Retiring to work

  Every day I'd leave high school about noon, take the subway to 23rd Street, run down to the basement cafeteria for a nutritious company meal, and then sort and deliver mail. My favorite route was the 40th to 30th floors, up there with the higher-flying Manhattan pigeons.

The job was my transition to the adult world. I especially loved the secretaries in their late-1950s sheath skirts. They would flirt with me because I was safe. "If only you were a few years older," they would coo. And I would imagine the paradise if I were a few years older.

I'd gotten the job through the pull of Mr. Dixon, my friend Joey's father. On his last day at work, we joined Mr. Dixon in the third sub-basement to ride the subway back to Queens with him in celebration of his retirement. He was standing at his locker, changing into street clothes, reflecting on his life:

"I came here during the Depression for a year or two, until things got better. I never dreamt I'd spend my whole life here."

I was shocked. A grown man living in the apartment upstairs had spent his life working as a guard for Metropolitan Life Insurance at a job he didn't want.

In 1974, I was in the same trap as an associate professor of physics in New Jersey. I liked the students and my commute. But I hated physics. Like Mr. Dixon, I'd chosen a trade for its economic potential.

Amid much terror, I quit, and with two children in tow, we headed West. There, in rural western Colorado, we got lucky. Betsy and I started a small-town weekly, North Fork Times. So long as we worked our tails off, it thrived.

After six years, exhausted, we sold it and got lucky again in 1983, when we took over High Country News, a regional environmental paper. Using the same brute-force formula, it also thrived. I was that luckiest of people. I loved writing. I saw myself as a carpenter or mason, laying up a wall or a building. Very occasionally, I thought ahead.

During my first year as a reporter, I drove up to a local coal mine to cover a retirement. Instead of telling me how much he was looking forward to his golden years, the miner ran from me, moving frantically along the conveyor belt with a shovel, tidying up the coal as it fell off. He was in a panic. What would he do when they took his shovel away?

I pitied the man. I loved a Los Angeles Times story headlined: "95, and still working 9 to 5," about people who kept at their trades until they were within spitting distance of their centenaries. I didn't understand people who weren't driven, who didn't drive themselves.

Until I found that my hide had become tougher than my whip hand. Unlike Joey's dad, with his mandatory retirement age, I was my own boss. So it took a year to ease myself out of the way. Out of administration, which I never learned to like or be good at, even though 20 people depended on my skill at it.

Like the miner, I wanted to leave quietly. But you can't leave a job you've done for 19 years without notice being paid. My successor Paul Larmer wrote a nice piece about my tenure at High Country News. It has been a wonderful ride. In the 1980s, High Country News was a traditional environmental newspaper, dividing the West into White Hats and Black Hats. Environmentalists were fighting their way from helpless, pariah status in small Western towns into forces to be reckoned with.

But in the 1990s, I recognized that you could have too much of a good thing, and that, however just it would be, we had to go beyond the bayoneting of dying natural-resource economies. The paper began a search for common ground among Westerners.

So praise was welcome. But I also remembered the panicked coal miner who ran from me when I came to memorialize his work life. He ran because the satisfaction is in the doing, and not in the having done. Better a has-been than a never-been. But neither is desirable.

Plus, like Mr. Dixon, I have my regrets. I regret the time I spent calling meetings, attending other people's meetings, looking at budgets and strategic plans. They are all necessary. But what a way for a writer in a unique small town, in a fascinating region, to spend time.

Fortunately, unlike the coal miner, in place of a gold watch, I am again gripping my shovel handle as a roving journalist, preparing to explore how to save from asphalt the 200,000 square miles of land that is still in ranching. And how - with a sense of deja vu - to protect tens of thousands of square miles from that Attila-the-Hun industry known as coal-bed methane.

Ed Marston is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org), where he is the paper's Senior Journalist.