Dumbo’s Feather

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I am thru-hiking the AT this year with fond memories of my late friend Bob Schwartz. 

In the mid-1970s, when we were young, hard-bodied and living in Colorado Springs, Bob was my favorite hiking, climbing, and biking partner.  We would hit the Rocky Mountain high country as often as our lives and wives would allow. 

Together we summited “fourteeners” in winter and summer, bouldered and swam through the 1,800-foot-deep Black Canyon of the Gunnison River, rode centuries through the rolling plains around C-Springs, and contemplated the cosmos as we camped at starry-eyed altitudes. 

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Bob in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River, Colorado

Bob loved New Hampshire’s White Mountains.  Walking there in his footsteps there will be the most cherished part of this experience. 

Bob was a native New Yorker (Brooklyn).  Through his eyes (and accent) I learned my way around the city long before I ever set foot there.  His quintessentially Jewish sense of humor and piercing intellect were extraordinary.

Bob graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale in only three years on his way to becoming a distinguished physicist, NASA scientist and university professor.  During our journeys we often camped above tree line where the deep velvet sky is sequined in stars.  His education was my good fortune because, ever the professor, he never missed an opportunity to expand my mind and share his appreciation for the cosmos.

Bob tragically died of Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (CJD) in 1980.  At the time, his doctors believed he might have contracted this brain-destroying disease while doing post-doc work at Cambridge University.  Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow) was present in the UK then, and researchers believed that CJD could be contracted by eating contaminated beef. 

The irony of a mind-robbing disease destroying a brilliant intellect remains heart-breaking to this day.

After he died, Bob’s wife Mary wanted me to have his climbing and camping gear.  In Bob’s memory, I will carry one of his carabineers.

How would I know the carabineer was Bob’s?  Climbers mark their equipment because during climbs it often gets co-mingled with hardware belonging to others.  Since Schwartz sounds like schwarz – German for the color black – Bob marked his gear with black electrical tape.  Duh!

If Bob were part of this hike, and believe me he would have jumped right on it, we would literally fly like Disney pachyderms.  ‘Quit’ and ‘impossible’ were not in his vocabulary, although he spelled PRUDENCE in all caps. 

Once while ascending the south route of Colorado’s Crestone Needle (14,197ft.) in February, my toes were suffering from frost nip on their way to something worse.  We descended to our tent pitched on a saddle below, warmed my foot and changed into dry socks.  I was thinking zero and a very early dinner, but Bob pointed his mittened hand upward, and back up we went to keep our appointment with the blustery summit.

My friend, we will be united once more, especially on those magical midnights when stardust rains from the sky.  Your carabineer will serve as a talisman inspiring me to press onward relentlessly and always.  It will remind me to be courageous, to challenge my imagination and to encourage my mind to travel far beyond what little I can actually see. 

I am so thankful to have Mary’s bequest.  It reminds me that life and good health should never be wasted.  You have my solemn promise to give this journey every ounce of energy, fortitude and kindness to others that I can muster.

Just as Dumbo clutched his feather and soared, I hope having Bob’s ‘beaner’ along for the ride will do the same for me.  BTW, It’s not useless weight.  In addition to its function as totem, it moonlights by clipping my micro spikes to my pack by day and as my bear bag hanger by night.

Sisu – Making tracks

 “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be.  Be one.”  Marcus Aurelius

(A version of this essay was previously posted on Trail Journals.)

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