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Earth Matters: Memories of a personal hero still inspirational

The inspirational and heroic people in our lives sometime come from unexpected places.

Three decades after his passing fighting a fire here in Altoona on a frigid January morning in 1987, Ken Steel remains an important voice in my life. Memories of my time with him still bring a smile to my face.

To many, Ken is a hero because of the way he died, but he is a hero to me for the way he lived. I met him on a bike ride to State College at the end of my freshman year in college. Though 17 or 18 years older than me and my classmates, by mile 60, none of us could stay with him. When someone noted his name was Steel, we first thought it was a nickname, as in “Man of Steel.”

I would ride many thousands of miles with him over the next 10 years. Only after several years of hard training did I finally manage to outride him, as age slowed him ever so slightly. He accompanied me on the first thousand miles of my cross-country trip after college graduation, leading our little group along the breathtaking Columbia River gorge and its awesome waterfalls, into the rugged northern Rocky Mountains of Idaho, through the desolation of Craters of the Moon National Park and over majestic Teton Pass.

That by itself would have been enough adventure and natural beauty for most lifetimes, but it was only the beginning of the incredible rides and experiences Ken would share with me (or in some cases, put me through). Our treks into the countryside were more than bike rides, for Ken was a historian and naturalist extraordinaire. He was proof that formal education was not a prerequisite to being an intelligent, well-read and thoughtful person.

It didn’t matter that there was no college degree hanging on his wall; he was one of the smartest and wisest men I ever knew.

He began riding seriously while he was in the service in Hawaii and decided he’d ride back to Altoona after his discharge in San Francisco in 1963. He would do two other cross-country rides — from Altoona to Seattle in 1970 and San Diego to Altoona the following summer.

Each summer, he’d try to do at least one long trip. Even into his 40s, the mileage Ken would tally on these trips was staggering. A 1980 trip to see Mount St. Helens continued eastward to Des Moines, Iowa, covering 2,136 miles in 17 days. He averaged just under 140 miles a day on his 1983 ride from Las Vegas to Oklahoma City. He twice rode the Onondaga 24-hour marathon race in New York, riding over 300 miles both years.

Ken would do his best to encourage anyone he could, not just to ride, but to see and absorb the natural splendor through which they passed. But it would be those long rides (and long cross-country ski treks) through beautiful places that gave him the greatest pleasure and satisfaction.

He never said it in quite these words, but he taught me that life was not a drudgery to be endured but an adventure to be savored.

John Frederick (jfrederick@ ircenvironment.org) writes about nature and the environment every other Saturday.

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