Two days before Thanksgiving, Second Gear co-founder Buffalo McMurry Zoomed in from a chair at his dining room table. Behind him were dozens of greeting cards taped to the wall celebrating his 80th birthday this past October. The virtual meeting replaced appearing in person for safety reasons, but also so Buffalo could shuttle his teen-aged daughter Mia to practice.
That the octogenarian is a doting soccer dad will unlikely shock those who know him well. McMurry, who has a bushy mustache and kind eyes, has snubbed a few conventions during his life journey. Nevertheless, McMurry committed to a core set of principles that no one can argue with: faithfulness, integrity, compassion.
He grew up in Shelby, in the heart of North Carolina’s textile belt. At four, he contracted and recovered from polio. Despite the scare, he recalled a classic post-war childhood. “I grew up with people that had simple and good values. They knew right from wrong,” he said. His mother worked in a cotton mill. “My dad was a shipping clerk who worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps on the Blue Ridge Parkway during the Depression.”
A routine of his youth was romping in the woods, mostly he claims replaying battle scenes from John Wayne war films. In fact, McMurry enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps after high school serving 6 years and soldiering during one of the nation’s most dramatic episodes: the Cuban Missile Crisis. Aboard a Navy vessel at sea, McMurry recalled the pitch black Cuban coast except for the glow of lights from Havana during the U.S blockade that marked the standoff’s climax. After serving, McMurry started a family and held a handful of jobs in Charlotte. Post military, he also acquired his nickname. In the late 1960’s a friend tagged him for his prowess impersonating animals, a buffalo in particular.
- From Buffalo: "This picture is of me on my old Ross bike in the late 70s during the birthing days of mountain biking. This was taken in Helen, Ga; getting ready for a 3 day stage race. (Cross country, downhill, and trials). "
His life transformed in 1973 when McMurry enrolled in a community college rock climbing course at Crowders Mountain near Charlotte. “I thought that it was so cool. I just wanted to do more,” he said. Which he did. He hooked up with other climbers, including his dear friend Woody Keen, then a 16-year-old climbing prodigy who went on to the North Carolina Outward Bound School (NCOBS) and established Misty Mountain Threadworks, one of the nation’s most storied gear innovators. Eventually, he was invited to help with climbing instruction on weekends, altering his professional trajectory.
Two years later McMurry was the first hire at Alanby Outfitting, a retailer in Charlotte. Owner Alan Barnhardt financed a National Outdoor Leadership School mountaineering course McMurry attended in the Pacific Northwest. Eventually, he left his job in retail to climb throughout the Americas: the North Cascades, the Bolivian Andes, New England, Wyoming, Colorado, and adventures on North Carolina crags. During that period, he formed ties with a nationwide community of climbers and mountaineers, among them a cadre of Outward Bound instructors. “I thought OB instructors hung the moon. As a fluke I sent an application,” he recalled. To his surprise, he was hired in 1985.
Associate director of NCOBS, Bill Murray, and one of McMurry’s closest friends said that his blend of technical expertise, leadership and curiosity made him a remarkable employee for over three decades. He served in a variety of roles from instructor, program director at the Everglades base camp, and professional programming facilitator. Yet what made him a cut apart is his “unwavering integrity and compassion towards others,” said Murray. “Buffalo is among the school’s most well respected and loved staff members.” The Buffalo Award is testament of his impact and, since 1995, is awarded to a staff member who lives up to McMurry’s credo: “a little thing is a little thing, but faithfulness to a little thing is a big thing.”
Not only did he impact hundreds of participants and fellow staff, McMurry was himself profoundly altered by his work. “I never had a career plan, but everything led me to NCOBS. There was a moment where all of a sudden I realized why the school’s philosophy existed. It provides an environment where people can put words to feelings and grow.” McMurry said his outlook on life clicked with NCOBS conscious use of metaphors to transform experiences in the woods into learning. “I had the realization that I was a teacher and I was good at it. I had the sense that this was where I was supposed to be.”
McMurry settled in Asheville in 1995, remarried, and in 2003 Russ Towers invited him and two other ex-Outward Bound instructors to hash out the concept for Second Gear. McMurray sorted out the store’s business plan and served as the first shop-manager. Towers sees him as central to the shop’s success and stability. “From day one he’s provided customers and staff with an invaluable combination of gear expertise, life experience, wisdom and calm leadership,” he said.
Second Gear’s concept is perhaps a fitting metaphor for his transformational work at NCOBS: finding meaning and purpose where there is untapped potential.
While reselling a tent may seem trivial, it’s the simple occasions and joys in life he cherishes most, such as the birthday well-wishes plastered to his wall. “Luck seems to follow me in my life,” said McMurry admitting that a few of the messages within them moved him to tears. “I’m the luckiest man in the world.”
- Jack Igelman