Hungry for Eden
The final journey of Kenny Cox
by Michael Copperman
On Aug. 14, we lost Eugene native Kenny Cox at the age of 31. Camping in remote areas of Kauai, Kenny had been drinking straight from the cold jungle streams and living off what he could gather with his hands. His immune system failed, and he died of acute hemorrhagic pneumonia and sepsis on the long route to the hospital, the car too slow to cross the treacherous 40 miles of Kauai’s rugged backcountry. His journey there, into the deep jungle, was long and complex, yet Kenny had few regrets. That was how he chose to live.
Much must be said about his extraordinary wrestling career: a three-time state champion, a five-time junior national champion, the nation’s top prep wrestler as a senior in high school. Ron Bellamy correctly called Cox “the best wrestler ever to come out of a Eugene high school,” but he could as well have said an Oregon high school, or an American high school. As a prep athlete, Kenny Cox may have been the greatest wrestler ever to set foot on a mat.
I would know: I was a wrestler two years younger, and every Tuesday and Thursday I wrestled him for two hours in the Oregon Wrestling room, a place (and a program) that no longer exists. He was short and powerful and impossibly strong for a lightweight, shirt tucked tight, his shock of blonde hair jutting from that blue Churchill headgear. What distinguished Kenny as an athlete was not his appearance or his natural skills; Kenny was beyond in attitude. He embodied the essence of a sport where there are no sticks or balls or hoops, nothing but an opponent to overcome through skill and force of will. He never let up, left nothing behind in every moment he wrestled. If he ever went out of bounds or came to the edge of the mat, he sprinted back to the center. In three years, I never once took him down — and he never once condescended to me by letting me.
Years later, when I was on Christmas break from Stanford, I drove an hour and a half to McKenzie High School and worked out with him and the team he coached there. His team was young and spirited, gave their all showing off for a visitor there in the dim, dusty loft above the basketball gym. Some were barefoot because, as Kenny explained, they were still new to the sport and couldn’t easily afford wrestling shoes. At the end of practice, the two of us squared off in front of his team. I was in peak condition then, and Kenny was out of formal competition, and I thought that maybe, finally, I’d get him. I was mistaken. Kenny’s raw ability was undiminished — indeed, only the year before he’d won another national championship in Greco-Roman. It was all I could do to avoid massacre — I danced and danced away.
Long after the disappointment of both our collegiate careers, I coached with Kenny at my old alma mater, South Eugene, where he was head coach for two years. Kenny had changed, seeking a post-wrestling identity. He had grown his hair to a great golden mane and taken up reading, bought a house he fixed up and rented out, sleeping in a teepee in the garden. As a coach, he tried to do something new: to teach those kids the essence of the sport without concern for wins or losses, to realize all that was good about wrestling that he felt he’d lost.
All that he asked of his kids was to give their all, to go without fear or restraint. He would not let the kids engage in extreme weight loss practices. He bought into none of the strategy and cheapness that so often accompanies the need to win. He brought in coaches who understood that ideal: a philosopher named Andre, a former Oregon wrestling standout named Brian Watson whom the kids nicknamed “Jesus” for the soundness of his advice and his long blonde beard, and former South Eugene state champion Gabe Hamel.
Each day, Kenny and Gabe and I would square off at the end of practice and wrestle with the kids, would push until all that existed was the move and counter and counter to that.
It was enough for me. It wasn’t enough for Kenny. That spring, he left the coaching to Gabe Hamel, rented his house out to folks who’d keep up the garden and started the Pacific Coast Trail in Washington.
A year later, walking downtown, someone called my name. I didn’t recognize the fellow who confronted me. His clothes were holed and faded, and his blue eyes glittered from behind a beard that hung to his collar and met his tangled halo of hair. His arms and hands were tanned brown, as were his bare feet. It took me a long time to realize it was Kenny. When we embraced, I felt how slight he’d become, this man who was once solid with muscle. I asked him how the Pacific Crest Trail had been.
“Great,” he said. “Pretty easy. But then I kept going in Mexico and got robbed.”
He explained how after those thousands of miles on foot, after all that country, he hadn’t been ready to stop, hadn’t known how to. He’d kept walking the coast, on roads, trails, along the playa whenever possible. Then, in little fishing town one night, he was held up at gunpoint and had everything stolen — his cards and ID, his money, his gear, everything but his shoes. He’d thought about quitting, but didn’t. He felt relieved that the last of what he had was gone. He took off his shoes and kept walking, dove in Dumpsters in tourist areas, begged pesos, picked up occasional work on fishing docks and construction sites. He made it all the way down the Baja Archipelago, over the red dirt and yellow sand, reached the end of that land and stood looking into the broadness of the ocean and wished he could keep going. But there was nowhere else to go, so he turned back. It had taken him a long time to return, a lot strange towns and strange jobs, a lot of good and bad people and lean, lean living.
“What were you trying to get to?” I asked.
He thought for a while, shook his head. “I don’t know. Just — something.”
It was that elusive something Kenny was still seeking in the remote Kalalau valley. He gathered fruit and edible plants, even ate grass once his canned food was gone, and slept on the ground, sometimes in tent and often under the stars. On a page devoted to memories of Kenny, David Watson (Brian’s brother) said of Kenny that “he was hungry for Eden. While the rest of us can justify our place in … [this] life, Kenny could not.”
It would demean his memory to suggest that Kenny was seeking death. His death was an accident. Kenny wanted to share what he’d found there on Kauai, or he wouldn’t have used the last of what he had, money the sale of his house, to have his parents and friends come visit him. What Kenny was seeking was meaning — a way to live. In his devotion to the search, he never lost integrity. That is a rare quality in this world.
Kenny lived fully. He went purely.
He will be missed.
Michael Copperman is a freelance nonfiction writer. His last essay for EW was on the UO cutting its men’s wrestling program, which had generated Olympic contenders (see our online archives for May 15, 2008). This essay was written at the request of Kenny Cox’s father, George Cox. See more photos of Kenny Cox at www.eugeneweekly.com