THE PLAQUE ON THE BENCH


I walked along the west shore of Clear Lake on a beautiful spring day in the foothills of the Oregon Cascades, temperature in the mid-60s, few clouds, a wide open trail before me.  I had a good hike ahead, in a boreal forest, circling Clear Lake, the headwaters of the McKenzie River.  The water here eventually would join with the Willamette near Eugene, reaching the Columbia in Portland, on the way to the Pacific.  This was big tree country, and not far to the east, I saw snow on the Cascades.

Near Clear Lake Lodge, still closed for the season, I stopped by a bench with a plaque remembering a man, “1920-1984”.  I’ve seen many other memorials to those who made a difference to others.  This man deeply touched somebody, probably many somebodies, never seeing his 65th birthday that I saw nearly five months ago. I felt very lucky….but very mortal, too.

I’ve seen memorials to 42 year-olds, 51 year-olds, and of course, the occasional 83 year-old.  The first memorial I remember was one I helped create, to a 17 year-old high school classmate who died unexpectedly right after graduation, during thyroid surgery.  At Rowe Sanctuary, there are two viewing blinds named for donors, people who loved the Sandhill Cranes and made a difference.  The first trip of the year is a memorial to a man whom I met briefly when I was there in 2008.  He died much too soon.  There is a memorial trail at Rowe and a beautiful white rock commemorating a woman, “1945-2005,” too young, “She loved the Sandhill Cranes” is written on the rock.

I read the plaque on the bench and continued walking.  Wow. I am 65, and can still hike, backpack, and canoe.  I would later see mountain bikers, a deep blue spring that would help me understand Crater Lake’s color, and earlier visited two waterfalls.  I was exploring Oregon, late in life, but not clear how late.  Not being clear on how late makes me fortunate.  When one knows how much time is left, there usually is a bad reason.

I hear many say age is a number; all are far younger than I.  Many have never had their bodies betray them.  They think 60 is the new 40; 80 is the new 60.  I suspect eighty is eighty.  I hiked the Brooks Range when I was 63, carrying 75 pounds.  A 71 year-old hiked the Arrigetch Peaks with me in 2007.  I’d like to backpack when I am 71, but I’ll be happy to do two more in Alaska, this year and next.  Last year, I portaged a wooden canoe a mile.  The guy with me, 10 years younger, carried it better, and I was in good shape.  Ten years matters at my age, and it will matter more and more.  My clock is ticking, and I am not so foolish as to think I have all the time I want.  I don’t.  I’ve had more than many, and I am grateful.

Arrigetch Peaks, Alaska.  Gates of the Arctic National Park.  The two are called "The Maidens"(1700 M), the one in the distant shot is "Elephant's tooth"  (1100 M)

Arrigetch Peaks, Alaska. Gates of the Arctic National Park. The two are called “The Maidens”(1700 M), the one in the distant shot is “Elephant’s tooth” (1100 M)

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Arrigetch Peaks from “The Knob,” about 5 miles and 2000 feet of climbing through thick brush, rock fields and no trail. This takes a full, difficult day to two. The 8 miles from the Alatna River takes a day and a half. At the time, it was the most difficult hike I had ever done in my life.

 

I also need to touch others in some way, too, difficult, because I like to be alone.  Indeed, when I posted my hike’s pictures on Facebook to the few who follow me, I made the comment, “No, Facebook, I didn’t have anybody with me.  I went alone, and that was the idea.”  I go into the woods because I periodically must.

Perhaps my need to touch others is why next weekend I will volunteer cleaning up trash in Alton Baker Park, well downstream from the McKenzie, along the Willamette.  I need to give back in some way that works for me and helps others.  I’ve been blessed.  I made it to 42, 53, and yes, 64.  I haven’t done what many great people have done, but I have seen many lovely parts of the world…..and years that too many never had the opportunity.  Perhaps as a doctor I helped some see a few more years, or to see the years they had better.  I don’t know; mostly, I helped people spend their last days in dignity, not doing anything for them that they or their family didn’t want.  I certainly succeeded in that regard with my parents.

I occasionally think of whether I would want a memorial, and I don’t know. My father-in-law had part of a hospital named for him while he was alive to appreciate it.  I liked that.  I do know that I need to leave the world behind better, even if only a little better, than it was when I arrived.  My wife and I named a scholarship at Vermilion Community College after ourselves.  A student will receive that scholarship April 24, the 9th year we’ve had it.  We lived to see the joy on a student’s face; some day, the scholarship will be a memorial.

The man for whom the bench was a memorial likely stood where I did today.  In a way, the forest cathedral there is hallowed ground, memorializing him, who loved this special area and was loved by others.  A trail, a rock, a viewing blind, where people come to see a half million Sandhill Cranes is a good way.  The Bob Marshall Wilderness is, too.

Where I first hiked in Tucson, and did so for three decades, I did from what is now the Richard McKee Trailhead, named for an attorney who cared deeply about the environment, and whose last words were “What a beautiful world,” as he died in 1999 from leukemia.  He was 43.

Finger Rock Trail is one of the most challenging and beautiful hikes in southern Arizona.

 

Sahalie Falls

Sahalie Falls

Koosah Falls

Koosah Falls

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The scale on the map, regarding the tree’s height is 1:480.

Clear Lake

Clear Lake

Big Spring

Big Spring

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