Sometimes, the fleeting fragility of life seems simply unbearable. So we were stunned as the incomprehensible details of the boating death of rodeo cowboy Wyatt Althoff emerged.
By every account, Wyatt, 26, was a heck of a cowboy — a young man brimming with life and skill and discipline. He wasn’t a Payson boy, but he felt like one of ours. His marvelously extended family has roots here and he has competed in the Payson Rodeo since he was a kid — taking all-around honors in the spring rodeo in 2009.
Wyatt competed in the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo on Friday, the header to longtime pal TJ Brown’s heeler. They finished fourth in the team roping. He was going to compete in another event on Sunday.
Then tragedy struck. Out with friends on Roosevelt Lake, Wyatt somehow fell from the boat. The friends and family aboard the boat said they turned around and he was gone. He never surfaced. It took a dedicated rescue crew groping through the gloom in the bottom of the lake more than a day to find his body.
So instead of watching him compete again as he so loved to do, the somber crowd at the Sunday rodeo watched as the steer he would have wrestled ran, bewildered around the empty arena.
Of course, tragedy strikes far too often — waiting for a careless moment. A Valley man died on a simple family outing this weekend. He apparently slipped on rain-slick rocks and plunged over the edge of the Mogollon Rim. Police have not yet released his name, but we grieve no less for those he left behind. Their hearts are just as torn, their anguished questions impossible to answer.
But we feel like we grew up with Wyatt. In the stunned aftermath, someone remembered that a photo of Wyatt as a kid in a Payson Rodeo more than a decade ago has long hung on our wall in the lobby here at the Roundup.
Words seem as frail as life, cast into a howl of wind. We can scarcely imagine the grief of his family and friends. But in truth, such grief waits for each of us —that inconsolable loss. How can we summon the courage to continue living in such a shadow?
But then we look at the picture of that boy, with the rope clenched in his teeth. We look again at the photo taken of Wyatt on his last ride, the discipline, the concentration, the courage, the roll of the horse’s eye, as he steps calmly into chaos and a fury of motion.
We see the love and the courage, we see a young man who flung himself into his life, into his dreams. We know the bruises and bone breaks, the fear and the pain he endured to do the thing he loved — as well as he could — win, lose or draw.
And perhaps that’s no comfort, in such a moment, in the face of such a loss. What can fill such a hole?
So we can only mourn and pray for his family.
But still, but still ... we pray also for the courage to do as Wyatt did. To ride all out, holding nothing back. To pay the price for love, for dreams — without flinching, in joy and love.
In truth, we each of us have so little time, such a frail, flash of days in which to savor the great, glorious, heartbreaking blessing of life.