The Way We Are

The Rampart Ridge Trail in the Mt. Rainier National Park is listed as “moderate.” To my way of thinking, there is too much up-shit to rate less than strenuous; but perhaps the springy hemlock needle walking pad gets it off-setting points. It does not escape me, however, that I got less winded than I did on the Coldwater Lake trail earlier this summer. And two days after the hike, my quads have not screamed back at me. Last week at Mt. St. Helens, I zipped past a much younger woman hiking with her husband and two teenagers. (Later I saw the man and daughter—wife had apparently turned back.) So I’m feeling pretty good about the way I am.

As I sit eating my lunch on the edge of the ridge with its mountain view, another solo hiker comes bouncing down the narrow, rocky stretch swinging her walking stick. I call out to her so she won”t be startled when she comes upon me. She says she knew I was ahead of her; she caught my scent. She knew I was close, and she knew I was female. That is a little freaky. I estimate her at about my age or so; and am happy to see a sister on the trail.

We chat for several minutes. She has traveled this trail several times with her daughter. On snowshoes. She thinks it as hard to hike it as to do it in the snow. Color me skeptical. Once they turned back at this very spot because the trail was so narrow: one snowshoe right in front of the other, with that most significant drop off to the left. Another time they got to where the Rampart trail intersects with the Wonderland Trail and loops back down the mountain to Longmire. The markers were covered and they couldn’t find the trail and had to return the way they came. She’s looking forward to next summer when they are finally opening the dome in the Mt. St. Helens crater to hiking without a guide. Oh, and she’s 72—she has 11 years on me.

And that is the way we are! I do not feel diminished by the belief that I will not be snowshoeing this trail (though now that the idea is planted, snowshoeing somewhere might happen—I haven’t tried it since that one time in my early 20s); and I will not be hiking to the dome (I don’t think). On the contrary, I am encouraged. I have not been looking upon my seventh decade with favor (Speed Aging); but suddenly I feel so young! And, as someone said, you’re never too old to try something stupid.

My current recorded book is Anna Quindlen’s Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. I tried to read the print version several weeks ago and couldn’t get into it, but I am loving the author’s reading of it. Or maybe the timing is just right. Sometimes I think books choose me rather than vice-versa; and this one chose me right now, as it didn’t in June. On the way to the mountain, on the first disk, Quindlen pointed out the most amazing thing. In my lifetime, more or less, life expectancy has increased by a decade. I knew that, of course. But she went on to say that the decade doesn’t come at the end of our life—that is pretty much as the last years of life always have been. Unless we are hit by a truck, our end years are marked by illness or physical and/or mental decline to some degree. I have been thinking, as I witness my mother’s decline, that I don’t want to live that long. But the decline comes whether we are 80 or 97.

No, she says, the bonus decade comes between 60 and 70. More of an encore than a coda. I never thought of it like that before. The kids are gone (or at least grown), we are retired (for the most part), if we are going to go on to live into our 90s (the norm in my family) we are probably healthy and active in our eighth—and probably even ninth—decade. We have an extra decade of living, not extra years of significant decline. It’s like having your cake and eating it too.

Now that is a ridiculous idiom; what is the point of having cake if you aren’t supposed to eat it—as if it would be selfish to do both. I look it up. The proverb is thought to have been misunderstood. Not that you mustn’t be greedy, but that you no longer have the cake if you have eaten it. You can’t have it both ways. That gives me food for thought.

In this case, though, I think we do get both/and, if we are lucky. We can continue a beloved career if we want to or need to—or spend time caring for an aging parent—and still have a decade of carefree retirement or to create a new thing. Yes, most of us slow down (is that a bad thing?), and hiking may make our bunions hurt. As the woman on the mountain said, “I used to hate it when someone passed me on the trail. It hurt my pride. Now I step aside and say ‘have at it.'”

Nature’s color palette is shifting. I noticed a red tree outside the yoga window last week. And the road to Rainier was punctuated with gold. In spite of this shorter summer than those in the southeast to which I am accustomed, it is still an extroverted time and I am feeling ready for the introverted season. But first I need to find another mountain trail before the rains come and the snows blow in. Because that’s the way I am.

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4 thoughts on “The Way We Are

  1. You go for it girl! Keep it up as long as you can. I have a friend who is 91 this year. She has a summer cottage on one of the ponds here on MDI. What makes her cottage unique is that it is an enclave in Acadia national park. The only access to the cottage is a 1/2 mile walk on an unimproved trail through the park along the shore of Long Pond or a 20 minute paddle in a canoe across the pond. Nan spends the summer at her cottage and caries everything she needs to her cottage herself. I can see you doing the same at 91 :).

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  2. Thank you for Anna Quindlen’s perspective. I love the idea of having an additional 10 years tucked in between the 60s and 70s. So much better than added on to the end. (And do you think you’ll ever get tired of seeing Mt Rainier on a clear day? It’s such a gift!)

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  3. Pingback: The Way We Are | Writing Down the Story

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