John Mullen was full of adventure and loved challenges



July 31, 2005|By CANDUS THOMSON

IN A PERFECT WORLD, John Mullen would have been a newspaper outdoors columnist.

In a perfect world, he would still be alive today, telling friends and readers how the Tygart River ate him up and spat him out whole.

But the world isn't perfect. Or fair.

John died last Sunday in a whitewater kayak accident on the West Virginia river. He was 37, kind and full of adventure.

He paddled and pedaled and climbed rocks. If it required adrenaline and moxie, he was interested, not just in the sport but in what made its practitioners tick.

John was a copy editor at The Washington Post, a job that allowed him to play outside during the day and work at night.

It was, he teased me once, an arrangement almost as good as my own. Almost.

When he wasn't fixing copy and crafting headlines, John wrote "The Outside Line," the notes that accompanied his paper's Sunday outdoors column. One appeared on the day he died. Naturally, it was about kayaks.

In the jargon of our business, the items were briefs, but John poured his heart and soul into them - not that he knew any other approach to work or life.

Novelist Yukio Mishima once wrote, "It is a rather risky matter to discuss a happiness that has no need of words."

But John sure tried. His short musings weren't an outdoors police blotter. They were little adventure stories that made you want to put down your Sunday morning newspaper and coffee and go do something.

"He saw something special in these outdoor sports and outdoor pursuits," said Joe Jacobi, an Olympic gold medal paddler who grew up in Bethesda. "He stepped over the boundary so rarely crossed by journalists. John was a true doer."

His father left when he was a young man, and alcohol moved in, a "change-of-location cure," as John called it, that eventually pushed out the things he loved.

"Alcohol, as it can, seeped into parts of my life where I did not expect it," he wrote in a 2000 story. "The worm turned from reward to burden. Rowing, and the passion I had for sports, were overtaken by a life in drinking, which for anyone is a life of inestimable waste."

He pushed back in the late 1990s, dropped alcohol and resumed rowing and outdoors writing. At the age of 34, what some might consider the fringe of geezerdom, John took up whitewater kayaking and absorbed its nuances with gusto.

To accelerate the learning curve, John became a student of Davey Hearn, a two-time world champion canoeist. "Technique is proof of seriousness," he said, quoting poet and fisherman Wallace Stevens.

He ran and lifted weights and became a ripped 6 feet 4.

"He had to find the corner of the world where he felt comfortable. It was a long search, but he found it," said former roommate Chris Davenport.

Last spring, he was good enough to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team trials, held in South Bend, Ind. His excitement that day was contagious. Although he didn't make the cut, he was thrilled to be competing on the same course with the country's best.

John respected the power of whitewater. And he wasn't a cowboy.

"John looked indestructible but never once did he behave as though he was indestructible," said a friend, Dave Murray.

In June, he wrote a cautionary tale about walking away from Oh-Be-Joyful Creek, a nasty whitewater run in Colorado he felt was beyond his ability.

"You either belong on that water or you don't; and if you don't, and you get on it, watch out," he counseled. "Yet walking away also can be a sign of a deepening understanding of something truly loved. You can plan to paddle close to 300 days this year but that doesn't mean you are ready for the highest levels ..."

He apparently did nothing wrong on his final run over a 10-foot waterfall. He was wearing a helmet and lifejacket and had a safety line. But manmade gear is no match for whitewater. It pinned him down until he could no longer fight back.

"You can scout it from above, and 99 percent of the time you can tell what it's going to do. But 1 percent of the time, it does something different," said Murray, a paddler.

As an outdoors and Olympics writer, I spent time with John waiting for something to happen. Sometimes it was standing in a parking lot with paddlers milling around, other times it was sitting in the grass between his runs down a slalom course.

We had some things in common in addition to the outdoors: The dislike of Moby-Dick, the love of things New Hampshire, the pre-2004 heartache of being a Red Sox fan and the burden of too much outdoors gear.

John read a lot, which forced me to look stuff up after a conversation. Close friends said his furniture was made of books. He greeted me before one competition by quoting Stevens.

When my lame response was to needle him about being a codger, John shot back that Stevens did some of his best work after he turned 60.

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