I remember thinking how weird it felt. I was sitting on an airplane in a seat next to my boss, 20 years older than me, and a man with whom I’d had minimal conversations. We were both quiet, introverted, not prone to talking. Plus he was my boss, the magazine’s editor. And I didn’t like flying. And we’d be sitting like this on a flight from Chicago to Phoenix, maybe four hours. What would we talk about? Would we talk? What would we do all that time, side by side?
So weird. Awkward. And my palms were sweating. I remember showing Walt the palms of my hands as evidence of my body’s distaste for flying. “Never seen that before,” he said. “They’re almost dripping.”
That was 30 years ago. It was our first backpacking trip together. He had shown me photos of him backpacking in the Grand Canyon. When he learned I liked to backpack, he said next time he’d ask me to go along. So here we were. Destination: Zion National Park.
Here’s what I’ll say today: Men typically do not express their feelings for one another. It’s not manly. It’s weird, off-putting, embarrassing. Who does that? Some things — like affection, fondness, profound friendship — should remain in hiding.
So I won’t say any of this. I’ll try another route. I’ll thank Walt as my annual Thanksgiving tribute to someone whose generosity impacted my life (with encouragement that others do the same, passing along a word of gratitude to help make this national holiday into a real day of giving thanks).
Walt Collins ’51 was my boss for 12 years. He helped me be me. He helped me be a better me, made me a better writer, gave me good assignments, taught me how to be an editor, let me do lots of fun stuff without saddling me with workaday burdens.
And he had my back, defending me, covering for me when I’d crossed the line because I was young and assumed I was carefree. Better yet, he did not let on that he had come to my rescue (even as it drew him into trouble). I never knew about those scrapes I had gotten into — until much later, when he and others had retired and the coast was clear.
And it was Walt who opened the door for me at age 32 to teach at the South Bend branch of Indiana University, which led to decades of playing professor there and at Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame.
If it were just these gifts of career advancement, improving my writing and showing me how to be an editor, then I would be indebted and forever grateful. But Walt — by being so thoroughly and truly himself — taught me that it might be OK to be myself.
I’ve never known anyone more comfortable in his own skin. Never known anyone so relaxed in himself, so sure of himself in such a slouchy, take-it-or-leave-it sort of way. No pretensions, no affectations. Authentic, real. True to himself and somehow true to life’s deepest, most essential currents. The things that really mattered.
I saw this in many ways, from his sartorial limitations to his daily bicycle commute to his handling of powerful people, pesky institutional politics and life’s tragedies.
But I am most grateful for all the good times on the trail. Walt and I backpacked together every fall break for almost a decade — New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, South Dakota, with a final summertime trip to Wyoming. Others joined us on a few of our treks, but Walt and I were the constant companions. Ideal partners, we did things our way.
Sleeping bags out on the ground, so we could sleep beneath the stars. We loved to stargaze. We could stand and stare at the sky for hours in the darkness, not even talking, maybe a brief and occasional exchange of words. Silence mostly. Maybe awe. Wandering thoughts for sure. Sometimes the late-October cold drove us into a tent. We never spoke a word in the tent; my snoring was a bother to him.
He paid me back by waking me each day before dawn. Sunrise was a daily ceremony that Walt never wanted to miss. So we stood, blowing on our hands, rocking on our cold-booted feet, in the chill, first light of day, awaiting the sun and its warmth. Sometimes we woke to water bottles frozen solid, and once in the Black Hills were greeted by about three inches of fresh snow that had fallen overnight.
Even well into his 60s, Walt never complained about the uphills, the grind of it all. I always ate more than half the food. He always made the morning coffee. We often nibbled from the same bag of trail mix. Neither of us liked heights. Sometimes we’d crawl to the edge of a precipice, feeling more secure with our bellies snug to the earth. I can still picture Walt clambering up a steep incline on his hands and knees; I can still see him navigating a steep descent by scooting on his butt. Neither of us had to be braver than we were; neither of us had to be anyone we were not.
There’s a treasure chest of stories, images and memories I could rummage through and share, mainly to entertain myself. No one really likes seeing more than a few photos from another person’s vacation. You’ve gotten the idea.
But let me say we made those trips during a time in my life when I really needed them. Those trips were some of the very best times of my life. They took me closer to God and the wonders of creation. They put me back in touch with my own personal heart and soul and being. At a time I really needed it.
Chowing down at the Blue Front Bar Café in Glenwood, New Mexico, after five days in the richly desolate Gila Wilderness, dusty, dirty and gnarly, hungry to the bone, and dry, watching cowboys shoot pool in the middle of the day, jukebox playing, sassy young waitress, well now, that’s a priceless piece of living that not everyone would savor.
Walt did. And me too. But we never had to say it.
What I will say is that I lo . . . really like Walt Collins. And I thank him today for all those good times we shared.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine. Walt Collins lives with his wife, Carol, in the retirement village at Holy Cross College in South Bend.