Hiking down from Trap Pass along the Pacific Crest Trail on a perfect summer day, I saw a single hiker ahead, trudging up the trail toward me. It was a man of roughly my age, carrying a heavy backpack. When we met and exchanged greetings, he asked if I was with the Forest Service. I said no, but I realized that I was wearing a light green shirt and dark shorts, and it did look a bit like a U.S. Forest Service uniform.
Then he remarked on my “Michigan” baseball cap, with its indigo color deeply faded by many days in the high country, but the maize embroidery of my alma mater’s name still bright. He said he had gone to the University of Michigan as well. He asked when I attended and I said I was there from 1968 through 1972. He said he was there from 1970 through 1974. He asked what I had studied, and I said I was in the School of Natural Resources. Turns out, he was too, so our paths would have crossed many times during the two years of overlap. Alas, neither of us recognized the other’s name, but I would have been two years older, and our classes would have been different.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, most of us entered the School of Natural Resources because we loved being outdoors and dreamed of a career that would keep us close to the forests and lakes and mountains that we loved. I loved hiking and fishing; others loved hunting ducks and deer, but all of us had the wilderness in our souls. The school had a feeling of camaraderie at the time, and I think most of us thought of ourselves as natural resource students first, and University of Michigan students second. In addition, both of us were at the school when the first Earth Day happened, so our environmental interests coincided with the awakening feeling that caring for the environment should become an urgent national priority.
He asked who my favorite professor had been, and I answered S. Ross Tocher, a charismatic man who taught park planning and nature interpretation, and who introduced me to photography and spurred my buying of a good quality camera. Dr. Tocher gave me a start on my careers in interpretation and photography through his classes, and asking me if I would like to participate in an arboretum design for Chippewa Nature Center in Midland, Michigan, along with a landscape architecture student. This was the first time I participated in a project at a professional level, and it was thrilling. Tocher later moved to the Puget Sound region and spent his retirement years about ten miles from where I now live, though we didn’t get reaquainted in later years, something I now regret, since this great man passed away several years ago.
My new trail acquaintance had spent the early part of his career working for the U.S. Forest Service in the Monte Cristo Ranger District in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains. He wasn’t a forester, but he recalled asking his forester colleagues if the timber harvest they were hauling out of the woods was sustainable. That would have been in the early 1980s, when logging was increased dramatically on Forest Service lands. They laughed and said absolutely not, but there was nothing they could do about it. One of their agency’s goals at the time was to make sure that all the old-growth timber on the district was harvested by 2010. They didn’t quite reach their goal, despite a valiant effort that left much of the Pacific Northwest with a brush cut, because the increasing scarcity of the Spotted Owl intervened and effectively cut off the harvest. Thank God and his little owl.
I told my new friend about my zigzag career path, having worked as a nature center director in upstate New York and as a freelance nature photographer in the years since, as well as shorter stints with the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management. I even did three summers of challenging work fighting forest fires in the California mountains.
He spent the latter part of his career working for Seattle City Light doing environmental projects. And he spent lots of his own time in the mountains, enjoying the glorious yearly summer respite between spring and autumn rains in this moist region.
This conversation got me thinking about others I went to school with and the paths their lives have taken. Most I lost contact with, of course, but I’ve run across the names of some through the years in various ways. My roommate at forestry summer semester went into the Peace Corps and spent five years working on natural resources in Columbia, before the drug trade turned it into a terrifying place for outsiders. He later became a craftsman, creating a company that forged decorative bronze bells. I ran into him at an art show some 15 years ago in Cleveland, where we each had a booth.
Another friend, for whom I was an usher at his wedding, went to graduate school, and later became a professor in Arizona. I heard him talking on NPR’s All Things Considered a few years back about tourism, his specialty. Another worked at a nature center, then departed for grad school and spent the rest of his career in Wisconsin doing graphics and photography for a university.
I was in college at the peak of the hippie era, and some of the guys I knew followed their passions in completely different directions. One formed a band performing in the style of old western music: they had an NPR program for many years and did a gig at the White House for Ronald Reagan (this guy also started the “Paul is Dead” rumor that swept the USA like wildfire–though Paul McCartney just gave a dynamite performance for 45,000 people in Seattle a week ago, so the report of his death was a bit premature, or else he’s had a great imposter for 40+ years). Another man–a man with a talent for talk–became an agent booking country and bluegrass acts out of Nashville. Still another became a restaurant manager in Cleveland.
Our lives and careers have taken many routes. But as my new friend said as we departed: “It’s good to see some of us are still living the dream.” Indeed. I cannot imagine a life without spending a great deal of time outdoors in beautiful country. I invited him to join us on a week-long hike in The Enchantments, but he declined. He had other plans, and another route through life.
One last thing: the man remarked twice to me: “I can’t believe how young you look!” Well, take off the baseball cap and you see the lost hair that once flowed long and blond, while the sunglasses mask skin damage from so many days spent outdoors in the days before sunscreen. I like my disguises and have no illusions of youthfulness.
We departed. He headed up the trail toward the pass and I headed down the trail to join my wife and our friend on the hike back to the trailhead. Old times and early ambitions were coursing through my head as I thought about forks in the road I’ve taken. Some with regrets, but most just are what they are. At this point in life, I’m as happy as I’m likely to be, and things have turned out pretty well. Life is our own personal version of the Pacific Crest Trail, filled with adventures on a long and wandering route through space and time.
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