September 8, 2013

Deirdre Fleming: Taking in a scenic hike with a 76-year-old inspiration

Fernald's Neck amounts to as pretty a Maine summer hike as you could find in the Midcoast.

Gigantic glacial erratic, Lake Megunticook, abandoned summer woods trails and golden rod galore.

It was in this setting I took an annual hike with a close friend with the intent to zero in on a spirit and way of being I admire.

Autumn is always a time of reflection. And it's never done better than on a hike. And as this newspaper runs a series on the challenges of aging, I wanted to run my own portrait of one of my outdoor champions, who just happens to be 76.

So here's the story of one of my hiking buddies, my kamikaze ski friend, a veteran Maine outdoorsman, and lifelong adventurer: John Christie.

Three years ago I introduced John here as one of our two new ski columnists, along with his son, Josh. At the time we had just become friends. In the time that's passed he has become one of my role models, because at 76, John hasn't just lived life to its fullest, he's still exploring.

And at a time in history when professionals half his age are considering how to reinvent themselves in the work force, John serves as an example of one who did so many times over.

He has worked a dozen jobs, some along vastly different career paths, and he always seemed to move on with gratitude, while taking nothing for granted.

Often jobs came to him, sometimes before he was ready to leave the one he had. But he always had the courage to jump ship and take the wheel of another when he needed a new adventure, or simply wanted one.

And as he told his story along our hike, talking to me over his shoulder as he looked back over 50 years, his "reinventing himself" never seemed hard for him, no harder than skiing down a mountain trail, or kayaking across an ocean bay.

John went from graduate student to ski patroller to mountain manager within a year. Then he let Mt. Snow lure him from Sugarloaf to Vermont. And from there he let the family that used to run this paper lure him back to Maine to take over Saddleback as its owner.

Before he turned 40, he got out of the ski business, diving into a career in advertising and marketing, and, years later, into the business running a chain of small newspapers.

Finally, when most people retire, John became a career counselor.

"I was 63 or 65 and went to work (as a ranger at Camden Hills State Park), but then the Maine Department of Labor built a career center and I promised them three months. I ended up staying five years," he said.

From many cold, winter afternoons at Sugarloaf I can tell you, John Christie never seems to pack it in early.

He's often one of the last to ski there in April. Then he takes himself up to the Tuckerman Ravine to ski Mount Washington.

So it was that just two years ago, at 75, John finally decided to "retire." Then he did the only thing he could do: Go back to work as a ranger at Camden Hills State Park, among the trails he hiked as a boy, bringing this epic tale full circle.

But challenges, adventures, and "reinventing" aside, the best part of my friend's lifetime of courageous leaps is, for me, his gratitude and the fact he took nothing along the way for granted. Just the spirit you'd expect in an expert skier or ocean paddler, or Maine outdoorsman.

"People would say to me, 'Haven't you been lucky?' But I say, we make our own luck," John said. "If I hadn't worked hard at Sugarloaf (as general manager) I would not have been offered the job at Mt. Snow. And if I had not been to Bowdoin College on a scholarship (from the Gannett newspaper family), I would not have been offered to buy Saddleback. These things don't happen by accident."

Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

dfleming@pressherald.com

Twitter: Flemingpph

 

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