“You use the trail, right? Come here, I have something for you.”
It’s 9 a.m. on a Thursday at Heritage Trail. Spring is in the air, along with the usual crowd of runners, walkers and nature lovers.
Don Larson, 85, is passing out handmade bowls and plates in the parking lot, which are carved from wood he’s found walking, “here and there.” Nearly every trail user is invited to pick one out, free of charge.
Larson is a fixture at the popular Camas trail. He has traversed it daily since 2000, when it first opened to the public, missing only a handful of days if the weather is too forbidding.
“The weather god is on my side,” he joked. “He usually doesn’t let it start raining badly until after my walk.”
Larson estimates he has logged some 16,000 miles. That is enough to go two-thirds of the way around the world. He’s even gotten two of his daughters, Maureen Hursh and “baby” daughter Dawn Adams, to join him regularly.
“I enjoy just spending time with him, and seeing him interact with everyone,” Hursh said.
Added Larson, “There is so much to see and do on the trail, and I always enjoy it. Those of us who use it, we know.”
On the trail, he’s known for his cheerful smile, salute and customary blue hat. Seeing Larson in the middle of a long run or grueling tempo is like a breath of fresh air to many. He always smiles, which to a weary runner is often much-needed encouragement.
“The people keep me coming back,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “I love the people here. We have a great trail.”
A runner stops by to inspect the bowls.
“I recognize you, but I am bad with names,” Larson admits. “It’s embarrassing to try to use the names if I’m going to get it wrong.”
Replies the runner, “I know you well. We have a long history. I have to go farther, but I’ll be back for a bowl.”
Alicia Brazington recalls when Larson gave a handmade goblet and plate to her friend, who then ran the 3.5 miles back to the parking lot, getting double takes from passer-bys.
“Don is always so friendly,” she said. “He always makes my friends and I smile.”
Les Friend began walking Heritage daily in August to lose weight and rehab an old injury. Since then, he has lost 20 pounds and gained new friendships.
“This is good for my mind, body and soul,” he said.
During his first walk, Friend received the customary wave and smile from the friendly older gentleman in the blue hat.
“I noticed how he said hi to everyone,” he said. “It really changed my perspective. I began to do the same. I started to meet some really nice people.”
One day, while chatting with Don’s daughter, Maureen, Friend found out his birthday was coming up.
“I wanted to do something for him,” he said. “Don being the positive person that he is, has rubbed off on me. I just wanted to let him know how much he is loved by everyone on the trail.”
Friend put a sign up on the trail, further along where Larson does not venture. His request was simple: Send a photo in or he could take one, to put into a collage for Don’s 85th birthday.
At first, some people were hesitant. Others wondered why he’d put signs up, and weren’t sure about letting him take their photo.
“But they started to come around once I explained that Don wouldn’t see the signs because he didn’t walk that far in,” Friend said.
Then, he had the opposite issue: The floodgates opened, and everyone seemed to be sending in photos. Soon, a scrapbook was added to the poster collage.
“I didn’t realize that so many people knew this guy,” Friend said. “This really turned into something big. It isn’t just a gift from me, it is from everyone on the trail.”
He refers to his relationship with Don as a “trail friendship.”
“We don’t go to each other’s homes, but we have the trail, and that is fine,” Friend said. “What I really love about Don is that he doesn’t try to compete with you. Men usually seem to have this competition and ego thing with each other, even as friends. Don doesn’t do that. He just enjoys a good conversation.”
In addition to making wood creations, Larson is an avid gardener. He served his country in Korea, and was as an aircraft mechanic and was also a small aircraft pilot. After retirement, he spent eight years traveling across the country and Canada in a motor home.
These experiences give Larson a wealth of topics for discussion during his walks, should anyone ask. But he is also just as willing to listen.
“He’s my chick magnet,” joked Friend. “I’ve met a lot of cool people on this trail because of him.”
On March 27, a blustery, cold morning, more than 30 trail users showed up for Lason’s birthday party. There was cake, cookies, a scrapbook, poster and card full of well-wishes when he returned from his morning walk.
“I knew a few odds and ends about this but had no idea it would be this big,” Larson said.
Added Hursh, “It was very impressive, especially the number of people who showed up on a rainy day. My sisters and I think pretty highly of our dad and are proud of the attention he is getting for his 85th birthday. We have Les to thank for that, and really appreciate all the effort he has put forth.”
After three months of collecting photos and messages for Larson’s scrapbook, Friend was thrilled to see so many people come out to celebrate.
“I was overwhelmed,” he said. “And the look on Don’s face was unforgettable.”