Old Man Walking

Posted on July 4, 2019

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He was closing in on 70 and had retired several years earlier. His reward for a life of responsibility and hard work was to eat what he wanted, drink what he wanted, and enjoy his marriage and his family. He happily coasted on the fruits of his lifelong labors.

In his late sixties, he had an epiphany, of sorts. He decided that retired life should be more than coasting. After a lifetime of goals, he created new ones. He changed his diet, cut way down on wine, did cross fit. And he started walking. He walked 15 miles a day, sometimes more, all through his West Seattle neighborhood and beyond. People asked him if he had lost his mind. “No,” he answered, “I have found it.”

It was the walking that became a more and more important part of his life. It did more than take him along streets and paths. It took his mind to places it had never been, to the possibilities of new challenges and new experiences. He looked up and saw Mount Rainier, against the sky. The mountain became a challange. It called to him, as fiercely as the West had called to him decades before, luring him and his new wife from their home in Florida, to Idaho, with little more than a dream and a copy of The Whole Earth Catalog to serve as their blueprint for the life they would create.

Because he had always been a man who made things, he soon built a house for his growing family. Their goal was to live off the land. They got water from the river and food from the garden. They provided what they needed. They had their family, three daughters, and they taught their daughters that family was everything. With family, all was possible. Their daughters listened and they understood.

Because he taught them well, their daughters went on to choose partners who shared their vision. The entire family all ended up in Seattle, close in far more ways than proximity.

Because he continued to make things, he made things for himself and for them: a vast vegetable garden and patio for himself and his wife, a playhouse for his grandchildren, a guest cottage for one daughter’s house. The list was endless. He built and he repaired, in a state of boundless energy.

The vision formed in his mind was every bit as powerful as the one that brought him from Florida, west. He would summit Mount Rainier. As he walked, he kept the mountain in sight. The pounds fell off his frame, along with any lingering belief that he might not be able to accomplish his goal. He emerged 60 lbs lighter, stronger than he had been in decades, and absolutely convinced that he would summit Rainier and then Kilimanjaro in January.

Because he was a natural philosopher and a natural storyteller, he supplied his family with an ongoing stream of inspirational thoughts, during the months leading up to the Ranier climb. He called himself “Old Man Walking.” It was more than a name that defined his age and daily activity. It was his mission.

That man, Kirby, came into my life many years ago, when my son married his youngest daughter. I became witness to a family whose words were soft and whose devotion to each other was fierce. Kirby had first crafted this family, then inspired them. He was my daughter-in-law’s best friend. He affected everyone who came into his orbit. He was the man who built more than playhouses and fixed more than fences.

Last week, Kirby went to Mount Rainier, to train for the big climb. Rainier is a mercurial mountain, weather-wise. Kirby was not a mercurial man. The hike started in blue skies and mild weather. Ranier turned the weather from summer to winter, as it is wont to do.

Each step Kirby took on the maountain that day was like each moment in his garden, each moment with his family, each moment fixing a leak or building a fence. It was the moment of life that mattered, not that each of those steps on that day were leading him to his death. Past and future were an abstraction, insignificant to that moment.

The family he left behind that day would be defined far more by what he gave to him than what his absence took away. The mountain could take his life, but not his legacy. On that day, on that mountain, his daughter’s backpack firmly strapped to his back, Kirby, Old Man Walking, walked on.

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