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Next Avenue: Talk about an active retirement: How one retiree found meaning and purpose working on the Appalachian Trail

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This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org.

Jim Fetig approached retirement the same way he approached the rest of his life: always on the go and eager to test his mettle. As a soldier’s son and later an Army officer himself, he has lived in 19 states and 3 foreign countries, traveled to 50 states and 44 countries, and had 64 permanent mailing addresses.

After leaving the Army as a colonel, Fetig held executive communications positions at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Raytheon
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He was a visiting fellow at the Rand Corp. and served as a foreign policy spokesman for the Clinton administration and chief of external relations for the Corporation for National and Community Service under President Obama.

““If this experience has taught me anything, it’s the importance of finding a direction and focus in retirement. If you can do that, you’ll never be bored.””

— Jim Fetig

Call of the wild

Despite years of desk jobs, Fetig is an avid outdoor enthusiast. He graduated from the Army’s Winter Warfare School in Alaska, was certified as a winter operations instructor by the Minnesota National Guard, has lived on a glacier in Alaska, skied northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area in midwinter (where overnight temps averaged −35° F), and has climbed and hiked in the Colorado Rockies during all four seasons.

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His happy place is outdoors, so his choice to kick-start retirement with a “through hike” of all 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT) perfectly tested his will, skill and temperament. It offered him an “epic quest,” that included “physical and mental challenges, use of wits, sustainable over enough time to test my commitment and bring out both my best and worst,” he said as he readied himself in spring of 2013.

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Man with a mission

Like most mere mortals who are considering retirement, Fetig says he also wanted to fill his post-career time with “joyous and meaningful activity that benefited others as well as myself.”

Read: What if you live to 100? How to create a meaningful life

He found that and more. Typical of his goal- and leadership-oriented character, he has become an essential contributor of AT’s volunteer base. Fetig began volunteering with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) in 2012, in part to prepare for that through hike, which he accomplished in 2014. His colleague, former Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) Information Services Manager Laurie Potteiger, dubbed Fetig “a man with a mission to do everything he can to protect and preserve the Appalachian Trail.”

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Fetig wears many hats when working on the trail; most of them are hard hats. “Few volunteers are involved with the AT from such a variety of perspectives,” Potteiger says. “You might find him using a chain saw to clear blowdowns (trees blown down by the wind) on his trail section, swinging a pick on a trail crew, greeting visitors at ATC headquarters in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, supervising ridgerunners (seasonal employees who hike assigned sections of the AT to help educate hikers, check permits, and assist in the maintenance of the Trail, shelters and privies) anywhere along PATC’s 240 miles of the AT or writing blog posts that promote initiatives that benefit the Trail.”

Overseeing a trail section in Shenandoah National Park, Fetig works with a PATC trail crew, helps with fundraising, and occasionally volunteers at the ATC visitor center, giving presentations and leading workshops on hiking. For a time, he served as public affairs chair. He also helped to pioneer the Trail Ambassador program, working as a volunteer ridgerunner with the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club “to get hikers off on the right foot and to minimize their environmental impact,” he explains.

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Working on the trail helps Fetig appreciate the complexities of managing it, describing it as “a system with many parts that all need to work together.” Volunteers are one of those parts, and he says there is a role for everyone.

“If this experience has taught me anything, it’s the importance of finding a direction and focus in retirement about which you are passionate,” he says. “If you can do that, you’ll never be bored.”

Fetig’s “retirement” qualifies more as “repurposing.” He says he is busier and more fulfilled now than he has ever been. And, oh yeah, if you come across him on the trail, ask him about his cookies — they’re notorious! Did we forget to mention that one of the hats he wears is a baker’s toque?

Also see: Is queen of England the perfect retirement job?

Background on the Appalachian Trail

A hiker on the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

AFP via Getty Images

Internationally renowned by hikers, the Appalachian Trail is an American treasure. 2021 marked the centennial of the trail’s founding, which was when a planner, forester and preservationist named Benton MacKaye published an article, “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning,” in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects. In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Trails System Act, making the AT a national scenic trail under federal protection. Author Bill Bryson triggered a boom of interest with his 1998 book, “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.”

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy website has information on ways to get involved.

Susan Schaefer is a widely published independent journalist, creative writer, and poet. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she was co-publisher and editor of its edgy downtown biweekly, the South Street Star. Most recently she was a columnist and features writer for Minneapolis’ Southwest Journal and Minnesota Good Age magazine. Her articles have appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, Mill City Times, the Seward Profile, and the Netherlands’ Crossroads Magazine.  

This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, © 2022 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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