Reflections: Exchange student Lucy Sanchez and the Kalmiopsis

Reflections: 2016 a big year for first time backpackers
by Gabriel Howe, Executive Director
for the Siskiyou Hiker

19 DECEMBER 2016 | OAK FLAT, JOSEPHINE COUNTY — Our region’s landscapes are what invigorate me. They set the stage of adventures that push my limits into unknown terrain, leaving scrapes on the legs, bruises all over, and those memories I cherish most.

The people are what inspire me, and I have a lot to reflect on this year, including many first time backpackers.

Here comes Lucy
I can’t count them all, but one first time backpacker stands out: Lucy Sanchez.

On March 16 I receive this email:

Hello, my name is Lucy…I just arrived yesterday here in Ashland from Mexico…I really want to take advantage of my stay here before classes start. I’ve never been hiking and it’s my first time here in Ashland but I am really interested in going on the trip this weekend. What all would I need to have or bring for the trip? If you could provide me with detailed information to see if I can attend I would really appreciate it. Thank you 🙂

I tell Lucy we’d love to have her and send her a gear list. She responds requesting to borrow the gear she needs, and I pick her up before light breaks on March 19 at a nice house above the boulevard.

Lucy seems excited and eager, though not nervous, as we pick more hikers up and head to the Illinois River Trailhead, which must seem many worlds away from home for her.

The work and the six mile hike goes well. Lucy’s absolutely exhausted but seems comfortable at dusk when she stumbles up to the camp in step with volunteers Angie and Mary, after fording a frigid thigh-high Pine Flat Creek.

A warm, joyful light
Pine Flat is this big, dreamy meadow with old fruit orchards that flow into rolling grass benches adjacent the steady roar of the Wild & Scenic Illinois River. It’s the first place in the Kalmiopsis I ever visited, sparking a life journey that has so far lasted 10 years and counting.

Around the campfire that evening, a moment rises up from the flames and comes over me. On the left is a forester who plans timber sales. To my right is an environmentalist who has routinely sued that timber planner’s organization. In any other context, these two would be at each other’s throat in heated arguments. Instead, they’re exhausted from spending all day working together to make the trail into Pine Flat nicer.

Then straight across is Lucy of Mexico, warming herself around a hot fire, the flicker of it casting a warm, joyful light on her. And all behind us is the most remote, expansive and wild landscape on the West Coast rising from a world class river.

America in 2016
This is the America I had the amazing privilege of showing Lucy. I was tasked and proud to share this uniquely American experience with her: warm hearted, hard working people with diverse stories, all together inching towards something common.

I’m not sure what Lucy thinks of when she thinks of America now. But I hope she thinks of untrammeled landscapes and wild frontier. I hope she thinks about beautiful people from many places being challenged by compelling terrain, helping and pushing each other along the way.

I’m lucky. This experience, with Lucy and company, and experiences like it, this is what defined my year. I spent 2016 with diverse groups of people in wild places around campfires, on rocky trails, and remote river banks, and that is how I will remember 2016. I’ll remember the young people, the first timers and old timers, the weak and the strong.

I will not remember 2016 for Hillary or Donald, walls, divisions, hate-spew and put-downs. I will remember the people and the places.

I’ll remember taking all these folks outside in this remarkably wild slice of America. That was my 2016. And for that I am very, very fortunate.

To conclude, I can tell you that no matter what you believe, where you come from or who you vote for, you are welcome on our hikes and at our events. I can also tell you that there is tremendous hope for our mission in 2017.

Happy Holidays and Happy Trails to everyone. ###

Gabriel Howe is the Executive Director of Siskiyou Mountain Club. You won’t find him tweeting before dawn, but you could find him writing or swimming laps then.

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