Memories in the Mountains

The learning never stops, the stories never end, and the lives in these mountains will live on forever. About a week and a half ago I was finishing up the latter portion of my evening shift. With about half an hour left of a long and scorching hiking patrol, my reserve of “visitor pep” was just about exhausted. I was making my way down from our popular Inspiration Point hiking spot when I began trailing behind a group of climbers guided by an Exum leader. Exum is a company that hosts novice climbers and explorers throughout the Tetons, guiding them to the challenging peaks such as The Grand, safely. A passing visitor asked what “we” were climbing as he passed me by and I explained to him that I wasn’t actually with the Exum group that was sporting climbing hats and various technical equipment in front of me. That’s when the Exum leader noticed me and matched my speed to talk for a little. Although already hours deep into my grumpy, heat-exhausted evening, the hike down seemed to go by quickly as I chatted with the Exum leader. I remember feeling like a selfish brat as I noted the light, positive energy he brought to me, even as he also must have embarked on a hot hike for several hours to lead his group. Anyone who has ever worked in the customer service business knows that the end of the day lull in energy makes it very difficult to reach out to others and try and start a conversation. So, the guide’s ability to do so made me very aware of what I was giving back to the world in that moment–avoiding eye contact and the hurried push towards the boat dock so I could board and get home quicker. We all have those days, but this wasn’t one of his and I got the feeling he didn’t allow himself many as he made what he loved into his career. I appreciated his conversation as we parted ways. The next time I would see this Exum guide’s face would be in the local paper sitting in a coffee shop. The guide I spoke with was Gary Falk and he passed away after summiting The Grand with a group of visitors and falling. While I didn’t know this man for more than our hike down a mountain, his face in the newspaper immediately evoked memories of the passion that resonated about him and how he reminded me of the power we hold in meeting others. Sometimes the tough days we face are evened out by a sweep of fresh energy from visitors, co-workers, or friends, and I always feel thankful for those kinds of encounters. Luckily in a place like the Tetons, the flux of visitors and their enjoyment on vacation seems to balance out the mid-season slump from those of us who clock in our hours and chip away at our routine. But, sometimes all it takes is a passionate co-worker who can softly remind us of our blessings, as well. I wish I didn’t have to have this memory marked by such a tragedy. However, I hope as this summer moves on and these days become more packed with visitors, that I can in some way have Gary’s memory live on with the awareness of the impressions I leave on those I encounter. The lesson he showed me in passing along our patience and energy to all who we meet is one that means so much as both an interpretive park ranger and a human. It’s one that cannot be taught but only felt, and I am very thankful for having met Gary Falk and experiencing the impression he undoubtedly left on many of us still here.

gary falkRest in paradise, Gary Falk.

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