LINDON — Roger Gillies didn’t start hiking the Timpanogos Cave Trail to set any endurance records or draw attention to some cause or, for that matter, see the cave. He sure didn’t do it to get his name in the paper.
He did it for one reason.
Her name is Tonya.
Tonya Gillies is Roger’s wife. He’s been married to her for 58 years. They met 65 years ago when they were kids in school in Spanish Fork and fell for each other: literally high school sweethearts.
Their love affair transcends all the ups and downs and twists and turns life throws at you. They raised seven kids, five boys and two girls, lived in California and South Dakota and Utah while Roger gave 40 good years to his career as a merchandiser. He managed a W.T. Grant store until that company went “belly up,” owned his own Gambles hardware store in Spanish Fork before Gambles also went under, then spent time working for a wholesale distributor calling on hardware stores up and down the Intermountain West until a modest pension and Roosevelt’s Social Security let him retire at the age of 62 in 1998.
With everyone moved out except the dog, he and Tonya sold their family home in Spanish Fork and in 1999 bought a place at the Green Valley condominiums in Lindon: one-level living and somebody else mows the grass and plows the snow. The promised land.
But then came the diagnosis. Tonya, like her older sister before her, had Parkinson’s. She’d only just turned 60.
For years, the disease, insidious as it is, was relatively kind to her, allowing Tonya to do many of the things she’d always done. But about four years ago, her condition took a turn for the worse. She couldn’t pick things up very well, couldn’t fix dinner, started using a walker.
That’s when Roger began hiking to the cave.
His son Brad brought it up. Told his dad it was a good workout — a mile and half of consistent uphill on a well-maintained trail at the Timpanogos Cave National Monument. You gain 1,092 feet of elevation from the parking lot in American Fork Canyon to the cave’s entrance. Then you walk back down. Three miles round trip and you can go at your own pace. When it’s over your body says thanks for doing that.
Roger had never been much of an exerciser. He played tennis in high school, but as a grown-up he was too busy working to work out. In retirement he did a little of this and a little of that, but not too much of anything.
But when Tonya got worse, no one needed to tell Roger what was up.
To take care of her, he needed to be fit.
Four years ago, the year he turned 78, he hiked to the cave 39 times.
At 79, he matched his age with 79 trips.
Last year he did 83 at age 80. The people who run the cave were so impressed they gave Roger a “Hiking Your Way to Fitness and Fun” T-shirt, a CamelBak and a customized wooden walking stick carved by one of the park rangers.
This year he was on his age-pace again, until the trail closed two weeks early and he had to settle for 68 climbs.
Still, at 81, he feels like he’s, what, 50? 60?
He’s lost 30 pounds, seen his blood pressure plummet from 160 to 120, acquired so much energy that every time he hikes the trail he finishes it off with an hour of tennis with his friend — and fellow hiking recruit — D.K. Dressel.
Most important, he feels fit enough for Tonya.3 comments on this story
“That’s why I started the hiking, for her,” admits Roger, who works out at home on his treadmill when the Timp Cave Trail closes for the winter. “It was great to take off the weight and feel better — those are great benefits — but the motivation was to be able to take care of her.”
What he’s done, what he’s doing, he insists is no big deal. Certainly not worthy of a headline.
No one would be the wiser if a friend of Roger and Tonya, Sandra Erickson, hadn’t called the Deseret News, suggesting it is a big deal.
“She took care of all of us,” shrugs Roger, motioning in the direction of his wife of 58 years.
Now it’s his turn.