HIKING'S ELDER STATESMAN
By Dick Mason
George Fleshman is a rare 80-year-old, one who spends more time reaching for his hiking stick than the aspirin bottle in his medicine cabinet.
Fleshman, who turned 80 on Sept. 7, is a whirlwind of activity as he strides into his ninth decade. To many it does not seem like his pace has slowed over the past 40 years. In this span he has put together a list of hiking credits as impressive as a sunset in the Eagle Caps. Since the early 1960s Fleshman has hiked every trail in the Wallowas which has a lake, scaled the Matterhorn, Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens, completed the Oregon and Washington portion of the Pacific Crest Trail and much more.
Today Fleshman treks from the bottom of the steep 12th Street hill and back, three times a week. Unfortunately, however, his days of backpacking through wilderness are over.
"The doctor told me that I have to cut back,'' said Fleshman.
He explained that the weight of carrying a backpack was taking too great a toll on his joints during long hikes.
Still Fleshman moves without a hint of stiffness or pain, so much so that that the word spry seems inappropriate for him. He simply seems too young. Fleshman credits his energy and condition to exercise.
"Walking keeps people young,'' Fleshman said.
A penchant for being around young people is another factor which he says has helped him.
Fleshman has been around the great outdoors all his life. He grew up in La Grande but did not begin hiking until he was almost 40. He quickly was hooked.
"I like the beauty of the wilderness and the challenge of going from point A to point B,'' Fleshman said.
An ardent hiker finds that challenges are perpetual.
"You don't conquer a mountain, you conquer yourself. You have to keep reconquering yourself,'' Fleshman said.
Fleshman has hiked in many of the 23 different countries he has visited. Evidence of this is found in his home at secluded Edelweiss Acres on Morgan Lake Road. His chalet style home which is decorated with flags from all the countries he has hiked in.
Despite his accomplishments, Fleshman laments his late start in hiking.
"I wish that I had started mountain climbing earlier than I did. I would have climbed Mount Everest and Mount Kilimanjaro if I had started earlier,'' Fleshman said.
Fleshman's wife of 57 years, Dorothy, has not accompanied him on his hikes. However, he credits her never ending support and encouragement with making it possible for him to complete his journeys.
"She is wonderful.'' George Fleshman said.
The Fleshmans have lived in their Morgan Lake Road home since 1963. A lot has changed in the area over the past 41 years. Four decades ago there were only three or four homes which people lived in year round on Morgan Lake Road, today there are many more.
Traffic has increased correspondingly.
"In the 1960s if a car came by you went running out to see who it was. Now cars are common,'' Fleshman said.
Cattle drives were conducted down Morgan Lake Road past the Fleshmans' house four decades ago. This ended decades ago and the Fleshmans are thankful for the cattle sometimes wondered into their yard.
The Fleshmans' home does not have a Rotary banner but it should. George Fleshman has been a member of Rotary for 41 years and has had a perfect weekly attendance record the past 15 years. This is an impressive mark by any standard and particularly for Fleshman because he is a world traveler. Fleshman has managed to keep his attendance record intact by attending Rotary meetings in the countries he is visiting.
"It is a great international friendship organization,'' Fleshman said.
The La Grande resident is also an active member of the First Christian Church Â— Disciples of Christ and the Knife and Fork Club.
Into thin air
Fleshman ranks trekking up the Matterhorn, the 14,691-foot mountain on the Swiss-Italian frontier, as his most rewarding climbing experience.
His most taxing experience may have been a 23.5-hour period during which he hiked up and down each of the three peaks that comprise the Three Sisters in Central Oregon.
"We started at 11 p.m. going up North Sister and by 10:30 p.m. the next day we were back at our campground,'' Fleshman said.
The Three Sisters are comprised of North Sister (10,085 feet), Middle Sister (10,047 feet) and the South Sister (10,358 feet).
Experiences like the Three Sisters hikes provide rich memories for little expense.
"It (a backpacking trip) is an extremely inexpensive vacation. All you have to pay for (in terms of items needed for each hike) is food,'' Fleshman said.
The La Grande resident has never suffered a serious injury on a hike. This is a testament to caution.
"I have never had any accidents. I have tried not do anything foolish,'' Fleshman said.
Unfortunately though he has been with people who have gotten hurt. Several years ago a woman on a hike in Oregon broke her leg and had to be carried out. The process took about 12 hours, said Fleshman who said that he never hiked alone.
During his trips overseas Fleshman often stays in hostels. He has never traveled with a tour group and has no desire to.
"It would be too confining,'' Fleshman said.
In addition to an active lifestyle more than a touch of humility is helping Fleshman beat Father Time.
"I never have felt that I am any better than anybody else,'' he said. "...I'm very aware that if I put my thumb in a glass of water and pull it out, there is no evidence I've been there.''