IN MEMORY: Wild and Free

By on July 5, 2017

Ahead of a celebration of Sawyer Gordon’s life, friends remember his bright light.

Sawyer Gordon

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Sawyer Gordon never backed down from a challenge. In the mountains, in the classroom and at home, Gordon whole-heartedly followed through on every commitment he made.

“Sawyer kind of marched to the beat of his own drum,” said lifelong friend Connor Liljestrom. “That was the really beautiful thing about Sawyer, was that when he wanted to do something, that’s what he did.”

That same determination drove him to fly, and ultimately crash, in a paraglider off of Mount Wire near Salt Lake City the day before his 22nd birthday. Gordon died from injuries sustained in an accident four days later on June 11.

But Liljestrom said he and Gordon’s friends from home have experienced an “unexpected peace” about their friend’s death. Perhaps, Liljestrom said, because they had talked about death before. With someone like Gordon, it was hard not to.

“Ironically, last summer, he and I had a conversation where he was like, ‘We’re Jackson kids, we’ve grown up here going a little harder than most kids, but not that extreme.”’ The discussion turned into Liljestrom and Gordon detailing how they would want to be celebrated if they died—and a celebration, they agreed, was the most important part. “We’re not trying to avoid death,” Liljestrom said. “We skipped that part of the conversation and went straight to ‘How do you want to be remembered.’”

Liljestrom, who was born six weeks after Gordon and grew up beside him all his life, remembers Gordon most for his tenacity and intensity. He was a genius, Liljestrom said, or at least wanted to be. “He was enamored with genius,” Liljestrom said. Steve Jobs was Gordon’s life-long hero. His bookshelves were filled with biographies of brilliant people, historical fiction, and non-fiction. What Gordon lacked in “natural” genius, Liljestrom said, he made up for in effort. “He really tried to be the outstanding person that he really desired to be,” Liljestrom said.

If anyone from their high school friend group was on the way to making something of himself, another friend said, it was Gordon.

His younger sister Sloane followed Gordon to the University of Utah, where he was pursuing a degree in electrical engineering and physics. Between classes, Gordon fully invited his sister into his world. “As soon as I arrived he introduced me to his friends, and included me in whatever I wanted,” Sloane said.

His degree choice came as no surprise to his former teachers at Jackson Hole Community School. “Sawyer Gordon was an exceptionally bright mathematics student who showed an unusual capacity for creative thinking in his problem solving,” math teacher Burr Storrs said. “I am so sad and sorry that we will not get to see the substantial achievements Sawyer surely could have produced with his keen mind and boundless energy.”

Gordon’s interests stretched far and wide. During Matthew Budzyn’s first year teaching Spanish, Gordon approached him at the club fair to ask if he would sponsor the newspaper club. The paper didn’t amount to much, Budzyn said, but it gave Budzyn his first glimpse “of how much potential this young man had.”

“Sawyer was resolute and fearless,” Budzyn continued. “When he decided to do something, he simply did it, regardless of consequence.” Like the time JHCS was on a school trip, Budzyn recalled, and Gordon decided he wanted to learn to do a standing back flip. “I cannot tell you how many times he face dived, but he kept trying over the course of the week. By the time the trip ended, he had successfully executed a back flip. “As someone who frequently exceeds boundaries, I admired Sawyer’s unapologetic way about himself,” Budzyn said.

Even the things he didn’t do well, he pursued with passion. “He might be the worst fly fisherman on the Snake,” Liljestrom said. “But he loved it. He wouldn’t take any advice, he would just go out there and bullwhip the water for a little while, and leave.”

Liljestrom said he struggled to think of memories to describe Gordon because he’s never known a life without his friend. “There is not a conscious level of existence without an interaction with Sawyer,” he said. But really, memories abound. “Adventures and misadventures in the mountains,” Liljstrom said, were common themes in Gordon’s life. One late night last summer, he decided he was going to climb, and ski, the Middle Teton. And he did. He left his friends behind, and returned home while they were still waking up.

“Like, what? Why? How?” Liljestrom mused. “But it was also just kind of a little bit impressive, a little extreme.”

But something Liljestrom admired about Gordon was that he never put others at risk while he risked his own life. “What sets [him] apart from when other people do that is Sawyer did it without compromising others,” Liljestrom said.

He spent time in the mountains because they were where he felt most at home, but he was a thoughtful and generous host. “His love for nature rubbed off on all those he knew,” Sloane said. “We spent many days smiling through waist-deep powder skiing together this winter. I will always remember him that way: happy and in the mountains.”

Gordon’s friends recently celebrated his life exactly as Gordon would have wanted them to. “There was a lot of love, a lot of positivity, and nudity and inebriation. Everything Sawyer would have wanted,” Liljestrom said.

An official celebration of his life is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Saturday,  July 15 at the Commons in Teton Village. Donations can be made to the Sawyer Gordon Wild Places Memorial Fund at Bank of Jackson Hole, or online at GoFundMe.com/sawyer-gordon-wild-places-memorial. Funds will go toward protecting  wild spaces in Utah that Gordon loved best.

“We are all attempting to carry on his legacy of skiing fast, doing what makes us the happiest, appreciating the outdoors, and of course never, ever giving up,” Sloane said. PJH

 [This story has been amended—Gordon was in a paragliding accident]

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