By Peter Madsen • The Bulletin

An ambitious, long-distance hike is a spiritual experience and a test of physical grit for Bend resident Jonathan Stewart. And he’s hiked about 12,000 miles in his lifetime.

Those miles and the retired U.S. Forest Service employee’s tribulations, make good fodder for books.

“One of the reasons I like hikes is that they’re spiritual retreats,” Stewart said.

The 71-year-old may be one of Central Oregon’s most accomplished and active through-hikers, a status he unintentionally chipped away at after his retirement in 2005.

In his most recent nature travelogue, “The Plateau of Doubt: Hiking the Hayduke Trail across the Colorado Plateau,” released late last year, Stewart detailed the challenge of trekking the mostly unmarked 800-mile trail in the Southwest.

Stewart completed the trail in two six-week trips during 2012 and 2013. He navigated his way using a compass and topographic maps. That was the easy part.

“The greatest challenge is finding and carrying water,” Stewart said, describing how he hauled 30 pounds of water through a parched three-day stretch.

In his trail books, Stewart writes about the people he meets along the way, such as the exiled, legally-blind Iranian doctor and the troubled former Air Force pilot. He spent a night in Colorado City, Arizona, in the home of a trail angel who is a polygamist. His host showed him framed photos of his three wives, 34 children and more than 100 grandchildren.

“The trail self-selects some of the most interesting people,” Stewart said.

After retiring, Stewart trekked the Pacific Crest Trail. Already familiar with the section that winds through the Three Sisters Wilderness, Stewart tackled Washington’s approximate 500-mile section. He hiked Oregon’s 460-mile stretch during the subsequent summer. The next year, Stewart covered California’s 1,700-mile section.

Stewart chronicled his PCT adventures in “Pilgrimage to the Edge,” the book he released in 2010. Has has since trekked the 3,100 mile Continental Divide Trail, which stretches from Canada to Mexico mostly along the Rocky Mountains. He completed the 800-mile Arizona Trail last year. There, he found some hikers had brought the digital world along to record their adventure.

“I met two different couples who were blogging on their phones while hiking the trail. They were all counting how many people tied into their blog sites,” Stewart said. “They were basically marketing themselves as they hiked it. I found it incredibly disconcerting. … But the world is changing quickly. Good luck adapting to it. I’m still old school.

A ‘Legendary local’

Les Joslin met Stewart at Green Lakes Trailhead in the late 1990s.

Joslin was supervising a wilderness information specialist volunteer program for the Bend Ranger District.

Stewart was working as a human resources manager. Joslin, 75, reads Stewart’s books before publication, offering feedback.

“I was struck by his ability to convey a feeling and a sense of place. He reflects on issues that come to mind as he’s experiencing these places,” Joslin said. “It’s not exactly stream of consciousness, but the experiences he has along the trail result in stimulating thought.”

While hiking the Oregon section of the Pacific Crest Trail, Joslin once met someone Stewart had written about. The woman’s trail name was Hmm.

“Stewart’s stuff is different than anything else I’ve read,” Joslin said. “It’s not ‘I walked 12 miles, and I fixed my dinner’ sort of presentation. It’s much more thoughtful.”

Joslin included Stewart in his “Legendary Locals of Bend,” a historical, 120-person who’s-who of Bend released in 2016.

“Stewart just fit in,” Joslin said. “A lot of people around here are backpackers and walkers and he more or less reflects the top of that heap.”

A life outdoors

Stewart was born in Medford in 1947. He fostered a love of writing and research while earning two degrees, one in history and another in journalism, at the University of Oregon in 1969 and 1974, respectively. To pay for college, Stewart took a job with the Forest Service as a smokejumper based out of the Redmond Air Center in 1968.

In the early ’70s, Stewart spent two years in the Peace Corps, stationed in Nepal. He helped with agricultural modernization and trekked extensively, once hiking 100 miles each way to the Everest Base Camp. He never considered climbing Mount Everest, which is the highest mountain in the world at around 29,000 feet.

“I used to climb the Cascade peaks, but I was never a mountain climber,” Stewart said. “The highest I went in Nepal was (about 18,500 feet) when I climbed Kala Patthar, just to get a view of Everest.”

Stewart briefly worked as a reporter at a small Illinois newspaper when he returned to the states. To get his trekking fix in the flat landscape, Stewart marched up and down a highway overpass embankment.

“That’s when I knew I had to get back to Oregon,” Stewart said.

He returned to Corbett to manage his late grandfather’s 120-acre timberland farm in 1976. He soon married and began a family of three children with his wife, Marty Stewart. He again joined the Forest Service, managing a crew of firefighters in the Willamette National Forest.

One of his many jobs included managing youth and inmate trail crews across the Columbia River Gorge.

By the late 1980s, Stewart was coordinating a couple thousand people each summer, which earned him a national Forest Service award.

Stewart and his wife moved to Bend when he transferred to the Deschutes National Forest in 1998.

He worked as a human resource manager and a fire management grant coordinator until he retired in 2005, he said.

Hiking-inspired conservation

In the past decade, Stewart has noticed dramatic changes along the PCT and the Colorado Trail; he hiked the latter in 2017. Huge fires have scorched wide tracts of land.

“When I fought fires 30 years ago, we thought a 30,000 acre fire once a year was enormous,” Stewart said. “Now, it’s these mega fires that are a quarter-million acres or more.”

Mountain pine beetle kills are also more common and more damaging, because climate change is creating warmer, longer summers. Those conditions are giving beetles a longer breeding season, Stewart said.

“The world is changing,” Stewart said. “My view of the world now is that it’s baking from the top down.”

Stewart focuses on these topics in his two most recent books: “Walking Away from The Land: Change At The Crest Of A Continent,” which he released in 2014, and “The Plateau of Doubt.”

“Most people never see how the climate is changing dramatically,” Stewart said. “That’s because they don’t hike for weeks on these long-distance trails and return to see the changes.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, pmadsen@bendbulletin.com

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