Karleen C. Chinen

I was planning to write about the passings late last year of two people whose lives had touched so many, but I decided to save that for another Dialogue for a subject more pressing.

Yesterday, I asked Keiri Kanbayashi — whose journey through the John Muir Trail contributing writer Alan Suemori captured so beautifully in our lead story — if he would sit with me this morning and help me select the photos to help illustrate his experience. I’d made an initial selection, but even that was 66 photos — and there was no way we could use that many photos. We needed to choose the best of the best of the best. No simple task when you consider the beautiful and unbelievable terrain that is the John Muir Trail.

I was editing Alan’s story as the U.S. Senate began holding confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill for several of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees. I realized how much I take for granted our America the Beautiful. An Interior Secretary who does not hold dear natural jewels like the John Muir Trail could do some real and irreversible damage.

When I decided on the title for this story, “America the Beautiful,” I was thinking mainly about what our eyes see: breathtakingly beautiful mountains; unimaginable rock formations; peaceful lakes; snowcapped peaks in the middle of summer; colorful flowers that sprang to life in the middle of miles and miles of rock and dirt; tall, sturdy pine trees that seemed to have lived forever; small white rocks scattered about. Who had done this? The truth is no one had — they were acts of nature and they remain because the people who hike the John Muir Trail have a deep respect for nature and an equally deep commitment to protecting it through their actions.

As Keiri and I went through the photos, he repeated several times: “It’s all about paying it forward.” He talked about how Maegan, who, in her mid-20s, is already an experienced hiker, came over and helped him set up his tent when he encountered a problem . . . how she handed him a hot-water bottle to help him warm up quickly when he arrived at their campsite on a freezing cold evening . . . how Nathan would stop and shine his light so Keiri would know where they were on the trail . . . how Kevin the policeman from Indianapolis told him to use Krazy Glue to mend the cracks in his hands . . . and, finally, how Nathan, Maegan and Nick all waited for Keiri for over an hour at the summit of Mt. Whitney on that last day of the hike. At 13,000-plus feet above sea level, the thin air makes breathing difficult for even the most experienced hikers. But they waited.

Keiri didn’t know any of them when he began his solo journey. But he found an ‘ohana in the most unlikely of places. Nearly five months later, memories of their kindness still move him — I would venture to say even more than all the natural beauty his eyes absorbed or the bragging rights to which he is entitled for having completed such a feat.

As I listened to him, I thought about where we are as a nation. By the time you read this issue, America will have a new president — one who, by all he has said and done in his past, and promises to do in the future, will not be anything like President Barack Obama, who always encouraged us to lend a hand to those less fortunate than ourselves. I think we’re going to need more Maegans and Nathans and Kevins — and we are going to have to model ourselves after Maegan and Nathan and Kevin and reach out and help our fellow human beings in order to keep America the Beautiful alive not only in our physical environment, but in our hearts, as well.


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