John P. “Jack” Machen loves his city. He comes from a long line of Baltimore lawyers, is vice chairman of the board for WYPR and serves on the board of trustees for the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper.
But Machen, a big-firm lawyer who’s about to leave for a city post, also has a more rugged side — a fascination with the West that was fueled at age 16 when he spent a summer working at a ranch.
Ten years ago, he bought property in Wyoming, not far from Cody, and built a yurt there. The Mongolian-inspired structure is more than a tent, but not quite a house.
“I get restless … living a life where every day is the same,” Machen said. “Out there, I get to do different things all the time.”
On his most recent Wyoming adventure, Machen and five friends from Baltimore spent a week exploring the wilderness.
“Somehow, the pictures do not convey the magnificence of where we were,” he said while scrolling through photos from the trip, “and how difficult it was to get there.”
The group rode on horseback for about six hours to each of the different campsites, staying at each site for about two nights. Upon arrival, they would unpack, set up camp, hang their food from trees to protect it from bears and set out on hikes to various locations.
“There’s a lot of work involved, so you don’t do this every day,” Machen said.
The group embarked on the trip in late June — a typical outdoor vacationing time on the East Coast, but an early date for the mountains of Wyoming. In the first few weeks of summer, snow is still melting from mountaintops, creating drastic rises in streams throughout the day, while dead timber knocked down in winter storms has not yet been cleared and blocks a number of trails.
“It could have been very ugly,” said Machen, referring to a particular event when one of his companions fell off his horse while crossing over a quickly rising stream. Luckily, he said, his friend was able to grab a rock and avoid being pulled away by the water.
For all of its challenges, though, the trip paled in comparison with one Machen took in 2010, when he went through a two-week survival course in Boulder, Utah.
“Most participants were in their late 20s or early 30s,” Machen said. “At 58, I was the old man of the group.”
The group learned survival skills, living outdoors for the entire course. For parts of the course, their only food was what they could find. They learned how to make fire, to navigate by compass, to trap small game and to slaughter large animals — all by doing it.
By the end of the two weeks, Machen left with many new skills as well as a new perspective.
“For me, it was kind of a challenge at my age,” he said, but “so much difficulty and inconvenience you experience is all in your head. … You can endure so much more if you just don’t let the negativity take over.”
This realization also helped him to reconsider part of his life back in Baltimore, he said, giving him “the motivation to experience new things in my career as well.”
In September, Machen will retire from DLA Piper US LLP and join the Baltimore City Law Department as special chief solicitor.
“To completely change jobs is something that I have not done in a long time,” said Machen, who joined the firm 35 years ago, the same year he graduated from law school at the University of Maryland.
As for his next adventures, Machen said he will continue to get away to his yurt and may start training for a 100-mile bike ride in California wine country.
“Some people define who they are and what they do by their job as a lawyer,” he said. “I feel that I am more the person who I really am when I’m out in the wilderness.”