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Uphill Battle

Alumnus completes Tahoe Rim Trail before 80th birthday

Stephen Jeffery on the Tahoe Rim Trail before his 80th birthday

From The Ichabod - Spring 2019

While sitting on a beach with his family in Hawaii, Stephen Jeffery decided his next destination would be Lake Tahoe.

Many retirees dream of hopping between picturesque vacation spots, but the travel plans for this soon-to-be 80-year-old weren’t quite as relaxing. As his milestone birthday approached, Jeffery, ba ’63, set a goal not just to walk the lake’s shores, but to hike the perimeter. All of it – and from a high enough elevation that wildfire smoke billowing below would sometimes block his lake view.

More than 2,200 people have completed the 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail, but Jeffery was the oldest in an 11-person group who hiked additional access trails for a total mileage of 192.

After persevering through an 11-week uphill battle with drastic elevation changes, unexpected weather conditions and daunting distances, it’s easy to see why Jeffery’s much-younger hiking companions nicknamed him “blue-eyed tough old guy,” or “TOG” for short.

“I was 80 and looking for a little challenge,” he said, “and I guess I found it.”

Every Wednesday from June 20 through Sept. 5, 2018, the group members, all in their 30s to 60s except Jeffery, were dropped off with two guides and three quarts of water apiece and proceeded to where they left off at the lake. The already-challenging route, which included a total elevation gain of 24,000 feet, was further complicated by California’s Ferguson and Carr wildfires.

“It really made it very difficult,” Jeffery said. “Some people had masks to help get clearer air. Typically, we didn’t and just had to deal with it. Sometimes, looking straight down 2,000 to 3,000 feet, the lake wasn’t visible because of smoke. One of the days was a 25-mile hike, so it was a really challenging time.”

Two people quit because of the conditions, but Jeffery never missed a trip to the designated meet-up point.

“Mostly, the views were spectacular,” he said, “and it was an overall exhilarating experience.”

The Grass Valley, California, resident regularly hiked five to 10 miles before ramping up his training to cover nearly 200 miles in the months before Tahoe. He attributed the thorough preparation, equipment and the group’s camaraderie for helping him persevere.

“We became really good friends,” he said. “After the first hike, we designated someone to bring a cooler and chips every week. We popped some beer at the end of the day and enjoyed talking about the experience while massaging our weary feet.”

Another source of encouragement between hikes was his wife, Nancy Jeffery, who he met at Washburn and married 55 years ago. Even on nights when he returned home as late as 9:30, she was waiting to hear a recap over a larger-than-usual dinner.

“He’d eat twice as much while relaying the entire day to me,” Nancy, ba ’92, said. “He’d crash into bed, get some sleep, hike a few times during the week, then go back for another long one the following Wednesday.”

When Jeffery’s three-month routine ended at the finish line, Nancy was waiting along with their dog, Tinga, and later hosted a party back home with friends.

“Knowing him the way I do, he’d do everything he could to finish, even if he had to hobble,” she said. “And he did. His feet hurt and coming downhill for hours is hard on the knees too. But he persevered and said, ‘What’s next?’”

It’s a question Stephen and Nancy have asked frequently since they first met while constructing a float for Washburn’s Homecoming parade. Aside from grueling hikes around Lake Tahoe, the couple has rarely been apart since.

“We spotted each other and fell in love at first sight,” said Stephen, whose Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity partnered with Nancy’s Kappa Alpha Theta sorority for Greek Homecoming festivities.

Stephen served two years in the Navy before coming to Washburn for a degree in economics. He said he and Nancy remain appreciative of their time on campus, most notably for its comfortable size, extracurricular activities, instructors and, of course, that chance meeting decorating a float.

“Fifty-five adventure-filled years later,” Nancy said, “here we are.”

Stephen received a graduate degree in international business from the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona, the first of several moves that took the couple to eight different states and two foreign countries before finally retiring in California.

Nancy said their children, Todd, 54, and Gray, 51, share their wanderlust, both having lived in several countries. But when the whole family meets in one place, as they did in last year’s vacation to Hawaii, there’s no telling what ideas might come into play.

“He’ll find something else that will keep him engaged and learning, and that’s what we both try to do,” Nancy said. “Regardless of age, if you’ve got the energy, it’s a thrill to seek new challenges. Perhaps at a slower pace.”

Ichabod Magazine 2019 fall cover, Ichabod Plaza statue at sunset

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. Read the 2019-20 fall edition online and look for it in mailboxes in October.

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