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Remembering Jim Witty, 1958-2008
Hiking, writing, music - Witty just loved it all
By Ben Salmon
The Bulletin, November 18, 2008
Jim Witty, The Bulletin's outdoors writer for the past eight
years, died of an apparent heart attack Monday morning at his home in Bend. He
was 50 years old.
In an interview, Witty's wife, Lori, said she was getting ready, to go to work at Bend-La Pine Schools' administrative office at about 7 a.m. Monday when Witty fell off their bed, struggling to breathe. Bend police officers and Thursday Bend Fire Department paramedics arrived on scene and began treatment, but soon gave Lori Witty the bad news.
"They came out and told me that they tried everything," she said. "All indications are that it was a massive heart attack. It didn't matter what I tried or they tried. It was just his time."
Witty was a native of Southern California, where he graduated from Hemet High School in 1976 before getting his bachelor's degree in journalism from Cal Poly state university in San Luis Obispo in 1982.
His journalism career spanned more than 20 years and several Western states, including stints at the Hemet News in California, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in Hawaii and The Daily News in Longview, Wash. He joined The Bulletin as an environmental and natural resources reporter in 1999 before taking over the newspaper's outdoor recreation beat in 2000.
An avid outdoorsman
Witty's love of the outdoors stretched back as far as his brother, John, can remember.
John Witty, 60, lives in Redmond and is a staff attorney for the High Desert Education Service District. On Monday, he recalled a time when his family lived in the California foothills and his mother, Edna, called him home because she couldn't find Jim, who was 2 or 3 years old at the time.
After sprinting home, John found Jim at a tricky spot in a nearby canyon. The family rescued the boy, but the experience was a harbinger of things to come.
"He'd gotten himself out across a really steep place, and it kept getting steeper and steeper, and finally he got to the point where he was just kind of glued to the hillside," John Witty said. "He ran out of trail, and that was probably his first experience following a trail and getting somewhere that
he didn't intend to be, which he's practically made a career of."
Witty's job perfectly merged several of his interests, Lori Witty said. He was a talented and creative writer who loved meeting people and hearing their stories, and he always made time for getting outside, she said.
"He loved the environment. He loved being outside. He loved fishing and camping, and he loved nature. He tried to get out every day, and he'd actually have a problem sleeping if he couldn't get out. It was a perfect fit with his writing," she said. "Besides having this God-given gift for writing and pulling you into his stories and making you want to see what he was seeing, Jim had this way of ... seeing magnificence in the smallest things."
His power of observation was a key tool, Lori Witty said. On Sunday night, a doe and a buck found their way onto the Wittys' east-Bend yard, and Jim watched a jogger run by unaware of the nearby wildlife, she said.
"Jim said, `Look at that. That guy's so intent on what he's doing he didn't even notice that right here on the side of the street is this doe and four-point buck,"' she said. "He was the one who'd be out there and notice everything. This man could paint a postcard looking at a weed."
For years, Jim Witty worked with Deschutes National Forest trails specialist Chris Sabo to update The Bulletin's readers on the status of local recreational trails. Sabo has been sending out forest related updates for two decades, and several years ago Witty took the information and started
turning it into the popular "Trail Update" that runs each week in the paper's Outing section.
Over the years, Sabo reached out to Witty whenever the Deschutes forest wanted to communicate with the public. It was easy to recognize Witty's love of his natural surroundings, Sabo said.
"Writing about the outdoors was in his blood," he said. "That's my sense."
A passion for music
For many, Witty's outdoorsiness defined him. But he was also an avid music fan and musician who listened to acts ranging from Bob Dylan to local bands. Just last week, he visited Summit High School during lunch hour to watch We Are Brontosaurus, a trio of teens that includes one of his best friend's son, Owen Quon.
Owen's dad, Mark Quon, met Witty in 1973 during their freshman year of high school in Whittier, Calif.. The two connected through their shared admiration for the music of David Bowie, and once Witty moved to Hemet, Calif., they'd spend their evenings hanging out and jamming, Quon said.
"We'd go out and get a six-pack of beer and our guitars and we'd drive out to the desert and just drink beer and play guitar in the car all night," he said. "That continued on even till this year."
Through a soft chuckle, Quon called Witty a "struggling guitar player" who nonetheless loved the instrument. He also played harmonica and was a "pretty darn good" singer, said John Witty.
"To be honest," Quon said, "we'd go out and play and ... we'd go through our repertoire of the songs that we both knew, but after a while, he would just close his eyes and sing and just hold this guitar and not play. He just had a passion for music."
Quon, 50, who owns a graphic design and public relations firm in Bend, said Witty gravitated toward twangy music as well as rock 'n' roll. Besides Bowie, he loved Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, John Prine, and so on.
"Music just got him pumped up," he said. "He was always excited to be around it."
'A nice guy'
Most of all, his friends and family remember Witty as a friendly, easygoing guy who could strike up a conversation with anyone. His sister-in-law, Joan Witty, noted that he called his mother and his youngest son daily. Mark Quon's wife, Linda, called him a "positive spirit." Former colleague and fishing partner Andy Whipple recalled his "great sense of humor."
Robert Speik, a friend of Witty's for more than a decade, said he had "a knack for expressing his love of life and the great outdoors in ... ways that made you smile."
His brother, John, put it simply: "I would imagine there were a lot of people who met him, and I would think that most people thought, `Gee, this seems like a really nice guy,"' he said. "All I would say is I knew him all his life and that's absolutely true. To the core, he was a nice guy."
A last great weekend
Nice guy. Outdoorsman. Music lover. An easy conversation. Jim Witty packed all that and more into his final weekend, his wife said.
On Friday night, he met the Quons at Silver Moon Brewing & Taproom for a beer, and then went and played music (including, of course, Bowie's "Space Oddity").
On Saturday, he watched his beloved University of Southern California Trojans whip Stanford University on the football field.
And on Sunday, he hiked around the Badlands region east of Bend - one of his favorite destinations -with his oldest son, Kevin, Kevin's girlfriend, Jennifer, and their 7-week-old daughter, Alexis, who was Witty's first grandchild.
"The thought crossed my mind that (his) last weekend, he did all the things that he loves," Mark Quon said. "It was a great weekend for him."
Lori Witty concurred.
"I'm really grateful that yesterday he was out at the Badlands," she said. "That's where he loved to be. That's what he loved to do."
Jim Witty is survived by his wife, Lori; two sons, Kevin, of Bend, and Danny, of Pasco, Wash.; one stepdaughter, Kelly Haluska, of Bend; one granddaughter, Alexis, of Bend; his mother, Edna, of Redmond; a brother, John, of Redmond; and a sister, Deedee Sihvonen, of Park City, Utah.
He was preceded in death by his father, Vince.
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Jim Witty and I were good friends and adventure hiking buddies
Jim started writing the outdoor adventure page for The Bulletin and everyone I knew began reading his stories. The original adventure game called "Geocaching" was fresh in the news and I called Jim, introduced myself and invited him in May 2002, to find two or three caches with us in Bend. My friend Paul Chance had actually found one; I was winging it that afternoon, brand new to the game. We met, showed Jim our new GPS receivers and off we went. Here is the story: http://www.traditionalmountaineering.org/News_Geocaching.htm
Note his turn of phrase: "Leaving everything to Chance, we followed him up the trail toward the top of Pilot Butte to find our first cache of the day (and my first ever)".
Jim and I became regular companions on Fridays. Sometimes I would invent the adventure and sometimes Jim would map the day. Jim was always positive and happy.
We rode snowmobiles, hiked into the Hole of Inaccessibility, practiced the Art of Not Getting Lost, Cooked the Navigation Noodle, Hiked with Poles to the summit of Horse Ridge, had a 70's birthday celebration on top of Black Butte, looked for Golden Eagles (not "chicken hawks", Bob), explored The Badlands WSA, hiked to the glacial tarn below Brokentop, snowshoed the Common Corridor from Mt. Bachelor to the new trails, hiked the scramble trail up Tumalo Creek from Shevlin Park with best friend Mark Quan, found the Crack in the Ground, backpacked with friends into Big Indian Gorge in the Steens and had so many many more backcountry adventures.
I relive these adventures with Jim as they are reposted in The Bulletin from time to time.
I got busy with other
hikes and explorations and Jim fell in with the mysterious Map Guy. For more
than a year, folks would say, Bob, I know you are "Map Guy". I would respond
with a wink, that I was sworn to keep the Map Guy identity a secret.
A Handy GPS Unit Can Help You Find Geocaches, Your Way Home
By Jim Witty
A couple things about Map Guy.
His innate sense of direction is slightly bent.
Over the years, we've been turned around, misplaced, bewildered, unaccounted
for, disoriented, baffled and adrift (but never lost) in a forest of coniferous
sameness more times than I care to remember. I know, I know, I was there too.
But my name doesn't imply any built-in expertise.
Good thing Map Guy knows how to use his GPS unit, which makes him a whole lot smarter than he looks.
For those of you who have resisted the gradual creep of technology, GPS is an acronym for Global Positioning System, which consists of a hand-held receiver that tracks a constellation of satellites. The major benefit for people who spend time in the outdoors is that they can find their way back to where they need to be. The car and the trailhead at the end of the day comes instantly to mind. God willing and if the batteries don't die.
It's a big deal for those of us who lose our bearings in the Costco parking lot.
As long as you have a clear shot at the heavens, the GPS is about as reliable as the operator. Again, there's the fresh battery thing, and it is an electronic device, so it's not 100 percent. More like 99.9. And it's accurate within a few yards.
I've been using my GPS a lot lately. It's a simple Garmin e-Trex model (about $100), with a minimum of bells and whistles. I can enter map coordinates and find my way to a pre-designated site, and, more importantly, if I mark the car in the parking lot, I can navigate my way back. My GPS tells me my altitude at any given time and the distance I have yet to go to a particular point. I can't order a pizza or use it to calculate my taxes, but I'm OK with that.
A GPS can be a nice item to have in your pack if you ever find yourself traipsing cross-country.
A case in point: My son and I went bombing around the Badlands Wilderness Study Area the other day and after an hour or so, I asked him which direction he thought the car might be. He pointed, then I pointed and I pulled out the GPS. Wrong on both counts.
We resisted our initial reaction to follow our gut "feeling," putting our trust in modern technology. I'm glad we did, because we would have ended up walking the wrong way for many miles.
Of course, a map of the area teamed with a compass are essential tools. It's valuable to know both methods. Suunto compasses come with a well wrought brochure. There are books on the subject, and my friend Bob Speik also teaches compass and map skills locally. Contact: www.traditionalmountaineering.org.
If you have a new GPS and want to get some practice, there's no better way than to go geocaching.
I joined Mr. and Mrs. Map Guy on Friday for a geocaching jaunt to the High Desert east of Bend.
Geocaching is a game that involves obtaining the GPS coordinates of a cache (usually an ammo can) from the official geocaching Web site (www.geocaching.com) and then setting out to find it. The can inevitably contains an assortment of inexpensive baubles; geocachers typically sign the accompanying register and' take something while leaving something else behind.
I got paper money from who knows where Friday and left a sack of split shot fishing weights. We had postholed our way about a half-mile through 5 or 6 inches of snow from a gravel road to the Map Guy Cache. It had been a couple of years since we'd been out to this remote outcrop, but the cache was still in great shape. Map Guy and I planted the cache in March 2003 inside a Bulletin newspaper box. Apparently, my cartographically gifted sidekick felt some responsibility for the hidden trove, so he replaced the open-ended box with a can after that first messy winter.
I must admit, we chose a fine place for the cache all those springs ago. The jumble of rocks affords visitors a lofty view of the countryside thereabouts, which is the kind of thing that makes this game fun. For many, it's a good excuse to get out and enjoy the desert (or mountains or urban jungle) and brush up on their GPS skills.
Map Guy and I just like to know we're not lost anymore.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: The MapGuy cache is at N 43 50.144 W 121 02.335. Other caches in the region, and there are many, can be found at www.geocaching.com
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Mark and Linda Quan have sponsored a Memorial Web Page for Jim Witty:
You can express how much you enjoyed reading Jim's unique stories of his backcountry adventures and of the interesting folks he knew.
"Jim Witty was a good friend of mine.
He had a knack for expressing his love of life and the great outdoors in (witty) ways that made you smile and want to learn more about his outdoor adventures with friends and family.
He loved to play his guitar and sing with family and his high school pal, Mark Quan and Linda and Owen. He saw me at the Hollywood video store just three days before he died and told me about movie he loved. I want him to know how much we enjoyed the movie and the music. He will smile. But we will not be able to hear him sing the song from "Once".
Perhaps Mark and Linda Quan will play and sing it for Jim and me sometime."