The first memorable climb of the Colorado Trail (for me) started at about the 75-mile mark at Jefferson Creek. While it was a significant climb, I mentally prepared myself, and it turned out to be “not so bad.” However, it did get me to an elevation close to 12,000 feet for the first time, and the “old ticker” was pumping, and I could hear the blood rushing in my head. I stopped a few times to catch my breath and take in my surroundings. It was the first part of the hike in an alpine environment, and the air was crisp, the sky an indescribable blue, and I got my first experience of that deafening silence I’ve mentioned before. 

It was in this section that I ran into my first “trail crew” of the trip. As I crested the top of a climb, I heard some voices and the clanking of metal on rock. While I was enjoying the beauty of the trail and my time off work and off-grid, I was completely taking it for granted that someone had worked extremely hard to build and maintain this trail. Not only was the trail in exceptional condition, but it was also maintained in that state in harsh environments where single weather events often wiped out whole sections, rendering them impassable. One of my biggest worries was that I would have to bypass a large section of trail or bushwack through a section due to a large tree downfall or mudslide. About ten years ago, a section near the end of the trail experienced a massive microburst, and the trail was covered with huge trees stacked one on top of the other two stories high for a mile or more. It took trail crews most of the season to completely clear it, and you can still see the impact. Fortunately, I saw nothing this significant while I was on the trail, and in large part, this was due to trail crews like the one I had come upon.

I stopped to visit for a bit and shared a snack and some water with a group of about eight volunteers of the Colorado Trail Foundation (CTF). I found out that the entire trail was maintained by the CTF using only a small paid staff and a large volunteer base along the trail from Denver to Durango. This specific crew was charged with re-directing and rebuilding a rough section of trail about a quarter of a mile in length that had been eroded and worn by hikers over time. It would take about a month, and several crews would be required. Each would spend time at a basecamp and hike back and forth each day to the section they were working on. The basecamp consisted of canvas tents, including a mess tent for cooking, and even had volunteer camp cooks to feed the hungry trail workers. It was quite an impressive operation, and I didn’t even see the behind-the-scenes work being done by the staff to organize this crew and the many others along the 500+ miles of trail. I thought to myself that the cost of these endeavors had to be immense, so fundraising had to be a large part of the CTF’s work as well.

I saw several trail crews as I traveled the remaining 400+ miles and thanked each one. I found them replacing bridges, sawing trees, removing boulders, re-routing runoff, and more. When visiting with them, I found each volunteer had a similar story. They either lived near the trail, utilized it frequently, and felt the need to give back, or they had hiked the trail at some point and fell in love with it; this was their way to give back.

“Give back.” That phrase resonated with me throughout my hike.

As I walked, I realized how much the experience was giving me. Not only was I fortunate to be able to do this, but I was fortunate to have a place like this to do it. In preparing myself for this hike, I wrote answers to several prompts. One of which was, “Why did I want to do this hike?” One of my answers was, “To see places like this before humans screwed it up more!” I am glad I came upon my first trail crew so early in my hike because it allowed me to reflect for the rest of my hike on just how I could give back to the trail.

When I finished the hike, one of the first things I did was visit the CTF website and look at their Board of Directors. What better way to get involved than at the top right? I found that all were from Colorado, so that shot down that idea pretty quick. It makes sense that to be a leader of an organization responsible for the Colorado Trail, you should probably have ready access to the trail. I researched trail crews and am considering volunteering for a trail crew for a week or two in the summer, especially once I retire. But it’s one thing to be able to physically hike the CT, it’s another to hike it with heavy tools, then do back-breaking work all day, every day for a week. Hopefully, I’ll be up to it in retirement, but there are no guarantees. So, while I wanted to desperately give back to the CT, my options seemed limited. Or were they?

You see, what organizations like the CTF need more than anything is money. Time is great. Volunteers are great. Both are needed badly. But in any organization, it doesn’t matter which one you pick, only 5 – 10% of its members do the work. The rest fund it. So that’s what I decided I could do at this time to best give back to the Colorado Trail. I joined the organization as a member and then made a monthly financial commitment that automatically comes out of my checking account. Doing it this way means I don’t have to remember it every month or year, and it saves them money because they don’t have to spend resources reminding me. Instead, their small staff’s time and money can be used organizing trail crews and buying necessary supplies for the work they do. It’s a win-win proposition. I feel like I’m doing a small part to maintain the trail that gave me so much, and they feel like the work they are doing makes a difference because others like me are doing the same.

It takes some faith on my part to do this. I must trust that the CTF is doing the right things with the money I donate. I’m not there to see everything they do. In fact, had I not happened upon some trail crews, I may never have seen them doing the work (and may still be taking the results for granted!). But I have faith that the CTF Board of Directors provides the necessary oversight, makes the best decisions, and is a good steward of the resources provided by members and donors.

As the Executive Director of the Missouri Association of Osteopathic Physicians and Surgeons (MAOPS), I understand the hardships and frustrations an organization like the CTF faces. Our mission is to advance the distinct philosophy and practice of osteopathic medicine. Like the CTF, we do our job even though most who take advantage of our services are not members or donors. We push forward with our mission regardless. Our Board of Trustees provides oversight and makes decisions based on the volunteers and resources we do have. So, while there is always more we want to do to advance our mission, we are completely dependent on the willingness of those in the profession to voluntarily give back. Many don’t realize that. Like me when I began my hike on the Colorado Trail, many take it for granted that the “trail” is just there. They forget or don’t think about what it took to put it there.

Even in the most remote sections, the CTF maintains a clear path for hikers.
Signs not only have to be placed by volunteers but cost money to make and maintain.

I was 70 miles from the end of the trail. I had just rested a day in the small town of Silverton and was about 200 yards down the trail when a woman in her sixties stopped me and asked about my hike. (Note: I promise I am not making this up!) While visiting with her, it came out that her mother founded the Colorado Trail – Gudy Gaskill! That name means nothing to most, but on the Colorado Trail, you cross the “Gudy Gaskill Memorial Bridge” at mile 17, “Gudy’s Rest” at about mile 480, and several plaques along the way commemorating her work to establish the trail back in the 1980s. It felt eerily ironic that I had the good fortune to meet her daughter on the trail as I had been contemplating for the past five weeks how I could give back!

It turns out that establishing a 500+ mile trail isn’t that easy. You have private landowners to deal with. Easements to gain. Environmental studies to do. Economic impact analyses to complete. Not to mention the money to raise and the infrastructure to create to build and sustain it in perpetuity. It’s a massive undertaking, and most who use the trail not only take it for granted, they simply don’t even know it.

Like everyone who is highly involved with the Colorado Trail knows the name “Gudy Gaskill,” all osteopathic physicians know the name “A. T. Still.” But how many know names like Minnie Potter? Wilbur Hill? Phillip Accardo? or William Voss? These are just some of the unsung heroes that have made it possible for you to practice medicine in Missouri today. It wasn’t always like this, you know? In fact, it wasn’t until 1993 that legislation (pushed by MAOPS) was passed to prevent hiring discrimination against osteopathic physicians. Our work continues today with hardworking volunteers who give valuable personal time so you don’t have to. Like the trail crews on the CT, they can only do their work if they have your financial support. We can have all the volunteers in the world, but with no money, we can’t deploy them.

That’s what I urge you, as osteopathic physicians, to understand and appreciate. MAOPS is here working for you every day. MAOPS is not just a small staff of five (yes, only five!) in Jefferson City, but a group of dedicated volunteers around the state (and yes, they represent less than 3% of all the DOs in the state). For those who give through their membership and donations, THANK YOU for entrusting us with your money. You can rest assured that our Board of Trustees takes great care of our resources and does not take your support for granted. For those DOs reading this who do not give up time or money, please consider doing so. You can continue to take advantage of the work we do for the profession, or you can actively participate by simply ponying up a little bit of your resources to help the cause.

Please remember, just because you may not see the work being done doesn’t mean it isn’t being done. Sometimes, you just need your eyes opened a bit to notice the results. If the CTF did not exist, the Colorado Trail would be overgrown with deadfalls and washouts throughout, and soon it would be unhikable. Without MAOPS, osteopathic physicians and the profession in general would soon be indistinguishable from many other “healthcare providers” masquerading as physicians. Don’t take that for granted.