It's not uncommon to pickup folks hitchhiking on Highway 550 north of Durango. Skiers, bikers, hikers - all of us have thumbed a ride at some point after a grand adventure. There's a great chance though that no one hitchhikes more on that stretch of road than a backpacking addict named Stew.
I picked up Stew this time last year, actually, and didn't even consider that our paths would cross again. So when I saw the scrawny, sunscreen-slathered old man today standing with outstretched thumb, smiling in blissed-out mountain highness on the side of the Million Dollar Highway, I happily pulled over. He tossed his pack in and said he was excited to see a familiar face. He remembered me! I couldn't believe it.
"That is a very cute outfit," he complimented sweetly.
I smiled in gratitude, refreshed to hear someone thought my go-to, washed-out summer dress is still cute. Not that Stew is a fashionista. From under his baseball cap were a pair of dark prescription sunglasses perched on a weathered nose. He told me his orange tech shirt and evergreen zip-off pants were two years old, and every year he gets a new pair of boots. They look like huge blocks below his rickety knees.
"They're a size 12," he laughed, showing me his Hobbit feet. "I'm five feet, seven inches tall and only weigh 135 pounds."
This, he explained to me, is why he has never skied. He even built cross country skis in Boulder for a company he's convinced was bought for a fortune many years later. But he's never skied. A New Orleans native, he used to always migrate to Arizona as soon as snow started flying in the high country. These days, he winters in Durango at the Days End Motel, where he can watch wildlife from his window, walk the River Trail when the weather is inclement and traipse around the snowy mesas during the rest of the season.
"I am always hiking," he swears.
Surprisingly pale for someone who spends so much time outside, Stew told me he hasn't been sick in 40 years, but he always has the snivels because he hangs out in chilly places, he surmises. Unsurprisingly, Stew is a vegan. He eats two meals a day of granola. In the morning, it's mixed with dried berries, and in the afternoon, with corn chips and nuts. He doesn't drink alcohol or caffeine, but relishes a cup of Bengal Spice Tea from Celestial Seasonings each morning.
"It's the only non-organic thing I consume, but it's all-natural, so...," he adds.
He doesn't even snack between meals, and dessert, he insists, is part of every meal because the "granola is naturally sweet." I laughed to myself, picturing all of the men in my life who are hopelessly devoted to sugar. There is just no way I would ever hear anyone say those words and be satisfied about it.
The most fascinating tidbit to me is that Stew doesn't look forward to a cold beer at the end of his wild wanderings, nor does he crave ice cream, or donuts, or burgers, or any of those other primal urges I thought were a given for all of humanity after we do something in the elements. So what does he crave?
"Going to Natural Grocers to restock for the next trip," he shrugs.
As we're chatting, I keep expecting a wave of unwashed male to fill the car, but the smell never came. This character from the woods was literally a breath of fresh air. It was like he'd been dipped in mountain streams, brushed with morning dew and kissed by alpine breezes. He might as well be on the label for washing detergent with the snuggly bear.
Over the 25-mile drive, Stew patiently answered my peppering of questions. Does he take a book or journal? Nope. His luxury is a handheld radio tuned into NPR, while his most giggly pleasure is the Thistle and Shamrock Celtic music program on Sunday evenings.
He really, really likes Celtic music and was pleasantly surprised that, if he ever finds himself in his tent on a Saturday afternoon, which sometimes happens this time of year due to storms, he's able to pickup the Celtic program transmitted from Farmington. I ask if he's ever been to the Celtic Festival in Durango.
"I've never been to a music festival," he says matter-of-factly. "I do not like crowds."
I should've guessed that. Stew doesn't own a phone, or a car, or a house. His brothers and sisters are scattered around the country, from his roots in Louisiana to the Pacific Northwest and the red rocks of Sedona. They write letters to him. His address is a Durango outdoor shop called Backcountry Experience, where he purchases most of his gear because "they specialize in the lightweight stuff."
They used to like backpacking, but not so much anymore. His parents passed away about 16 years ago and left each child with a comfortable sum of money, so Stew is able to live solely off his inheritance. His expenses are about as paired down as it gets, especially because he gets the "good customer" discount at the Days End. It's about $20 more than the "cheap-oh's" down the street but quieter and with way better views. He said a night costs $79.
Stew's routine is seasonal, consistent and spontaneous all at once. His summer schedule starts in mid-March when a taxi cab meets him at the Days End in Durango at 5:30 a.m. and drops him off at the Andrews Lake Trailhead. From there, he has no plan and simply marches off into the Weminuche for two weeks, exploring the piney slopes, wildlife-bedecked meadows and craggy peaks.
After two weeks, he marches back to the same trailhead and hitches a ride to Durango, where he spends exactly 1.5 days to restock his supplies at Natural Grocers before getting scooped up by the taxi to start again on the same old brand-new adventure. At Natural Grocers, he buys granola and berries in bulk and a bag of Garden of Eatin' yellow corn chips. He empties his concoction into former Garden of Eatin' chip bags because, unlike with Ziploc bags, the food scent is trapped in the packaging. With this little trick, Stew has never had to hang his food in the wilderness and instead sleeps with his backpack and food in the tent with him.
"I've never had an unwanted visitor," he smiles.
Apart from seeing day hikers on his entry and exit point at Andrews Lake, Stew aims to not see a soul when he's out in the wild. It's not that he doesn't like people; it's just that he prefers being alone.
"But I'm not alone, you know?" he looks at me.
I get it. He tells me he had a couple of girlfriends in high school but then after his first backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, he knew backpacking was the life for him.
So instead of conversing with a mate, Stew meditates and does yoga. Anytime he sprains an ankle, twists a knee or cuts a finger, he conjures up a self-prescribed yoga treatment and swears he heals. He's never been to a medical facility or seen a doctor in his entire adult life.
"I'm very careful, but can be kind of stupid sometimes," he says, sharing a couple of snippets about falling on scree slopes and breaking his glasses, or getting stabbed with a stick from a bushwhacking fiasco.
I ask him about his meditation. Does he have a mantra? He does, and it depends on what's on his heart. This last journey, he was repeating words like brotherhood, love, harmony in an effort to send positive vibes to his brothers and sisters in the path of Hurricane Harvey. He's been able to get updates, thanks to the radio, and is very pleased with NPR's coverage of the record-breaking rainfall and flooding.
When we got to Durango's town limits, I asked him where he'd like to be dropped off. Of course the Days End, so we drove past my usual turn for home, which I pointed out, and he said he remembered. I added that we have quite the wildlife parade coming through our backyard, which he said he remembered, and then I said a bear had been getting in our hot tub, and he said he remembered that, too. So I called him on malarkey because this is a new development, and there's no way he knew that.
"Well, maybe I dreamed it," he shrugged. "Turn here."
So I pulled into the hotel parking lot and parked. I took his pack from the back of the car and was surprised - or not - to feel its incredible lightness. Maybe 15-pounds? Remarkable. I handed it to him with his hiking sticks. He put both down and extended two skinny arms. He embraced me around the neck, almost childlike, and I hugged hard back. I gave him my business card and asked him to reach out if he ever needed a ride, and then I asked if I could write a story on him.
"Oh no, I don't do stories," he said seriously. "I like my privacy."
I feel comfortable sharing this story here because this isn't Stew's story; this is my story about an interaction with a spirited soul. You, on the other hand, can't tell anyone Stew's story because it's his to share. You should instead bottle his words up like I did and walk away feeling a little lighter and widely blessed knowing that you just might have the chance to pickup Stew someday on the side of Highway 550. If you do, tell him I said hello.