Life is full of people you don’t know for long, but who have a profound impact on your life and work. I met a guy like that a little more than a year ago. It was at the REI flagship in Seattle, for an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.
A wiry, mature man with round wire-rim glasses and salt-and-pepper facial hair was the keynote. He hadn’t even been listed on the marketing materials.
He told the audience, “You all are great people. You love and protect the outdoors. There’s only one thing wrong with you: You’re too much like me – older and white.”
My jaw dropped. He smiled his luminous smile, and spent his entire talk stressing the importance of diversifying the outdoors. I couldn’t believe it; I was more than a year into my project, The Trail Posse, which documents and encourages … yes, diversity and inclusion in the outdoors.
So of course I had to meet this man. From his short introduction, I knew him only as being from the South and having done some climbing. I had to wait to meet him; he seemed pretty popular among the attendees.
“We need to know each other,” I told him.
“I’m sure we do,” he said before hearing my story. Later he handed me a card. It had his name, an email address and a phone number – and nothing else. “Let’s talk.”
We soon set a date. I told a friend about this chance meeting. “You’re talking to the Doug Walker?!” the friend exclaimed.
I’m a journalist, but hadn’t even thought to Google someone I initially thought of, I’m now ashamed to admit, as some old mountain-climbing guy, so unassuming that his business card practically was blank.
But I recognize now, only a few days after his death, that I’d met, gotten to know, and was mentored by The Doug Walker. I mean, who else provokes statements of sympathy from the governor, the mayor, the Interior Secretary, and every head of every major conservation organization in the country? Who else is portrayed as a giant in the tech industry and a cherished patron saint of philanthropic causes in this region?
Walker, 65, was the W in WRQ, a highly successfully tech company whose sale gave him the means to become one of the most influential people in the stewardship of public lands. He was the chairman of REI, the chair of the Wilderness Society governing council, the president of the American Alpine Club, a founding member of the Seattle Parks Foundation. And that’s just for starters. He helped start and fund BOLD and GOLD, the YMCA programs that have become national models for getting kids of all backgrounds. If you look carefully, you’ll spy his and his wife Maggie’s footprints all over scores of quality of life causes in the Pacific Northwest.
Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time with and written extensive profiles about some pretty big celebrities – Michael Jordan, Ted Turner, Steve Largent, just to name a few. I liked them all, but none of them were Doug Walker. None of them had his unique gift of making me forget how important he was.
Any time I needed to track down anyone associated with the outdoors, I could call or email Walker and he’d have their contact information. Almost a year ago, I called Walker, excited about Tommy Caldwell’s historic free climb of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park. Walker said he’d spoken to Caldwell recently.
“You know everybody,” I said.
“I don’t know everybody,” Walker responded softly, sounding almost as if being accused. “I’ve met some good people.”
A couple months ago, Walker interviewed superstar climber Alex Honnold onstage at Seattle’s Town Hall.
“You’re a big deal,” I told Walker.
“I’m a regular guy,” he said, insistently.
The last time we met, last month in his office near the Seattle Art Museum, Walker was dressed, as he frequently was, in his cycling gear. He was about to head to Washington, D.C., to meet with White House senior staff to discuss getting youth into the outdoors. I told him that Honnold had walked unannounced into a talk at the Mountaineers by his climbing buddy, Colin Haley, and that I was star struck. I regarded Honnold the way most people regarded Jordan, whom I considered simply as a guy I used to work with. Walker laughed his laugh, which was a low-volume cross between a giggle and a cackle. He always scrunched up his face, as if giving his all for a particular chuckle.
During that meeting, I gave him a calendar of my photographs that I produce only for family and friends. He ceremoniously unwrapped it, flipped to and complimented every photograph. He paused longer on the images from the North Cascades, which I’d been inspired to capture because I knew it was one of his special places.
Granite Mountain was another of his special places. I believe in signs and connections. I once encountered my late, close friend Susan in Olympic National Park during a moment of great stress.
So I don’t consider it a coincidence that Walker and I were doing the same thing on New Year’s Eve. He was snowshoeing at his special place and I was doing the same at mine, Mount Rainier National Park. At about the time Walker went missing, I‘d become obsessed with the way the golden sun streamed through snow-blanketed trees. I stopped frequently to capture the images, and fell behind my group.
I caught up, but he didn’t. I didn’t know this, of course, until after the fact. Which figures. It is the way I came to know almost everything about the Doug Walker.