Plenty to learn from walking with Slowman

Out and About

Posted: Friday, October 22, 2004

"'There's something about the wilderness. It's a section of the trail where you're definitely on your own,' said Don Shorely, 70, who called himself 'The Abominably Slow Man' and returned to the trail after cancer treatment."

Just a passing quote from a passing hiker in Ryan Lenz's story (see above). Too bad for Lenz he didn't spend more time with the swift-footed senior because he was quite an amazing character.

How would I know, you might ask.

I know because I moved with the Abominably Slow Man or Slowman as he was known for short for several hundred miles while my wife and I made our Appalachian Trail (AT) thru-hike back in 2002.

Slowman was a cancer survivor and, unfortunately, his cancer reoccurred while he was near the end of his hike and sickness forced him off the trail.

I remember when I first met him though. I had just pulled out of the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. It was the end of the day, and I had hiked just over 15 miles, but stopped to make camp due to sloppy trail conditions from what seemed like never ending heavy rain.

Fifteen miles is not a very long day for that far into a thru-hike by that time most hikers are typically already hitting their stride, having adapted to carrying the weight of their pack up and down mountains for several miles each day.

However, that's not true of everyone. By the Smokies, some have already decided that the endeavor of hiking from Georgia to Maine is too hard for them and they've already quit.

Slowman rolled into camp late that evening as I was preparing to crawl into my sleeping bag, and it was difficult to tell which category he might fall into.

Peering out of my tent I took a good look at the stranger before zipping up the door. He was tall and very thin, with a scraggly white beard. He looked fatigued, but all hikers do by that time of the day.

He had a minimal amount of gear with him, which led me to believe he was either a total novice in over his head, a weekend warrior in for a long, soggy weekend, or a seasoned veteran who had refined his gear needs from years of experience.

As I came to learn, Slowman was the latter of the three. An ultra-lighter, as they're known in hiking circles, these folks believe in carrying with them the bare bones minimum to maximize their hiking potential.

For those without the experience, ultra-lighting can be a disaster from burning out from carrying too little food, or from catching cold due to not having enough warm clothing or a sleeping bag.

However, for those with the proper experience to know exactly what they need or can get by with, this method can be very practical as Slowman demonstrated the next day.

After a quick breakfast I hit the trail early thinking I would never see Slowman again, but to my surprise by midmorning the old fella had not only caught up to me, but was keeping pace with me.

No matter what I did, up 3,000 foot mountains, up 4,000 foot mountains, up 5,000 foot mountains, Slowman was sticking to me like glue.

He seemed more hiking machine than man, especially considering his age. Every other 68-year-old I knew could barely get up to change the channels on the television without a remote.

Apparently, his trail moniker (which are usually bestowed by other thru-hikers) was given by someone with an ironic sense of humor.

At the end of a long day, we set up camp at the same location, and shared the first of many conversations by the crackle of a warm campfire. Slowman was a man of few words, but over the weeks we moved together I learned a lot about him.

I came to find out Slowman's hiking strength and stamina didn't develop over the few hundred miles we had hiked north from Georgia, but rather were honed from a lifetime of outdoor activities.

As a young boy he grew up hiking and camping in the Pacific Northwest, spending many nights under the celestial canopy in a sleeping bag hand-sewn and stuffed with hand-plucked down all the work of his mother.

"Back in those days there was no REI or EMS to go buy a bag," he told me, referring to the large West and East Coast chains where in the present day outdoor enthusiasts and "wannabe yuppies" trying to look the part can buy outdoor gear and clothing.

Slowman had already hiked the West Coast equivalent the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which is a 2,650-mile national scenic trail that runs from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington as a warm-up for the AT.

He had also done quite bit of mountaineering. Growing up in close proximity to Mt. Shasta, Slowman climbed the 14,162-foot mountain with the frequency many Kenai Peninsula residents climb Skyline Trail.

He had also summitted the 14,410-foot Mt. Ranier, the 11,237-foot Mt. Hood and the 18,405-foot Pico de Orizaba in Mexico.

"I did that one between cancer and chemo," I remember Slowman telling me.

He had even been up and traversed around our very own Mt. McKinley, which at 20,320-feet tall, is Alaska's and North America's highest peak.

I didn't just learn about Slowman's life from our interactions, though. Drawing on his years of wisdom I learned a lot about life in general. But, for the sake of keeping this column brief, I'll limit it to the three most important things I learned from him.

First and foremost, I learned that you're never too old. Many people in our society feel that their age is this terrible ball and chain that keeps them from doing so many things, but Slowman proved the old cliche is true, "You're only as old as you think you are."

In fact, he often gave words of encouragement to his younger hiking counterparts that couldn't keep up with him. He would tell them "Start slow and taper off," which I came to understand as his way of saying, "Just don't quit."

This brings me to the second point I learned from Slowman, which is that many (if not most) American's are what he called "slaves to the three C's," those being comfort, caution and cleanliness.

Too many are unwilling to live outside of ease and luxury; are afraid of anything uncertain or untried; or maintain a disinclination for being anything but clean as clean is dictated to them by the latest volley of consumer products available to make teeth whiter, breath smell better, hair have more bounce, and all the other superfluous products that these poor saps have been tricked into thinking they can't live without.

Finally, the most important thing I learned from my time with Slowman is that in life, much like hiking the AT, it's not about the destination, but rather it's about the journey taken to get there, and who you choose to make that journey with.

I was happy I made at least part of mine with the Abominably Slow Man.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter at the Peninsula Clarion. Comments may be e-mailed to joseph.robertia@

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