“We don’t stop hiking because we grow old – we grow old because we stop hiking.”
I have thought about those words from American mountaineer, forester, and public servant Finis Mitchell a great deal recently while recovering from neck surgery and longing to be outdoors.
To be honest, I have also thought about them with my 50th birthday looming on the horizon and, to be clear, that’s not old. In fact, I think 70 may be the new 30! This belief was solidified by my recent conversation with Tom Fair.
In October, Fair completed a rim-to-rim hike of the Grand Canyon to celebrate his 71st birthday. The hike was a bucket list item for the retired air traffic controller.
Fair, who is originally from Dothan, Alabama, first came to Meridian in 1972 as a naval flight officer in the air traffic division at Naval Air Station Meridian. He then went to work for the FAA, leaving Meridian for about six years before coming back to stay in 1983.
Fair says he considers himself a “casual or amateur backpacker or hiker.” His only hikes before doing the rim-to-rim hike had been as a Boy Scout. He explained that his original plan had been to hike Pike’s Peak to celebrate his 70th birthday, but he had to change his plans when the Cog Railway there shut down.
“The Cog Railway was my safety valve to get down,” he told me, adding that when it shut down he pondered, “why not hike the Grand Canyon rim to rim?” However, by the time he formulated the alternate plan, it was too late in the year to do the hike he wanted to do due to the need for permits.
He explained that “to do the hike like I did you have to get with the National Park Service and get a backcountry permit.” Fair said that while there are several trails and camping areas, he chose to focus on the “corridor trails” which are patrolled by the NPS.
The permitting process helps control the volume of foot traffic into and out of the canyon. According to Fair, “Even in late October there was a lot of hiking traffic on the trail and since there is limited space in each campground you must apply for a camping spot three months in advance of your hike.”
Throughout our conversation, I could tell that logistics are a strength for Tom, a quality I attribute to his service in the Navy as well as his time as an ATC. He said he couldn’t have done the hike without his wife Alana who stayed with him for a couple of days on the North Rim before his beginning the descent into the canyon. When he began his hike, she drove to the South Rim to await his arrival.
The first leg of his hike was a fourteen-mile descent to the Bright Angel Campground. He told me that “as the crow flies it’s probably not five miles down there, but with the switchbacks they say it is fourteen miles.”
After spending the night on the canyon floor, he began his hike out. He explained that “coming out the distance is a little shorter at just over eight miles,” adding that “the whole thing is around twenty-three miles rim to rim on the trails I hiked.”
I was struck by a similarity to my experiences on the Appalachian Trail when Fair discussed the “internal community” that forms between hikers simply in the process of passing on the trail. It’s amazing how quickly hiking helps establish common bonds with total strangers.
Fair told me he used Bonita Lakes as his training ground to prepare for the hike. He said that he tried to replicate the pack weight he would have on the hike and initially chose to hike the dam at Bonita until he discovered the trails. We agreed that, aside from altitude, the hills of Bonita will prepare you for anything.
When I asked for advice on doing a rim-to-rim hike, he mentioned something that I had not thought about that makes this hike different from most. He explained that “the difference in hiking the canyon is that going in all day long you are going downhill and coming out you are climbing the whole way.” Fair said, “it’s like climbing stairs in a skyscraper all day long.”
He said that he would do it differently if he did it again adding, “I would break the hike into four days. That way you can take the side trails and see things you missed on the main trail.” I have said the same after each of my AT hikes.
I was very impressed with Mr. Fair during my short time with him and I know that his adventures are far from over. He said they are putting the Cog Railway back in operation on Pike’s Peak – sounds like another bucket list hike on the horizon! I’m sure I will see him soon on the trails at Bonita. I look forward to seeing you out there in our great outdoors.
Email Outdoors columnist Brad Dye at firstname.lastname@example.org.