I am camped in the northernmost reaches of the Sierra Nevada in California, a place I’ve come to faithfully for many years. I used to hike a lot of miles in these mountains. Now it’s fewer and more selective but with no let loss in my portions of inspiration and satisfaction. The years have piled up and delivered me to territory not reached on even the longest hike: it is called elderly by some, an adjective I eschew because it resounds of consignment to irrelevance. Call me an elder, instead, which has in many traditions an affirmative ring to it—rather than pointing out one who has been discarded it recognizes that those traveling this new-for-us landscape might be privy to special knowledge. I will add, however, that at 74 I feel only a newcomer to the territory and may have only the glimmerings of such knowledge, although hopeful of more.
How does the elder I have become feel when he watches those he was among only a decade or so ago launch extended hikes while he, at the moment, is only writing about them? On one hand, there is nostalgia; there was great joy in the exertion, the sights and smells, the beauty, and the conscious deepening of his union with Nature. On another, serene acceptance: he had to cross those regions to get to this one, and present satisfactions are infused with former ones while enriched by new vistas. It is remarkable what can be discerned on slowed and shortened walks.
Where was the boundary between the territories of then and now? It was more a borderland than a gated “exit then/enter now.” There were several years during the turning into my early seventies period when, I see now, mind/body were preparing the way. I had been a jogger, road racer, and occasional marathoner for close to forty years, beginning at the age of thirty; then the miles became less inviting. Same with my hiking; I’d discovered my affinity for long mountain and desert treks over thirty years ago when, more recently, the miles came to feel less necessary. No change in my desire or my need to be in natural settings but a new willingness to be less physically active there.
Motivation had changed and it seemed the legs put up no argument; it was probably a joint decision. As above, there were twinges of sadness but mostly acceptance; it felt right and my other interests were relatively unchanged and merely shifted the proportions. I will note that in the midst of these changes I developed atrial fibrillation, which has the unfortunate effect of reducing stamina; climbs are harder now, especially at higher elevation, but this seems consistent with the new trajectory I had already begun even if more abrupt and definitive. I confess, though—it’s the only change I actively dislike; it’s one that feels imposed rather than appropriately emergent with the years, which attitude makes assumptions without foundation since I know that organisms like me are built to wear out, often announced through a wide variety of unpredicted signs that nature is taking its course.
I have few needs additional to those associated with survival: being frequently in natural settings, reading widely, writing, the virtues of solitude. My time in camps did not change—still three months or so a year—but I read more, write more, and indulge more contemplative time while physically covering less of the landscape. I also have a wife, who doesn’t come along, and we enjoy a home together and other interests. I consider the simplicity of this existence a genuine good, with the parts rather easily kept in balance most of the time. Even so, elderhood is not the easiest stage of life. It is a time of loss and change, the same as all stages but with different losses and changes and ones pointing toward endings rather than continuations. Many of the crucial questions have been adequately answered but new ones, and new versions of old ones, still appear. They often congeal, I tend to think, around this one: How do I do this aging thing right? Meaning by right…appropriate to my nature as well as to aging’s trends and imperatives; meaningfully; ethically; sufficiently attentive to deepening of spirit. Also, how much attention should be paid to health issues? Am I as prepared to die as I believe I am?
I don’t expect this to be a long essay, but while walking this morning I smelled the woods—an olfactory response that has always been part of my engagement with the Sierra—and the familiar scent aroused memories as well as thoughts about present and future along the lines just mentioned. This is my first trip since I spent two weeks in Death Valley in January (it’s mid-June as I write). The time between trips has naturally been dominated by covid-19. For my wife and me the virus has been no more than an inconvenience—mask-wearing and distancing at the grocery store, handwashing upon return—and sheltering in place is hardly noticeable since our lifeway is already consistent with that. But fewer spontaneous outings and those restricted by closures. The big loss was a 4-5 week trip I’d planned to begin in early May camping, ferrying, and touring around southwest Canada, particularly the coast. Maybe next year instead, although I realize as an elder that “last chances” have a place in my mind now that earlier life was far less familiar with. The trip I am on now will last a few weeks, visiting whatever I can find open around the Sierra, and considering the solemnity I’m feeling and the thoughts I’m having, I wonder what will come to mind.
To be continued, see Becoming Elder Part II