east from the unnamed peak on which I stand, I can see to the far
horizon. I know the names of ranges and rivers I have traversed
since I began paddling up the Missouri River five weeks ago. Looking
west, I see the mountains I will cross on my way to the Pacific.
I have been following the trail of Lewis and Clark, but decided
to take a detour to traverse a section of the Beaverhead Mountains
between Idaho and Montana that marks the Continental Divide. It’s
a place the Corps of Discovery [the Lewis and Clark expedition]
surely would have avoided because of the vertical terrain. But I
needed a break from the trail. I loved following Lewis and Clark,
but for that “heart in the throat” sensation of wildness,
I needed to get high on mountains.
I started the climb in the Big Hole Valley of Montana and
now on the crest of a 10,048-foot peak. A voyager from 200 years
ago would recognize this vista. Except for the small clearing marking
the town of Wisdom, Mont., to the north, there is an unbroken 360-
degree panorama of mountains, rivers, and sky. It is a view of our
nation when it was young and unspoiled.
During the past several days, I have encountered rain, snow,
sleet, hail, high winds, and temperatures that are as cold as anything
I experienced last winter in Alaska. I am climbing to the Continental
Divide and will traverse two more 10,000-foot peaks to reach (recently
named) Sacajewea Peak. At the moment I am looking at a 2.5 mile-long
cornice of ice and snow, 50 feet high, that guards the summit ridge.
If it gives way while I am on it, I could be buried under tons of
With my 45-pound pack I climb to the cornice and look for a
I began the day shortly after 5:30 a.m. Now the sun has warmed
the snow so that I can kick steps with my light shoes and not
have to chop them with my poles. From the time I start on the cornice
until topping out, I don’t look up. I am totally focused on
the placement of my feet and hands. On top the view is sublime.
I remember when I first saw the Beaverhead Range rising from the
Salmon River plains. It was in 1971 when, as a young smokejumper
and recent graduate of the U, I wondered what it would be like to
walk along the spine of these magnificent mountains. Now I know.
—Jerry Dixon, June 27, 2003
From May 12 to Aug. 12, 2003, Jerry Dixon BA’70
BA’73, a fifth-generation Utahn, outdoor enthusiast,
and current resident of Alaska, endured (and enjoyed) a 1,362-mile
ultra-marathon, retracing the trail of Lewis and Clark in anticipation
of the “Corps of Discovery” bicentennial in 2004. Traveling
by whitewater and downriver kayak, raft, bicycle, sea kayak, and
foot, Dixon made it from the gate of the Rocky Mountains in central
Montana across the Rockies and down the Snake and Columbia rivers
to the Pacific Ocean.
Dixon loves—and lives—to challenge himself. He engaged
in demanding sports long before they became known as “extreme.”
Six years a smokejumper/EMT, 15 years a mountain biker, 35 years
a whitewater rafter, 40 years a mountaineer, and almost 50 years
a skier, Dixon knows the risks of participating in extreme sports;
he has had more than his fair share of broken bones. Yet he doesn’t
dwell on his misfortunes and always takes preventive measures to
avoid mishaps—such as informing first responders of his itinerary
before heading off into the wild, a lesson he learned as a smokejumper/EMT.
And as a lifetime member of the American Alpine Club, he has full-coverage
mountain rescue insurance— something, fortunately, he has
never had to use.
Why the urge to live life on the edge?
His parents, he says, were his inspiration. “My father [Rod
P. Dixon BA’47] started me and my two brothers and
sister camping and fishing at an early age, and gave us a great
appreciation of the outdoors.” His mother, Katie Dixon
ex’47, is a high school English teacher who also
taught English at the U in the late ’60s. She sits on the
board of the Graduate School of Social Work and, for 20 years, served
as Salt Lake County recorder. In spite of her busy life and multiple
commitments, Dixon says his mother encouraged his skiing and involvement
in other outdoor activities. “I always got the very best medical
attention available,” he comments, without a trace of irony.
Adventurous as a child, Dixon carried that enthusiasm onto the
U of U campus. Along with sampling different disciplines—
philosophy, chemistry, biology, and languages—he headed for
the slopes at every opportunity. He developed a passion for skiing,
in part because of his short stature. “I didn’t gain
all my height until I was 19,” he says. “You could be
small and light as long as you were fast. Size and muscle mass were
not as important as attitude and agility on skis.” A member
of the U’s Alpine Ski Team and the Alta Ski Team, Dixon later
skied for the University of Grenoble in France. He ultimately earned
two bachelor’s degrees at the U—in philosophy and biology,
with a minor in French. (He also received a master’s in biology
at Idaho State University in 1983.)
Dixon speaks glowingly of his teachers and mentors at the U: Bill
Whisner and David Bennett (philosophy), Steven Durrant (biology),
and Cal Giddings (chemistry), with whom he kept in touch for years
after leaving Utah.
“I love the U,” he says. “It’s a touchstone
for me.” Dixon confirmed his affection by endowing the Rod
P. Dixon Lectureship in philosophy, in honor of his father, four
years ago. After graduating, Dixon headed for the woods, where he
spent 14 years in resource management—first as a smokejumper
for the U.S. Forest Service, then as a fire management officer for
the Bureau of Land Management, and finally as a biologist/fire ecologist
for the National Park Service.
Ever the searcher, he accepted a job as an educator in Alaska.
Over the past 30 years, he has taught students “from primary
through college in subjects as wide-ranging as skiing, kayaking,
vertebrate embryology, and Internet applications for educators,”
Combining his quest for adventure and passion for teaching, he
spent six years in the Eskimo village of Shungnak in the northwest
Arctic, where he met his wife, Deborah, also a teacher. They married
and took up residence there, eventually selling their impractical
car to buy a dog team and sled, which for seven years was their
only mode of transportation.
In 1990, the family moved to Resurrection Bay, near Seward, Alaska.
The Dixons have two sons, Kipp, 15, and Pyper, 12. Jerry describes
their life up north as “wonderfully wild,” noting that
the area around Resurrection Lake boasts five species of salmon,
along with plentiful bear, wolves, and moose. “We have to
warn our kids to watch out for moose and bear when they play in
the back yard,” he says.
The location provides ample access to multiple activities, and
Dixon is on the road every summer trekking, biking, or kayaking—
sometimes alone, but often with friends or his two boys. Some highlights
from the Dixon diary include:
- Co-founding the McCall (Idaho) Triathlon (1978), which he returned
to in 2002, racing with his sons;
- Making the first winter traverse of Idaho’s Gospel-Hump
- Being a member of the Alsek-Mt. Blackadar Expedition that navigated
the Alsek River, and making the first ascent of Mt. Blackadar
in Canada (fall 1983);
- Traversing Idaho to commemorate its centennial (summer 1990);
- Competing in the Iditaski, a 180-mile ski race on Alaska’s
legendary Iditarod Trail (winter 1992);
- Traveling across the Wasatch and Uintah Mountains in celebration
of Utah’s centennial (summer 1996);
- Competing in the 1997 Hope to Homer, the 1998 Dyea to Dawson,
and the 2000 Nabesna to McCarthy Wilderness ultramarathons in
which competitors traverse mountain ranges carrying everything
on their backs (and less than half the entrants finish).
During the summer of 2002, Dixon traversed seven mountain ranges.
“My family has learned to accept me the way I am,” he
says. “My wife is a wonderful counterbalance. Although she
enjoys the outdoors, she’s not impressed by extreme sports.
She never lets me believe my own hype.” His two children,
on the other hand, “are just natural-born athletes. Their
passion for sports started in the womb.”
Dixon recently retired from teaching so he could spend more time
with his family and pursue his outdoor obsessions. Twenty years
a teacher of the gifted (students who test in the top three percent
nationally), Dixon received the Christa McAuliffe Fellowship in
1997, named in honor of the teacher who died in the 1984 Challenger
disaster, which he used to build connections between Alaska’s
schools and the Alaska SeaLife Center via the Internet. In 2001,
he was named BP (British Petroleum) Teacher of the Year, an award
that supported his research of the Australian White Ibis in Queensland.
While crisscrossing the country, Dixon has met “many kind
and generous people along the way.” Gifts of food and accommodations
aren’t uncommon. He has also observed and learned much about
the land and wonders aloud about the future: “What do we want
to leave behind for future generations?” he asks. “There
is still some phenomenal wild country out there that deserves protection.
On my trip across the Beaverhead Mountains and down the Salmon River,
I ran across the largest herd of elk I’ve ever seen. And I
saw peregrine falcons again on the Missouri River, and wolf tracks
and cinnamon-colored bears on Lolo Pass, in Idaho.
“We need to think about the way the land was when Lewis and
Clark first explored it,” he says, “then ask ourselves:
do we want to have wolves and grizzly bears in the forest and salmon
in the rivers? Do we want to be able to trek across wilderness in
solitude? If we do, and we don’t make the effort to preserve
what we have, these things will disappear—and are disappearing.
In some places—like the upper Snake River, where there are
only a few salmon left—it may already be too late.”
To that end, this September Dixon traveled to southern Utah to
visit one of the area’s most splendid monuments— Cathedral
in the Desert, which, because of a five-year drought and the receding
waters of Lake Powell, was once again visible. “To visit the
Cathedral again after almost 36 years was a dream for me,”
he says. “It was like seeing a vision of the land when it
was young and unspoiled.”
—Linda Marion BFA’67 MFA’71 is managing editor