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Shoemaker column: Soon enough it will be my last hike

John Shoemaker
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Pawhuska Journal-Capital

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

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It was blue sky and 90 degrees but dry when I darted off the trailhead for my routine two-hour hike.

I would hike up and down Noanet Peak and over to Powisset Peak in Dover, Massachusetts. It would be a five-mile route with about 1,200 feet of elevation gain in total.

Yes, I am a hiker and have hiked hills and mountains from the Canadian Rockies to the Appalachians, from the Great China Wall to the Alps, from the sands of Dubai to East Africa.

The most daunting were the mountains of South Vietnam near the Laotian border during the war when I was an Army platoon leader for the Americal Division in I Corps.

The most physically exhausting were hiking 18 “Fourteeners” in Colorado (mountains over 14,000 feet high).

Today was so amazing because this year, this time, no gypsy moths were stripping the leaves off all the trees in New England. Everything was lush green and healthy from constant rains and sunny days.

Yet I found it ironic that humanity has not had a healthy year. At any point, you could find out you have COVID-19 - a death sentence for me as a 74-year-old hiker.

As I moved briskly with my hiking pole and 20-pound backpack with a gallon of water, I never seemed to take the forest for granted. I marvel at all the details of nature.

I also use it as a time to reflect on life, family and career.

I sometimes review what I did in my life and how it turned out. For the most part, my life was not easy and required hard work and risk-taking. Nothing is easy if it has any value.

True, I had little money for most of my youth, but I was happy. I found a way to work multiple jobs year-round and made it through college on my own dime. Given the war going on, I decided to volunteer and sign up for all the training I could get. That was a masterful decision.

I was able to learn, experience and mature as a man. I survived the war and look back on it as an invaluable life experience.

I also decided to avoid self-destruction: no smoking, no alcohol, no drugs, while trying to eat right and exercise often. In short, no craziness.

Soon marriage, children and high-tech jobs would follow. I did fairly well in a high-pressure, high-reward, high-risk world. I provided well enough for my wife and children and had a good life.

But I look back on my career as quite “unsatisfying” since in the end, while I made money and secured my retirement, I finished after 45 years without feeling like I accomplished anything with lasting value. Companies get bought and sold, rightsized and downsized, go bankrupt, and those that prosper get eaten up by larger companies.

Many CEOs were poor leaders and self-serving but won their position from “vulture capitalists” for a specific kind of talent or degree while sorely lacking in leadership and social skills.

Time moves faster than anyone understands until it is too late. Many of these CEOs have since died; their legacies are forgotten.

One CEO was particularly abusive to his workers and me, even as I was his vice president. This went on for two years. Then at the age of 42, he learned he had cancer. He would die soon after.

No one knows when that day will come.

I do wonder when my last hike will come.

I remember I was forced to have a conversation with a worker having debilitating health problems due to obesity. It was coming to a climax due to absenteeism and lack of trust by co-workers. When he came into my office, he was complaining about trivia.

Finally, I asked him outright, “How long do you expect to live?”

He was shocked. He was also speechless for a few moments and then whispered, “Why do you ask?”

I replied that he is not happy, he is shortfalling his responsibilities and he is not in good health.

“Well, there is nothing I can do about it,” clearly resigned to his plight.

Again I asked, “So, how long do you expect to live?”

He was only 38. He replied he never expected to live older than 60.

Later he resigned and became a reclusive soul, unwilling to change.

One key lesson in life is that it is about change, and either we adapt or die.

I hope to keep changing to challenge myself physically, mentally and socially.

I decided to run for election and became a commissioner on my town council. This could not be more different than all my other life experiences. In some way, it is an opportunity to give back.

Our world is experiencing massive change, but there must be a core spirit that binds us and protects us, be that family, religion, friends or a mission supported by positive values.

When the day comes for my last hike, I want to feel I have made some difference during my nanoseconds on Earth.

That will be felt through my terrific children and grandchildren who are and will be contributors and American assets.

I am at peace.

John Shoemaker can be reached at shoerfid@yahoo.com.