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A 75th Birthday Hike With Smokey Bear

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People are funny about birthdays. Some like to ignore them completely, others crave a big celebration, while 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 could not 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 is 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 from the drastic effects of human pollution and climate change 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.

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