When I would go hiking up the mountains around Maine with John Christie, every hike was a great adventure, and every mountain a new inspiration. And as we traveled together hiking, or skiing down mountains in the winter, John would introduce me to the many people he knew as “his friend who writes for the Portland Press Herald.”

But the truth is John Christie was like a second father to me, and my life has been made richer from knowing him.

John died on May 7 at 79 after living a life full of many careers and marked by a passion for outdoor exploration. For years he owned or managed three ski areas in Maine and Vermont, and after he retired from work in advertising and as a career counselor, he became an author and columnist for this newspaper. His sons, Josh and Jake, will continue to write the outdoor adventure column they all shared for the Maine Sunday Telegram.

John had a story bank full of tales from younger years skiing at Sugarloaf and, later, camping and paddling with his wife, Marty, and Josh and Jake. I told John many times his next book – after he had written three – should be a memoir called, “A Life Well Lived.”

Yet as famous a storyteller as John was in so many circles, perhaps few know what a remarkable listener he was. He remembered every detail you mentioned, every sadness or disappointment you shared. And always in response, no matter what the subject, there was hope.

Certainly, John was the gregarious, happy bard with the booming laugh so many knew. But to those who called him friend, he also was a rare being filled with a belief that life is a remarkable journey, and the future a place filled with promise.

As my heart breaks this week, it’s not for the hikes or ski days we’ll never share again. It is for the second dad who listened as well as anyone could, with a heart bigger than most.

• • • • •

John and I met after I had written an article about the history of Sugarloaf’s old gondola, which John, as the ski resort’s general manager, had helped install. Somewhere among his stories of the mountain, he extended to me, as he did to so many, an invitation to ski with him there. When the day came, it somehow evolved into a ridiculous race that John fashioned into a mock state championship. He had invited a contingent of spectators I didn’t know, appointed a “team manager” for each of us. The prize he suggested, of course, was his favorite Canadian beer, Labatts – since he was sure to win.

This was the stuff of 14-year-olds or 20-somethings, so I was confused as to why a 70-year-old was staging such a strange event that he dubbed “The Race.” Except it quickly came clear this was not just an opportunity for a laugh. I really had to beat this guy.

Still, try as I might from the summit to the base, I could not keep him in sight. As one of John’s many friends, former Sugarloaf owner Warren Cook said: “He doesn’t turn.”

And probably in keeping with the story of John’s life, that ridiculous gag gave way to a lifelong friendship. Looking back now, it seems like John simply adopted me as his daughter that day, and never looked back.

I would joke to people as we traveled around the state on our hikes that he was Uncle John. When I was with him I called my dog his dog, because Bingo loved John.

John’s son, Josh, once told me how babies and animals all loved his dad. But who didn’t?

One day when we were all skiing together and a group of people pulled his dad away from us, I asked Josh how often that happened growing up. Josh replied that he learned as a child, “I need to share him with the world.”

Many times when John would be sharing a tale of a solo ocean paddle, or a hike of some faraway mountain taken in his late 70s, I’d ask if Marty worried about his rugged backwoods outings. Sure she worried, but Marty would say, “That’s John.”

He almost crashed a monoplane with her once when he was flying it off Swans Island in Bass Harbor because there wasn’t enough runway left on the field he took off from. So he pointed the nose down toward the ocean to get the plane to go up. When I asked Marty her version of the story, she simply said, “I trusted him.”

That is a part of John Christie many don’t know. Marty let her motorcycle-riding, glade-skiing, ocean-kayaking husband explore and savor Maine’s outdoors, as if it were his job to do it for us all. And John adored the woman he called his soulmate. Theirs was one of the greatest love stories I’ve ever known. It was one more example of the caring, kind world John lived in.

• • • • •

John’s died of an apparent heart attack while working at Camden Hills State Park, a site where he spent much of his youth. It might seem a poetic conclusion to the active life of a Maine native who was the grandson of a sporting camp owner. But for those of us who loved John, his death seems abrupt.

I fully expected to be hiking and skiing with him until he was 90. In December, he introduced me to a 95-year-old skier at Sugarloaf. To which I immediately clapped and announced: “That’s you!”

Losing John does not make sense. But I also know, as his son Jake said, John would want us to tell stories.

So here is one of my favorites of John Christie:

Two years ago, we planned to go hiking near Moosehead Lake. I locked myself out of my car in Portland, pushing our meeting in Augusta back an hour. Typical John, he said, “Not to worry,” and declared this provided the opportunity to do a smaller but spectacular hike to a summit streaked with glacial lines.

So we headed to Bald Mountain near Rangeley along back roads and past farm fields and began hiking through the woods, swapping stories as we went. And as we neared the summit I told a story about my dad from a few months earlier. How my dad had begun getting his estate in order and asked if I wanted the jewelry he had bought my mother over the years. To which I responded, I only wanted more time with him.

Still Dad encouraged me to accept this collection of gold and diamonds “when the time came.” Having never considered this before, I said, “The only thing I would want, if it even existed, was the engagement ring from my Irish grandmother from County Cavan (who died 45 years ago) to go with the one I have from my Irish grandma from Donegal.”

And for about 10 seconds, Dad stared at me. Then he reached into his blazer pocket, pulled out a beautiful silver diamond ring, and held it toward me, the engagement ring that belonged to his mother.

I finished the story just as John and I got to the summit, and we walked onto it in silence. Then he pulled out his favorite Canadian beverage as we sat down and handed me a bottle. And as we looked out to the view of the Rangeley lakes I confided: “I don’t know if it’s possible, but I felt in that moment the Irish grandmother I never knew was hugging me, showing me how much she loved me.”

And on what is now my favorite hike, John raised his glass and said: “If you believe it’s true, then it can be.”

So I know there will be many sad hikes to come where I will wish my friend was there with me to tell stories and make me laugh. But I also know John would want me to hang onto hope. And I believe if John said it could be true, then it can be.

He will be there with me on those mountains, hugging me and saying he loves me.

 


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