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IMHO: Hiking, biking, paddling, recharging, rebuilding

  • Lebanon Recreation Department director Paul Coats with his wife, Kristen, outside his River Valley Community College office in Lebanon, N.H., on Friday, Aug. 30, 2019. Paul and Kristen Coats are taking a year's leave from their respective jobs for a sabbatical and adventure with little in the way of a set itinerary. (Valley News — Greg Fennell) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Greg Fennell. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Sports Editor
Saturday, September 07, 2019

Paul Coats has been in moving mode the last couple of months.

The second-biggest one happened earlier this summer. The longtime director of Lebanon’s parks and recreation department shifted his office from City Hall to a new space on the mall inside River Valley Community College. It was there a week ago last Friday that Coats and his wife, Kristen, talked to well-wishers, snacked on cheese, crackers and sweets and made final preparations for an even bigger move.

They won’t return from this one for another 51 weeks.

Paul and Kristen Coats have taken one-year sabbaticals from their jobs — his with the city, hers with the Upper Valley Haven — to travel. For the most part, they have no itinerary. They have a few destinations set, but what happens in the gaps is, for now, a relative mystery.

“I’m as excited to go as I am to come back,” Kristen said. “I love the Upper Valley; I think it’s the best place on the planet. But it’s exciting to go so that we can refuel and then come back and re-engage and be really excited about what we’ve seen and learned and heard and the people we’ve met, what they’ve brought to our lives.”

The trip has a couple of must-do’s: The couple has a wedding to attend in Spokane, Wash., next month. They have a flight to catch in mid-November for New Zealand, where they will be living for three months. They will spend a similar length of time traveling in Europe next year, cycling along the EuroVelo, a trail network that links most every country on the continent.

As much as it is a recharge, the couple also sees the sabbatical as educational. Paul will return to his Lebanon Rec job next year, and both of the Coatses expect they’ll take what they discover abroad and apply it to what they do professionally.

“We really love this work, we love the Lebanon community and we want to stay here; this is where we want to continue our careers, and it’s an investment in where we live,” Paul said. “The sabbatical is a one-year time off that allows us to go out and refuel, doing the things we love: traveling, experiencing new cultures, meeting new people across this country and other countries.

“A lot of it will be backpacking, visiting national park land and state park lands. A lot of it will be staying in small villages in New Zealand and various countries around Europe. And a lot of it will be bikecamping, which is actually a word.”

Recreation is the fuel that keeps Paul and Kristen Coats going. It has a lot to do with how they met and married in the first place.

Paul, 46, grew up in suburban Atlanta and was managing a park there when Kristen, 48, moved to the city from Washington state about 20 years ago. She would visit the park occasionally to rollerblade, but the two didn’t meet until an introduction at a coffee shop some time later.

Turns out they both had an affinity for tennis as well.

“I played all growing up, and Kristen played when she was in Washington,” Paul recalled. “After I moved (to Lebanon, in 2001), she joined a team (in Atlanta) and ended up playing mixed doubles with a guy that I played my entire life with. He’d been telling me about this new tennis partner he had, how she’s really pretty.”

Separated by a good 1,200 miles, their courtship involved a lot of letter-writing until Kristen moved north. Paul and Kristen Coats will soon celebrate their 14th wedding anniversary.

They retain active lifestyles. They both run recreationally and enjoy hiking, cycling and paddling. The latter three activities will play key roles in the sabbatical as they travel wherever at a leisurely pace.

The trip isn’t something that’s set up in the spur of the moment. Paul had to have a plan in mind — with suggestions for covering his responsibilities in his absence — when he approached Shaun Mulholland, Lebanon’s city manager, several months back.

“It was kind of surprising, because most of us can’t afford to go a year without pay,” Mulholland said on Thursday. “But it’s an interesting opportunity, he’s a very valued employee and we want to make sure we retain him.

“It’s an interesting adventure they’ve chosen to go on. Obviously, a lot of us are envious of it. We wish them the best and hope they enjoy it.”

This adventure brings to mind one similar, from the late 1970s, recorded in author William Least Heat-Moon’s autobiographical book, Blue Highways. In it, Least Heat-Moon chronicles a three-month automobile sojourn around the country along the nation’s back roads, the “blue highways” of old fold-out maps and soft-cover atlases. His story — which includes several pages dedicated to a stopover in Woodstock — describes a man set adrift by a job lost and a marriage deteriorated.

Kristen and Paul Coats have a different, more uplifting motivation. Community building is a demanding, worthwhile exercise. It can be emotionally draining, physically exhausting and difficult to set aside. By getting away to slowly enjoy shared activities together over 365 or so days, both hope to return renewed and ready to turn lessons learned into new energy at home.

“You can pick up the newspaper and see that our world is a little crumbly,” Kristen said. “You don’t have to travel too far; having worked at the Haven, you see it. But there’s this other component of just connecting with people and believing that we have more in common than we do have different.”

The trek started eight days ago. In their pickup truck, Kristen and Paul backed up to a city landfill container on a sunny morning and emptied the last things from their house no longer required (a fair-sized VHS movie collection dominated the pile) now that tenants had arrived to live there while they’re gone. Then it was off to the Adirondacks to spend a few days with close friends paddling pristine waters, breathing deeply the mountain air and looking forward to whatever next destination the sunrise might offer.

They’ll be back in 51 weeks.

Safe travels.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.