Georgetown, Texas (September 1991)
For a brief period, I was friends with John “Sandman” Payne (far left). We lived in the same freshman dorm at Southwestern University where he earned his nickname before classes even started, having passed out in a sand-volleyball court. He recounted waking up and shaking sand out of his hair and wallet. “It was in my teeth,” he said. Sandman was funny like that.
Regrettably, my friendship with John waned during spring semester as our dorm became divided along fraternity lines. We eventually lost touch after freshman year, and the subsequent fall, he transferred to Texas Tech in Lubbock. In late February 1993, however, John abruptly quit school to backpack in New Zealand.
Two months later, his family would never hear from him again.
“This was a journey for John to kind of find himself,” his mother said in a July 1993 Dallas Morning News article about his disappearance. “It’s the adventure a young man wants to have.” He had turned 20 shortly after he arrived in New Zealand.
According to police records, John had attempted to climb Mount Cook, New Zealand’s tallest peak. His paper trail ended on April 2, 1993, with a guestbook he signed at the Douglas Rock hut on the Copland Pass, a dangerous traverse stretching from the ocean to Mount Cook.
For the next four years, John was declared missing, though his family kept a staunch vigil throughout. In March 1997, a group of hikers discovered his body. He was still wearing his backpack and had all his possessions, including a journal, according to another Morning News article. It also quoted Sgt. Dave Gaskin of the Timaru Police Department: “He perished, probably, from the cold rather than a fall, because there [was] no obvious injury.”
I didn’t learn of John’s disappearance until late-summer 1993 when my friend and college roommate, Fisher (he snapped the group photo), called with the news. At the time, we thought Sandman could still be alive since we figured he knew how to rough the outdoors — he had spent his childhood on a farm in Wyoming. A bona fide hick, Sandman didn’t move to the suburbs of Dallas until he was 14; in fact, he once said he’d never seen a skyscraper until he drove through downtown Dallas.
I’ve thought a lot about John since “Into the Wild” was released to critical acclaim. But unlike the book and movie’s protagonist, Christopher McCandless, who died in Alaska, I don’t think of Sandman as the type who burned his money before setting off on his expedition. I just think of him as the funny dude who used to blare this DJ Quik song from his dorm room.
Photo backstory: At the beginning of the school year, all the guys on my floor had singled out the Pakistani guy, a really nice fellow named Jawad, as a faux cult leader. I silkscreened t-shirts that read “Believe in The Wad. For He is truth,” which really got the ball rolling. Fisher and I tacked the photo and a list of quotes from “The Book of Jawad” to our door. And for the next six months, the running joke was to recite Jawadisms and add more quotes. For example, when asked if he would come drinking, Jawad replied, “No, I’m sorry. I believe in the Teddy Bear philosophy.” Through it all, Jawad was a great sport, and it is my understanding that today he is a successful attorney.
“The family has also set up a fund for Richardson High School, which he attended, to allow one or two students to travel each year to Washington, D.C. – for fun as well as education. ‘John would not have approved of something that was totally scholastic,’ Ms. Payne said.” –Aline McKenzie, Staff Writer of The Dallas Morning News (March 5, 1997)