Janesville man, 74, hooked on long-distance hiking

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Anna Marie Lux
Saturday, April 5, 2014

JANESVILLE--Garth Fisher discovered the joy of walking at age 60, when he hiked the 2,165 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

During the journey of 5 million steps, he stumbled on slippery rocks and moss-covered roots. 

Still, he calls the trip much easier than the 630-mile trek he took last summer along England's South West Coast Path, considered one of the planet's greatest walks.

“I had to climb up big slopes all the time,” the 74-year-old said. “I have pictures of me standing on one side of a valley and looking across at the other side.”

When he finished, Fisher climbed and descended more than 115,000 feet, the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest almost four times.

At one point, he was so worn out he toyed with quitting.

“A part of me said, 'You don't have to do all this,'” said Fisher, who had a hip replacement a few years ago. “But I made a commitment, and I needed to see the challenge through from start to finish. There is something in my core that says, 'Keep going.'”

Alone, he completed the strenuous walk in two months from the shores of Poole Harbour in Dorset to Somerset's Minehead on the edge of Exmoor.

Now back home in Janesville, Fisher is mulling more long-distance hikes, but he doesn't want to do them alone.

He hopes to connect with other men, age 65 and older, interested in backpacking trips. As spring arrives, Fisher is organizing a local hiking group to explore sections of the state's Ice Age Trail this summer.

In years ahead, he looks forward to more long-distance adventures, including the Cameno de Santiago Pilgrimage Walk in northern Spain, the Bruce Trail in Canada and the Grand Enchantment Trail in Arizona and New Mexico.

Between the Appalachian Trail and England's coastal trail, he hiked the 500-mile Finger Lakes Trail in New York. He also spent four summers working as a ridge runner for the Appalachian Trail Conference, patrolling 75 miles of trail that runs through northern New Jersey.

His motivation for grand hikes grew out of wanting to be healthy and to have adventure in life as he aged.

“As I approached my 70th birthday, I progressively felt like my life was over,” Fisher said. “I realized I had never thought about my life beyond 70.”

A psychiatric social worker, Fisher has focused on helping others for 45 years. He continues to work two days a week at the Janesville Psychiatric Clinic, but he realizes he also needs time for himself on some distant trail.

“Out there in the woods, no one knows your past or your present,” Fisher said. “They just know you are a hiker who is out there enjoying nature.”

Prior to the hike in England, he trained for six months.

“I lost weight, worked out and walked in the country with my backpack on,” Fisher said. “If I had not done that, I would never have been able to finish the hike.”

For the first three weeks, he slogged through fog and rain with headwinds and cold weather. For the next five weeks, sunshine and sea breezes blessed him as he focused on doing up to 10 miles per day.

“The day after I finished, it started raining again,” Fisher said.

He walked close to the ocean most of the time and heard the waves and seagulls every day. He passed through fishing towns rich in history.

Fisher carried camping gear with him but often stayed in bed-and-breakfasts.

“That's not how I planned it,” he said, "but it was hard to find what they call 'wild camping.'”

Fisher looks forward to the personal challenge of his next journey.

“There isn't a day goes by that I don't have some memory of one of my three hikes,” Fisher said. “If my health stays OK, this is the stage of life to do things like this. I figure I still have a number of years left to keep going.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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