It all started in the summer of 1973 while hitchhiking into the western North Carolina mountains to backpack in the southern Appalachians.  What started then, a close friendship borne of mutual interests, continued a week or two ago in the Dry Tortugas National Park, a set of small islands, 70 miles further west of Key West, Florida.

My very good friend for the past 47 years (and counting), Ray Burdett, and I were both first-year students in the intensive Masters in Physical Therapy program at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.  Like most of the guys in that small class of 16, we had just completed our military service, (Ray in the U.S.Navy and I in the U.S.Army), in the months preceding our 1972 acceptance into that program. After a couple of semesters of classwork, we were ready to begin our first clinical internships.

When Ray and I found that we were both assigned to the same physical rehabilitation facility outside of Greenville, South Carolina located in the foothills of those lush mountains of the western Carolinas, and knowing that we both enjoyed backpacking into the backcountry, our backpacks and associated gear were among the few possessions we took along to that first six-week clinical experience.

Scouring maps in the evening while housed in the ancient dormitory adjacent to Greenville General Hospital in the center of town, we identified a trail that seemed to be of the right length and elevation gain for a weekend overnight trip with great views of the nearby peaks of the Great Smokies National Park.  We also had to figure in hitchhiking time on Saturday morning and Sunday evening, since neither of us had use of a car those six weeks.

We had a great time on that first weekend trip into the hills, enjoying the wild outdoors as well as each others company, and very compatible senses of humor.  Two or three more weekend trips followed from our base campin that old dorm.  During one return hitchhiking effort back to Greenville another associated tradition began.  We seemed to be marooned without a ride despite our best efforts and our Greenville, S.C.lettering scrawled on cardboard.  Perhaps our long-haired scruffiness in good ol boy countryhad something to do with it.

A tired, and aged, gas station was the only bit of civilization at that intersection leading south to our hoped-for destination.and we definitely had to make it back in time to show up, and freshly cleaned up, at the clinic on Monday morning.  The pressure was on, but not so much that we couldnt take time out to play a best 2 out of 3 game of 8-Ball pool. That old gas station may have been lacking in many ways, but it did have a serviceable pool table in the back room!  

Most of our later adventures over the years have ended with that best 2 out of 3 Eight-Ball pool championship. Two weeks ago in Florida was no exception.  You would think that we would be pretty good pool players by now, but that is not the case.  That once-a-year pool session has been just about the only time each of us have played pool since.

After graduation in the spring of 1974, we both went our separate ways as newly minted physical therapists.I (and Judy and our 6-week old first son) headed to Maine in a U-Haul truck to start my first PT job at Maine Medical Center in Portland, and Ray headed to Atlanta for further graduate work in biomechanics at Emory University that culminated years later with a Ph.D. from Penn State.  

Establishing ourselves in our work environments, and each doing our important fatherly part in raising our young families put forth a few years hiatus insofar as running off and backpacking somewhere was concerned.  However, our friendship continued over the miles, while often connecting at physical therapy conferences in various parts of the country.

Then in the late 80s (the exact year isnt clear in either of our aging minds), we knew we were both heading to a major early summer PT conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Noticing that Zion National Park was only a few rental car hours to the northeast, we decided to follow the conference with a 3-day backpacking adventure in that magnificent park that neither of us had ever been to.  We found that our enjoyment of the wild outdoors, and each other, was exactly as it was in the summer of 1973 in the western Carolinas.

Long story short; most of the years since then, we have gotten together one way or another for a summer adventure. Our wives tolerated, if not enthusiastically endorsed, these almost annual sojournsin fact, this year they were a part of the always geographically new adventure).  

Ray and I have since summited alpine Mount Rainier in Washington State, Mount McKinley in California, lesser peaks and challenging trails in other places such as the Wind River Range in Wyoming, the Resurrection Pass Trail in Alaska, the John Muir Trail segment of the Pacific Crest Trail in California, and a 14,000+ ft. peak, Mt. Bierstadt, in Colorado five years ago,.and here in Maine; Baxter State Park including Baxter Peak and across the Knifes Edge on Mount Katahdin and our local segment of the Appalachian Trail from Route 4 over Saddlebacks ridgeline and on to the Bigelows overlooking Carrabassett Valleyto name just a few.  Each trip, of course, concluded with a 2 out of 3 8-ball pool tournamentin a venue properly infused with local colorbefitting that  North Carolina gas station.

As time has gone on, we now have found ourselves in our early seventies.  Our trips are not so much vertically-oriented and relatively long. Our last true backpacking trip was about 4 years ago up the recommended (and sufficiently arduous) Marmot Pass Trail in the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, culminating in magnificent views of the snow covered high peaks of Olympia National National Park just to the west.

Two summers ago, we met in the airport of my birthplace town of Great Falls, Montana and headed to Glacier National Park for some day hikes, while camping in a remote park campground.  The lugging all our gear on our backsdays are over.  Yet, it was great fun and continued to include fine and varied adventures.  Last summer we drew a passdue to a surgical procedure for Ray.

The moat wall around the historic Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas National Park. Snorkling in the clear blue waters outside of that wall provided for outstanding, and colorful, coral and fish encounters….including a couple of large barracudas !

However, last month we continued on with the tradition, including our wives as we explored the Dry Tortugas

National Park that featured some very good snorkeling, as well as an exploration of historic Fort Jefferson that dominates that set of entirely near-sea level islands 70 miles (by excursion boat) west of Key West.  We even made our nights in Key West a bit of a confined-space adventure by staying on a charter fishing boat (via Air BnB) in a local marina.

The “Y-Knot” charter boat that managed to house the four of us while staying in Key West, the starting port for our Dry Tortugas adventure

I also have other tradition-infused friendships such as the one that involves myself and three other guys who also worked at Maine Medical Center back in the day.  It started during a March MadnessNCAA Basketball final game in 1990.  Each of us have our favorite/alma mater college basketball team and one of our teams (mine) was in that final game.  A game-watching gathering started it all in Portlands Old Port.and continues to this day with game attendances two or three times per year together in Portland (Sea Dogs or hockey) or major league Boston venues such as The Garden, Fenway Park, and the Patriotsstadium in years past.  The next so-called business meeting of that group (now named the Uncle Frankies Premium Clubfor not-so-obvious reasons) will occur during this years upcoming March Madness.  

There is also a recently established annual springtime midweek day-game tradition at Fenway Park with a longtime friend, and fellow Sox fan, from our Cape Elizabeth days.  the 2019 continuation of that annual trip will be on Wednesday afternoon, May 1st in the right field box seats at Fenway!

A cross-table effort at a “selfie” of the four of us in a waterfront restaurant in Key West. Note that the condiments failed to truly take “center stage” in this photo !

And there will, of course, be the 13th Annual Canoe Trip this summer in to the wilds of Maine with my good friend, Peter Christensen.  I have written about most, if not all, of the first dozen of these fine paddling and fishing trips in this columnyou may recall.

One other thing:  Each of the above friendships include the all-important mutual good senses of humor.  That is one of the important gluesthat hold good friendships together for most people.  Each of the above are great examples of the effectiveness of regular, and frequent, good laughs !!

We need to write, otherwise nobody will know who we are.

                                                                       Garrison Keillor

Per usual, your thoughts and comments are more than welcome.  Jot them down on a 3x 5card and attach it to a map of a suggested (non-peak-bagging) adventure and slip it inside the log door of our mudroom on the west shore of Gull Pond, or simply fire off an email to [email protected]