Friendship is something that does not seem to come easily. At least, it is not maintained easily. I believe the story of my friendship with Erich Johnson is worth sharing.
Jenny and I had just come back from a great weeklong vacation celebrating our 5th wedding anniversary in 2009. I was working as a technician at a Toyota dealership, and on my first day back to work, there was word of a new tech starting. My first reaction to Erich was probably similar to most people’s first reaction: this guy is huge. Not in an overweight way. In a crush your skull way. Erich and his wife, Kjersti, and their two kids had just moved here from Washington state. Making small talk, I found they were Christians and had been missionaries overseas. They did not go on mission trips; they were missionaries. They lived with natives in Iryan Jaya, Indonesia for a year, and in the mountains of Haiti for a few months. The stories of these trips and the hopes they brought would color many of our conversations in the following years. However, there was one key event beyond that. One day at work, I see Erich at his toolbox fidgeting about with something. When I walked over to see what he was up to, he asked, “Coffee?” He was making Sumatran coffee in a french press at his toolbox in the shop. It was that moment when I said to myself, “I am gonna love this guy.” And I have.
|Erich and I camping Burrell’s Ford in SC with (not pictured) our friends Chris and Matt, and all of our daughters,|
After only a month of working at Toyota, Erich left to work for a family auto repair store on Wade Hampton Blvd., but we would keep in touch. A couple months behind him, I also left Toyota when he was able to get me a job at the family’s downtown Greenville location. We would regularly meet in the middle between the two stores for coffee, Mexican, fast food, barbeque, coffee, Japanese, Vietnamese, or coffee. In 2011, I was able to transfer to the Wade Hampton store where we would work together again on dirty, burning hot cars during the blistering un-air conditioned heat of the summer. While there, we further built a love for coffee. We would get Counter Culture Coffee from Coffee & Crema and make coffee experimenting with different grinds and brewing mehods. I imagine it may have been interesting as a customer to walk into a family auto repair store to find the technicians brewing coffee in a vacuum siphon over a flame burner.
|Erich and I getting ready for some climbing on Crowder’s Mountain, NC.|
Not only a Christian, missionary, and coffee lover, but Erich was an adventurer. Originally from Pickens, Erich had worked downtown Greenville at the (no longer there) Rocks and Ropes climbing gym. Over our many lunches and coffees, he began to ask me to go rock climbing with him. Climb @ Blue Ridge has just opened, and after the first time, I dove in. He told me about a store in Traveler’s Rest called Sunrift Adventures where I could get my gear. We were going to Climb @ Blue Ridge semi-regularly, and sometimes we made the drive down to Anderson because Trailhead Climbing had a 50ft wall. Then came the day when Erich suggested we get out on some real rock. We planned for the morning to drive up towards Charlotte and go rock climbing at Crowder’s Mountain. I will remember walking into Starbucks in Gaffney that morning, dressed in moisture wicking shirts (a new thing for me), and the barista asking how we planned to spend our Saturday. Beaming, we said, “Rock climbing.” That would be the first of many outdoor adventures for us, but what solidified my love for the outdoors would come the following year.
|Erich and I on top of the Endless Wall at New River Gorge, WV|
We planned to take a long weekend and drive to the New River Gorge in West Virginia. We left right after work on a Friday night for the five and a half hour drive to Kaymoor, WV. After 1:00am, we rolled in to Roger’s Rocky Top Retreat, where climbers were camping before a morning at the crag. For $6, we each got a campsite, showers, a table to cook breakfast at, and a memory that we still talk about to this day: how bad the outhouses smelled. We spent all Saturday climbing ladders and rock walls, through tunnels, and sitting on cliff edges of the Endless Wall. We stopped early and drove up to Summersville Lake because we read there was free camping there at the base of the dam. After a hot day of climbing and hiking, we thought a wash off in the river would feel great. Let me tell you, the water that flows out of the channels of a dam from the bottom of a lake are some of the coldest waters I had ever felt. As we were fixing our dinner, the skies opened up and rain began to pour on us. In what was probably not the best decision, we knew our climbing was shot so we packed up and decided to head home. We were exhausted, and the drive that took us five and a half hours to complete a day earlier would take us over 10 hours to complete this time. That included a consolation steak dinner at Outback, swapping driving every 30 minutes because we were exhausted, and trying to sleep for an hour in some Virginian WalMart parking lot. We were a mess, but we made it back to his house in Pickens safely. We tried a morning hike to the overlook of Raven Cliff Falls, but it was so foggy we couldn’t see past the observation deck.
|Erich and I almost to the top of Cabin Trail in August, on our first trip into Linville Gorge, NC.|
To recount all of of our adventures even in abbreviated detail would take far too long for this post, but many of them are already in reports on this blog. We would make a return trip to Crowder’s Mountain. We would plan for the Raven Cliff Falls loop, but reroute to DuPont and Table Rock once we found the trail closed due to ice. A third attempt would be my first trip to actually see Raven Cliff Falls. We would hike Carrick Creek Trail at Table Rock State Park with our kids. Eventually, we began to attend church together, and even serve on the ushering team together. We would go on a guys backpacking trip up to TurkeyPen near Brevard, NC, which was a really rough trip because it became a forced march out after the group got separated and had to make up time so one of our guys could get back home for an event. We would stay up late playing Halo (beating it on legendary!), Left 4 Dead, and Gears of War over Xbox Live. We took our daughters to a Greenville Drive game and watched one inning before taking them to the playground and leaving after that. We met our friends Chris and Matt for a daddy-daughter backpacking trip at Burrell’s Ford where we would camp and hike in the rain. We rode the Swamp Rabbit for the first time together. Erich was with me on our first trip into the Linville Gorge, where an ambulance drove past us on Old 105/Kistler Memorial Highway and yelled at us out the window, “Don’t do it!” He was with me on my first hike on Rock Jock in Linville Gorge, where we began planning our first hike along the Lower North Carolina Wall to the Sphinx a year later. Erich was with me on our first steps in the Tuckaseegee River in Panthertown, when we climbed up on the blade of rock below Red Butt Falls and named it Coffee Rock (see the video below), because we made coffee on it in a Jet Boil on a hot August afternoon. We have run the Moonshiner5k night race at Paris Mountain together. We have run the Goodwill Mud Run together, with our friends Chris and Matt. We did The Gorge zipline canopy tour in Saluda, NC together. We revisted Babel Tower to climb down Avatar’s Rib together. Those are some of the places we went and experiences we had that would be some of the contexts in which our friendship would happen.
Life happens. Our families grew, and we would rejoice. Our families would shrink, and we would be full of sorrow. Our families would have dinners together. We would have arguments and disagreements. I eventually left the family repair store to work for Lexus, and Erich would ramp up his schooling to work towards becoming an RN, so our outdoor adventuring together would become less frequent, but that was not what our friendship was based upon any way. Erich left the family store for a large retail chain that would allow him to work second shift while he chiseled away at his degree. Telling me about the benefits of the chain, I skeptically applied to see what would happen. Next thing I knew, we were working side by side again.
|Erich and I at Hacker’s Point along Rock Jock Trail on our second trip into Linville Gorge, NC.|
Unfortunately, during this time, what began in a short conversation over coffee exploded over several weeks into an escalating sharp and very passionate disagreement. He was temporaily moved to a mid-day shift, but the few hours we were at work together, we would go on for the next several months barely speaking. What conversations we did have were surface at best. On my end, it was an extremely rough and difficult time, and I had no idea how to walk through it. I sought some advice from others in what to do, but it felt mostly superficial and unhelpful. The “you can still be friends” type comments that don’t really help deal with anything. During this time, my daughter Skylar was born, on Erich’s birthday no less. Our families were not at a place where we could share that joy together. I hated what was going on, passing each other daily at work with barely a nod. His family was hurting. My family was hurting. I think we took it out on each other instead of helping each other through it. Instead, we both lost the battle.
Fast forward a few months, and I was back in Linville Gorge to hike L.O.S.T. Our friend Chris was with us, and on rocky outcrop over lunch with Little Seneca jutting out in front of us, with the Sphinx across from us, memories of times I had spent with Erich at several corners of the Gorge, Chris just asked how it was going with Erich. So I told him it has been hard. Without trying to fix me, fix Erich, or fix the circumstances and situation, Chris just heard me and felt that ache with me.
Now convicted of the way I’d been acting, I began to make some forward effort instead of the stand-offish resistance I’d been giving. Erich had just bought a new home, and one of my steps towards reconciliation was helping him move. I wasn’t trying to make up for past hurts, get out of debt to him, or anything like that. It was more of a clearing of the fog from my vision to where I had not been seeing clearly, and stepping back into the friendship to say, “This is what we do under no obligation, because you’re my friend and brother.” There’s nothing to brag about in that, because the steps I took to come to that place were shameful. It is what it is.
|Erich and I at the Greenville Drive game|
Erich then moved back to second shift and we were working together again. This time was one of the sweetest periods of our friendship as our conversations began to form around finding satisfaction in God. I realize as I type that out, there seems to be a hollowness to it. On the outside looking in, how could that possibly be an interesting thing to talk about? Yet, our conversations swelled with it for months, continually building. It was like a complete reversal was happening, where one conversation escalated into division and sin, the other built into fellowship and glory to God. I can’t even say that if you’d like to have that conversation, I’d be glad to have it with you. Rather, the best way to see this mystery would be as a bystander hearing the two of us having this conversation, entering in if you so chose to. Nothing forced, only the beauty of satisfaction in who God is. That is a crazy concept that is also a wild and untamed truth, and more unpredictable and amazing than any mountain, river, or canyon that we had explored together.
|Erich and I at Elbow Falls on the Tuckaseegee River in Panthertown Valley, NC.|
Now, I have moved to a different work shift. If we are to see each other, I have to stay late or he comes in early. We don’t even pass. School is demanding, and our families are a priority. We don’t go to the same church as we once did. We still talk some, but not as much as when we were working every day together, getting coffee together. We are still friends, and we are still making effort to invest in our friendship. Why this post? Well, I miss him. Beyond that, though, I believe our friendship has been one that truly reflects what so many Christian circles call fellowship. It has not been the surface level “how has your week been?” It has been messy, but so much good comes out of the messes.
As I look back on the history of my friendship with Erich, it is smooth and it is rocky. There have been easy times, difficult times, mundane times, extraordinary times, joyous times, and sad times. His family has helped us, and we have helped them. We’ve enjoyed each other, and have been mad at each other. We have given each other good advice and terrible advice. If we had a friendship built on any one of these things, I believe it would have never recovered from the difficulties that have happened. We both find our hope in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Because we have been reconciled to God through Jesus, we can be reconciled to each other. That is where our deepest bond is anchored. We may not always be able to have coffee, go on adventures, or work next to each other. We will always belong to the Lord, and we will always be brothers in that.
So here’s to the honor my friend, Erich, who I love as a brother. I hope this is not merely a nice story or a mushy recollection, but points you to Jesus in whom all satisfaction is found.
|Erich on a spire of rock near the Sphinx below the Lower North Carolina Wall in Linville Gorge, NC.|