William Nealy was an artist and a husband, a sportsman and an illustrator who expanded the way his fans thought about the outdoors. He mapped the Haw River, fought to preserve Duke Forest and built a retreat for his wife, Holly Wallace, and himself deep in the woods of Orange County. Everything appeared to be going William’s way. That’s why it shocked so many when last summer, at the age of 48, he took his own life.
He is a vision in neoprene: a Farmer John wetsuit unzipped to his waist and a joint burning in his right hand. A gun hangs in a holster inside his Chevy van, where Mr. December lounges after a long day on the river. There’s a tray for his booze and dope and a North Face sleeping bag for later when he passes out.
William Nealy created Mr. December as a self-parody alter ego–a man who owes his success at kayaking, mountain biking and inline skating to a lack of common sense and the miracle of duct tape. Over William’s 30-year career, he produced 10 books. Some, like Whitewater Tales of Terror (where Mr. December appears on page 5) are collections of cartoons about outdoor sports. Others, like Kayak and Mountain Bike!, offer illustrated instructions to novices who’ve just purchased their first boat or bike.
In print, William cast himself as a wild-haired, rebel cartoonist, someone who’s cocky and cool but also not afraid to laugh at himself. In person, he avoided attention, choosing the sidelines over the spotlight. He was shy and self-conscious, especially when it came to his work. But through his cartoon persona, William found the courage to boldly satirize everything from salad croutons to the ego-driven world of adrenaline sports.
Along the way, his self-deprecating humor opened up these sports to people who figured if William could do it, then so could they. His books allow beginners to laugh themselves through the learning process.
For William, that process began in the backwoods of Alabama where he roamed as a Boy Scout and worked as a river guide. After college, he and Holly Wallace would become “political refugees,” fleeing to Chapel Hill where, as William would later say, “You can live in the middle of the woods, be in the middle of town in 10 minutes and see French movies, and that’s real important to me.”
Today, 10 minutes from town, a swimming pool, a hot tub, a ropes course, a climbing wall, a tree house and a network of hiking trails surrounds the modern home William designed and constructed piece by piece off Borland Road. This is where he worked and lived with Holly and two pigs, Sherman and Harold, on 20 acres at the headwaters of New Hope Creek.
The concrete floors inside are warmed by sunlight that pours in from a giant bank of south-facing windows. A winding stairway leads up to Nealy’s studio, where he kept an assortment of weapons: a shank, brass knuckles and a samurai sword. Chained to his drafting table is a shackle he applied to his ankle whenever the urge to play interfered with his need to produce.
In this studio, William drew maps of Duke Forest and the New River Gorge. It’s where he conceived his cartoon series, Stupid Planet, and studied everything from geology to theology, politics to plumbing.
William read roughly 300 books a year, nearly all of them nonfiction. At a memorial service for him last summer, his sister-in-law remembered how she treated William like the family encyclopedia, frequently calling him with specific questions about obscure facts.
William’s readers treated him the same way. His diagrams of river rapids and illustrated instructions about mountain biking technique broke the world of adrenaline sports down into its component parts. It was a talent that led David Quammen of Outside magazine to mention William in the same breath as Leonardo da Vinci, calling him a “lucid expositor of the hydrodynamics of rivers.”
“I thought there was a wonderful clarity and a robustness to his illustrations. He knew water,” says Quammen. “He felt water.”
“He was translating it,” adds Kate Geis, a documentary filmmaker who spent several weeks with William and Holly throughout 1999 and 2000. “He stripped it down to drawings that show a more intimate relationship with the environment.”
The resulting river guides and darkly hilarious cartoons are what propelled William from unknown river hippie to cult hero. His job was to play outdoors, then report back to his readers.
Until recently, it looked like William was enjoying the ride.
That ride started early, when William was still a kid splashing in the ditch behind his house. “Us kids called it Polio Creek, as in: ‘You better stay out of that ditch or you’ll get polio,’” writes Nealy in a short story recalling his childhood in Birmingham, Ala. “Despite the hazards, I lived in Polio Creek.”
This concrete-walled spillway is where young William searched for turtles and crawdads, and where he tasted the thrill of whitewater for the first time.
It happened in the spring of 1965. Polio Creek was cresting well past flood stage when William put on, paddling a “one-kid plastic rowboat-looking affair from Kmart, that also served as a wading pool, turtle pond or sled, as circumstances dictated.”
On that spring afternoon in ’65, the circumstances were life threatening.
“Polio Creek shot past the breach with a low sucking moan, and as I cleared the wall I was snatched downstream. This was like some demented new ride at the state fair–a Mad Mouse with no breaks and no end, an insane machine. I was falling down a shaft with walls of concrete, water and air.”
And so began William’s fascination with adrenaline sports. He was 11 years old.
Holly was 10 at the time, one of three pretty sisters who lived two doors down from William in the Homewood section of Birmingham.
Holly remembers how William “tore up all my dolls and stole my bike.” Later, as teenagers, William’s torment turned to courtship. On their first date, he took Holly snake catching. It was true love.
Holly was in the same art class as William, the same Unitarian Church youth group and the same tiny circle of Southern-fried flower children.
“It was the late ’60s and early ’70s, Holly and I comprised about 1/10 of Birmingham’s tiny peacenik hippie population,” writes William in the introduction to The Nealy Way of Knowledge. Most of William’s work reflects his experiences with outdoor sports, but his skill as a cartoonist was honed during long hours spent indoors.
William’s childhood asthma, aggravated by the smog from Birmingham’s steel mills, kept him from playing outside. So he started to draw–silly stuff about Holly or teachers he didn’t like.
“As a teenager,” writes Nealy, “my art invaded every aspect of my life,” intersecting with the civil rights movement, which had turned Birmingham into a war zone. “This social madness was not lost on me and became fodder for political and religious satire.”
Nealy used his pen to skewer the Klan, the war in Vietnam, President Nixon and anything else he found small-minded. Later Nealy would write that, “Growing up in Birmingham in the Sixties was like getting a kid doctorate in race, violence, politics and the environment.”
While still a year away from graduation, William cashed in his kid doctorate and dropped out of high school. He said goodbye to Holly and split to Oxford, England, where he audited classes and began cartooning professionally.
For a cartoon announcing the creation of a new Charlie Manson fan club, a student magazine called Oxtale paid Nealy “six tax-free pounds ($12 a page).” His take-home pay at the time topped-out at $24 a month. “Being a genuine starving artist,” wrote Nealy, “was nowhere near as cool as I had anticipated.”
In the fall of 1972, William returned to the U.S. and enrolled at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, N.M. He was attracted by the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the school’s willingness to excuse him from an entire year of high school.
At St. John’s, William trained with a backcountry search and rescue team when he wasn’t plowing through the school’s specialized curriculum. Classes revolved around the reading and discussion of the great books of the world. William was in his element–devouring the titles on his reading list and spending a lot of time outdoors.
But back in Birmingham, alcohol was claiming his father’s pancreas. When Willis Nealy died in the summer of 1973, William left St. John’s and returned home.
There William reunited with Holly. The couple enrolled at Birmingham Southern College and shared an apartment off campus. They fell deeper in love and enjoyed experimenting with anything that could transport them out of their hometown, even if just for the afternoon.
They took acid and smoked pot. They rock climbed and hiked in the plateau country of Northern Alabama. Then, at the invitation of their friend Tom Schlinkert–who owned a whitewater shop in Birmingham called Liquid Adventure–William went on a river trip.
“It was his first whitewater expedition,” says Schlinkert, recalling the play-by-play of Nealy paddling over a notorious rapid known as Powell Falls. “It was nothing that could kill you … at normal water levels. William paddles up and he knows it’s there and says, ‘I want to get a look at the thing.’ And I say, ‘No, just follow me.’ I go over, and well, he eats it.”
William is tossed overboard. His boat is flushed downstream. And there below Powell Falls, Nealy is baptized in a swirl of whitewater.
The spring rains come as early as February in Northern Alabama. There at the tail end of the Appalachians, the flattop ridges near Blountsville stall the low-moving clouds, wringing them of moisture, which flows from branch to creek to stream, forming the Locust Fork of the Warrior River.
Powell Falls is one of the largest drops on the Locust Fork. In the spring of 1976, William ran the falls several times a week. He and Holly were recent college grads with lots of free time. They’d drive up from Birmingham as often as they could, helping out at Liquid Adventures’ new outpost and paddle shop.
The shop was located in an old farm house by the river. It sat outside of town, but in the center of a building controversy over the Locust Fork’s future. In ’76, the federal government was considering whether or not to designate this stretch of water a wild and scenic river.
The idea of the federal government placing strict environmental protections on the Locust Fork didn’t sit too well with the locals. Neither did the sight of longhaired men running around with, as William would later recall, “a bunch of unmarried women wearing cut-offs and bikini tops.”
So when the campaign to protect the Locust Fork came to a head, Schlinkert says the locals “determined that they didn’t need the river hippies.”
As William told it, he and the other kids from Birmingham were lumped in with “the devil and the government and everything else that was wrong in the mid-’70s.”
Suddenly, there was barbed wire strung across the river like a snare. Cars parked at the put-in were vandalized. Trees started dropping into the water, sap dripping from saw-cuts on the remaining stumps.
More than a dozen years before the term “eco-tourism” was coined, “There was this mindset that river sports were going to change everything,” says Schlinkert. To locals around Blountsville, river sports were the enemy. So they did what locals in Northern Alabama are prone to do–they burned down the Liquid Adventures outpost.
“It was a devastating thing to do, and real popular up there,” William explained, before noting how “the arson investigator for the county instructed the volunteer fire department to cut off their hoses.”
The next morning, William and Schlinkert found Ku Klux Klan posters tacked to the shop’s charred remains. They read: “Save our land, join the Klan.”
William continued to paddle the Locust Fork after the fire, but his enthusiasm for his home state was waning.
“They burned the shop down,” says Holly. “They, the preacher, the police chief’s son, and another guy burned it to the ground.”
Indeed: The preacher, the police chief’s son and another accomplice were all indicted and charged with arson. A Blountsville deputy turned state’s evidence and agreed to testify against all three suspects. A trial was held, and on the first day of testimony, local law enforcement officials testifying for the defendants showed up in their Sunday-best uniforms, shirts pressed, heads crew cut and each wearing yellow shooting glasses.
“William, that night, goes out and finds 15 pairs of yellow shooting glasses and hands them out,” says Schlinkert. “So on the second day of the trial, we’re all sitting there in court with yellow shooting glasses on.”
The practical joke evoked glares from the prosecuting attorney, who clearly had his work cut out for him.
“It was North Alabama versus the hippie kids, is what it came down to,” says Holly. “And North Alabama can be kind of rough.”
When the trial concluded, a Blountsville jury acquitted all three defendants.
Not long after the trial, William and Holly decided to flee Alabama in a gold Chevy van. At the time, Holly was retiring from paddling at age 25. The sudden end came via a diagnosis: rheumatoid arthritis, which was spreading fast throughout her body.
For a time, Holly was bedridden, but William remained by her side–much to the surprise of some in Holly’s well-to-do family.
“They thought, my father thought, he was no good. [He thought] he’s with me for the sex and the money. And then I got arthritis and he took care of me,” says Holly.
Thanks to William’s care and a steady regimen of prescription drugs, Holly became well enough to travel. She wanted to attend graduate school in political science, so she and William drove west on a college town tour. They liked what they saw in Berkeley and Eugene, but were homesick for the South.
So, in search of a safe harbor, the exiled river hippies settled in Chapel Hill.
Today it sits vacant, but in 1978, the long, narrow building at the corner of Lloyd and Main Streets in Carrboro was the River Runner’s Paddle Shop. Across the street, instead of the Cat’s Cradle, there was a Family Dollar. The busiest place around was Western Auto, not Weaver Street Market or Townsend Bertram & Co. Carrboro looked like just another small, Southern town, but compared to Blountsville, Ala., it felt like Greenwich Village when William went to work renting canoes.
Every day, customers would come into the shop asking about the Haw River. William grew tired of sketching directions, so he eventually drew up his official Haw River map and made copies for sale.
“It’s where I got started. We still sell some of those maps,” William told a documentary crew in 1999, before adding shyly, “It’s historic.”
After mapping the Haw, William turned next to the Nantahala, an emerald ribbon of splashy whitewater that cuts through a steep canyon an hour southeast of Asheville. The Nantahala is now one of the most popular runs in the country, but in 1979, when William showed up trying to sell a few maps, it was a remote outpost where the business of whitewater boating was just getting off the ground.
John Barber remembers the day William came walking into the Nantahala paddle shop in Wesser, N.C., hocking his wares.
“His hair was pretty long and he had on dark glasses,” says Barber, who spent 25 years working on the Nantahala. “He kind of had that artsy bohemian look.”
William introduced himself to Barber and showed him his map. Barber liked what he saw. He told William he’d take a thousand.
“I could tell from his reaction that he was quite flabbergasted,” says Barber.
Soon thereafter William created his self-publishing company, Class Seven River Maps, and got busy exploring all the major rivers of the Southeast.
His best buddy at the time was Henry Unger, a geology grad student at UNC.
“We’d drink beer at night and go like hell during the day,” says Unger, who thanks to William, became one of the first mountain bikers in Chapel Hill. Like William, Unger built his own mountain bike before you could buy them at local shops. Unger’s was “a woman’s Schwinn missing the nut rack.”
Up on the UNC campus, Unger and William would ride down steps and play mountain bike polo using croquet clubs and balls in The Pit. When that got old, they rode into the woods of Duke Forest.
“Nobody was riding there back then,” says Unger.
After a day on the trails, the two would retire back to “the ranch” off Borland Road, where they’d “grill flesh” (cook chicken) and down 30 packs of Stroh’s.
“We were both drinking pretty heavily back then,” says Unger.
Holly remembers how for William, the party went “from fun and recreational drinking that everybody did to constant, all the time, having a beer as soon as you wake up everyday, all the time. And he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to draw if he quit drinking. He was afraid he would be totally incompetent if he couldn’t drink anymore.”
With a beer in one hand and a pen in the other, William continued to map rivers as a way to avoid going to law school or getting some other, real job. In 1979, he met up with Tom Schlinkert in Asheville at one of the first Eastern Professional River Outfitters conventions. After the arson in Blountsville, Schlinkert expanded his whitewater business to Japan where he manufactured rubber rafts for sale in the United States. William, meanwhile, was looking for a way to mass market his river maps.
On the first afternoon of the convention, Schlinkert and William talked shop over beers, then walked back to the Asheville Hilton where they planned to rock climb the hotel’s stone fireplace.
But seated in front of the towering stone hearth sat Bob Sehlinger, an acquisitions editor for a book publisher in Michigan.
“He had on a black turtleneck and was playing guitar, singing to two women,” says Schlinkert, chuckling at the memory of Sehlinger singing, “Has anyone seen my old friend Martin” and William rolling his eyes.
A couple of years later, Sehlinger approached Holly and William with a pitch for starting a new publishing company that specialized in outdoor sports. William had recently self-published his Whitewater Home Companion–an illustrated guide to rivers around the Southeast–so he and Holly were in the market for a publisher. They listened to Bob, then passed his ideas onto Holly’s father, who agreed to invest. Within in a year, Menasha Ridge Press was born.
At the time, says Outside‘s Quammen, there was “not very much interesting writing about the whitewater world. It was unplowed territory.”
William got to work on Whitewater Home Companion Vol. II, while Holly and Bob ran the business, acquiring other books and making a name for the company. (Today it’s one of the most respected outdoor publishing houses in the nation.)
William’s first big hit came with the publication of Kayak, which sold well around the country and was translated into seven languages.
In Kayak, and later in Mountain Bike!, William gave his readers knowledge they could only get through years of trial and error.
“That was the essence of his genius,” says Sehlinger. “He was able to take skills and pieces of knowledge that you could only get by going over your handle bars and crashing and burning.”
Over the next several years, William would continue doing plenty of both.
William’s worst wreck happened in Duke Forest where he was riding one afternoon following a thunderstorm. He broke his collarbone and injured four vertebrae. William would have back trouble for the rest of his life, but not long after the wreck, he remounted his bike and returned to his beloved Duke Forest. He was obsessed with the place.
It was the mid-to-late 1980s, or as William referred to it: “The yuppie phase.” At the Trail Shop in Chapel Hill, T-shirts declared: “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” And out in Duke Forest, a new class of mountain biker was crowding the trails.
In his cartoons, William took aim at these gear-obsessed newcomers. He called them “fun hogs” and defined them as anyone who tries to turn their lives into an endless succession of kayak trips, ski vacations and mountain bike rides.
Saturday afternoons in Duke Forest were becoming fun hog conventions. Given the Triangle’s ever-expanding network of Interstate 40 off-ramps and cul-de-sacs, there were increasingly fewer places that offered an escape. Durham County’s Little River had already succumbed to development and Jordan Lake had swallowed up a beautiful stretch of the Haw River.
The Duke preserve offered a little slice of the N.C. mountains just minutes away from Franklin Street, and it was all the fun hogs had left.
So when word came that Duke University was considering “other uses” for its treasured reserve of undeveloped land, William signed up to be a part of the planning process. He wanted to protect the preserve from development.
Shy as ever, William worked mostly behind the scenes, joining a “community use” steering committee and co-founding the short-lived conservation group, Save Duke Forest.
“He was quite energetic,” recalls Duke Forest Resource Manager Judson Edeburn, who watched as William gave voice to a variety of arguments against developing the forest.
In the end, says Edeburn, “The community’s view of the forest was seriously considered when the final report was written. It could have been substantially different, had there not been a William Nealy.”
“He saved Duke Forest from development, by himself,” says Holly, her voice cracking with emphasis. “Doing that is a great thing for anyone. For someone like him, it was a huge act of courage.”
Edeburn credits William with mobilizing the hikers and the fun hogs, and with instilling the Triangle with a respect for open space. “Things we’re starting now (the Triangle Greenprint, the continued protection of Duke Forest) hinged on things he was involved in. He certainly had a vision for this area.”
It was a vision that saw deep into Duke Forest’s geologic history, back “when people were crawdaddies and shit,” as he explained to The Independent‘s Bob Burtman in 1992.
“I guess I’m one of these alienated modern people,” he told Burtman. “I don’t like it. All this plastic horseshit isn’t gonna last.”
But thanks in part to William, Duke Forest is still here. His friends and family only wish William were too.
“He was one of those characters, like the Fonze, you know like, what did he do? Where did he work?” asks William’s brother-in-law Daniel Wallace, a Chapel Hill writer and author of the novel, Big Fish. “I always had this image of him of always being really cool but never having to try. He was, in essence, he was cool. He was my inspiration, the fact that he could write and draw and publish books.”
By the 1990s, William’s titles were in bookstores in the United States and abroad. Readers from Saxapahaw to Tokyo were laughing at his illustrations, but William never thought of himself as famous.
Once, in Salt Lake City, readers lined up around the clock waiting for a chance to have their dog-eared copies of Kayak signed by Mr. December.
“And he was stunned at this reception,” says Holly. “But the minute we left Salt Lake City, he was not aware, he lost the knowledge of how many people liked him.”
Daniel wonders if William fought the notion of fame because he was worried about how it would affect his work.
“I think the problem of being an artist in some ways is once you start believing in your own excellence, that’s when you start to lose it,” says Daniel. “That gives you very little opportunity to feel good about yourself. There’s this fear of feeling good about yourself and he never did.”
For much of his life, William used alcohol to bolster his spirits–and his confidence. But around 1990, his drinking got so bad that Holly threatened to leave him if he didn’t sober up. So he did–mostly.
William also began treating his chronic depression, a problem he kept secret from most of his friends. He went on medication and started seeing a therapist regularly.
In his studio, he kept himself busy, doing maps of ski resorts and creating the Stupid Planet series for the bygone Triangle Comic Review. The new strip’s humor fell somewhere between The Far Side and Doonesbury, taking on everything from aggressive house plants to the Reagan years. In one titled “Pop psychology sells out,” a pitch man for Motel 8 tells readers that “Inner kids sleep free.”
With Stupid Planet and other cartoons, William broke away from his in-jokes for the outdoor crowd, and found a new way to spread his dark, politically incorrect humor around. He managed to find laughs in “mom torture,” nuclear weapons and something he refers to jokingly as “another solar energy-related death.”
The humor was edgy, but not nearly as grim as the events unfolding in William’s life.
In 1995, Edgar Hitchcock, William’s best friend of more than 30 years, was reported missing. The Birmingham police had few clues about his disappearance, so William and Holly returned to their hometown in search of their old friend.
Their buddy Edgar was an honest to god hunchback, and a hell of a guy, according to news reports following his disappearance. He was well-known in Birmingham’s hippest neighborhood, Five Points, mostly because, as one friend told a reporter, “He was one of those special people that God put on Earth.” But also because he used and dealt drugs.
When Holly and William arrived back in Birmingham it became abundantly clear that the local police weren’t going to break their backs looking for a missing drug dealer.
“So we organized,” says Holly. “And at the first meeting, William became suspicious of this guy.”
His name was Harvey Parr, and he said he was a friend of Edgar’s. William zeroed in on Harvey, pretending to befriend him over the next several months. Holly says William “went undercover,” spending as much time as he could with Harvey, waiting for him to say something that might lead him to Edgar.
“We both lived in Birmingham for six months,” remembers Holly. “I rented a computer down there and every day I would type up notes. He’d come home and tell me everything that happened and I would type it up. And we ended up giving the police, you know, hundreds of pages.”
Finally, six months after Edgar went missing, a construction worker renovating an old apartment building rounded a corner and came upon a human foot. Shortly after the discovery, Harvey was on the scene, where authorities discovered the rest of Edgar’s body rolled up inside a carpet.
“Harvey had gone in and taken the foot off the six-month-old corpse and put it on the sidewalk so that we could find him, so that he could be a part of how Edgar was found,” says Holly. “That’s how sociopathic this guy was.”
Shortly after Edgar’s funeral, police arrested Harvey and charged him with murder. They believed Harvey killed Edgar, then stole a large stash of marijuana that Edgar was preparing to sell.
The case against Harvey was damning, but it continued to bounce from one prosecutor to another.
“And the fourth prosecutor dropped the case,” says Holly, “because nobody cares about a drug dealer. And, you know, we might not win this case, and we have a 95 percent conviction rate in all the cases … and they dropped the charges.”
With Harvey back on the street, William and Holly fled Alabama once again, returning to Chapel Hill, to their safe home in the woods.
“Boy, when [Harvey] was first released, it would not have been a good time for a surprise visit here,” says Holly. “William had it set up like a Vietnam battlefield. He had booby traps everywhere, everywhere.”
When William’s brother-in-law Daniel stops to think about Edgar’s murder and William’s search for the killer, he says, “I think that lingered with him. I think that was part of his life from that point on. William wanted justice. He wanted revenge. He wanted to kill the person who did this and there were a couple of times he almost did. Almost, I mean, almost meaning he considered it. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that really activated something. Of course, everything changes when somebody kills themselves–everything they’ve ever said, you know, everything they’ve done–you look at it differently.”
Daniel pauses before finishing his thought, then adds, “I never saw it coming, but then, you start to look back.”
In the summer of 2001, William sat down with his journal and cataloged the contents of his medicine cabinet: Pepcid, Aleve, Benadryl, children’s Afrin, Viagra, Zocor, aspirin. Next he listed his “complaints”: chronic bronchitis, backache, thumb/wrist pain, chronic depression.
Then, five pages later, Holly says William made a list of hurricanes, ending with notes about the damage Hurricane Fran did in Clarksville, Va.
Clarksville is where William and Holly kept their houseboat at a marina on Kerr Lake. It’s also where Holly rushed on the night of July 18. Her brother Daniel had called, telling her about a strange message William left on his answering machine around 5 p.m.
By 8:30 that evening, Holly was at the houseboat. Four Budweiser tallboys sat empty in the kitchen sink, but William was nowhere to be found.
Holly figured he’d slipped off the wagon, so she drove to Clarksville’s only two bars. Maybe he was getting loaded telling stories. Maybe he’d let Mr. December out for the night, and if so, then Holly swore to herself she wouldn’t be mad. He’d be amazed at how cool she was.
But William wasn’t at the bars, so Holly paced around the marina until 3 in the morning when she returned to the houseboat and drifted off into a nervous sleep.
At sunrise, Holly walked back outside. In the slanting morning light she could see into William’s van. On the dash, there was a note. It read, “I’m in the woods behind the repair shop. Contact my brother-in-law, Daniel Wallace.”
“And I know what that means. But I don’t believe he’s done it yet. I don’t know what is so wrong. Why is he so upset? What is he so upset about?” Holly’s eyes open wide when she recalls that day. She’s walking herself step by step back to those woods.
“It’s an ugly woods. You know, a repair shop, it’s got Styrofoam and it’s a nasty, scrubby woods. And then there’s this beautiful little spot. It’s a nasty woods except for this little bitty glade and it’s free of bushes. And just as I see it, the sunlight breaks through the treetops and a beam shines, like a movie. The lights come on and there are his feet. And there’s nothing frantic about this scene. It’s very William.”
Holly backed away, leaving her husband’s body and the gun alone in the grass.
Later Holly found the letters–one to her and one to William’s mother–and the journal. In them, William complains of constant back pain. He tells Holly he’s hooked on her arthritis painkillers, that he’s mad with addiction and convinced that if he doesn’t end it all now, he’ll have to start robbing drug stores.
None of it makes any sense. But the senselessness of it all makes sense somehow. The drugs, the addiction, the hurricanes. Only William understood what it all meant and where it all ended. He’d done it himself because he’d done everything himself. When he wanted to learn guitar, he illustrated his own manual and taught himself to play. He’d taught himself how to identify arrowheads. And he built the house where he cared for Holly, always carrying her purse to the car, always making sure the pigs had plenty of Cheerios to eat.
That’s where Holly saw William last, standing out by the pig house, feeding Sherman and Harold handfuls of cereal. This is the William she knew, the man she loved while still a teenager, the gentle partner whose photos she’s packed into a “book of love.”
There’s William in high school, hair past his shoulders. There’s the whole gang up on the Locust Fork in the late afternoon of youth, joyously tired from a day on the river. And there’s William kissing Holly, standing next to Mr. December’s van, leaving his sweetheart for the day and missing her every moment.
William was a softie, a pushover. Holly knew, all their friends knew–they all remember the real William.
“There wasn’t anything dark about William,” says Tom Schlinkert, his eyes sharp with disbelief nearly a year since that day.
William wasn’t Mr. December, he wasn’t a rebel. The guns, the knives, the threats about knocking over drug stores in a narcotic rage, it was all a set up for the sake of irony, like his cartoon depicting “Another crouton-related death.” William was as harmless as a crouton–except to himself.
“The rebel image, it was so distant to what he was really like as a human being–and he delighted in it,” says Bob Sehlinger. “He loved portraying the image of a rebel, yet being a marshmallow.”
Since his death nine months ago, a trail along the Haw River, several whitewater festivals and the recently released documentary Riversense have all been dedicated to William. It seems that wherever mountain bikers or boaters gather, someone is bound to bring him up.
They tell the one about when William’s van caught on fire up at the Nantahala. Or they recall the time he and Holly stripped buck naked at a hot tub party only to have their clothes stolen and buried by the host’s golden retriever. There they were, William and Holly at their first hot tub party, suddenly realizing that they were the only naked people in a tub full of strangers. Then that dog goes and buries their clothes.
Oh, the times the two of them had.