A Lesson From Fred


Six summers ago, a guy named Fred sat down across from me at a picnic table near Wonder Lake in Denali National Park, the end point on the bumpy 5 ½ -hour bus ride on the park’s only road.

We ate lunch and talked about our respective trips to Alaska, where we were from, the stuff you talk about when all you know about someone is that they’re a tourist too, which is obvious there, 85 miles down a private dirt road in one of the wildest parks in North America.

Fred was in his 60s, a retired firefighter from Lincoln, Nebraska. He traveled by himself, and I assumed his wife had died. He had driven all of 3,400 miles, including the entire Alaska-Canadian Highway, to get to Denali, a minimum seven-day drive from the Midwest, an adventure any of us would be lucky to ever have the time to attempt in our lives. He camped every other night, he said, stopping at a hotel on alternate nights for a shower and a warm bed.

I loved it, what Fred was doing, and I told him. A lot of people never have the courage to do something like that. I knew people in their 30s who said they were “too old” to camp, to sleep on the ground. Fred said he had a lot of friends who were retired, too, but it seemed like all they wanted to do was sit around and watch golf.

“I told them, you can play golf, that’s fine, but you can’t sit there and watch golf,” he said.

Right on, I said, get out there and live, right, don’t be a spectator. This retired firefighter, sitting in front of me, in front of the highest mountain in North America, towering 18,000 feet above this picnic table, had driven 3,400 miles up there all by himself to see it, 1,400 miles of the trip on one of the wildest roads you can get to from America, and he was definitely not watching golf.

We get used to limiting ourselves sometimes, making the secure choice, or finding a way to rationalize not doing something. I’m too old for that shit, I’m scared of heights, I don’t want to be out there by myself, it’s not in my budget, et cetera. We talk ourselves out of things, instead of talking ourselves into things.

Sometimes I imagine Fred, having Wednesday morning coffee with a bunch of other retirees in a diner in Lincoln, and he asks the whole group, “Which one of you guys is going to drive to Alaska with me?” And all of them come up with reasons they can’t go, and a couple of them crack jokes about Fred, and how he’s quote, unquote crazy for wanting to do that, Fred, you’re too old for that shit, and Fred goes home by himself. And he sits down at his kitchen table and gets out an atlas like the one I have at home, and he traces the ALCAN with his finger all the way to Fairbanks and imagines Alaska and sitting there and looking up at all 20,320 feet of Denali and he just goes

Fuck you guys, I’m going for it.

And then he goes down to the basement to see if that old sleeping bag of his is good enough to make the trip, and rubs his chin thinking about what else he’ll need to bring along. He gets his mail stopped at the post office, cleans out his refrigerator, and one day in August, locks the front door and starts driving north.


31 replies on “A Lesson From Fred

  • Aaron F

    YES!! Great story Brenden. You’re lucky to have had that encounter with Fred, and you’re lucky to have been wise enough to understand his journey. How inspiring……. Yep, I get it.

  • Andy

    I was out West with the family back in 2008 and we met a woman doing much of the same thing as Fred. She gutted an old mini van and put a mattress in the back. She had been to just about every National park and didn’t seem like she was stopping anytime soon. We first encountered her walking up the 300 or so stairs to/from the lower falls in Yellowstone and ran into her 3 or 4 days later at Mt. Rushmore.I hope to be able to move like that when I retire.

  • Bev

    Well, I am female going to be 60 this year. I went to Denali 5 years ago, but I flew alone in small plane to Talkeetna and climbed Denali.This year I am doing “the double” — Xterra off road triathlon world championships and Ironman Hawaii World Championships along with 5 spartan races where I compete in the elite heat and finished 14th, 11th, 3rd and 1st in 4 races last year. I hear people tell me I am crazy all the time.

    The sky is the limit…..or is it?

    • Debi

      I too have often been told I’m crazy – I always reply: “thank-you”. 🙂
      And many times I’ve heard people say how they are bored…I have never ever been bored. …correlation?

      • Bev

        Thanks! You probably will, Drew, because you read stuff like this. If you think you can, you can.!

  • Karen@ La Chanson de Ma Vie

    How awesome for Fred. 🙂 Love that he was bold enough to take on a big trip like that on his own. Denali is worth it!

    The sad thing is that in our society, many people think one has to wait until retirement to have such adventures and to work and save until then. At 20 years old, I spent a year fighting cancer. Life looks a little different after that. There is no way I’m waiting until retirement to have grand adventures because who knows if I’ll make it until then, you know?

  • H.D. Lynn

    The best part about doing something awesome is when you inspire other people to go live their dreams instead of doing the equivalent of watching golf.

  • Troy

    I agree. I have made changes to my life so that I will no longer be a spectator. Get out and live dammit!! 🙂

  • KK

    Every Thursday I take time to read your most resent essay and many of them stir some thought, feeling, or fear within me I wouldn’t have thought to contemplate. For some reason though today’s post didn’t cause a stir. This week’s “Lesson from Fred” hit me. Hard

    Thanks for sharing, Brendan.

  • Simone

    “We talk ourselves out of things, instead of talking ourselves into things.” That’s such a good nugget and so true! Thank you for sharing, Brendan.

  • Joanna Joanna

    Thanks Brendan for lifting up this ol desk jockey for a thought provoking coffee break! Fred is an inspiration. Thanks for telling his story- and for continuing to get up every day, live your adventure and tell us about it.

  • Curt

    Reminds me of a guy I spoke with on the Colorado Trail. He thru hiked the whole thing to attend his high school reunion in Durango. He was in his late 60’s or early 70’s. he said, most of my friends are dead or too sick to do much of anything. Fuck it, I’m walking!
    I hope he made it in time.

  • Nick Drake

    Fred has the right idea. Last year I decided to go to Alaska. I’d been splitboarding and doing snowmobile accessed riding for a bit and getting good riding in the cascades. Every time I watched a video of AK though I knew I had to get there.

    I tried to round up friends. They told me I was crazy, it’s too expensive, they won’t take us to film lines, I can’t get the vacation, etc…..

    I took three weeks of vacation and sick time. I saved for months and had a decent amount ready to go, but not enough to fly every day if the weather was good.
    Simple answer. I sold my car.

    I rode over two weeks straight in Haines. Logged over 100k of vertical. Rode a few actual film lines, huge vertical, spines, powder. I met different people from all over the world. I came home with $400 in my checking account and the greatest experience of my life.

    • Bev

      Good for you! Follow your passion, but don’t go into debt. Great plan. You will never forget that trip.

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