The Words of Wilford Henry Luethje

Somewhere on a straight desert highway, I lost myself in the empty space between an old man’s words. The words of Wilford Henry Luethje.

I always end up drifting in a stream of consciousness after I spend time with Will Luethje. He’s the kind of man who leaves room for your imagination.

Breathing room.

Will lets the space between words linger—the kind of long pause that compels an ordinary person to say anything to interrupt the silence. But when you’re in the company of a man like Will you feel the courage to stay in the moment; he inspires you to stay present. Will is a man who’s comfortable in his own skin. He’s at ease with the mysteries of life.

Will Luethje lives in Bisbee, Arizona—at the top of High Road—so named because this steep and twisty lane is literally the highest road in town. From his sun-bleached front porch he can see into the wilds of Mexico, and he can see the top of nearly every metal roof that fills the colorful hamlet below him. The irony of his rarified position on the mountain is that Will is a truly humble man. He lives at the top of the road because of his surroundings: his neighbors, the view, the morning sun and the wilderness directly behind his house. Almost forty years ago, Will paid $4,800 dollars for his place, and today he wouldn’t sell it for a half million. Will Luethje is a gentle man who belongs to the landscape that surrounds him.

Like a lot of other dwellings in this old mining town, Will’s home is a proudly renovated miner’s cabin. On a steep, terraced hillside, strewn with cactus and mesquite trees, his eccentric house rests on a bedrock platform that was blown from the mountain with dynamite. Over the years, Will’s place has become a veritable gallery that displays many decades of nostalgia and history. Among his eclectic collection you’ll find once abandoned relics from the late copper mining boom. Maps that mark where some of his greatest experiences were born. Antique toy cars. Wooden sculptures. Miniature depictions of pop-culture gone bad. And next to some classic Japanese literature, you’ll find an old compass, and near that is a perfectly preserved telegraph machine. It goes on.

After a tour of his house I stood there, transfixed by my own curiosity.

The collective interpretation of the world according to Will Luethje. Art imitates life, I thought.  

Will is surrounded with the vestiges of important stories, the landmarks of a long life led with purpose. And yet, despite his prolific collection of things, there is nothing superfluous about him. Will actually has a very limited attachment to his “stuff”. And this makes sense, because as interesting as Will’s home is, his stories far eclipse his possessions.

Born in the late 1930’s, Will’s story could have been torn from the pages of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. His family was exiled from their home by the catastrophic destruction of farmland. They became migrant farm workers the famed novelist referred to as “harvest gypsies.” Understandably, Will is a man who takes nothing for granted.

Despite being a child of the Great Depression, somewhere deep in Will’s genes must have been the roots of wanderlust and adventure. By age 20 he was in Antarctica, an enlisted sailor in the U.S. Navy assigned to Operation Deep Freeze. He was part of a small team tasked with mapping the icy continent and supporting scientific research. From 1958 to 1961 he spent the austral summers working as an aerial photographer and assisting with general logistical operations. When Will was “down south” he carried his camera everywhere, taking pictures for work and for himself.

Will recently took me back to his three-year adventure on the ice. With a selection of his black and white photographs spread out on his kitchen table, he threaded the details of epic experiences that seemed to define daily life on the enigmatic continent: of heavy equipment forever lost in hidden crevasses (while operators clung to their machines, waiting for rescue from above); of intense white-outs that left men completely disoriented and lost; of mechanical problems on aircraft he frequently flew on during his mapping forays.

In one instance, Will and his small crew were stranded 50 miles from McMurdo base. Then their rescuers had a helicopter malfunction en-route, stranding them miles away as well. This left two different crews in a precarious state. Eventually, with the help of yet another helicopter, everyone made it back safely at the end of a long day. Up against the hazardous conditions they faced, everyone knew it could have ended another way. It was a life or death moment in time, all taking place on Christmas Eve when across the world most people were tucked safely away in their homes, content and unaware of the dangers Will and his crew faced. They all had a “helluva party” that night, and it makes sense why.

There were other stories as well; tales of the first Antarctic test flight of a C-130, and unprecedented maneuvers and test landings ripe with danger. I am sure there were some mundane moments during his time there, but Will’s recollection painted life on a scale that was anything but ordinary.

In an angle vastly different from the high-tech Antarctica we see on today’s Discovery Channel, Will’s vintage black and white photographs created for me a visual narrative that contrasted human life against an older and more daunting version of the icy and remote frontier. Each image was simple, yet profoundly beautiful. But it was one poignant monochrome that told the collective story. It depicted a dark and stormy scene against a wind-blown dirt road lined with snowdrifts and small portable shelters. In the center of this austere landscape was a lone man, walking in full arctic gear, with his face mysteriously hidden inside his large fur-lined hood. Captivated by this evocative portrait, I felt an unsettling air of man balanced on the edge of uncertainty. Then it dawned on me—the thought of Will standing in front of this real life stage—the young photographer, warming his cold camera against his body, steadying himself against the wind, patiently waiting for the right moment. After viewing so many of his photographs, I began to see a reflection of Will’s understated yet deeply intricate personality; the same way a good novel leads your imagination to the margins of the page.

Curious about the effects of such a bleak landscape on the human psyche, I asked Will how he had coped, living in such a faraway place. At this point a shift occurred in his demeanor, and he became deeply contemplative. After a long breath, he exhaled cathartically as if there was some weight in his answer.

He looked across the room like it was an empty expanse and then replied, “It was absolute isolation, I imagine like being on the moon. Total silence… an eerie silence… except when the wind was blowing.” And after another long pause, “It does subliminal things to you, being in an environment you can’t control, you can’t leave. There’s no easy way out. You just have to be, be there… and be totally present.”

At 75-years old, Will is still quintessentially present.

Will has been a student of the human experience for his entire life. He has lived in Oaxaca, Mexico and was once nearly carjacked by two thugs while his young son was asleep in the back seat. He’s worked as a carpenter. He was an accomplished radio announcer for twenty years during the time when FM took over the airwaves. And in 1963, he even pulled the fateful teletype which broke the news of John F Kennedy’s death. Seconds later he made the announcement to listeners in Washington DC—an experience he remembers vividly.

He once hitchhiked a thousand miles to attend (and shortly thereafter reject) an ashram. “Never trust gurus,” Will told me. In 2012 he visited rural Australia and ended up staying for a year because he didn’t want to travel like a tourist. He has sailed across the stormy Southern Ocean. He got tangled up with the Chinese mafia. He’s been thrown in jail. He’s been shot. And he even roasts his own coffee beans.

Wilford Henry Luethje may be the last true Renaissance Man.

It was five years ago, during my travels in the Southwest desert, when I first visited Bisbee. While exploring the historic town I just happened to walk by a curious abode at the top of High Road. And from the first time I saw it, I knew I had to meet the person who lived there.

On a more recent visit, I repeated the very same walkabout around town and was surprised to discover Will outside, working on his house. We were two complete strangers one minute, and instant friends the next.

Sometime later I went back to visit Will, and after about eight hours, our conversation finally ended around sunset. As I began driving back across the desert towards Tucson, I couldn’t stop thinking about one of the last things Will told me before I left. I was so moved by the experiences, the wisdom, and the perspective of this man’s life, I finally asked him, “How many people have heard most of these stories that you shared with me today?” I felt the gravity of Will’s words when he replied, “Just you.”

Despite that Will has led such a unique life he’s genuinely more interested in listening to other people, hearing other people’s stories, and learning.

As I continued across the desert I kept wondering about the questions I didn’t have time to ask Will. My car was traveling west but my mind was back in Bisbee.

Would I ever see him again? How could I possibly do justice to his story?  

I felt restless.

And then, suddenly, I found myself hanging on Will’s words from earlier in the day, when I tried to tap some of his wisdom.

I asked him, “What’s one of the major truths of your life?”

Grinning, Will answered, “Be present in everything you do.”

Somewhere among the ancient mountains, as I passed by the Dragoons, the Whetsones, and Huachucas—The Madrean Sky Islands—I lost myself in the endless topography around me.

And time slowed down.

As the sun disappeared into Mexico I passed by a long abandoned 59 Chevy. A handsome relic, resting among rounded rocks and a garden of blooming ocotillo. Perfectly distinguished with a few bullet holes, decades of rust, and faded blue paint—it had the right amount of character that distinguished it from something that was simply left behind. It looked like an American West exhibit in a New York Museum.

Looking back, in the rear view mirror, it occurred to me that sometimes life imitates art. And, I thought, there’s a story back there among the rocks, I’m sure.

So I turned the car around.

Standing there with my camera in hand, I realized that I was as much a part of the exhibit as the old car that captivated me. So I put my camera away and enjoyed the moment, grinning the whole time.

Somewhere in the Sonoran desert I lost myself in the empty space between an old man’s words. Between the words of Wilford Henry Luethje.