He's not faster than a speeding bullet, but at 80 years old Ray Myers is still able to hike up Mount LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Myers celebrated his May 12 birthday four days later by hiking with another 80-year-old, Larry Parks, and 17 other members of the Chattanooga Hiking Club to the third highest peak in the Smokies. Myers had hiked the strenuous 5-mile Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte for his 75th birthday as well.
The retired U.S. Air Force master sergeant joined the club in 1992 and has been an active hiker ever since.
"My wife's enthusiasm lured me in," he said. "Martha came home one day after hiking the Piney River Rail, and she would just not stop talking about how much she enjoyed it. For days she kept talking about it."
He joined the group the following Wednesday.
His wife, Martha, died in January 2011 after a long battle with acute leukemia. They had been married for 55 years, and she had been the club's Wednesday hike coordinator for four years.
Myers entered the military in December 1949 and served just short of 24 years. He belongs to The Retired Enlisted Association, which lobbies for benefits of active, retired and military veterans.
A charter member of TREA's local Volunteer Chapter 103, Myers has been a member for 14 years and has served on the TREA's National Legislative Affairs Committee for eight.
News of Myers celebrating his 80th birthday spread up and down the trail. Hugs and handshakes were abundant for him during the daylong round-trip hike. When he reached Mount LeConte Lodge, he was welcomed by a big round of applause.
The social aspect is part of his love for hiking.
"Never in my life would I have thought that I would enjoy finding myself out in the woods sitting on a log, stump or rock eating a sandwich and making friends with people from all walks of life," Myers said.
He's a pleasure for many.
"Just by showing up each Wednesday, this gentleman is such an inspiration to all of us," club member Arlene Swallows said. "Ray just hikes at his own pace, never feeling pressured to keep up with any of the leaders. It is a pleasure just to chat and get to know him better while hiking the trails in our area.
"He always has some interesting stories."
Val Hargis, another CHC member, said Myers "is a hiker with a built-in antenna. I would follow him anywhere, as I know I'd get home sound."
"I want to be like him when I grow up!" said Che Carico, who is over 60 and refers to Myers as "Ray Boy."
Myers also has a selfish motive for hiking.
"I was a heavy smoker for over 40 years but have been stopped for over 25 years now," he said. "First a heart attack 30 years ago, quadruple heart bypass 21 years ago, angioplasty two times 11 years ago and prostate cancer [now in remission] three years ago. Because these have happened to me, I consider every hike I take a special event.
"Just because you have a major medical event, you don't have to feel sorry for yourself and become a house sitter and do nothing."
Myers does not hike on Mondays and Fridays. Those days he volunteers at Erlanger hospital.
"Ray can be found at least twice a week helping discharged patients, including a lot of new moms with their infants, get to their transportation," noted Emilia Jones, Erlanger's volunteer coordinator."
He has given more than 7,000 hours in nearly 20 years of volunteer service in area hospitals.
Contact Gary Petty at email@example.com or 423-757-6273.