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Thursday, 13 February 2014 13:03

Travel is a calling for Beloit’s Van Galder

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Beloit’s Gene Van Galder recently climbed to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Van Galder says travel is a way to expose people to new experiences and cultures. Beloit’s Gene Van Galder recently climbed to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. Van Galder says travel is a way to expose people to new experiences and cultures. Photo courtesy of Gene Van Galder

STATELINE NEWS -- Only 13 days into the new year, Gene Van Galder watched the sunrise across the tops of the clouds after completing his longtime goal of conquering the colossal Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

For Van Galder, traveling the world isn’t an activity, it’s a calling.

"I really get excited about it because I love to expose people to other cultures and some of the interesting things I’ve already seen," Van Galder said. "I think it’s almost a missionary calling to help people get out and see, visit, learn and soak in.

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The day the longtime Beloit native reached the summit offered a chance for triumph and introspection at almost 20,000 feet above sea level, as well as a nice view of the very long road back.


Van Galder, 65, is no slouch when it comes to adventure, and his trip to Africa is by no means an isolated occasion.

After retiring from teaching advanced placement US History at Beloit Memorial High School in 2005, Van Galder started GVG tours, a tour service that offers a variety of trips both in the states and abroad.

"I had taken a group from my church and we went to Washington and Boston on a patriots tour. I already had some experience taking a lot of students to Washington when I was teaching," Van Galder said. "I am sort of a natural traveler, so from there I started and branched out and started offering things like Civil War trips, national park trips and then eventually international trips."

Van Galder freely admits that offering the tours works out great for him because guides have access to significant discounts, but there is something much more important about traveling in groups for him. Often, depending on the location Van Galder leads groups as big as 50 people, and the rewards of doing so, he says, are just as good as the travel.

"I had one lady on one of my Alaska trips come back and say that the trip had been the best two weeks of her life since she was a child. Sometimes travel can be life altering," Van Galder said.

"There is no substitute for going places and seeing the world, when I see the National Geographic channel and they show Kilimanjaro I think to myself that when you are actually there, it’s very different," Van Galder said.

Kilimanjaro is a six-day hike and travelers stay in small huts on the way up. A person must have porters and a guide to go with them by law; you can’t just go alone. During the hike, you have to navigate five different zones beginning with rainforest. At the start, hikers are in shorts and a T-shirt at the foot of the mountain, but they end up in jackets and winter gear at the snowy summit.

"At 12,000 feet you have to do an acclimatization hike where you go up and you walk around for four hours and then you come back down a bit just to let your body acclimate to the change in pressure. A pilot has to have a mask at 10,000 feet just to give you an idea," Van Galder said.

On the final night of the climb, the guides wake hikers up at midnight and make the remaining ascent to the summit so they can watch the sunrise. This part was the most arduous, Van Galder said, and many hikers, even younger people, didn’t make it all they way to the top. Later some even had to be carried down on stretchers due to altitude sickness.

The guides had a Swahili expression that Van Galder found useful. "The expression is "pole pole" which means "slow slow," you have to walk slowly because you are at such a high altitude that it’s so easy to get winded," Van Galder said. "When you are going up and it’s bitterly cold, the water in my camel pack froze. It’s really sad because people put a lot of time and money into going and to get so close and not make it would have crushed me, I was willing to crawl up on all fours if I had to."

Van Galder has been on quite a journey far from home, even completing the Appalachian Trail over the course of a few years, but he has made quite a legacy right here in the Stateline as well.

He remains a lecturer for the Society for Learning Unlimited in Beloit and Rock Valley College’s Center for Learning in Retirement in Rockford, he is president of Beloit Regional Hospice, he maintains a high level of involvement with the Friends of Paul Computer Institute which has established a far-reaching computer school in Africa at Cameroon and he still manages to help out as one of the pastors at first congregational church in Beloit.

Van Galder recently found himself the subject of some media attention for having coached Jim Caldwell, who was selected last month as the new head coach for the Detroit Lions, during his high school days.

"Jim is an amazing person, he graduated in 1973 and in that year we were undefeated in football, our basketball team won the state championship, our track team took second in the state and he was on all three teams," Van Galder said. "He was captain of both the football and basketball teams. He was a quiet leader, not a ‘rah rah’ guy, but everybody respected Jim. He had a steely determination, he played clean, but hard; just an exemplary person."

For someone as well traveled as Van Galder interesting stories are a dime a dozen, and although he has yet to figure out the details a book may be on his horizon. He says that he’d like to write a book based on the lessons from the trail of life that he’s gleaned from seeing a bit of it. When you ask him what those lessons are, he’ll tell you:

"A lot of it is just having whatever it takes to put one foot in front of the other and keep going. So many times people either don’t know a destination they want to go to or just don’t feel they can do it or just give up for a variety of reasons. I think there are a lot of people who are only existing rather than living. The magic of life is to put something in it that you are excited about, that you live for and it means something to you."

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