The Path Paid Forward

The Path Paid Forward

Much of the joy in my life I owe to the generosity of strangers. The advent of social media has merely expanded my capacity for building relationships with people I hardly know. For as long as I can remember I’ve enjoyed the benefits of an existence vulnerable to the whims of fate. With a vague notion of what the future lay in store, I’ve pretty much trusted in the naive belief that everything will just work out for the best. Many of my adventures have been made possible thanks to those who in times of need gave freely of themselves with neither hesitation nor condition. So when Mari Baldwin was looking for a ride from Whitewater, Wisconsin to Madison I naturally offered to help.

“Are you sure?” she asked in reply. “It’s not too much trouble?” “Not at all,” I said. “It’s the least I can do.”

Almost a year ago my friend Margie Hangan did the same for me. I was desperately in need of a ride from Flagstaff, Arizona to Page. There I had hoped to make the put-in for a paddling trip on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Already grateful for having been invited on this incredible two-week trip by my friend Sergio Ballivian I was profoundly stricken by the good fortune of the people in my life so willing to help me enjoy this wonderful experience.

“Don’t worry about it,” Margie said. “This is Arizona. We’re used to long hours of desert driving.”

After a 260-mile round trip all she took in exchange was a mediocre breakfast in roadside dinner and my eternal gratitude. In the world of outdoor adventure I have frequently been the beneficiary of a kind person who happily paid forward their appreciation of a kindness extended to them. Though Mari and I had only just met a few weeks earlier at the Ice Age Trail 50 ultra marathon I was happy to help her make the most of her next visit to Wisconsin. With an ambitious plan to run her third 50 kilometer race, Mari took an open slot on a relay team at the Kettle Moraine 100. Though she could get a ride to start from a friend, she had no way to get back to Madison and catch a flight back to Los Angeles where she lives.

For me it was a no-brainer. On this Saturday morning in early June I managed to get in about an hour of fly-fishing followed by a fast 25-mile bike ride before I made the drive to Whitewater. On dry roads the trip was a little more than 60 miles and I met Mari as she came in for her 50K finish at the Scuppernong Trailhead. It just so happened that the race was held on National Trails Day and with hundreds of participants and spectators enjoying the Ice Age National Scenic Trail I was excited to see so many people enjoying this incredible natural resource. As a board member of the Ice Age Trail Alliance I was really happy to welcome a visitor from out of town with a little Wisconsin hospitality. And like Margie, all I got in exchange was Mari’s gratitude…Oh! and a really nice meal at Sardine, one of my favorite Madison restaurants.

“I owe you big time,” Mari said when I dropped her off at her hotel. Swooping in for a goodbye hug I said simply, “You don’t owe me anything. Just be prepared to pay it forward.”

M uch of the joy in my life I owe to the generosity of strangers. After 30 years in the business of outdoor recreation I have come to truly appreciate the spirit of selflessness that has made the care and maintenance of our public land possible. I understand that not everyone has the disposable income or leisure time necessary to make high level donations of cash in support of our national parks and forests. Even hours spent as a volunteer to maintain trails or to clean up campsites is more than most people can afford. But I believe that if each of us give what we can of ourselves to encourage the interests of others to explore and experience the natural world around them we can help to protect and preserve these wild and scenic places for generations yet to come.

The day immediately following Mari’s run at the Kettle Moraine 100, the Ice Age Trail Alliance hosted a short hike through Warner Park in Madison. Though far removed from the trail itself, we hoped to engage the hearts and minds of families with children who might not know of its existence or the benefits of a positive relationship with nature. Thanks to a grant from the Schlecht Family Foundation we were able to hire a naturalist for basic environmental education, rent the community center shelter for the afternoon, charter a bus for transportation from outlying neighborhoods around the city and provide a few high energy snacks for the short walk through the woods. Just as I was given many opportunities to experience the outdoors through visits to public parks, this initiative works to pay forward the generosity of those who made it possible not just for me but millions.

As part of the Pathways Project I hope to encourage everyone to share their love of the outdoors by helping to facilitate the experiences of others. Whether by offering someone a ride, sharing gear, helping out as a volunteer or just giving a bit of encouragement, I think it’s possible to make invaluable contributions to the broad community of environmental stewards. How will you pay it forward?