In 1957, 16-year-old Keith Conning joined a crew of high school students working on a trail in Olympic National Park. Neither he, nor indeed anyone involved with the organizing group (then called the Student Conservation Program), would have predicted the outcome of that humble start fifty years later.
Before he returned to the park last week for SCA’s 50th anniversary celebration, Keith shared with us his reflections on that first trip to Olympic and his path since then.
Born in San Francisco, Keith grew up in an urban environment. His mother and father, who enjoyed hiking, really worked on Keith and his brother to instill a love of the outdoors. Keith’s mom, a member of the Sierra Club, worked for the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department and for 30 years was at Golden Gate National Recreation Area. She enjoyed mountain climbing, especially Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, and in 1938 Keith’s parents visited the high Sierras, where the climbing experience made a big impression.
Keith’s mom heard about SCA and encouraged her son to join. As a result, Keith was a member of that historic first crew in Olympic and found himself hauling gravel in a wheelbarrow on the Hoh River Trail. “It was hard work, but it was a wonderful experience,” says Keith. “It gave me a chance to do something where I actually could see the results of my labor,” he adds. After their hard work, the crew took a week for recreation, to hike Mt. Olympus, and the tradition of the crew “rec trip” was born.
Keith got his first teaching job at Martin Luther King Jr Middle School in Berkeley, where kids whose parents worked and taught at U.C. Berkeley mixed with inner city kids equally. He recalls borrowing equipment and taking a group of students on a back-packing trip to Pt. Reyes. In spite of bad weather, it was a marvelous experience. The students had never been in that kind of outdoor setting before.
Later, when he was teaching at Berkeley High School, Keith coached long distance runners and built a cross-country course in Tilden Park where students trained and ran their races. He encouraged runners to also train in other regional parks and says that “the experience of running in a park really rubbed off on the kids – helped connect them to nature.”
In the 1980s Keith took his three young children to Olympic Park “to see what Dad had done on the nature trail.” He and his wife, Marian, encouraged their children to experience and enjoy being in the wilderness – they spent annual family vacations visiting national parks throughout the West.
After retiring from teaching in 1998, Keith and Marian have become involved in environmental activism, working to preserve Laguna Valley from development. It’s truly a grassroots effort with people from all walks of life joining together, motivated by the desire to preserve one of the last natural undeveloped valleys in California.
Every day Keith goes walking in Laguna Valley. “It’s good for the soul to get out there and commune with nature, with the jack rabbits and wild animals,” he says. He believes it is very important to protect and save places like Laguna Valley and Olympic National Park. “If we don’t fight for them we are not going to have them.” If growth and development seems inevitable, “let’s plan the growth,” he says.
As Keith returned to Olympic for SCA’s 50th anniversary gathering he brought a long history of involvement in the outdoors and commitment to the preservation of nature. He feels his work in SCA back in 1957 was an integral part of “all the things [that] kind of tied together and built on each other and motivated me to do more.” It all reinforces the lesson that sometimes the best way to enjoy nature is to work hard at preserving it, one wheelbarrow full of gravel at a time.
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