• Justin Key

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Updated: Apr 11

4 o'clock in the morning and I'm sitting up in the bed of our hotel room in Basalt, Colorado. Sarah and I had planned on getting up early, just not this early. My phone had woken me up, but it wasn't the alarm I had set. Now I was staring at the wall trying to make sense of it all. I'd heard the words that were said, I felt the heartbreak on the other end and it paralyzed me. The only thing moving in that hotel room at 4:00am was my mind replaying the conversation, struggling to comprehend the words I'd heard.


Morning found a way into our room and the wall hadn't moved, nothing had. Sarah clung to me, tears still in her eyes, I felt her warmth but beyond her, the world had gone cold. A friend so dear had passed in the night. Someone I had spoken to two days before, sending good wishes, and suddenly he was gone. His battle had been unfair, his enemy was doing everything to crush him but he refused to let it win. He found ways to do what he loved, he found the strength to make every day count. I have no memories of him angry, no sadness or depression, for someone that had every right to be scared, to feel cheated, he was always happy.


My mind was still fighting the truth. I stood up, hoping the movement would shake the final straw free and send reality crashing down. It didn't. We weren't making it to the Maroon Bells for sunrise like we had planned. The bright gold of the aspens that had flooded the area was diluted by the blanket of grey hanging low in the valley. There was no sunrise to see.


Sarah asked what I wanted to do. She had planned the trip to Aspen for my birthday, set an agenda loaded with my favorite activities and sprinkled in some surprises. She refused to give me a hint until we got in the car and even then kept the destination a secret until we arrived. We had been there 12 hours and if I had said "Let's go home", that's exactly what we would have done. It didn't matter where we were, I was going to be lost. We decided to drive around, maybe find a hike, looking for a sign or inspiration for where to go. We ended up sitting in a high school parking lot searching for answers.

We just found a road and drove it, no idea where it would take us. It wove its way through a valley of aspens at peak fall color but mother nature had delivered a morning to match our mood. The towering peaks on either side of the road were hidden behind a sheet of white. The aspens that would have been glowing in the sun were muted behind mist. And as we drove, the snow began to fall.


I had Sarah pull over a couple times to see if the camera would turn off the echoes of denial in my head. Looking through the lens took my mind off the repeating sentences, but when that camera dropped around my neck they came rushing back. We turned off at a sign for a trail we knew nothing about and geared up for a hike. The snow was drifting slowly through the trees, with the clouds sitting low, the forest was silent. We started walking, Sarah and Lambeau led the way, neither of us capable of speaking. The voices in my head, however, were getting frustrated. Their message had yet to sink in and they began to scream. He's dead, he died, he's dead, he's dead, he's gone, HE'S DEAD, HE DIED, HE'S GONE!


My denial had turned to anger, only because I wasn't understanding those simple words. He seemed so real, so close. We had just spoken. I knew he was having trouble but it wasn't that bad, or so I had thought. He was my buddy, my fishing partner, boat captain, the kid helping me drown out the radio as we sung along to a country song. My screaming companion at every concert, the one person I could be real with, the advice giver, the joke teller, the fish fryer, the bonfire stoker. The cheer you up when he's having the bad day kind of guy. He was supposed to be standing next to Sarah and I as we said our vows, he was supposed to be there in Canada fishing with me, he was supposed to visit us so he could see the world from 14,000 feet, he was supposed to marry the love of his life, be there for his brothers and sisters, and making everyone laugh. He should be fishing bass tournaments and sitting over a buck in the field. He should still be here.

The hike was long but not long enough. It was a quad burner the type that made the camera bag heavier. It had incredible views, panoramas of snow capped mountains, overlooks of the valley of gold where we started, a deep blue alpine lake nestled in jagged peaks. Any other day it would have made me happy to be alive, but today it was just a place to wander.


We would climb down and drive the road to its end. We parked and marveled at a gold laced mountain vista. The sun was beginning to break through the clouds and brought some warmth to the aspens. Blue sky was filtering through the clouds that were still low enough to obscure the peaks towering over the valley. The scene was built for a postcard. We took it in but I was ready to go.


Reality wouldn't sink in for a week. Everyday was a blur of nothingness leading up to the funeral. It wasn't until the hearse started driving away that the emotions finally came flooding in and I broke down.

Not a day goes by that I don't think of him and fall back into that feeling of being lost. I remember all the phone calls that came in that morning and the loss of words to define how I was feeling or what was even happening. All the love that was being thrown at me from friends and family and I had nothing. Sarah and I went through the motions, driving around aimlessly and mindlessly walking down a path. The beauty of the valley lost on a mind unable to make sense of the situation.

Four photographs on the website stem from that day. Normally in my pictures there is a story, I can remember how I felt when the shutter opened and shut. For these four images, I'm empty. This was my attempt to make sense of the situation, to explain to you and myself how I felt. In conclusion, I don't know because at the time I didn't know either. These pictures don't reflect the moment, they didn't capture the emotions of the day. To do that I should have pointed the camera in the air and taken a picture of the grey overhead.


The one thing I took away from that day is reassurance. Everyday I am berated with fear of failing and watching my dreams fall apart. The hardest part about chasing your dreams is fighting with the possibility of falling short. But if I learned anything from Nathan Dax, you can't let fear hold you back.

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© Justin Key Photography