldn’t afford to turn yours off. Some were intimidated by the bantam-weight fighter with bristly gray beard and sparkling eyes, but they shouldn’t have been.
I remember one time just meeting Rhys by chance on the DOG Street side of the Wren Building with my lunch in hand and we ended up sitting on a bench under a tree to share thoughts, that plus my usual fare of stinking anchovies, cardboard-dry rye crackers, and pit-in olives. If I remember right we talked about a paper I was working on and that Rhys had generously read and written something like ten pages (!) of comments for. It was about the search for gold as an enduring Western trope, and whether or not the evidence I was finding in Colombia—that tropical gold miners were mostly indigenous and African—meant that the trope could have been mimed, appropriated, or subverted, the “sacred hunger” transferred and transformed. nothing so simple as oppression, resistance, and collaboration when talking history with Rhys. God, I miss those conversations. But when things got too serious we talked about rock climbing, mountain hikes, the simple mindless joy of touching earth and stone. We shared a habit of traveling around Williamsburg on secondhand 10-speeds. It seemed funny at the time, small men like us on rusty-chained cast-offs, but Rhys may be happy to know he started a fad: now half the students at William and Mary ride such “recycled,” retro bikes. Rhys was always ahead.
Rhys and Colleen visited our house several times, and we shared good conversation, Pamela’s great food, usually some slides from a South American trip, and once even a bit of silly music. Colleen’s mellow humor made Pamela feel calm, relieved when the tension of life as a “faculty wife” in a strange little town got her down. “I never paid them any attention,” Colleen said of the cliquish crowd she knew from earlier, longterm stays, “I always had my life.” We miss you, too, Colleen, and although we feel so terribly sad, we can’t thank you enough for sharing a bit of your life, and your Rhys, with us.
When friends and family commemorated Rhys’s life and celebrated his enduring spirit at the Green Leafe in Williamsburg on Friday, November 19, and in Australia on Saturday, November 20, I was making a little climb for him up to Sandia Crest, just above 10,000 feet. I’m sure he would have loved the view and would even have considered borrowing somebody’s mountain bike for a wild ride down.
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