The Mountain Man
By Suzanne Buzek
Bill Smith lives for the wilderness. If he could, the lieutenant for Campus Police would live in the wilderness, but he must compromise with his job and other responsibilities and simply make the most of his alfresco adventures. And though he’s covered a lot of ground, Smith still has an ambitious to-do list.
“I’ve got so many trips I want to take and goals I want to accomplish,” says Smith. “One of them is to see every national park and spend a couple weeks in each one. Another goal I have is long-distance backpacking: I want to walk the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail, but the third trail is still being developed.”
Smith has visited more 70 national parks since 2005, and sees them as a form of preparation for one day tackling the Appalachian Trail, a feat that requires at least six months. Smith plans to hike that trail alone, so he has taken some solo trips to confront the lonelier aspects of camping and backpacking.
“I once set up a backpacking trip with my friend, but he canceled on me last minute,” says Smith. “I decided to go by myself. We were going to Cumberland Gap National Park in Southeast Kentucky, near the Virginia border. I parked my car at one end of the 21-mile trail and was shuttled to the other end, and I was on my own.”
Three nights Smith spent alone while he hiked the 21-mile trail. To say the first night was an initiation of sorts is an understatement.
“The first night, I was huffing and puffing up to this campground on top of a mountain, trying to beat the sunset,” Smith recalls. “It’s mid-July, I’m hot and sweaty, I had this 50-pound backpack on—which was really just too much stuff to carry, everyone over-packs their first time—and I spent the whole night just staring out the tent, waiting for bears.”
Luckily, no bears showed up. The following two days passed quickly.
“Being at the mercy of Mother Nature, I was scared to death the first night, but got a little less scared every night,” he says. “I learned something new every day. When I finished and saw my car, I was like, ‘I can’t believe it. I did it.’ I had gone into the wilderness by myself for three days and it felt so great. It was such an accomplishment.”
Since his first solo trip into the wilderness, Smith has done two more and plans to build his mental and physical stamina so that he’s prepared to through-hike the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. In the meantime, however, he enjoys talking to those who have already achieved his goals, learning about their experiences and picking up tips.
“I’ve sat down with people who’ve walked the AT and ask them to tell me everything: food, water, clothing, sanity, blisters, what it was like being away from family for six months, if there was any crime,” he says. “They told me some really neat stories.
“The hardest part will be maintaining my health; I need to keep in shape,” Smith continues. “If the Lord is good to me, and I have good health and am able to retire early, I will be able to do all three legs of the Triple Crown.”
While he looks forward to embarking on his continental journey someday, Smith cherishes camping and backpacking with his family and friends. He hikes around town with a buddy at least once a week, he and his friends organize a weeklong canoeing trip every October and—just as his father took Smith and his brother camping and fishing when they were children—Smith shares the beauty of nature with his wife, Ellen, and daughters, Allison and Madelyn, on multiple camping trips each year.
One family trip in particular that is close to Smith’s heart is an excursion out West in the summer of 2007. Starting in Ohio, they drove through southern Indiana, Illinois, St. Louis, Kansas, visited the Rocky Mountain National Park, Arches National Park, and the Four Corners Memorial. They continued to Zion National Park, the northern and southern rims of the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, drove up the California coast, saw Yosemite National Park, the San Bernardino Mountains Sequoia National Park and Mesa Verde.
“We traveled 7,018 miles in 22 days in our minivan, out to San Francisco and back,” he recalls. “And for my birthday six months later, they gave me this big awkward package. I opened it up and it was this huge book that catalogued all of the places we went together. It was really touching. You can see how much effort they put into this book, and it made me feel so good to have it. This is a memory I will have for life.”