I suppose this is all my mother’s fault. Freudian therapists would have a field day with that one, but in my case it’s probably true. Mom likes to tell the story of putting me in a bassinet on the front porch of our western Carolina home in the middle of winter. “You were wrapped up!” she would add. But much to the chagrin of her mother, there I’d sit for hours in whatever weather happened by. Maybe because of that, I learned to embrace the outdoors as I grew older. At any rate, Here I’ll progressively add more to the days that followed………………Like some of my bleaders (blog readers), I learned to ride a bike fairly early in life….five or six, if I remember right. It’s either been my salvation or my undoing depending on how you look at it. My first bike was a full size cruiser with no training wheels. I guess my dad thought it “would do me good” to learn that way. We had a long sloping driveway that emptied out into a grassy backyard. For some reason, I don’t remember having too hard a time getting the bike going. I wobbled around for a while and then realized I didn’t know how to get off the damn thing. I headed down the driveway and into the grass with the sudden remembrance of the big creek at the end of the backyard. At that moment and for the rest of the summer, I exited the flying bike by climbing up onto the saddle and diving off into the grass. It could be a metaphor for my life so far………………………..
Growing up in the Southeast usually meant hot, muggy summers. One of the best places to escape the madness was the water. Swimming and water sports were a way of life. I learned to swim early on which set the stage for a lifetime of being a mudpuppy. Around the age of seven or eight I went to a YMCA camp and jumped at the chance to take a Red Cross course in canoeing………….I’ve been paddling since.
My family always had close ties to the North Carolina mountains. My grandmother had a summer house outside of Brevard for years. Brevard is now a mecca for outdoor folks and close to very trendy Asheville. Asheville was a mid-sized paper pulp mill town when I was young and it was always a joke because of the overpowering smell of sulphur dioxide spewing from the mills. Lots has changed and Asheville is a “Boulder” of the south now; bohemian, gay and musically oriented. But this isn’t about Asheville……it’s about me.
Our family used to spend a lot of weekends and summer vacations in and around Brevard. Cooler in the summer than home and out-of-town. When I was nine, my grandmother mentioned a friend of hers’ son had started a summer camp near Brevard. The camp, Deep Woods, had a different ideal than most summer camps those days. Rougher, tougher and no macrame’ room. My first summer there I was hooked. I like the outdoors rougher and tougher and this camp suited me fine. Kells Hogan who started the camp and runs it to this day was Army Counter Intelligence in Korea. They didn’t come much tougher back then. Kells didn’t run a boot camp but this wasn’t a place for sissies either. The camp only held about 30 or 40 boys in a four week session. We spent lots of days out of camp whitewater canoeing, bushwhacking off trail and “wet hiking” which was nothing more than using a creek as a trail and hiking to God knows where. I spent the better part of ten summers with Kells as a camper and then counselor. I learned everything I ever needed to know about being outdoors in those years. Thanks Kells.
My college roommate and I did a lot of backpacking trips over the years. We particularly enjoyed winter. Fewer people, more challenge. During our Sophmore year, we had been talking about doing the whole Appalachian Trail. 2100 miles from Georgia to Maine. A major undertaking on any level. The popular route is to follow spring north by starting in Georgia in March. The weather is better and the days are getting longer which makes 15-20 miles a day with a heavy pack more doable. One night we went to see the new Robert Redford movie, “Jeremiah Johnson”. It was truly an inspiration. We decided then and there, without a bong handy, to do the Trail in the winter. And so, we did. The winter of 1976, we became the first through hikers to complete the Trail in the winter…ever. We started in Georgia new year’s eve and finished may 31st on Mt. Katahdin, Maine. Five months to the day. Truly epic.
As college was winding down, I began to realize that a degree in wildlife biology was going to end up in government work or selling my soul for a grant. Neither of which really appealed to me as a life long endeavor. One afternoon I wandered into an outdoor store, we referred to them as “backpacking shops” back then; a friend of mine had suggested I talk with the owner who was looking for a manager. Tom Valone had just moved back from Chapel Hill to his home town of Raleigh to start a second Trail Shop. We chatted for a while and he wound up hiring me as his manager. It was the beginning of a 30 year career in the outdoor business. Thanks Tom. Tom, by the way, is now owner of a multi-store chain of shops The Great Outdoor Provision Company which blanket most of North Carolina. I like to think I was there at the beginning.
30 years doing any kind of work is a life-long career. My 30 years in the outdoor business happened during a truly evolutionary time for the industry. I started with the Trail Shop in the spring of 1978. Patagonia was a new kid on the block. Sierra Designs, Kelty, The North Face were all under the guidance of their original founders. Gear and clothing were on a rocket ship ride of new technology in fabric and materials. Gore-Tex didn’t happen until a couple of years after I started in the business and even then it was years before anyone but industry types would pay real money for it because of failed promises. The industry was a young excited child. Wide eyed and giggly. After a few years in retail, I realized my true calling was on the road, as a sales rep. I had always loved travel especially by car, so why not hit the road.