Ricky Dean Baker 1958-2018

Rick, Ricky, Ricardo, Ricky Dean, just plain old Baker or, more recently…”El Tejano” the crazy gringo of El Corrido, Mexico. The self-professed “Sucker”from Alton, Illinois who for no apparently good reason, was a diehard fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  He’d appreciate and understand knowing that even in death, I give him no slack on the Squeelers.

el tehano
El Tehano in Mexico

Rick, cliché or not, was the kind of guy that knew few strangers.  If you were within earshot he was bound to start up some kind of conversation, particularly if you were of the female persuasion. The boy had a self-deprecating sense of humor and goofy giggle that was at once endearing and disarming.

He really couldn’t stand a silent pause for long without filling it with some kind of random conversation. He really didn’t even require you to speak as long as you would nod or chuckle in the right places. Although we had the kind of friendship that was replete with inside jokes, long running gags and could make each other laugh while no one else understands, I’m pretty much the complete opposite so perhaps that’s why we got along so well.

While I was in the Army, being sent all over the place and he was busy with X-ray tech school in Ohio, we only saw each other briefly for a few years, but we never missed a beat when we got back together when I got leave.  We would party like the devil himself was chasing us and somehow avoided being thrown in the pokey.

After I got out of the Army I said I found the perfect place to live and was going to leave Ohio for this promised land…out to Washington State where there are mighty, high, snowcapped mountains for climbing, miles of wilderness and rainforest for hiking, the mighty Pacific Ocean and glorious Puget Sound.

I don’t think he even blinked and said I’m coming too. He packed his little Datsun King Cab pickup and I jammed my ’65 Valiant and we caravanned for over a month across the country, hitting every sight along the way.  We arrived in Tacoma on Memorial Day Weekend 1982 and the adventures began anew.

Having spent so much time with him, hiking miles into some rainy, enchanted valley in the Olympics, backpacking on some stormy, isolated ocean beach, or perched precariously high on a windblown mountain, I knew Rick better than my own family.  I won’t dwell on the adversities, but we both knew where the bodies were buried in each other’s lives… we went through plenty of highs, and a few lows, together over the years.  But we surrounded ourselves with our own wonderful “orphan family” out here on the West Coast.

Each of you have your own Ricky stories to tell, no matter how long you knew him, and I hope you keep telling them.  You may have seen me quote the author David Eagleman concerning death over Memorial Day:

“There are three deaths.  The first is when the body ceases to function.  The second is when the body is consigned to the grave.  The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time”

You may grow tired of me re-telling them, but Rick will not die the third death as long as I have the breath and memory left to tell them. Whether it is him trying to ride a horse full of beer bottles that ran away with him faster and faster due to the clanging and breaking of bottles, almost burning down the rainforest in a monsoon in the Olympics, sliding ass-over-tea-kettle hundreds of feet down and over a snowy cliff, blowing his face off with a barbecue, rescuing some broken and hypothermic climbers at the bottom of a crevasse on Mt Baker, holding each other’s lives in our hands from the end of a thin rope, or his ill-conceived practical jokes at work there is a lot of rich material.

I imagined we would be two old farts sitting around exchanging lies, sipping whiskey and smoking a bowl someday, with old El Tejano finally having some new stories to tell…tales that I haven’t been a part of or heard a hundred times in the almost 45 years I have known him, since meeting him so long ago in High School.

I don’t know how many of you have had such a close partner in crime for that long, but I hope yours lasts as well as ours did and longer.  I will so miss his traditional greeting of “shot and a beer?”.  His life was far too short, but I think old Ricky would still sing along with Jimmy B concerning his life and agree that “some of it’s magic, some of it’s tragic, but I had a good life all of the way”.

 

…and so we met

Rick Baker was my partner in crime, whiskey and adventure for almost 45 years. We first met in the mid ‘70s when he moved to West Carrollton from Alton, Illinois. I had lived in West Carrollton since my father retired from the Army, came home from Vietnam and planted his flag there.

One typical evening about 1975, I showed up early for the weekly scout meeting to get chairs, flags and such set up for the meeting. The church basement where the meetings were held was still locked, and I spy Rick standing in the dark all alone, wearing his full uniform to include a red patch vest full of patches with trails and events I had never heard of. He had been dropped off and left to fend for himself.

We stared each other over, each sizing up the other the way teenage boys do. At the time I had risen through the ranks of the troop to be voted by the rest of the boys as Senior Patrol Leader, the one in charge of all the other scouts in the troop…this guy looked about my age and had his Life rank badge already…was this guy a challenger to my leadership role?

Giving him the stink eye, I wondered to myself who this outlandish looking, dorky nerd was. He was all dressed up like he was going to a Court of Honor, one of the few occasions that would get me to wear the full monkey suit like he had on. It wasn’t all that cool to be seen in a Boy Scout uniform in High School in the 70’s…so I figured this guy must be a real piece of work.

Boyscouts City Beautiful Newspaper
Local newspaper article with Rick & I in photo
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Les & Rick in typical levels of scout attire at scout event @ 1975

He was indeed a piece of work…anyone that has known Rick knows he was a real character and never knew a stranger.  So along with Steve Burns, the Scout Master’s son and my buddy since Cub Scouts, it wasn’t long before we were running the troop like Hawkeye, Trapper John and BJ on the TV show MASH.

We once convinced some of the assistant scoutmaster’s that it was a somehow a good idea to give us a pint of Mad Dog 20/20 if we collected enough fire wood for them to burn all night. They bought it, and we were toasty all night and we were soon swinging from the rafters in the little cabin.

Rick, Steve and I were the three amigos throughout High School. Rick’s mom was  divorced soon after the family arrived in Ohio and worked nights, so he had the crash pad where we hung out every day; listening to music, partying and doing all-nighters with the usual teenage shenanigans.

Misha Mokwa Album 1975 1
Some of Troop 331’s finest on the Misha Mokwa Trail,         Cumberland Gap Nat. Park 1975

We had many adventures hiking and camping and then school was done.  I joined the Army. Rick went to community college to become an X-Ray tech. Steve also joined the Army with an instant family to take care of, and so the three amigos went off in separate directions.

I’d come home for leave every once in a while and we’d take up where we left off, going to crazy house parties or just hanging out talking about how boring it was in Ohio. Finally, my four years were up and Rick’s schooling was complete. I had told him many tales of my travels and that I was going to move back to Washington, with its big beautiful snow covered mountains, ocean, rainforests, wild rivers and desert it had everything for high adventure.

Rick didn’t hesitate for a second and said he was in. So we packed our cars with all our worldly possessions and began our month long caravan to the promised land. We had numerous adventures along the way…not the least of which was my ’65 Valiant began overheating as soon as we got on the interstate heading West.

I had pulled the back seat out and filled it with cargo so the poor old thing was being badly overworked and mistreated. We had to pull over at every rest stop to refill the radiator. We finally made it to Rick’s grandmother’s house in Illinois and stayed a few days while I tried everything in the Chilton’s manual to fix the overheating.

I would perform one “possible source of overheating”  after the other and take the Valiant down the Great River Road along the Mississippi River to see if it overheated before I made it to the “Our Lady of the Rivers” shrine and turned around.

Our-Lady-of-the-Rivers-Shrine-Near-Confluence-of-Mississippi.-Missourri-and-Illinois-Rivers

I learned a lot more about Rick after watching his grandmother in her natural element for a few days. She was a real character and forced us to eat constantly, but you had to say grace every time you took a bite. She had a nervous Chihuahua that just about shook himself apart and piddled every time someone came near him.

She still had a trash barrel out back in the field and was a rampant pyromaniac. She would have us get it started and would then make 500 trips to the barrel to keep it going, each trip with just a handful of something combustible. I swear she was bringing out single sheets of toilet paper for a while.

In any case we continued on our path Westward, driving at night as it was cooler until we got far enough West that it was still snowing in Yellowstone. We stopped at anything remotely interesting along the way…the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, various caverns, The Corn Palace, Wall Drug, Devil’s Tower, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, we hit them all living out of our cars eating baked beans and macaroni & cheese.

We barely made it over the Continental Divide, driving in a massive blizzard where we couldn’t even see the road. Smelling the barn, we quickly cruised through Montana and Eastern WA to arrive at Mt Rainier National Park. This big pile of lava was the source of my magnetic draw back to Washington.

My Valiant must have sensed her mission was complete, the oil pump went out and the motor seized as we were leaving the park. We used one of my new climbing ropes to tow it to Tacoma, snapping it several times before arriving on Memorial Day weekend 1982.

Unknown

We finally found a place open, the Calico Cat Motel on Pacific Avenue. It was eventually closed down in 2016 after a murder happened there and all the rooms test positive for meth. Back in ’82 it was very hot that weekend and with no auto garages open we filled a bota bag with Lambrusco, grabbed our bikes and headed for Pt Defiance Park to see if it was cooler down by the water. We hung out at the old boathouse, now long gone, and drank the entire bota of wine.

We headed back to the motel, half-lit on cheap wine. Climbing back up the hill in the 90 degree heat Rick paused to do the Lambrusco hurl on the overpass next to the still under construction Tacoma Dome. I continued to the top of the hill and found an air conditioned bar to re-group in and Rick soon limped in.

Feeling a little more refreshed half way into our pitcher of ice cold beer Rick looks at me and says, “I think I’m going to like it here”.  With that, dos Amigos were back in the saddle for decades of adventure.

A Journey Begins

I was prompted to start this blog after my life-long friend, Rick Baker, passed away.  I began writing down some of our stories to share with other friends at his memorial and perhaps as a way to deal with his absence.  Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. are terrible platforms for sharing these types of stories as far as I’m concerned, so here I am.

His memorial was held just yesterday and I showed a photo montage of photos taken over the nearly 45 years we knew each other. There was much stress over all of this as I had thousands of paper photos and slides to dig through to find pictures of Rick, then scan and restore with Photoshop, upload to an edit program and then organize the shots somehow.

The pressure was completely self-induced as I had always been the “official photographer” during all of our adventures and I wanted to share with everyone the depth of a life not lived from the sidelines in the best light.

It took weeks to dig through all the boxes and totes in my house to find the photos of Rick.  The photographs weren’t very organized of course, there always seems to be something else with higher priority and you think you have all the time in the world to get to it.  Death quickly brings everything back in focus and forces you to deal with it.

It was both heart warming and heart breaking to look at each picture and think back to the moment when the image was snapped.  I would alternately scan the pictures, write a story as I was thinking about Rick in that particular situation and weep over the fact we would never be able to look at them together and tell more lies about our war stories.

 

I will add other tales I do not want to forget over time, but for now I’ll start with some stories I experienced with Rick.

PS: The photo at the top is a bit ironic as Rick had purchased the camera from a friend at a “great deal”…I’m sure because the camera was hot.  He took a roll or two but never really caught the photographer bug.

 

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

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