Monday, August 11, 2003

Trip planning can be fun. Esther’s got vacation time coming up and we’re wondering where to go. One idea is to go north and hike a 60-mile section of the North Country National Scenic Trail in Wisconsin. Another is to head south and backpack a section of the River to River Trail in the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois. I’ve camped in my home state a few times, but never backpacked. We’re leaning towards that trip option. Of course there’s the Kekakebic and Border Route Trails in Minnesota that I didn’t do last year, segments of the Ice Age Trail, the Knobstone Trail in southern Indiana (more Ohio River Valley action)… so many trails, and a lifetime to explore them. So thankful I got the hiking bug early. It will be the key to long life, or shorten it. Death in the wilderness? I could think of worse fates, machines and IV drips, the mental stripping of Alzheimer’s, cancer. I pray for a swift death with all my faculties engaged, or the death of sleep when I’m old and at peace after a full life of joy, accomplishment and adventure.

Why such morbidity? Because this is my geriatric summer and I can smell the grim, inevitable specter on the old ones who pay me to mow their lawns? Or the near-death bypass operation experienced by my father, and watching a machine do his breathing for him? At 30, even with my exposure to old people, death remains a distant, abstract concept. I think I’ve come to grips with my own mortality. Talk to me in another 30 years.

Last weekend we did trail work at Devil’s Lake State Park with the Mobile Skills Crew and helped build 1,500 feet of new Ice Age Trail. I felt really up to the arduous task of trail building, and took on more strenuous activities like moving big boulders or removing stumps. The summer’s high activity level has increased my stamina. I didn’t wake up Sunday sore and tired. We’ve still got another 1,000 feet or so of new trail to build before the re-route we started at the first Mobile Skills Crew training session in April 2002 is completed. It has been difficult work, difficult trail, rocks galore and thick brush, but beautiful with large, house-sized boulders and view of a mossy cliff as the trail climbs 500-feet up a bluff. More than a million people visit the park each year, so the trail will definitely see use once it is finished.

It was nice to see so many volunteers join us throughout the day Saturday. As word gets out about these work days, extra help is becoming a common thing. And us MSC people have enough experience to delegate tasks. Strange to be a sage trail hand after little more than a year of volunteer work.

The real reason Esther and I stay involved in trail work is because of all the beer and hard liquor that is offered around the campfire at night. My favorite new beer is New Glarus Coffee Stout. I had one with dinner Saturday night. We also brought a bottle of Rumplemintz Peppermint Schnapps. I had but a couple snorts of it, and the bottle was more than half full when I went to bed, but by morning it was gone. Our oldest volunteer, Lyle, 71, stayed up until the wee hours and showed us younguns how to mix the schnapps and brandy in our cheeks. He called the mixture some German name, but I forget…

I also handed out copies of my short story collection, Thru, and was asked to read a couple stories around the campfire. Everybody paid close attention to the reading and I was applauded after each story. That felt good, sharing my trail stories with trail-minded folk.

I mowed four lawns today, including the national president of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Assocation, Bill Foster. He took me down to his basement and showed me a room full of Navy and war memorabilia. Although he is around 80 years old, his home looks neat. A true Navy man, even now. I see such fastidiousness in my own father. Foster said he was a “tin can” sailor because he served on destroyers. Guess Dad is too since he served on the U.S.S. Hancock destroyer.

It was strange to look at the faded black and white photographs of Foster in Hawaii as a young man and look up to see this white-haired man before me. I thought about was that afternoon on the AT in Virginia when I stopped for a long lunch at the Audie Murphy memorial just off the trail. Murphy’s most heroic moment happened when he was 18, barely old enough to register the impact of his deed. He parlayed his Medal of Honor into a career as a B movie actor and died in a plane crash not far from the monument. I imagine Bill is not much different from Audie. He’s just done the speech and parade circuit a bit longer.

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