Sam's good friend from high school (junior high?) in Rhinelander, Adam Schmidt, sent this to me shortly after Sam died, along with many others in our community who shared anecdotes and stories. I couldn't read them at the time, but have recently enjoyed going back through and reading what Sam's people sent. This was a particularly great read that I wanted to share. Thanks, Adam!
With our provisions in hand—PopTarts and pillows—we headed out of the house and across the driveway to the Weis-family Winnebago. Little did I know this was the first of what would become many Sam Weis adventures. Our mission that night: Make it all the through “The Exorcist” without getting scared.
It was the spring of seventh grade. I had just moved to Rhinelander at Christmas and was still getting settled in a new school and community. Sam invited me over to watch movies, made me feel welcome, and set in motion our lifelong friendship.
Over the years, our adventures escalated to include canoes, campfires, college, fishing poles, national parks, sea sickness (me), hypothermia (me again), and cigar-induced hangovers (that one was Sam).
In 2014, after Sam heroically beat Leukemia and reinvigorated his life and career up in Alaska, I paid him and Jenny a visit. Ten incredible days of camping, hiking, and biking led to the most memorable Sam adventure: the annual 200-mile Fireweed bike relay from Sutton to Valdez.
It was a beautiful, sun-filled July Saturday as we traded turns gliding up and down the Alaskan Highway. To the North, East and South, three mountain ranges were always in sight. I kept thinking to myself: This is the best way to experience Alaska.
As we hit the 140 mile mark, I was back on the bike making the initial approach to Thompson Pass—the 2,600 feet-high gap in the Chugach range that would lead down to Port Valdez.
The weather turned fast. All of the sudden it was raining and dark clouds blocked out the otherwise endless sunlight. Cold bursts of wind blustered down from the Pass. ... Maybe this isn’t the best way to experience Alaska...?
And just then Sam and Jenny's Subaru pulled past and stopped along the right shoulder. I pulled over behind them in time for Sam to jump out and shout: “Schmidty, let's switch. Take off your shoes!”
You see, we had been switching out the pedals between each segment, to match our different clips. But now Sam wanted to just get on and ride. He stepped into my soaking wet shoes, clipped in, and cranked forward.
Up through the cold rain, Sam forged ahead. Despite Arctic headwinds, Sam kept moving. He was solid on the handle bars and kept a steady pace. All the way up.
At the top of the Pass, Sam rested—briefly. And instead of taking the bike down the other side, a thrilling downhill he absolutely earned the right to enjoy, he got back in the car. He made sure Jenny took over and we drove behind as she plunged toward Keystone Canyon and the finish line.
Back below the tree line, the sun was again shining and the canyon was in full summer bloom. We were greeted by vibrant green vegetation hugging stone cliffs and waterfalls dropping from the glaciers above. We started humming the Jurassic Park theme song. Yes, this is the best way to experience Alaska. And Sam knew it all along.
I have been remembering this day a lot in the last few years, as Sam went in and out of treatment again. Just like that cold, wet climb to Thompson Pass, Sam stayed steady on the handle bars and fought cancer one crank at a time.
And just like that day at the Fireweed, Sam took on the most difficult aspects of this ordeal for the rest of us. Guiding us through his journey, helping us understand, granting us permission and such beautiful words to talk about and think about sickness and death and how to prioritize a life-well-lived.
Sam has made it to the summit again... but this time he's taking the bike back down the other side, racing into the sun-filled gorge and off to explore new trails. He'll be waiting for us at the finish line, covered in mud and with that broad, eager smile, ready to take us on the next adventure.
A short coda: I wrote this remembrance nearly two years ago, in preparation for Sam’s memorial in Madison, and only recently revisited it, thanks to Jenny. Re-reading it last week brought me flashes of pain, grief, and also deep joy. I’m really thankful to share this memory and the lessons it brings.
Last summer, Jenny, Pete, Dana and I rode the Fireweed, retracing the 2014 adventure above. It remains the best way to experience Alaska. Sam knew it all along. See you at the finish, bud.