Life Lessons

Adventures with a gnarly senior

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

After three consecutive field seasons leading crews comprised exclusively of high-school-age kids and young adults in Oregon, I got a hankering to stretch my intergenerational horizons and signed up to supervise a crew of adult volunteers who were building an interpretive trail over the historic Great Northern Railway near Stevens Pass. 

Transitioning from boot-camp conditions into the country-club atmosphere on the Iron Goat Trail was a big relief. But life as the Iron Goat Trail Boss was hardly a cakewalk. Along with rugged side-hill conditions to surmount, there were throngs of adventurous senior citizens to wrangle. 

Increasingly, I found myself beset upon by a wizened mountaineer named Lewis. 

Lewis was an 87-year-old, semi-retired bricklayer from Seattle whose chief occupation seemed to be busting my balls. 

When he wasn’t critiquing my axe-chopping technique, he was hard at work tearing down one of my bomb-proof rock-cribbing walls just so he could rebuild it to his superfluous masonic standards.

Initially, I let it slide. But when his obsession became counterproductive, I finally had to put my foot down. 

“I appreciate the wisdom you have to impart,” I said. “But the Forest Service hired me to direct this undertaking within their standards, not you. So, from here on out, the crew and I would appreciate it if you’d kindly back off!”

Lewis capitulated. But not without putting me through the wringer.

At the next work party, he showed up brandishing an enormous iron-clad wheelbarrow that appeared to date from at least the late 19th century. The squealing, 100-pound antique was preposterously unwieldy, but he insisted on hauling it up the mountainside to our worksite. 

“Better keep an eye on him,” advised a concerned volunteer. “Lewis isn’t nearly as tough as he thinks he is. He wears a pacemaker, you know.”

Erring on the side of caution, I promptly wrested control of the wheelbarrow and muscled it up there myself.

After that harrowing endeavor, Lewis and I got along swimmingly. I built rock walls unmolested while he spent the entire day hauling aggregate to help level the grade. I assumed the wheelbarrow incident was a one-off, but at quitting time he busted out a length of chain and padlocked his cherished conveyance to a tree.

“It was my father’s,” he said. “He died young building the Ballard Locks. Happiest I can remember him is when he’d load my little brother and me into the bucket and roll us up the street for ice cream.”

“Never let go of your childhood,” he imparted.  

Then, with a twinkle in his eyes, he handed me a spare key for the lock.

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