Remembering Randy Udall

Jul 11, 2013

Randy Udall in 2005.
Credit Dan Bihn, High Country News

Carbondale resident and environmental steward Randy Udall's body was discovered last week in Wyoming's Wind River Range. Local resident Ed Marston knew Udall over three decades and offers this tribute. 

I am sure it was hard being a Udall – here a Secretary of Interior; there a well-known Congressman; over yonder a couple of United States Senators. The headlines were about the brother of a US senator gone missing in one of the wildest places in the Lower 48. But in the North Fork Valley, and with all respect to Mo, Stewart, Mark and Tom, there was only one Udall: Randy. He was “our” Udall – he fit here – even though he had chosen to live in Carbondale.

Randy fit because he wore no institution’s collar. He was not vice president of this or professor of that. He was not a partner in a law firm. Like this valley, he had not become institutionalized. 

Perhaps because he was free of university or industrial or non-profit constraints, Randy became a leading energy expert. But energy was not an end point for Randy. It was his entry point into the mystery of humanity. And so I think of Randy as a public intellectual rather than a specialist. He saw connections where others saw compartments.

BTU's, rice paddies, kilowatt-hours, grazing cattle, climate, technology, the 60 slaves that rowed Cleopatra’s barge,  drill bits that could be guided for miles deep underground and then literally hit a bulls eye – these were raw material for Randy’s thoughts about where we had come from and where we might be going.

These things were the information he used to talk to us about our human potential, about our sufferings, about our aspirations and fears, about our foolishness. His talks gently led us to wonder about whether we, and our children, and our grandchildren had futures. And what kind of futures they might be.

Randy could be blunt. He could be tough on those who disagreed with him. But at his best, and especially here, at home, inPaonia or Hotchkiss, Randy was soft and human. Speaking to environmentalists here, or to our small rural electric utility, or to coal miners, he emphasized that life was not about a clash of enemies but about a common problem to be solved. Life, Randy told us, was not about good guys and bad guys, but about a human dilemma we shared.

I did not know Randy well. I saw him at public events, mainly. But I went on one raft trip with him and his remarkable family – down the lower half of the Colorado River. I was recovering from cancer in 2004, and Randy knew that after surgery and chemo and radiation, I needed a curative week in the wild. It was an act of enormous generosity.

I remember that after each exhausting day on the river, while the rest of us sought shade, Randy would climb out of the inner canyon and up to the rim, returning as darkness fell. He had the full Udall genetic package: a long-limbed physique, tremendous strength, great intelligence, daring, and that Udall sense of public service.

I last saw Randy three weeks ago. He stayed with Betsy and myself the night before he spoke at the June 14 DMEA annual meeting. For some of the evening, he lay on the floor. His back bothered him. His hips – I think he said – were also shot from a lifetime of backcountry hiking and climbing and river running.

I did not know he was about to head into the Wind River Range on a solo hike. But had I known, I would not have argued with him. I knew that he needed wild country and isolation the way we need food and water.

It is a mark of Randy’s humanity that he could worship wilderness and yet care deeply about the rest of us – people who had allowed ourselves to become slaves to the seeming comfort delivered by a massive and unending flow of fossil fuels.

I cried while telling someone about Randy’s death. This was almost a one-of-a-kind event in my 73 years. I was not crying for Randy. Why would I cry for Randy? In my mind, he is forever happily climbing toward the rim of the Grand Canyon.

I cried for myself. I cried because I will never hear Randy’s voice and see his smile again. The most accessible soul I have known is gone. 

- Ed Marston, June 2013