Still Leaving a Trail.

For the past several years, Robert Crampton, 82, has made the development and maintenance of trails in southwestern Missouri a personal mission. Now, his challenge is making it everyone else’s.

story by Jordan Hickey / photos by Jordan Hickey
published July 9, 2012

More often than not, walking on the trail, I speak to Robert Crampton’s back. He’s 82, and I’m 25, but he always seems a step ahead. His back and shoulders slump somewhat slightly and move rigidly as the poles in his hands strike the ground and sink into the earth. The pops and echoes of gunfire from a nearby firing-range punctuate and puncture his words. White hair, mostly kempt, pokes out the back of his hat. His voice is from Missouri, Guam and Texas, among other places, the places he’s lived that have made dents of varying depth to his solidly Midwestern accent. And at this moment, appropriately, he’s talking about trails — specifically what’s wrong with the one that we’re walking. We’re walking a trail just north of Branson, in Busiek Park. It is not one of Robert’s trails, but to hear him talk about its faults and flaws, that really goes without saying.

When it comes to trails, Robert’s not willing to settle for anything less than perfect. He’s the founder of Volunteers for Outdoor Missouri (VFOM), a 501(c)(3) that he founded a few years ago. His goal is to create a small army of volunteers dedicated to this state’s trails. There are a lot of trails to maintain, and a lot more volunteers he needs, but Robert’s undeterred by the challenge. He’s a guy who believes that you can literally manifest anything that you want to happen — there’s a spiritual side to Robert that goes beyond the normal Bible Belt beliefs found around Springfield — even while trying to work through the bureaucratic red tape that wraps around this state’s public trails.

We stop and stand side-by-side on the path. He points ahead. The ground in front of us has been run through with bike tracks and horse tracks, and there’s groundwater stagnant and murky in the holes, and Robert tsks when he sees it. Water ought to flow across and not down the trail, he says, and the presence of bikes and horses on this trail has only exacerbated the issue. Throughout the morning, he’ll point out rocks that could be removed, and a French Drain, essentially a pile of rocks water drains through, improperly installed. These are issues that need to be addressed, he says, but even still they can’t detract from the surroundings. We walk for a while longer.

It’s early May, and Robert’s been telling me about a new initiative on the table for VFOM. He’ll soon be working with Walgreens to bring new volunteers out to the trails. He also has another dream: He wants to develop an educational program for Master Trailbuilders, a program that would standardize instruction and make it possible for volunteers to go to the managers of state park properties and present a certificate showing that he or she is trained in this area. His friends have no doubt that he’ll get it done.

“Once he’s got hold of something, he’s just a campaigner, and he’ll just keep at it and at it and at it until it gets right and it gets delivered,” says Bob Winnie, a longtime volunteer and a member of VFOM’s board. “And it’s almost a form of indefatigability in the sense that he just won’t ever stop.”

Robert’s on essentially his fifth career now. He’s served in the military, worked in the private sector, in Social Security, worked as a civilian for the police force. Now with VFOM, he’s taken his lifelong interest in trails to a new level. There are more than 900 miles of trails in Missouri, from the hills of Ha Ha Tonka to ungroomed pastures in Nixa, and 17.8 million people visited Missouri’s state parks in 2011, according to the state records. That means a lot of people out in nature — and a lot of work that Robert needs to get done to make sure that Missourians enjoy their time outdoors.

It’s not always easy. When it’s come to actually seeing these dreams through to fruition, there have been more than a few hiccups. They’ve ranged from the seemingly simple — what the trails should be named — to the complex — getting the educational programs off the ground without stepping on any toes in the process. They’re problems that don’t always seem to have easy solutions. The issue is that when you operate under the worldview that says you can literally manifest anything, as Robert does, it doesn’t quite work when you’re dealing with egos and people uncomfortable with an outsider taking charge.

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Below some trees, in the murk, he tells a story that is totally unrelated to anything we’ve been talking about, nothing about trails nor anything that I’d expected to hear from him this morning. Here, in the middle of the forest, Robert tells me about a sick woman. He’d only heard this story secondhand. He watches my face as he tells it.

She lived in a foreign land and she’d been diagnosed with a terminal illness. She fell into unconsciousness. Standing beside her bed, the doctors told her family that it was only a matter of time, a day or two at the most, before she’d pass on. Her body was broken, they said. Well, she heard them. She decided that she was not done with this world and for as wilted as her body was, it wasn’t broken yet. So she came back, her spirit dropped back down, and she was alive. The cancer was gone, Robert says. And it was only because she had chosen for it to be that way. Foreign doctors arrived and couldn’t explain it. She should have been dead. But she survived.

This is an odd thing to hear, but from Robert, considering everything that it suggests about his outlook on life, it’s not. He is a spiritual man. It does not matter much that Robert doesn’t know the details of this story, only that he believes it unequivocally to be true. Out here in the middle of this trail, here stands Robert, thinking about a woman who willed disease out of her body. Here stands Robert, trying to figure this life out, trying to find the forest from the trees.

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Robert Crampton, still blazing a trail at age 82.
(Above) Robert Crampton, still blazing a trail at age 82. (At top) A new trail in Republic, Mo., one of Robert’s recent undertakings.

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Robert Crampton does not seem to belong in a coffee shop, but here he is. It’s a few months later, the same clothes, same look, flipping through books on metaphysics stacked on the table as thoughts occur to him. A thought comes into his head and he picks one up for reference, handing it to me. He has something of an evangelical streak, and it’s difficult not to fall into discussions about meditation and the subjects proposed by the books on the table. And then he starts tracing the lines of his hand as he compares them to leaves in the forest, saying that there’s life there just as there is life in the trees, and we are back in the thick of it.

The veins on his arms are kinked and there’s a wedding band on his left hand; his right arm has a blotch of red where there’s something that’s burst beneath the surface; his front pocket bulges with note cards — logs of things; prayers and blank cards, places where he’s able to count thoughts; the ends of most are bent and worn and it’s not difficult to imagine them being there for extended periods of time. One reads: “I just saw a flag at Eagle Point flying.”

He’s wearing a khaki shirt emblazoned with the VFOM logo — the same one he always seems to wear. The shirt is familiar, but seeing it, seeing him, so far removed from nature seems odd.  I find myself wondering if he ever thinks the same, though when I ask where he’s most comfortable, he simply says, “any place I choose. I feel you only live in the moment. In that moment, you either have a choice to be comfortable or not comfortable. It’s your choice. People don’t realize that it’s that simple.”

“Once he’s got hold of something, he’s just a campaigner, and he’ll just keep at it and at it and at it until it gets right and it gets delivered. And it’s almost a form of indefatigability in the sense that he just won’t ever stop.”

When I suggest that must be tough, he says that that’s the reason I’m unable to see it.

“Only when you put the word ‘tough’ in there, it makes it tough,” he says. “You fabricate your own toughness.”

Still, as resolute as he is about these things, it’s a bit difficult to conceive that he’s never wondered, never doubted himself, especially when things have not gone exactly the way that he might have hoped. In the past several years, Robert has crafted a legacy. He’s made trails. Maintained them. Developed an army of volunteers and a list of sponsors and partners that seem to go on and on.

“That, to me, is very comforting to know that we’ve established that kind of a thing and it’ll go on,” he says. “And that’s basically what we all have to do — we have to leave some sort of legacy about ourselves that we make, to propagate everything to continue and that’s kind of how I feel about it.”

It’s an odd legacy to have. The man is, quite literally, leaving a trail. But those trails are so temporary — they’re constantly being overwhelmed by the growth off to the sides, which is the reason for all the maintenance — and it seems odd to leave as a legacy something less than permanent.

“Doesn’t make any difference for me to see it,” he says. “Just needs to be done.”

Even still, when it’s come to training volunteers — competent volunteers who can go out into the parks and perform maintenance — there have been some hitches. Leaning against the table, shooing a fly away, he never breaks the gaze, even when he seems frustrated by the progress of other projects that seem so clear to him.

Robert is a linear kind of thinker. Point A leads to Point B and C and D. That’s how his mind works, he says. There is a goal, a directive, and it starts by identifying those nodes, the steps he needs to take to reach one to the next. The biggest challenge is in working with governing bodies and established organizations. They don’t always like seeing an outsider do work they feel they could do themselves.

He says people are intimidated because they expect someone of his age to act a certain way. Here he does an impression of what someone would look like: he drops his chin onto his chest, the khaki of the uniform crumpling just slightly, puffs his gut and seems much smaller, saying something first somewhat incomprehensible, something that is roughly between a sigh and a moan caught in the back of the throat. He says something the Robert who’d given up on life would say.

But even if there are some nay-sayers out there, their presence isn’t necessarily something that Robert tends to dwell upon.  This is something that he believes in. It propels him forward, from one trail to the next, from one milepost to another. Faith plays a role in every step along the way, he says.

“You understand it’s there,” he says, holding a pen over the metaphysics books. “You don’t question that the sun’s going to come up. That’s going to come up. You know it’s there. So why question anything else? Why question the fact that if I let it go, it drops. There is gravity there, I don’t need to question it.

“So, if you can take that same belief, that same feeling and put it on everything you do, where would your life be?” he continues. “What kind of a difference would it be? … But that’s the kind of faith that I’m dealing with right now, that I’m looking at, is how can I teach people to have that kind of faith, can I help them to realize that it’s out there. It is there to use.”

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A few days later, Robert Crampton is under the fluorescent glow of the Republic Walgreens’ lights, distributing pamphlets and drawstring bags that feature almost animated-looking faces of Celebrity Apprentice participants. He’s partnered with the company on the “Walk With Walgreens” program. And at this moment he’s got his finger leveled at a woman across the store. His mouth is somewhat cracked and he looks as if he’s seen a ghost or something. The woman seems just as — if not more — terrified. Then he says that she seems like someone who would like a free pedometer. She seems relieved and then signs up.

It’s not exactly an infomercial-perfect pitch. But it seems to work.

When he’s finished speaking with her, he sees another man across the store and first points and then shouts that the man looks like he could need a pedometer. The man declines, though he says that he hopes that Robert will have a nice day, and Robert says the thing that he always says.

“I will because I choose to do so.”

This is Robert. He thinks for himself. He does for himself. He blazes trails for himself.

He hopes others follow.