Ben Smith said it best, so I’ll just borrow his line. “Ron was probably the worst hiker I ever knew, but I would never want to go on a camping trip without him.”
I knew Ron forever as a colleague at the AJC, and was privileged to work with him, learn from him and to be his editor for some of the amazing early reporting he did on the AIDS epidemic.
But my best memories are about camping with him — in North Georgia on John and Diane Turner’s farm, on the Appalachian Trail, on Cumberland Island too many times to count, and in the Okefenokee Swamp. Young Alex was along on a few of those outings and so was exposed, I would guess, to more dubious adult shenanigans than most kids his age have to endure.
Anyway, these days, serious backpackers are all about ultralite – a space blanket, some energy bars and a water bottle and they’re off.
Ron was not about that. No matter how many times we ventured out, he would almost always have the heaviest pack. Ron always hiked for comfort, not for speed.
Spam, Ron? You bring a can of apocalypse food into the woods? “It doesn’t go bad,” he would offer. “And it’s pretty good when you fry it.”
So of course he would also bring a frying pan. And Cheese Whiz. And crackers. Camping stove. And a stovetop coffee percolator. And a very large lantern with fuel canister. Lots of rope. Knives. Hatchet. Pound of coffee. Several pounds of gorp. Lots of candy bars. Certainly a large bottle of Jack Daniels. And perhaps an extra water bottle full of Jameson’s (“By god, if we’re going to be out there for four days, we better be prepared.”)
Sometimes, on the second or third day out, you would hear Ron coming by the clanking of various things that were by now tied to his pack frame to air out.
And you were usually waiting to hear Ron coming. With a pack that weighed 50 pounds, he invariably arrived in camp about an hour after everyone else. At which point, he would plop down, curse the portion of his body that had betrayed him that day and announce he would help get dinner going after he rested up a bit.
And later, after a drink or two (or something), and some hot food and Irish coffee from a plastic camp cup, gathered around a fire (or the large lantern), he would tell the best stories. Ron was not only a great story teller, but also the best story audience. Ask his friends. Guaranteed that they all felt like they should consider open mike night at the Comedy Store if Ron was in the house. His was the warmest, most generous laugh I have ever known.
I remember the first time we walked through the woods from Yankee Paradise on Cumberland past the Duck House that I believe that Thomas Carnegie built so he wouldn’t have to get up early to travel all the way from the south end of the island to the north to shoot ducks when the sun came up. He could just stay at the three-bedroom duck house the night before and get up and shoot ducks with his coffee from the front stoop.
To some of us, it seemed like the ultimate wretched robber baron excess. Ron thought it was brilliant. Like Carnegie, Ron had somewhat of an aversion to getting up early. So clearly, Carnegie was a very wise man.
I remember landing canoes on the spillway in the Okefenokee Swamp and looking down the other side at what, to this day, were the biggest crowd of the largest fucking alligators I have ever seen. Easily 15 feet long and sloshing around just 50 feet away. Some with mouths open catching things that fell over the spillway.
We were all struck dumb for a moment and then Ron said, “Now I know how Johnny Weismuller must have felt.”
I remember hiking in North Georgia with Ron and Rich Whitt. Rich was a marathon runner and tended to hike pretty quickly. Not Ron’s style. I remember it started raining, and I caught up to Rich, and he said we should wait for Ron since the trail was so slick. I said it could be awhile. So we waited 30 minutes. No Ron. Rich said he was worried. I said I wasn’t, Ron traveled at his own pace. But Rich felt he needed to check, so he backtracked down the trail. About an hour later he was back. He has some of Ron’s stuff with him but no Ron. Now I was worried. What happened? Rich said Ron was about a mile and a half back, parked under a hemlock, smoking his pipe. Rich said he told him we were worried. Ron said he was very glad to hear that but that he was just fine, just waiting until the weather got a little better and then he would be along.
And he was.
He was the best. He was a great journalist, an incredibly gifted writer, but that was his day job. For his friends, he made time together memorable. And I will always be grateful to him for the adventures we shared.