High Notes and Starlight
Journalism | November 19, 2015
By Ben Fogelberg (B.A. ’94, M.A. ’98), as appearing in CSU Alumline
The word “rest” is not in Ryan Kirkpatrick’s vocabulary. Yet the 2006 Colorado State University Journalism and Media Communication grad doesn’t seem to favor the word “work” either. The key to lifelong happiness – or at the very least, a blueprint for turning passions into soul-feeding employment – might lie somewhere within this apparent contradiction.
Kirkpatrick likens himself to Dug, the squirrel-chasing dog in the Disney Pixar movie, Up. “I’m super-distracted. It could be the theme of my life.” He earned a bachelor’s degree in technical journalism, but the diploma doesn’t begin to describe the breadth of his undergraduate experience. “I could have had three or four majors,” he says, citing interests in photography, graphic design, web development, health and exercise science, and, above all, music. He could have included persuasive argumentation in the list, given his ability to talk his way into music and health and exercise science courses usually reserved for majors (he was just a few credits shy of earning a second major in the latter). One class in particular, the biology and physiology of successful aging, would prove invaluable after college.
Outside the classroom, Kirkpatrick channeled his energy into distance running and outdoor life. He competed in track and cross-country – and still shares a school record in the 4×1-mile relay. During the summers, he worked at the CSU Mountain Campus (then called Pingree Park), doing everything from housekeeping and graphic design to running the ropes course and guiding hikes. “I did a lot of songwriting there too,” he says. “Every building has a piano in it.”
After graduation, Kirkpatrick stayed at CSU for a year to volunteer as a distance coach under CSU great Bryan Berryhill and to continue his own competitive running. The work paid off with a ninth-place finish at the USA Trail Running Championships in 2007 and valuable leadership experience. Later, he went on to earn a master’s degree in health and exercise science from West Virginia University.
Then, somehow, Kirkpatrick managed to find the career path we all crave – the one combining all of our distractions, hobbies, and passions.
“It was a natural progression that started at Pingree,” he says. Anyone who has spent time at CSU’s Mountain Campus remembers the night skies. On a clear evening, visitors can see the Milky Way, not as a wispy blur, but as a multitude of discrete, sharp points of light. On one of those nights, Kirkpatrick attached his camera to a tripod, pointed the lens skyward, set an ultra-long exposure, and waited while the Earth turned. The resulting photograph shows a small cabin beneath a vault of stars represented as graceful, bright concentric arcs. The image reveals each star, each bright little distraction, as one part of a unified panorama.
Kirkpatrick credits Bill Bertschy with helping him see his distractions as a career toolkit. The Fort Collins community pillar and double CSU alumnus served as director of the Mountain Campus for more than three decades. During that time, he initiated CSU’s Elderhostel program for older adults; helped launch Eco-Week, an environmental science program for Poudre School District fifth-graders; and led rebuilding efforts following the 1994 Hourglass Fire that nearly destroyed the campus. He retired from CSU in 2008, and then founded a nonprofit organization called the Mountains and Plains Institute for Lifelong Learning and Service. Kirkpatrick had worked with Bertschy at Pingree and helped get the institute off the ground.
That’s when the class on successful aging proved its value. MPILLS provides educational courses, travel, and service-learning opportunities for adults with an average age of 62. About 90 percent of its programs are associated with Road Scholar, formerly known as Elderhostel, a world leader in lifelong learning.
As the organization’s director of operations, Kirkpatrick manages the Road Scholar program and leads many of its tours. He’s guided more hiking, photography, bird-watching, skiing, and intergenerational programs than he can remember. “The job is a natural fit for me, being in the outdoors with like-minded people,” he says.
The MPILLS program schedule reads like a choose-your-own-adventure book, with trips to the Rocky Mountain West’s most scenic and historic places. More ambitious adventures to Africa, the Arctic Circle, and beyond occasionally make the list.
Kirkpatrick counts two trips to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro as career high points. “The eight-day trek to the 19,341-foot summit has about an 80 percent success rate,” Kirkpatrick says. “We had one participant with early-onset Parkinson’s disease. He was among those who reached the top – in tears. It’s really special to help someone realize a life dream.”
As a runner, coach, guide, and artist, Kirkpatrick appreciates the relationship between effort and reward – between a spectacular summit view shared with new friends and the currency of sweat and blisters every hiker paid to see it. He expresses some of that understanding through his photography, and what can’t be expressed in pictures often shows up in his music.
“Get Some,” the title track from his band’s debut album, is an open invitation from a mountain to hikers, skiers, and climbers. “I don’t care who you are. It doesn’t matter where you come from,” the mountain sings, “I’ve got the altitude … come and get some!”
Part folk, part jam rock, Kirkpatrick’s music sounds upbeat, carefree, and soulful. He calls his band The 14ers (named after Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks), but likes to shift lineups from a full band to a simple duet or trio, depending on the venue. “It started as a solo songwriting project,” he says, “but I didn’t want to go on stage with the help of other talented musicians and be billed as the Ryan Kirkpatrick Band.” Though the lineup varies when it comes to live shows, Kirkpatrick is proud of the fact that two people involved since day one are CSU alumni. Chris Hatton and Andrew Berlin have been a part of every studio recording Kirkpatrick has created. Hatton was Kirkpatrick’s piano teacher at CSU and Berlin is an engineer/multi-instrumentalist at Blasting Room Studios in Fort Collins.
The 14ers opened for ALO at the Mishawaka Amphitheatre in 2012 and performed more than 60 shows last year, including one in Amsterdam. In March, they joined more than 100 Colorado bands at the SXSW Colorado Music Party in Austin, Texas, supported in part by the Fort Collins grassroots music nonprofit SpokesBUZZ.
Since work takes Kirkpatrick away from his wife, AnnMarie, and two young kids, for 20 weeks every year, he tries to protect his time with them by booking shows locally or wherever his guiding trips take him. “My biggest challenge is time,” he says. “I wonder how much more I could do if I didn’t have to sleep.”
That sentiment might explain the title of his latest project. I’m Awake will be a documentary featuring the music of The 14ers and behind-the-scenes footage of Kirkpatrick’s adventures. “Life is short, do what you love,” says Kirkpatrick, who is still distracted by just about everything.