We were foolish boys.
Then, too, we were just a couple of college kids, and it was 1972, a different time in America.
Dan Duffey ’74 and I were roommates in Farley. We went backpacking together in August, just before returning for our junior year. Neither of us had backpacked before. Dan bought a pair of hiking boots.
I was using an old canvas rucksack (Boy Scout model) lashed onto an aluminum frame with venetian-blind cord. We loaded up on canned goods. We had no tent, no cook stove. We planned to heat up dinner over our campfire, then sleep out under the stars. A can opener and matches seemed like essential gear. (Damn.)
The plan was to fly from Dallas (the nearest airport) to Denver. From there we would hitchhike to Rocky Mountain National Park for 10 days of backcountry trekking. And that’s what we did. We walked out of the terminal, hoisted on our backpacks and — teetering under a pantry of canned chili and beef stew, fruit and spam — stuck out our thumbs as soon as we approached the airport’s exit ramp.
We got a couple of short rides that we assumed took us in the right direction. It was the third ride that brought us gold.
Mac was a gentle soul with an easy grin. He was going our way; we hopped aboard — three of us packed into a smallish white sedan, the trunk loaded with fishing gear and camping equipment. He took us on a driving tour that afternoon, meandering along mountain roads through thick, green national forest, spiraling higher and higher, two flatlanders entering a thin-air mountain haven. It was all good fun; Mac’s enthusiasm gave flight to our own.
Sometimes choosing dirt roads, Mac pointed out hidden cabins, spoke of abandoned mines, sighted deer and flying hawks. He pulled off once near a rollicking mountain stream and took us fishing, showing us where to find trout, how to cast and hook them. We hopped from rock to rock, joying in our good fortune, at play in the great American West.
Late in the day he drove onto a bare mountaintop and let us scan the wildflower meadow and gaze upon wild and inviting horizons: untamed Colorado in every direction, as far as the eye could see.
This was our jumping off point, he said. It was Sunday and he needed to head home. Got work tomorrow.
“But see way up there on the distant horizon,” he said. “See there, way off in the distance, there to the north, those snow-capped peaks? That’s Rocky Mountain National Park. Walk toward them and in a few days you’ll get there.” It appeared to us as a glorious Valhalla.
We were foolish boys. We had no concept of wilderness distance, the length of a foot-walked mile, or what it’s like to go cross country through the steep and tree-thick Arapaho National Forest — a straight-line course impossible, no snow-capped peaks in sight. We had, instead, visions of stars and sunbeams, and delirium in our heads.
Mac gave Duffey a big sheet of plastic to use as a makeshift tent. He gave us some fishing line, a few hooks and a jar of salmon eggs for bait. He wished us well. We were psyched. He drove away.
We did not know then that it would rain or snow on us every day, that dry firewood would never be found, that Duff’s plastic sheeting would blow away in a thunderstorm one night, that my poncho would fail as a tent against the Rocky Mountain elements. But we did make it to the park and then hike its width from west to east. Ten days out on our own. Then a ride from Estes Park to Denver in the back of a family station wagon.
But all that is stuff for another story. This version has a different postscript . . . because it is this year’s expression of Thanksgiving gratitude for a random act of kindness, a reminder of the little things that have a big effect on our lives.
And while I thank Mac for that afternoon in Colorado, for the ride and the rambling expedition, for the companionship and goodwill and the spirited launch to our earnest misadventures — and for not dampening our thrill with caution or judgment — he passed along two other gifts that made a big impression then, and have stayed with me ever since.
Mac gave me his address because he wanted to hear how our escapades turned out. He and I exchanged a couple of handwritten letters that fall, and I ventured to say something about finding something spiritual in the landscape. At the time, I was formulating thoughts on a kind of theology of nature. So when Mac responded by saying he considered the universe to be the handiwork of its Creator, and a true path to God, I felt affirmed, on a good track, considered it a sign.
He also spoke of his faith, his Christianity, how important that was to him. He had made no such allusion that day in Colorado — when his happy generosity and kindness and goodness were apparent and contagious. He’s living it, I thought, without him talking about it, promoting it or wearing it on his sleeve. His faith, I figured, had helped him be the person he was. It made me think, I want that.
I have known a lot of Christians over the years, a whole spectrum of people loyal to their religion, and Mac has stayed on my mind as a measuring stick in many ways. For me, too.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine. Dan Duffey, a native of Dubuque, Iowa, who lived in Richardson, Texas, during high school, has spent his adulthood in Grand Junction, Colorado, as a cardiologist, husband and father of three.