A swashbuckling life of miles
by Dawne Belloise
“It’s all an adventure. I don’t know what’s coming,” Scott Steiner says with a calm that belies his excitement. Having hiked, cycled, sailed, kayaked and driven a Mountain Express bus in circles for thousands upon thousands of miles, Scott seems always ready for the next escapade.
Scott grew up in the suburbs of our nation’s capital. His mother worked for public schools and his father was a rocket scientist; yes, a physicist who designed guidance systems for aeronautics. Scott talks proudly of his father’s work on the Mercury-Redstone, the NASA launch vehicle that carried John Glenn as the first American to orbit the earth in space.
Scott realized early on as a child that he never felt comfortable in the suburbs and admits that he was the misfit in his family, the “black sheep,” as he says. “I was a recluse from the get-go. I knew something wasn’t right,” he says of his suburban childhood, surrounded by concrete and pavement. He had no connection to the natural world while growing up, but when he was 13 his parents got this wild idea to throw the kids into the car and take a cross-country trip. It was a popular travel fad for that ‘50s and ‘60s era when gas and travel were cheap.
“We had a Pontiac sedan and we all crammed into this prairie boat and drove to the West Coast and back. I saw the Rocky Mountains and the rest is history.”
Between a rocket scientist father, a mother in education, the wonder of seeing the Rocky Mountains, and getting totally hooked on traveling, it’s easy to understand how Scott became an overachiever to accomplish his dreams.
Two years after the family’s bi-coastal excursion, at the age of 15, Scott and a school buddy trekked off on his first backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail, where, he laughs, “We got our asses handed to us. It was cold, rainy, hypothermia weather. It was November and my parents had given me the incentive that if I did well in school I could attach a few days to our Thanksgiving vacation so we could have more time to hike. We were frozen and miserable and I loved it.”
By the time he was 17, Scott and his friend did a 600-mile backpacking trip on the Appalachian. “At that point, my life’s destiny had already been determined. Two years later, at 19, I did a solo 1,500-mile and completed the Appalachian Trail.”
Scott was the 601st person to complete that hike that more than 16,000 people now boast to have completed. As a section hiker—that is, one who does the trail in segments over time—he recently hiked it in its entirety again.
After high school, Scott enrolled at the University of Maryland, earning a degree in parks and recreation in 1981, after which he got a job as a ranger in Vermont on the highest mountain in the state, where he was introduced to environmental education when one of his co-rangers got a job in California’s Redwoods teaching the subject in public schools.
“He helped me make the transition out to California to teach at this school, too. It was there I decided I was going to become the director of that school but I needed an education degree, so I went back to Vermont, enrolled at the University of Vermont, and got my education degree in 1985.”
However, he changed his course, never making it back to the Redwoods because he ended up in the backcountry as a park ranger.
“I was the Capital Peak Ranger in the Maroon Bells. I came to Colorado in 1986 because I was a telemark skier in Vermont and my mentor told me if I was going to be a tele skier there was only one of two places in the world for me—Telluride or Crested Butte,” so he came west to the Crested Butte Mecca of free-heeling, where he felt he belonged.
Meanwhile, back in his ranger tent pitched at Conundrum Hot Springs, he’d fill out job applications nightly, seeking a school teacher position in Colorado, because, “I started feeling a little bit like living my whole life in the backcountry was a little too isolated and choosing to be a teacher was a challenge to my lifestyle, but I chose it because it would meet all my needs. I could help children learn and continue to adventure during summer breaks.”
So, on his days off as a ranger, he’d head down to the post office and mail out those applications, pinballing between Aspen and Crested Butte. His very first job interview netted him a teaching gig with Gunnison’s Blackstock Elementary sixth graders.
“I taught social studies, English and reading. At one point, I left the classroom to be the school counselor, working with troubled kids for 10 years,” Scott says. His tenure at the RE1J school started in 1986 and lasted for 20 years. While he was at Blackstock School, he decided to further his education, taking night classes at Western State College (WSC) because, he grins, “Just for something to do because in those days, there was nothing to do Gunnison. I didn’t know anybody and they were offering graduate classes at WSC.” He earned his master’s degree in school counseling over two years and graduated in 1989.
“If there was a way to summarize my life, it is a life of miles,” Scott reflects thoughtfully. “I have backpacked 20,000 miles and bicycled over 100,000 miles. When I sold my boat four years ago, I had logged 20,000 miles of sailing along the Alaskan coast.” He had sold his live-aboard sailboat to finance his 5,000-mile bicycle trip in Scandinavia, which he called his Viking trip that took three months.
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“I circumnavigated Ireland, Scotland, and rode the whole length of Norway. I got 400 miles north of the Arctic Circle on my bike and then rode all the way around Iceland,” says the über-cyclist.
His passion is melding with the outdoors, riding along and becoming part of the landscape. He says of his journey, “It all depends on what you feel you need to get out of it. While some people need to go to museums or theater, or whatever touristy thing, I just see it by being outside every day, all day, in the countryside, just soaking it in. Also, my whole mode of travel is self-propelled, long, slow, distance travel… or LSD,” he laughs of his wanderlust. “All my trips, whether sailing, kayaking, hiking or biking, I’m moving slowly through the countryside just absorbing everything, so I don’t feel I need to stop and see special things because it’s coming in to me all the time.”
Scott, whose trail name is “Old School,” claims to have slept with grizzly and black bears, stepped over at least a dozen rattlesnakes, forded ice cold raging class five rivers; he’s been hurt, dehydrated, exhausted, dirty, hungry, and beaten to a pulp, but he always gets there. He points out that when you spend enough time in the wilderness, stuff happens.
And he’s definitely spent more of his life out in the wild than many, as a Triple Crown hiker (a combined 8,000 miles of the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental trails), having hiked the Pacific Crest Trail twice, the Appalachian Trail twice, the Arizona Trail, the Colorado Trail that winds 500 miles from Durango to Denver, the Long Trail in Vermont twice, and the Grand Enchantment Trail from the Grand Canyon to Albuquerque.
Scott’s climbed into his kayak to paddle 1,000 miles in Alaska. He’s also built eight wooden kayaks. He rode his bike to Fairbanks, Alaska, and back all the way from Jackson Hole—that’s 5,500 miles—and then topped that by biking 7,000 miles from Seattle to Newfoundland in four months.
“I was a machine that year,” he grins.
Scott will take off on his next adventuresome feat this summer for a 300-mile mountain biking trip riding the Continental Divide. “I walked it. Now I’m going to ride it,” he says excitedly. “In the not so distant future, 2017, I’ll be doing the toughest trail in America, the Heyduke Trail in Utah and Arizona. It’s totally remote desert wilderness for 850 miles,” he says of the trail named after the character in Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang.
When he retired after 20 years of teaching, Scott became a Mountain Express bus driver since it catered to his travel lifestyle, and he felt like he needed something to ground him. Otherwise, he jokes, he’d be trekking 12 months out of the year. And the problem with that, he realized, is that Crested Butte is such a wonderful place and he needs to spend a little time here between his wanderings, although he also realizes the dichotomy that he finds day-to-day town life to be a bit monotonous and unfulfilling.
“The reality of it is, I can’t ski anymore due to injuries.” He accepts this as a sacrifice in favor of being able to still do the other outdoor things he loves. However, winters will see him return to drive the bus. If he has his way, his future will include another live-aboard sailboat so he can return to a sailor’s life in Alaska.
“During the 10 years on my boat, I experienced eagles, bears, whales, and incredible scenery. I mean, if that’s the life you’re seeking then that’s the place you want to be—so that’s where I’m headed.”
Scott has chosen his life and followed it with verve and a gusto for whatever comes across his path. “I have never swayed from my course and I have no regrets. I’m a searcher. I keep roaming around. I have a bucket list with every one of these things that I’ve done. It’s infinite. Searching is what I am—it’s not what I’m looking for, it’s what I do and it’s what I am. I’m just gonna die out there somewhere, someday, on some trail. That’ll just be the end of me. And that’s where I belong.”