End of the Trail

AMC Outdoors magazine | Nov/Dec 2016

I’ll never forget the afternoon a call came in from Phyllis Austin. A longtime AMC member, she was a revered journalist and an accomplished author who wanted to pitch a story after getting turned down by her usual, higher-profile publications. She had a specific audience in mind: herself, and others like her, whose body could no longer keep up the athletic pace she’d established over a lifetime spent outdoors.

In my first year at AMC, I was perpetually frantic, juggling magazine deadlines with web production with journal galleys. I wasn’t in the habit of answering the phone, and I certainly didn’t hold lengthy calls with writers who hadn’t emailed me first. But there was a finality in Austin’s tone. Why was she so sure she was slowing down, I asked. It sounded as though she had a track record of bouncing back from even bigger obstacles.

Over the course of the conversation, it became clear Austin knew she was dying. Write the story for us, I told her.

She wrote the story. And she was a consummate pro throughout the editing process, answering queries quickly and agreeing as I pared back her medical history, aiming to strike a balance between solicit readers’ sympathy and not betraying her historic strength of will. She sent me the kindest thank you note.

When the story appeared online and in print, we received an avalanche of feedback from readers. While AMC’s core membership skews toward retirement age, the organization, like 99 percent of society, is eager to attract millennials who will lend support in the decades to come. An older demographic could start to feel forgotten. Austin had identified her cohort’s plight without condescension or desperation.

When I emailed Austin to make sure she had gotten her check and had seen the story’s reception online, I received a response from her executor. Austin had passed away that month. Her story for AMC was the last published article in an illustrious career. I was, and remain, incredibly thankful. “On Reaching the End of the Trail” went on to receive the 2017 Excel Award for best op-ed from Association Media & Publishing.

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