The Rock on Half Dome: How Dani and Sylvia Found Triumph Amid Tragedy

Widow of Grossmont High football coach bonded with mother who lost son to heroin addiction.

Dani Murphy lives in El Cajon. Sylvia Boyd lives in St. George, UT.  They didn’t know each other existed until a rock brought them together—and changed their lives forever.

Murphy’s husband, Ron—head football coach at Grossmont High School—died of melanoma in February 2012. Boyd’s 23-year-old son, Aaron, died of a drug overdose in June 2011.

The rock?

It was a small piece of granite that Dani left under an outcropping atop Half Dome—the towering trademark of Yosemite National Park. Small enough to fit in your palm, the stone was inscribed with three messages.

Sylvia Boyd found it. Awed by the notations, and finding personal meaning, she vowed to unravel its secrets.

Dani’s story

The Murphys honeymooned in Yosemite National Park in the mid-1980s, and in January Dani reminded her husband of her dream to hike to the top of Half Dome to mark her 50th birthday.

“And if you want to come with me, you can,” she said. “If you don’t, I’m going to go with other people.”

Dani said Ron replied: “No, I’ll go. I’m on board.”

Grossmont High’s football banquet after a CIF playoff season was held Jan. 8, but two days later, at a doctor’s appointment, a lump was found under Ron’s arm—a recurrence of the skin cancer that everyone thought he had licked, Dani recalls.

“We proceeded with a whole bunch of tests,” she said. “Then it just fell apart from there.”

Ron, 48, died on Valentine’s Day.

Still, the Half Dome trip “was even more burning inside me,” Dani recalled Friday at her Grossmont High workplace. “I was going to hike it for both of us.”

“I could have left a picture of Ron [on Half Dome,] but I didn’t want to litter,” Dani said. “And so I thought I’m going to leave a rock up there.”

So before she left home, she found a white rock. Using a Sharpie, she wrote on three sides: Ron Murphy, Together Forever and Ron’s motto for his football players: It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.  She later couldn’t recall everything she had penned. It was all a blur, she said.

“I remember I was crying when I wrote it, which is probably why I can’t remember what I said,” she recalled Friday, sitting alongside her older sister, Charlie Holmes, also of El Cajon. “I remember it was really hard to write on a stupid rock.”

She tucked the rock into her backpack, intending to leave it under a nice tree—because Ron loved such shady settings. With a family hiking party of seven, she made the grueling 10-mile hike, ending with a cable-aided climb, on June 26.   

Atop the iconic 4,800-foot rock formation, Dani was dismayed to see no foliage.

“Never having been on top of Half Dome before … there’s not a single tree,” she said. “There’s no shade at all. The best I could do was tuck [the inscribed stone] under a rock, so it will be safe and sound.”

“We put his favorite quote on there,” she said. “I just left it there, you know, for Ron.”

Sylvia’s story

Aaron Boyd was well-loved and a great kid, his mother says. “But I’m not ashamed to say he was a heroin addict,” she said Sunday from southwestern Utah. “He … tried this stuff as a teenager. He couldn’t pull away from it.”

After sending him to two California drug-rehab centers, Sylvia and Jim Boyd were heartened that Aaron was “clean 14 months” via Salvation Army help and a stint in jail.

Then in June 2011, Sylvia was on one of her FedEx delivery routes.

“I was doing my route one morning, and the police wanted to talk to me—wouldn’t tell me what,” she recalls. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think they were going to tell me that my son was dead.”

He had been due home on a shuttle from Salt Lake City but relapsed, police said, and went back to using what he was used to using, “not realizing that the body can’t handle it,” Sylvia said in a phone interview.

“He had been clean a long time, but ultimately the addiction won.”

She recalls her son as “wise beyond his years. He knew his own destiny.”  But she’s comforted now, knowing “he’s not fighting the addiction anymore. It was a definite illness. They can’t beat it, some of them.”

Sylvia was no stranger to Yosemite. Her family had vacationed there when she grew up in Whittier, she said, and took Aaron there—up Half Dome—for the first time when he was 16 or 17.

“I just have wonderful memories of the fact that he did it, an exhausting hike,” she said. “He was really proud of himself.”

Sylvia herself had overcome adversity. In a motorcycle accident six years ago, she shattered a leg “to pieces” and broke her pelvis in two places—leading to a five-week hospitalization.

So on July 2—a week after the Murphys made their trek—the Boyds tackled Half Dome again.

“It was kind of for myself and for Aaron,” she said. “Because of losing Aaron, I felt like I would feel so good on top, and [remember] Aaron and the day he was up there with me.”

Starting at Glacier Point, she and her party made the grueling hike. Finally reaching the top, Sylvia’s 30-something niece reached a ledge ahead of her as a resting spot.

“First thing I did was pull my glove off. My niece said: ‘Sylvia, your bracelet fell off,’ ” the 55-year-old recalls.

Sylvia wore three rubber bracelets that day—pink, blue and yellow. Only one had a legend—“The pink one said Believe”—and that had fallen off.

As she reached down to fetch the bracelet, “I saw this rock … with writing on it, right beside my leg basically,” she recalls.  If she’d been sitting a foot to the right, she wouldn’t have seen it—“it would have been directly underneath me.”

Sylvia’s niece spotted the Murphy motto, and the first thing out of her mouth was: “Oh my God. Aaron’s here.” 

Sylvia says her niece was the closest cousin to Aaron, and “we all felt that Aaron’s why we found that rock.”

“It was just ‘Wow.’ I was meant to find that rock,” Sylvia says. “And I had this sense of: I have to find out who this Ron Murphy was.” 

She asked her daughter to help remember the name. “And my daughter looks at me like I’m crazy: ‘Mom, how many Ron Murphys are there in the world? How are you going to find that out?’ Over and over, I said ‘Ron Murphy’—on the hike 10 miles back—‘Ron Murphy.’ ”

Late that night, she Googled the name and soon found Patch coverage of his February memorial service at Grossmont High.

“I knew it was him immediately—because it was the motto” of the former Santana High coach, which was featured in the story. “I was meant to find this. What are the odds?”

Sylvia meets Dani

Two weeks after her Half Dome hike, Dani Murphy got a text message from her oldest son, Jordan (who didn’t make the trip). His girlfriend Amanda urged Dani to check out a Facebook page she never knew about—created by Grossmont football players as a tribute to Coach Murphy.

“So I went in there and saw this posting from Sylvia Boyd,” which included a photo of herself on Half Dome—holding Dani’s rock.

Dani thought Sylvia “was a really nice lady. … I thanked her for contacting me. I think it was really an emotional thing for her, and I kind of let it go at that. … I was sorry for her loss, too, but that was kind of that.”

It was nice that the rock meant something to her new Facebook friend, Dani said, “instead of somebody finding my rock and chucking it off the mountain.”

“Three, four, five months ago—I wasn’t saying anything to anybody,” Dani said. “I didn’t want to be misinterpreted. I didn’t want … to hurt her feelings.”

But Dani’s sister Charlie was moved: “I was crying and couldn’t believe it,” and Charlie pursued a deeper connection, later saying: “If I had left it up to the two of them, I don’t think it would have happened”—a face-to-face meeting.

Several weeks before Dani’s 50th birthday in September, Charlie contacted Sylvia and asked if she’d be willing to fly to Portland, OR, where Charlie’s daughter Lindsay lives. A family birthday party was planned there for Dani.

“Instead of saying maybe, she said: ‘Oh, I’d love to! What day should I get there?’ ” Charlie recalls Sylvia saying.

The surprise meeting happened one Sunday night at Portland City Grill.

“We just hung out like we’d known each other for years,” Charlie recalls. “We had a couple drinks and ate, and our daughter took us to see the swifts go down the chimney in a schoolyard”—a local migration similar to the swallows returning to Capistrano.

Said Dani of meeting Sylvia in person: “There was not any bit of uncomfortableness. She just immediately fit in. We started talking like we had known each other forever.”

Said Sylvia of Dani: “I just feel so close to her—and Charlie, too. … I guess it’s a positive that came out of a negative—this friendship and bond that we’ve created.”

Signs of Ron and Aaron

As a feint to set up the surprise visit to Portland, Sylvia sent Dani a birthday present—proof that 20 pine trees would be planted in Ron’s memory in Shasta-Trinity National Forest in Northern California. The idea was inspired by a gift someone had given Sylvia after Aaron died.

When Dani saw the gift, she was shocked by the coincidence: “Ron loved pine trees.”

Other commonalities were discovered:

The Murphys had honeymooned in Yosemite; Sylvia’s parents had honeymooned in Yosemite.

When Ron and Dani Murphy were there 27 years ago, they witnessed a rare Monarch butterfly migration.

When Sylvia heard this story in an email, “I nearly fell off my chair—because I have a butterfly tattoo on my arm, a memorial for Aaron.”

A photo of Aaron’s daughter, given up for adoption at birth, showed the girl at age 1, with arms high above her head and one hand holding “the biggest orange butterfly” from a crafts store.

And Sylvia posted on Facebook:

The day after his funeral I saw the picture of his daughter and put it in his Bible. The next day I was outside alone, sobbing, screaming at the world/God for taking him away from me. I noticed a chipmunk, a squirrel, several big lizards sunning themselves, a pair of mockingbirds on my fence....they were all frozen...just staring at me & all so close. I was taking in how odd this was to see them all at once....when the biggest orange monarch I have ever seen flew by me an inch from my face. I knew it was Aaron saying: “I’m OK, mom, don’t worry. I can see my baby girl now every day.”

In mid-August, Dani posted a note about a dream her sister had:

Hi Sylvia!!! Hope you’re well. I have to tell you that you make THE BEST bread pudding EVER! … You were in my sister’s dream the last night :) My sister Charlie has a ‘cabin’ in the Anza Borrego desert and apparently you were there with our whole family and you made dessert for everyone. I thought it was funny. So do you make a good bread pudding? I love desserts but have never made that one!

Sylvia replied: “Though I have never made bread pudding myself, it is my ABSOLUTE FAVORITE dessert! In fact I ordered it last Friday night. … I might also add that my Girl Scout troop used to go camping at Anza Borrego!”

Spiritual awakenings

Dani Murphy and Sylvia Boyd shared another similarity.

“To be perfectly honest, I would have called myself an atheist a couple years ago,” Sylvia said Sunday. “But that’s how I felt my whole life until Aaron’s passing.”  But “multiple things” have led her to believe “he’s OK now.”

She added: “Am I religious? No. Am I spiritual? Yes.”

Two days earlier, Dani said, “I was mad at God. I’ll admit that. I was really mad at God. Ron was a good, good guy. He did all the right things.”

But now she realizes:

I kind of think of everything as a coincidence, and sometimes I think it’s not a coincidence—maybe something happened for a reason. I’m not a very religious person, you know, but when I think back at all the events that had to take place—the timing that had to be completely right—it kind of does make you think there might have been a bigger plan.

Said Sylvia of her rock find: “It made me have a feeling that Ron and Aaron led me to sit there.”

But more than a belief in a higher power, Dani and Sylvia have come to appreciate each other’s power to heal.

On a hike up Mount Hood near Portland, Sylvia said: “I think she shared the most intimate moment with me. … One minute we’re laughing and smiling and the next minute we’re bawling. She shared with me the moment that Ron passed [in which he opened his eyes for the last time]. I put my arm around her and just said: ‘That was his gift to you.’ ”

Sylvia said Dani has helped her so much. “She once said, ‘You get me. I’ve been to support groups, but I feel you get me.’ Unless you’ve been through a loss like that, you don’t understand that connection.”

Perhaps the greatest joy Sylvia’s had since losing Aaron, she said, was “when I opened up a message from Dani, [and the first words were] ‘Today I didn’t cry.’ It was huge for me—that I made that difference. I gave her a day that she didn’t cry.”

For Dani’s part: “At one point I told [Sylvia] that what I really wanted is to just feel that person [is still here]—see a sign.”

Dani says Sylvia told her: “They’re there. You’re just not looking hard enough for them. She sees signs of Aaron all over the place.”

At night, Dani said, she used to “force myself” to dream about Ron, “and it didn’t happen.” But now she’s seeing evidence of Ron in the things her children say or do, which “makes me feel Ron is still here and watching over us.”

Sylvia says she thinks of Charlie and Dani “absolutely every day—the same as I think of Aaron every day,” and believes Ron is taking care of Aaron—the coach mentoring the wayward teen.

“I’m still not religious, but I have faith.”

Return to Half Dome

Dani wants to scale Half Dome again this year—and “every year for as long as I can.”

But she wants to have fun this time, “and see it in a different way.”

Sylvia says her goal now is to hike Half Dome with Dani and family. Her last ascent was a triumph, she said, but Dani’s “was a tragedy.”

“This time if we go together, we can both stand on top, put our hands up in the air—for both Ron and Aaron, and for ourselves. … We did this together.”

Ken Stone December 04, 2012 at 05:37 PM
Yes, Sylvia put the rock back where she found it. They hope to see it again.
Jose Manny Salinas December 05, 2012 at 07:57 PM
Gotta admit this story brought a tear to my eyes!! I sooo love ths story!!
Deena While December 05, 2012 at 10:13 PM
It's a great story and I'm so glad the stone was left there for more people to feel the inspiration. Heck! I might want to re-visit Half Dome again. When we climbed it in 1982 we pitched a tent and camped one night right on top - felt like we were on top of the world! Can't do that anymore!
Laurie Clay December 06, 2012 at 04:35 AM
Thank you for sharing this great story!!! I knew bits of it but it his is amazing.
Jay Steiger December 06, 2012 at 06:50 PM
An excellent and moving story. Thank you Ken and Patch for covering it.


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