People are funny about birthdays. Some like to ignore them completely, others crave a big celebration, while still others (whether they like it or not) have them sprung on them by surprise.
For many years, a critical part of my birthday observance has required hiking in nature. It has offered a chance to observe, take stock and push myself—sort of a physical and mental gut check.
A year ago, I set out to do a 10-mile hike on the Cottonwood Lakes Trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains out of Lone Pine, California. It was Aug. 27. The nation was firmly in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, and smoke from numerous wildfires was polluting the air. Sadly, in the course of a year, little has changed.
This year, I was lucky enough to receive an invitation to visit Grand Lake, Colorado, and celebrate my birthday hike in the Rocky Mountains accompanied by the perfect guide—a former forest ranger and decorated Vietnam War veteran named Roger Rood, who also turned 75 this year. During his years as a ranger, Rood (who stands about 6 feet, 2 inches) was often called upon to appear for the public dressed in the full furry costume and smiling head of Smokey Bear. (FYI—that is Smokey’s official name—not Smokey THE Bear, and this year is his 75th birthday, too.)
So, in a sense, Roger and I—and at least the spirit of Smokey Bear—went off together for a hike in the woods.
When I received the invitation to visit Grand Lake (gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park), my host, Gaylene Ore of Ore Communications, asked what I was most interested in doing. When I said hiking and wilderness, she connected me with Roger.
I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect guide. As a backcountry ranger, Roger knew every trail, as well as the best trout streams and the meadows where we were most likely to spot moose. But it was Roger’s affability on the trail that made that day as well as the subsequent hikes we shared so memorable. A born ambassador of the trail, he greeted every person we met.
“Hi. How’s your day going? Where’d you hike to? Catch any fish? Many people up that way? OK. You have a great hike.”
One of the things I love about real high-country hiking is that it’s a totally egalitarian pastime. There are no class distinctions on the trail. It’s about the shared, soul-enriching experience of being in the wilderness. It certainly didn’t take long for Roger’s affable spirit to become contagious.
When it was just the two of us, the conversation was as expansive as the landscape as we walked through verdant meadows cut across by a lazy meandering stream with the towering bald summit of Mount Craig (well above timberline) in the distance.
We shared our observations about how we have watched the natural world suffer during our lifetime: Water that was once as clear as crystal is no longer safe to drink; drought and insect infestations are killing pine forests and providing fuel for ever-larger wildfires; once-plentiful species are on the decline. We agreed that every moment spent in the wilderness now is to be cherished.
As we made our way up the East Inlet trail, our fellow hikers were a wonderfully mixed bag—from family day-strollers to seasoned backpackers inward and outward bound. There were also long periods spent without conversation as the wind whistled through the pines, first from far off, then coming nearer and nearer. We also listened to the sound of a creek cascading over the rocks and a shrill cry from a hawk, all accompanied by the footfalls of our boots and the click, click, click of our trekking poles.
We finally shed our packs and looked far off down the canyon we’d just come up. We savored lunch; then, it was time to reverse course and start back to the trailhead.
Over the next three days, I would hike some 20 miles with Roger, never at a loss for new topics to explore based on our many years of mountain memories. Roger also spoke openly about his experience as a combat sergeant in Vietnam. He said he was convinced that his decision to go into the Forest Service and the healing quality of the time he spent in nature allowed him to recover in ways many of his fellow soldiers have never been able to do.
I would later discover that just a few weeks before I arrived, the sky that during that birthday hike had seemed bluer than blue had been all but obscured by the smoke of raging wildfires. I wonder what the world will be like when I set out for my 76th anniversary hike.
When You Go
Jim Farber is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at Creators.com. Copyright 2021 Creators.com