I had just started my new job and was googling something on the web, enthusiastic to be putting my writing skills to work for my new employer, but my hands froze on the keyboard and my blood ran cold when I saw the headlines pop up: a local automotive journalist had gone missing. Clicking on the banner, I was stunned to read that the missing journalist was Davey G. Johnson, a one-time editor of Gearhead Magazine.
I read with shock and numbness the details of his disappearance. Traveling back to Sacramento after taking a bike out on a test drive for an article he was writing, he was just a few hours from home when he stopped at the side of the road, apparently to rest and take a quick dip in the snow-fed river that wound through the mountain pass he was traveling on. There were pictures of his last text to his girlfriend and a photo he had texted of himself to a buddy; he is bare-chested sitting down.
The authorities had found his motorcycle parked purposefully, with his helmet and gloves balanced on the seat. Further away, his laptop, phone, some clothes, and his backpack rested on the shore. Search teams and sniffer dogs scoured the area over the next 10 days looking for traces of Davey, always leading back to the river’s edge. Late in the day June 20, 2019, they found his body, washed downstream in a local reservoir ending the worry and anxiety that had gripped our close-knit community of automotive and lifestyle journalists for almost two weeks. Accidental drowning is the believed cause of death, but there were few clues about what happened to a man who spent his life on the road.
Shock, disbelief, and a deep sadness filled my heart. And yes, anger. Anger flooded my body as quick as molten lava in the next split second because he grew up in an area where late spring snowmelt turns rivers and lakes into surging death traps; he should have known better! I was angry at him for leaving his new fiancé alone to struggle with the unanswered questions, never knowing for certain what happened.
It had been many years since Davey and I spoke. We were once so close as we worked together on Gearhead issues #12, #13, and #14 in the early 2000s with Davey sporting the editor's cap and me supporting him as owner/publisher. Being close to fifteen years older than he, our relationship was more that of big sister and little brother than that of editor and publisher.
His giddy joy at being tapped to head up Gearhead bubbled out of his body like so much foamy beer poured too fast in a warm glass. He was ecstatic, ebullient, literally bouncing with joy and enthusiasm at the opportunity that landed at his feet.
But on the flip side, like the two sides of a tarnished coin, he was also crushed with heartache and struggling with depression and despair, lacking confidence and consumed with grief from having just been dumped by a girl he thought he would share his life with.
We spent many hours together in person and on the phone; me encouraging him to focus on his work as therapy and healing, and he wallowing in heartache. Flipping back and forth between gratitude for his new position and despair at ever finding a partner to share his life with, he proceeded to produce three of the best issues in the Gearhead library.
His style of writing was just like his style of living: a mash-up of punk rock attitude and clear-cut automotive authority. Snarky and pointed at times, but also sweet and complimentary, I was amazed at his ability to mix these various attitudes and write with such a clear personal voice that it felt like he was there talking to you.
After those three issues, Davey stepped down, handing back the editor hat to my former partner, claiming it was just too much responsibility and too overwhelming to continue. He was so dedicated; he threw his whole heart and soul into his work. But he was also deeply self-critical.
He worried he wasn’t living up to our expectations, but I encouraged him to keep going, but he declined and went back to freelancing, doing what he loved; prodding and poking and being free to work when he chose, with no rails closing him in.
He moved on to write for many well-known publications and we lost touch. I had reached out several times over the intervening years but was met with silence from the other end. I don’t know why, but I never stopped being proud when I read one of his amazing articles, his voice shining out loud and clear, that giddy little kid thrilling in the ability to shock people with his punk rock references and then pulling them in with his stunning automotive knowledge.
Mixed emotions still tumble around in the pit of my stomach like river rocks being tossed by a violent current. Right after his death was announced many tributes that flooded the Internet honoring this incredibly complex man; some beautiful, some thoughtful, all impressed with his knowledge and style. It has been a year since his passing and I am still struggling to put words to what I am feeling. I wasn’t sure I had the right to pay tribute to him. But throughout this year, I’ve thought a lot about how much his life and death impacted my life.
.These memories will forever be frozen in time. We will never have the chance to reconnect, and I will never have the chance to tell him how proud of him I am, and how happy I am to see he finally found the love of his life.
As I write, I wonder, do I have a right to mourn someone who no longer was a part of my life? The tears well up and spill down my cheeks when I think of his deep yearning for love and companionship and I ache for the woman he left behind. Even now, one year later, I struggle with this bitter twisted mix of anger and sadness, numbness, and grief. His giddy giggle haunts my dreams now.
What happened? Why did we stop talking? I don’t know. When my former partner in Gearhead and I split up, deep gaping crevices in both our business and personal relationships appeared. It’s like a divorce you know? Once a couple splits up, friends inevitably take sides. I don’t know if that caused our drifting apart but it could be. I will never know.
We use to talk deeply and personally about our heartaches and shared experiences of longing for love only to have those hopes and dreams smashed to the ground by betrayal or apathy. We didn’t talk about cars much; music was our shared language of pain and grief, hope and excitement, and joy.
He touched my life at a pivotal moment in time when I was struggling after my divorce to find my voice and authenticity and to define myself separately from the looming shadow of my business partner. Davey helped me find my voice as he searched for his. He gave me the freedom to dig deep into my soul and share the language of passion as it related to our silly little punk rock hot rod world of Gearhead. His voice gave me the courage and confidence to write with my voice.
When I wanted to write about Dwight Yoakum, he encouraged me, even though country music at that time was far from cool. He urged me to explore it because it mattered to me. That is what I most remember and mourn now as I think about Davey.
He was fearless in exploring his overlapping passions, mixing them into the same article with such authenticity and sincerity that it left those reading his words laughing and shaking their heads in amusement. I wonder if he knew how much he was admired, and how inspiring he was.
This morning, I crawled up in the hot dusty attic looking for the old cardboard box of Gearhead press clippings I have saved over the years. I have a vivid memory of a story Davey did for Drive magazine back in 2002, when he sweet-talked the manufacturers into letting him take a Prowler on the road to Texas to be part of Gearhead’s first US Gearfest in Austin, TX.
Somehow he was able to write an article about The Prowler in the context of the festival and the story went to print with a mix of punk rock mayhem combined with the technical savvy using Gearhead bands and Gearfest as the backdrop for the story.
I haven’t opened up that box since I taped it shut with clear cellophane packing tape years ago as if I was taping up old cherished love letters. I knew this treasure trove was there, just waiting for the right time for me to feel safe enough to dig through the faded ink and weathered paper; to allow my heart to celebrate the events and people long gone from my life, not by death but through attrition or the desire to move in a different direction in one’s life.
As I dug through the dusty files my heart leaped every time I found a new article I had forgotten about. It was a walk down memory lane, and one of deep validation.
But I didn’t’ find the article I was looking for. I have such a vivid memory of seeing that article; I recall there’s even a picture of Davey and me with the Prowler. Why didn’t I save that? It seems like something I would have kept and cherished as it involved a moment in time that was so pivotal for me.
Mostly though, I just wanted to re-read Davey’s words and see how he managed to meld Gearfest with a review of the Prowler. I'm sure it was cheeky and irreverent but relevant to the reason he was loaned the car in the first place. I reached out to Drive Magazine, but it is under new ownership and they had destroyed all the old files.
Maybe not finding that article is just as well. It is a symbol of a time long forgotten, of relationships turned to dust, of music and friendship and bombastic coolness wrapped around faded memories like a rich piece of smoky bacon wrapped around chicken and grilled to perfection; delicious, satisfying and stored in the memory banks to be savored in leaner times.
I tug at these memories and find peace and stillness in my heart. Even if I can't find that old article, I have the words he wrote for Gearhead right in front of me, and they help soothe the grief. We dreamed and manifested something tangible; a testament and validation of the joy and authenticity once felt while collaborating creatively on a passion project. His spirit and energy are embedded in his writing and his voice will live on forever, rooted in black ink on thick white book stock. I can read those words and feel close to him still; love, pride, and surrender fill in where tears and grief once lived. As I grieve Davey, I also grieve those long-forgotten experiences and how different everything is now.
Davey allowed me to deep dive inside my soul. So many people reminisced about his contributions to the world of automotive journalism, but that was only the periphery of how deeply he touched my life. It was the open door but not the interior.
He died a happy man, doing what he loved to do, with a wonderful loving partner waiting for him at home. He left this world having achieved what he yearned for all those years ago.
As you crossed that rainbow bridge, I hope you found D. Boone and the other rock and roll angels you admired and were inspired by waiting for you. I hope you know how much you inspired those around you, and what an incredible impact your life had on those of us left behind.
Thank you for your passion and fearless approach to life. Thank you for giving me the courage to write with my voice. The Spark Plug shirt you designed for Gearhead says it all: Rock. Davey G. Johnson, you Rocked.
Rock 'n' Roll/Automotive Journalist, Influencer, Editor and Publisher of Gearhead Magazine,