The Backpacker Interview: From Jail to Trail

Inspired by a mountain view, Don Moseman walked out of prison and hiked his way to a better life.
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Inspired by a mountain view, Don Moseman walked out of prison and hiked his way to a better life.

The dragon tattoo that contours along his right bicep is the only visible remnant of Don "Walking Don" Moseman's old life. Between 1959 and 1989, he served seven sentences (totaling 25 years) in California's San Quentin State Prison. Thanks to a serious penchant for heroin and hard liquor, the guy would just as soon steal your car as wave hello. But during his last stint behind bars, he would gaze up from the prison yard to the summit of Mt. Tamalpais, Marin County's 2,571-foot highpoint, and dream of climbing it. When he got out, that's exactly what he did. And the hike changed his life. Now 68, the laidback vegetarian has been squeaky-clean for almost two decades. Moseman trims trees near his home in Mill Valley, has walked across America twice, and is a popular speaker in recovery programs–and he still hikes every day.

What were you in for?

The first time I went to jail was for auto theft. I was nine. That's about when I started drinking, too. My time in San Quentin was for crimes I committed when I was either drunk or needed a heroin fix. The closest I came to a life sentence was when I shot at a group of guys who had jumped me. Fortunately, I'm a lousy shot, so I was only convicted for assault with intent to commit murder.

How did you cope with being locked up?

I've always been a wanderer. So I walked around the yard for as long as the guards let me, sometimes up to seven hours, except when it was closed after stabbings, which happened all the time. I looked up at Mt. Tam and dreamed about hiking up there. In prison, your life closes down; walking opens it up.

What was it like to hike on Mt. Tam for the first time?

I'd only walked city streets until that point, so it was my first trail experience. It was utopia being in all that nature.

How did you finally keep yourself out of prison?

I got clean and started hiking, which I do every day. I hike all day when I don't have tree-trimming work. On the other days, I hike for about four hours as soon as I finish the job. Nature's beauty is regenerative, and hiking has opened a whole new world of green open spaces to me.

What are your favorite trails?

The Marin Headlands is best for spotting wildlife, like coyotes, hawks, and egrets, because it's so open. But for the simple pleasure of hiking, I like any trail on Mt. Tamalpais. The views make you feel so free.

You can see San Quentin from up there, right?

Sure can. I used to look at it and shrink down to the size of my old 4-by-10-foot cell in my head. Prison life is squeezed so small that even your dreams can't get outside the walls. But my life is big now, as big as the wide-open spaces where I hike. I've actually walked across the country twice.

What prompted that?

Most of my long walks had been around the perimeter of San Francisco, a big circle, and it reminded me of walking circles in the prison yard. I decided I wanted to walk in a straight line for a change. I hiked two-lane highways from Boston to San Francisco at age 58. Then I crossed again from Mill Valley to Hampton, Virginia, at 64. Each crossing took about six months. This year I may walk from Virginia to California across the middle of the country–if that little switch goes on inside. I'm an in-the-moment kind of guy.

You must've met some interesting people.

A Michigan state trooper invited me to stay in his home once and had me read bedtime stories to his kids. I thought, 'Wow, I'd better not tell him about my past!' I'll never forget a lady from France I met during the toughest stretch I've ever hiked: the 126 miles across the Mojave Desert. I ran out of water and held out my empty jug as I walked, and she pulled over to give me water.

What other hobbies do you have?

Wildlife photography. I've gotten to know animals' habits so it's easy to find them. I've started doing slide shows for local conservation groups. I also talk to kids and recovering addicts about living a clean life. I always tell them to keep learning and to follow their dreams.

What are your dreams?

In a way, I feel like I'm finally living one. I've hiked about 80 percent of the trails in Marin County, and I'd like to tick off the rest of them. Mostly I just want to keep hiking. When you lose your freedom, you appreciate it that much more. I don't plan to lose it again. I don't even jaywalk.