I was tired as I drove out of town to a winery for the annual volunteer appreciation night. Earlier that day, I had hiked several miles at Fall Creek, swamper (helper) for two chain sawyers, rebuilt some trail tread, where it was wet and muddy, falling four times on the big leaf maple leaves that hid wet rocks.  

It was dark, raining hard, and a long drive on narrow roads to the winery, but I wasn’t planning to either drink or eat.  I was on the Board and needed to show my face, hopefully clean after the day’s work. The appreciation night was late in the year, because in summer, we are all out working trails and lakes. For introverts like me, especially a tired one, barely out of the shower, and having to work the next day, I just wanted to hide out somewhere among the fifty or so, make sure I was seen by the right people, and then leave. I had to get up early for another day of trail work, and didn’t yet know on the drive home I would be dodging opossums.

I was pleasantly surprised that the room at the winery was large, with high ceilings, a mask rule, with everyone’s complying.  I saw several from the Crew, four of whom I had seen at vaccine clinics when I worked there, advising each the best time to show up.  I saw people from the Club as well, and I figured altogether I knew 20, which for me was remarkable. I got some water and sat down at a table by a wall near the exit, so later I could quietly depart.

A tall man in his forties, wearing a Forest Service uniform, came by. His name badge read “Erik,” and I apologized for not getting up, telling him I was too tired from the day’s work and just wanted to sit. He laughed and understood, seating himself across from me.  He was from the Detroit Ranger District to our north, where I don’t hike or work often, but he knew enough of my area that we were able to talk about places we both knew. He mentioned that he had done a lot of rock work on a trail near Marion Lake, making a slide area easier to hike through. Rock work means picking up rocks (lift 1), putting them in something (2), carrying that something (3), then taking them out of that something (4), and finally putting them in a new place (5).  If I start moving rocks on a Crew job, my arms are going to feel like lead within 15 minutes. Erik looked like he could hold his own. He added he had hiked in a lot of wilderness areas in the past but didn’t offer any details. 

He asked where I got the carafe of water and cups, and I told him he could have the water, and there were cups at the bar.  While he was up, the trails person in the Middle Fork District came by and I briefly got up to tell him about the day on Fall Creek, his district, where we worked, having to leave six big logs between 20 and 40 inches that were too complex to cut, because of root balls above and the steep drop below. It wasn’t clear what would happen, and I told him we were going to have a well-known C-rated sawyer take a look. 

When I sat back down, Erik had returned, and for some reason, I guess to be social, I asked him whether he had worked in other forests, given his age. To my surprise, he hadn’t. “I was an electrician for 20 years and lost my job in the Great Recession. I didn’t know what I was going to do, so but I knew I liked hiking, so I spent time in the wilderness. I liked it so much that I decided I wanted to spend my life supporting public lands.”

Impressive.  He had changed his career in middle life. Just like I did. Lot more successfully, too, although I have no regrets. That takes guts and the ability to recognize that opportunities may appear in the worst of times (like being unemployed), then realizing that behind door #1, wilderness hiking, lies a chance to reinvent oneself in a completely different career.  Risky? Yep. Ageism rears its wrinkled head everywhere, and failure always looms, although I learned much from failing.

For me, asking more questions seemed to be pressing beyond what I thought proper but I was on a roll and continued: “Where were the wilderness areas you hiked?”

Erik came alive. I could see it in his eyes. “I hiked the PCT, (wow, I knew what was coming next), the Appalachian Trail (yep, exactly), and the Continental Divide Trail (oh my).”

“In other words,” I said, “You’ve done the Triple Crown,” short for seven thousand miles of backpacking across the US on three classic hiking trails that every avid hiker or backpacker in the US knows.  He had hiked through 96 wilderness areas alone on those three trails. Erik also mentioned several long trails in the South, including the Pihnati Trail, 300 miles in Alabama, that I had never heard of, plus 1300 miles hiking in Florida from Key West to the Panhandle. This guy was amazing, the kind of person I’d like to be when I grow up. And I am nearly 73.  All I’ve done is the southern quarter of the AT, and that was 22 years ago. I hoped I would go back, but I won’t. I never was a thru-hiker, let alone a Triple Crown hiker, but I backpacked far enough and long enough to reach the point where I didn’t feel right without a pack on my back. That’s how you really know you’ve been out in the woods. I wonder if he had done a thirty mile day. I should have asked him.  I wonder if he downed a quart of ice cream in one sitting, the way I did in Virginia one night. Damn, that was good. Or walked across the treeless Balds in a pouring rain, the way I did. I bet his adventures were far more, and I briefly contrasted Erik with another guy with whom I worked a few weeks back.

We were hiking out of the Mount Washington Wilderness when he asked me how many trail miles I had that year. The lack of an appropriate past participle made the question unclear, but I guessed correctly he meant trail miles cleared, and I replied about a hundred, which I had been tracking. He then said he had about four hundred and six hundred the prior year. I was annoyed, being sucked into someone’s narcissism in my airspace. For one thing, I counted trail miles cleared, not miles hiked in and out, otherwise my number would have been larger. For another, I probably cleared way more than my share of logs that day. I dislike one-upmanship, especially on the trail. I had had a good day’s work out there and then felt like a slug, listening to this guy brag.  

Erik was different. I felt uplifted when I listened to him, glad I asked him where he had been. I was in the presence of someone special, who rediscovered the outdoors through adversity, experienced places I will never experience, but can still appreciate, and then changed his career to care for these public lands. I, too, changed my career, I have experienced some wonderful things, and in my retirement volunteer a great deal of time to care for public lands. We are kindred spirits who took very different paths in life to end up in the same table that night.

When I left, not sneaking out early after all, I told Erik how impressed I was with what he did, and the look in his eyes showed his appreciation. 

It rained all the way home, but I didn’t hit any opossums. 

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