We had a tragedy here last week. It's hard to write about, but I want to remember and honor Mike McLaughlin, our Desert Handyguy, who died in a solo rollover accident the day before Thanksgiving. He was driving home to Joshua Tree after work and fell asleep. He was 32 and we had known him only five months, but he was our friend.
We first found Mike through the internet, when he came out to dig up our broken water pipe. He fixed the break by the well, I turned on the water in the kitchen sink (dry for over three months), it ran, we cheered, and then the water slowed to a trickle. Another break. Then Mike gamely RAN across the five acres from the house to the well (it was July, so about 105), looking for the wet spot. Over two days he fixed five breaks. This sealed the deal, the guy was a champ.
Besides his tremendous physical energy, Mike was a talker. When you told him something crazy, he'd say, "No way!" Sometimes you had to stop him because he could chat on and on, jumping from one subject to another. He told us all about his life with his chickens, horses, pig, and dog Pixie (who had cancer and later disappeared; Mike held on to hope that she'd been stolen, he just couldn't admit that she was gone). He was a surfer from OC, but had moved to the desert and loved life out here. He told us about his garden--planted too many trees resulting in $400 water bill--and fighting the pests, about his girlfriend and his crazy neighbors who were always up to no good (there's the rural poverty thing again). At one point he had to stop to take care of his dad who had heart surgery. Mike was a rescuer, even if he wasn't always careful about choosing his friends. He'd gotten into trouble earlier in life and was paying restitution now. He needed the money badly, so worked a lot. Too much.
He fixed a gray water situation for us, then organized crews to pick up trash by hand (the bull dozer we used earlier broke the water pipes). He earned our trust so we gave him the keys, and had him start on the bathroom, which was basically non-functional: rusted pipes, leaking cast iron tub, trip-over-toilet-tiny. He powered through the hottest months of August and September. The shower became a work of art. I laid out the tile samples and let him go. He incorporated rocks from the yard, creating clever visual compositions within the larger stall.
I love these text messages from Mike, they show his dry sense of humor and his kindness:
Mike was a photographer (he took the photo of the owl in our oasis) and a physical daredevil. He told us about hidden canyons and crazy trails. His Instagram is filled with surfing, his dog, and the outdoors. He was constantly helping people stranded in the desert, pulling vehicles out of ditches. He loved his truck and every time we paid him, poured money into it. He sometimes showed up looking like he'd been up all night working on it, with grease on his hands and face. He rarely ate. We worried about him, getting so thin. I left him and his buddies pizza in the freezer, and one day I made a plate of roast beef and broccoli, which he didn't touch.
We have many texts from him and he always said, "Thank you for everything." He was our guy and we told him to arrange everything and every one, and I think he liked the responsibility. He asked me about my painting, said he wanted to be an artist. His life wasn't easy but he lived fully. One of his last Instagrams says, "Use your health, even to the point of wearing it out. That is what it is for. Spend all you have before you die. Do not outlive yourself."
Thank you, Mike. And no way.
Anna does most of the writing. Ted does most of the photos. But sometimes we switch. We are repairing a distressed property in 29 Palms, California, and eventually hope to run an artist residency there.