I'm Nathan Kirkham, the assistant manager of LeConte Lodge. I'm wrapping up my second season on the mountain after also working in 2010. I was raised in Rockwood, Tenn., and enjoyed a wonderful childhood growing up on Watts Bar Lake and rambling the ridges. My mom, Betty Jane, and my dad, the late Dick Kirkham, made sure my younger brothers Sam and Lucas and I spent plenty of time outside camping and enjoying life in Rockwood.
I graduated as Rockwood High's valedictorian in 1994, spending my free time playing football and mowing yards (one of which I liked much more than the other). I've been lucky to work many different places, but I've always enjoyed coming home to Rockwood. I've visited all 50 states, but Rockwood's my favorite place, though LeConte's on the short list. During my time off LeConte, I like being home and visiting my aforementioned family plus my nephews, Grant (5) and Colton (2), and my 90-year-old grandfather, David Kirkham. The seeds for everything worthwhile I've ever done were sown in Rockwood by family, friends, the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), teachers and coaches. Rockwood gave me wings and a safe harbor to come home when it was time to land. The Key to the City of Rockwood is still one of my most cherished awards.
I attended the University of Tennessee and immediately began working 50-60 hours a week to pay for my education. I ended up working 12 years (1994-2006) in the men's sports information office in the UT Athletics Department and still help out in the press box on a contract basis for home football games (with the exception of the Florida game when I'll be on LeConte). I've read that the golden age of any organization is when you were there, and that makes a lot of sense. However, I really was fortunate to be part of a winning tradition at Tennessee, serving on the publicity team for the 1998 football national championship team and directing media relations efforts for the 2001 NCAA outdoor track and field and 2002 NCAA indoor track and field champions. I was honored to be presented with national championship rings by all three of those title teams in appreciation for my contribution.
I particularly enjoyed my assignment to the Tennessee track and field team (a fine group of athletes and coaches), where I served as the first publicist for future Olympic gold medal winners Justin Gatlin (100m, 2004 Athens) and Aries Merritt (110m hurdles, 2012 London). I was pleased to win the College Sports Information Directors of America "Best in the Nation" award in 2001 and 2002 for designing, planning and editing the best collegiate track and field media guide in the nation at any level, the only employee in the history of the Tennessee Men's Athletics Department to win the award in consecutive years. Also while at Tennessee, I coauthored a book about Tennessee football tradition with Mike Griffith of the Knoxville News Sentinel and Peyton Manning (foreword), quarterback of the Denver Broncos (still seems weird to write that) and Super Bowl XLI MVP. Peyton was also a pleasure to work with during his days as a Tennessee Volunteer.
I think my professional work also helped me academically because I knew it was paying for my degrees. I earned my B.S. in journalism/public relations concentration, finishing as the top graduate in the College of Communications for spring 1999. If memory serves, Peyton Manning finished as top graduate for my college the spring before and skewed our graduates' starting salary averages. I brought the starting salary average back down to Earth. It took a while because I was working plenty, but I earned my M.S. in communications/public relations concentration in 2005, graduating with a 4.00 GPA.
Then things really got interesting. After my dad passed away at the beginning of my senior year of high school, I learned the hard lesson that you're not guaranteed a chance to do all you want in retirement. So I hatched a plan to do some of the adventurous things I'd been dreaming of since I was a boy while my body would still let me. It was hard leaving a career track at the university, especially because I worked with some of the finest people ever to grace the Volunteer State.
Since I left UT, I have worked as a horse wrangler in Hawaii (2007), Colorado (2007 and 2008), Alaska (2009) and Wyoming (2011 in Yellowstone). In Hawaii, I most remember a branding we had on the foothills of Mauna Kea on the Big Island. Almost everything was a highlight at Cherokee Park Ranch in Colorado, though it's hard to top helping our neighbors round up their cattle on horseback in the Front Range of the Rockies. Riding for Cherokee Park Ranch might have been the best job of them all.
In Alaska, I most remember having to ride with a .44 magnum strapped to my chest (I never had to use it) in grizzly country while taking out moose and Dall sheep hunters on horseback. My most vivid memory in riding for the Canyon Corral in Yellowstone National Park was when a bull bison charged out of the pines after us when I was on the ground trying to repair the reins of my wonderful horse, Raven. Even with no way to steer or stop Raven, I jumped up in the saddle and took off in a hurry. Raven saved my bacon that day (among others). We ended up turning back on the bison and chased him to a safe place (for the bison and for our 20 beginner guests who would soon be riding past and didn't need an ornery bull bison goring them to improve their Yellowstone experience). Raven is the best horse I've ever worked, and he deserves his long winter vacation in Montana.
I've taken on a few more adventurous jobs I really enjoyed. In 2009, before I left for Alaska, I spent the spring semester working at an environmental education center for elementary and middle school kids. I did everything from pass around ball pythons in the herpetology class I taught to helping belay and coach scared kids on our high ropes elements. Last spring, I worked as a crew trainer at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center's Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., teaching space science and teamwork to kids from around the world. I most remember being assigned with another crew trainer to take charge of a group of Puerto Rican students for a couple of days who couldn't get home after the disastrous tornadoes that tore through Alabama in late April 2011. We didn't have lights, hot water or hot food, and the rest of Space Camp was shut down, but those Puerto Rican students graduated on time under the space shuttle. I was honored to receive the Right Stuff Award for my winter training class, an award given to commemorate the qualities of the first U.S. space pioneers.
Most recently, I worked in January and February at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. I worked in the galley doing some rather unglamorous jobs, but I got to spend about seven weeks working at the end of the world. I was happy to be there. I was awarded the Antarctica Service Medal by the United States government for civilians (me) and military members who support U.S. science exploration on The Ice, the most difficult of continents. The medal probably didn't cost $2 to make, but I'm proud of it.
I left Antarctica and returned straight to LeConte for the 2012 season, which, like the 2010 season at the lodge, has been a good experience with an excellent crew. Sometimes I take for granted how good my coworkers are until I start to think of the thousands of people they've sent home happy.
Wednesday saw a high of 65 and low of 55 with 0.47 inches of rain. Past results not being an indication of future performance, but most of Thursday morning has been beautiful with plenty of sunshine, cumulus clouds building in the valley and blue skies overhead. The weekend forecast calls for a pronounced chill in the air on LeConte, so check the weather and pack accordingly if you're coming up.
Beginning Friday, Allyson and I will both be off LeConte for a few days in a scheduling rarity. So this will likely be the last High on LeConte update until Tuesday. I know it's been long (I hope long enough to get you through until Tuesday). Thanks for reading. Happy trails.