“He was one of those characters like the Fonz … he was, in essence, cool. He was my inspiration.”
— author Daniel Wallace, Nealy’s brother-in-law
[Editor’s note: William Nealy was an illustrator turned outdoor-sports cult hero who mapped a host of southeastern rivers, including the French Broad, and recorded one of the first — and only — mountain-biking descents in the Smokies. This year’s Mountain Sports Festival is dedicated to Nealy, who took his own life last summer.]
It was around 1979 — the dawn of the outdoor-sports industry — and William Nealy was looking for a place to climb. He and pal Tom Schlinkert returned to the Great Smokies Hilton following an afternoon of pub-crawling in downtown Asheville. They headed for the lobby, where a giant stone hearth offered a variety of climbing handholds and routes. Nealy planned to clamber up the fireplace, but a huddle of guests at its base sat in his way. Seated in the middle was a book editor named Bob Sehlinger.
“[He] had on a black turtleneck and was playing guitar, singing to two women,” says Schlinkert, chuckling at the memory of the editor intoning, “Anybody seen my old friend Martin …” and William rolling his eyes. Like Schlinkert and Nealy, Sehlinger was in town for the annual Eastern Professional River Outfitters convention.
“This was the very incubation of the whitewater industry in the eastern United States,” remembers Schlinkert, who says Nealy never did get to scale the Hilton’s fireplace. But he did begin a working relationship with Sehlinger that would eventually lead to the publication of Nealy’s illustrated river guides as well as such landmark instructional texts as Kayak and Mountain Bike!
Throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s, Nealy carved out a career for himself in the rapidly expanding world of outdoor sports. When he wasn’t at home with his lifelong companion, Holly Wallace, he was living in his gold Chevy van, paddling rivers and riding trails. He’d then report back to his readers, offering insights gleaned from years of trial and error.
“That was the essence of his genius,” says Sehlinger. “He was able to take skills and pieces of knowledge that you could only get by going over your handlebars and crashing and burning.” Over the next several years, Nealy would do plenty of both. And until recently, it looked as though he was enjoying the ride.
In print, Nealy cast himself as a wild-haired, rebel cartoonist — someone cocky and cool but also not afraid to laugh at himself. In person, he avoided attention, preferring the sidelines to the spotlight. He was shy and self-conscious, especially when it came to his work. But through his cartoon persona, Nealy found the courage to boldly satirize everything from salad croutons to the ego-driven world of adrenaline sports.
Along the way, his self-deprecating humor opened up these high-energy endeavors to people who figured that if William could do it, then so could they.
“He was never one of those guys that wanted go off 30-foot waterfalls,” says Wallace. “He [made] fun of himself in all of his work. He [said], ‘I’m an average boater. I try my best, I f**k up a lot, but I pick myself up and try again.'”
Nealy’s books enable beginners to laugh their way through the learning curve. For William, that process began in the Alabama backwoods, where he roamed as a Boy Scout and later worked as a river guide. After the Ku Klux Klan burned down the northern Alabama paddle shop where Nealy worked, he and Holly became “political refugees,” and fled to North Carolina, settling in the Carrboro/Chapel Hill area.
Today it sits vacant, but in 1978, the long, narrow building at the corner of Lloyd and Main streets in Carrboro housed the River Runner’s Paddle Shop, where William went to work renting canoes. Across the street was a Family Dollar. The busiest place around was not the Weaver Street Market or Townsend Bertram & Co. but Western Auto. Carrboro looked like just another small, Southern town. Compared to Blountsville, Ala., however, it still felt like Greenwich Village.
Every day, customers would come into the shop asking about the Haw River. Nealy grew tired of sketching directions, so he eventually drew up his official Haw River map and made copies for sale.
“It’s where I got started. We still sell some of those maps,” he told a documentary crew in 1999, adding shyly, “It’s historic.”
After mapping the Haw, William next turned to the Nantahala. That emerald ribbon of splashy whitewater is now one of the most popular runs in the country, but in 1979, when Nealy showed up trying to sell a few maps, it was pretty remote.
John Barber remembers the day William walked into the Nantahala paddle shop in Wesser, N.C., hawking his wares.
“His hair was pretty long and he had on dark glasses,” says Barber, who spent 25 years working on the Nantahala. “He kind of had that artsy, bohemian look.”
William introduced himself to Barber and showed him his map. Barber liked what he saw; he said he’d take 1,000.
“I could tell from his reaction that he was quite flabbergasted,” says Barber.
Soon thereafter, William created his own publishing company, Class Seven River Maps, and set about exploring all the major rivers of the Southeast.
Today, the modern home Nealy designed and constructed piece by piece sits 10 minutes from Chapel Hill, surrounded by a swimming pool, a hot tub, a ropes course, a climbing wall, a tree house and a network of hiking trails. Inside, the concrete floors are warmed by the sunlight that pours in through a giant bank of south-facing windows. A winding stairway leads up to Nealy’s studio, where he kept an assortment of weapons: a shank, brass knuckles and a samurai sword. Chained to his drafting table is a shackle he would fasten to his ankle whenever the urge to play interfered with his need to produce. Here, Nealy drew maps of Big Laurel Creek and recounted the first (and perhaps only) mountain-bike descent of Mount Sterling, just up from the Big Creek Campground, in the Smokies.
“At about sundown we staggered into the clearing below the firetower,” writes Nealy in The Mountain Bike Way of Knowledge. “Now all we had to do was select the correct trailhead to the campground. … Being hippie radicals, we chose the trailhead farthest to the left.”
From his home base, Nealy planned other forays into the Smokies, up Mount Mitchell and throughout Pisgah National Forest. It’s also where he holed up to study everything from geology to theology, politics to plumbing.
Nealy read roughly 300 books a year, nearly all of them nonfiction. At a memorial service for him last summer, his sister-in-law recalled the way she’d treated Nealy like the family encyclopedia, peppering him with specific questions about obscure facts. Nealy’s readers treated him the same way. His diagrams of river rapids and illustrated instructions guides to biking technique dissected the world of adrenaline sports into its component parts. That was a talent that led David Quammen of Outside magazine to mention Nealy in the same breath as Leonardo Da Vinci, calling him a “lucid expositor of the hydrodynamics of rivers.” “I thought there was a wonderful clarity and a robustness to his illustrations. He knew water,” says Quammen. “He felt water.”
“He was translating [water],” adds Kate Geis, a documentary filmmaker who spent several weeks with William and Holly in 1999 and 2000. “He stripped it down to drawings that show a more intimate relationship with the environment.”
The resulting river guides and darkly hilarious cartoons propelled Nealy from unknown river hippie to cult hero. He was a cutoff-jeans-wearing, bandana-sporting fun hog who prowled the Tsali mountain-bike trails back when they were still logging roads. He ran and mapped Wilson Creek, which drains the eastern slope of Grandfather Mountain, when it was still considered the hair run to paddle in WNC.
On the river, Nealy would gather vital intelligence to pass on to his readers. He’d note the best play spots and warn about undercut rocks and other hazards.
Nealy’s road trips also spawned cartoons celebrating the little things that all weekend warriors know and love: the duct tape, the diner food, the van full of empty beer cans.
In his cartoon collection titled Whitewater Tales of Terror, Nealy recalls his banjo-in-the-distance, Deliverance-like encounters with backwoods locals. Such tales transported readers to an age that preceded Patagonia, SUVs and over-use of the word “extreme.” He was irrefutably “old school,” and funny to boot. Sometimes juvenile, sometimes sophisticated, Nealy’s humor was as unique as it was unpredictable. In one cartoon he invites two women kayakers to a Crisco party. In another, he parodies the media’s obsession with tragedy by announcing the publication of Victim Magazine, which offers, “Tips for Tubers: How to get pinned and injured.” It was the stuff of campfire chatter, quips delivered both on the page and among friends after a long day on the river or trail. And best of all, this was Nealy’s full-time job.
“He was one of those characters like the Fonz — you know, like, what did he do? Where did he work?,” notes William’s brother-in-law Daniel Wallace, a Chapel Hill author who wrote Big Fish. “I had this image of him of always being really cool but never having to try. He was, in essence, cool. He was my inspiration — the fact that he could write and draw and publish books.”
By the 1990s, Nealy’s titles were in bookstores in the U.S. and abroad. Readers from Black Mountain to Tokyo were laughing at his illustrations, but William never thought of himself as famous.
Once, in Salt Lake City, readers lined up around the clock waiting for a chance to meet Nealy and have their dog-eared copies of Kayak and Mountain Bike! signed.
“He was stunned at this reception,” says Holly. “But the minute we left Salt Lake City, he was not aware. He lost the knowledge of how many people liked him.”
Daniel Wallace wonders if his brother-in-law fought the notion of fame because he was worried about how it would affect his work.
“I think the problem of being an artist, in some ways, is once you start believing in your own excellence, that’s when you start to lose it,” says Daniel. “That gives you very little opportunity to feel good about yourself. There’s this fear of feeling good about yourself, and he never did.”
In the summer of 2001, William sat down with his journal and cataloged the contents of his medicine cabinet: Pepsid, Aleve, Benedryl, children’s Afrin, Viagra, Zocor, aspirin. Next he listed his “complaints”: chronic bronchitis, backache, thumb/wrist pain, chronic depression. Then, five pages later, Holly says William made a list of hurricanes, ending with notes about the damage Hurricane Fran did in Clarksville, Va. That’s where William and Holly kept their houseboat at a marina on Kerr Lake. It’s also where Holly rushed on the night of July 18, 2001. Her brother Daniel had called, telling her about a strange message William had left on his answering machine around 5 p.m.
By 8:30 that evening, Holly was at the houseboat. Four Budweiser tallboy cans sat empty in the kitchen sink, but William was nowhere to be found. Holly figured he’d slipped off the wagon (Nealy had officially quit drinking more than 10 years before ), so she drove to Clarksville’s only two bars. Maybe he was getting loaded, telling stories. If so, Holly swore to herself she wouldn’t be mad. He’d be amazed at how cool she was.
But William wasn’t at the bars, so Holly paced around the marina until 3 a.m., when she returned to the houseboat and drifted off into a nervous sleep. At sunrise, Holly walked back outside. In the slanting morning light she could see into William’s van. On the dash, there was a note. It read, “I’m in the woods behind the repair shop. Contact my brother-in-law, Daniel Wallace.”
“I know what that means, but I don’t believe he’s done it yet,” remembers Holly. “I don’t know what is so wrong. Why is he so upset? What is he so upset about?” Holly’s eyes open wide when she recalls that day. She’s walking herself back to those woods, step by step.
“It’s an ugly woods,” she explains. “You know, a repair shop. It’s got Styrofoam(r) and it’s a nasty, scrubby woods. And then there’s this beautiful little spot. It’s a nasty woods except for this little bitty glade and it’s free of bushes. And just as I see it, the sunlight breaks through the treetops and a beam shines, like a movie. The lights come on and there are his feet. And there’s nothing frantic about this scene: It’s very William.” Holly backs away, leaving her husband’s body and the gun alone in the grass.
Later Holly finds the letters — one to her and one to William’s mother — and the journal. In them, William complains of constant back pain. He tells Holly he’s hooked on her arthritis painkillers, that he’s mad with addiction and convinced that if he doesn’t end it all now, he’ll have to start robbing drugstores.
None of it makes any sense. But somehow, the senselessness of it all does make sense. The drugs, the addiction, the hurricanes: Only William understood what it all meant and where it all ended. He’d done it himself, because he’d done everything himself. When he wanted to learn guitar, he illustrated his own manual and taught himself to play. He’d taught himself how to identify arrowheads. And he built the house where he cared for Holly, always carrying her purse to the car, always making sure their pet pigs had plenty of Cheerios(r) to eat.
That’s where Holly saw William last, standing out by the pig house, feeding Sherman and Harold handfuls of cereal. This is the William she knew, the man she loved while still a teenager, the gentle partner whose photos she’s packed into a “book of love.” There’s William in high school, hair past his shoulders. There’s the whole gang in the late afternoon of youth, joyously tired from a day on the river. And there’s William kissing Holly. He’s about to paddle the Ocoee, where he’ll catalog every rapid and miss Holly every moment. William was a softy, a pushover. Holly knew, all their friends knew — they all remember the real William.
“There wasn’t anything dark about William,” says Tom Schlinkert, his eyes still sharp with disbelief nearly a year since the day Holly found the body.
The guns, the knives, the threats about knocking off the drugstore in a narcotic rage: It was all a setup for the sake of irony, like his cartoon depicting “another crouton-related death.” William was as harmless as a crouton — except to himself. “The rebel image, it was so distant to what he was really like as a human being — and he delighted in it,” says Sehlinger. “He loved portraying the image of a rebel yet being a marshmallow.”
Since Nealy’s death 10 months ago, there have been several gestures to honor his memory: a trail along the Haw River, this year’s Mountain Sports Festival and the recently released documentary Riversense (which will show at the Mountain Sports festival; see Official Festival Guide for details) have all been dedicated to Nealy. It seems that wherever mountain bikers or paddlers gather, someone is bound to bring him up.
They tell about the time when William’s van caught fire up at the Nantahala. Or when he and Holly stripped buck naked at a hot-tub party only to have their clothes stolen and buried by the host’s golden retriever. There they were, William and Holly at their first hot-tub party, suddenly realizing that they were the only naked people in a tub full of strangers. Then that dog goes and buries their clothes.
Oh, the times the two of them had.
David Madison is the editor of the Independent Weekly in Durham, N.C. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.