Hiking in My 70s

We are still so new. Individually, we are each old but the “us” of Woody and me is new. And so we are eager to relive old experiences as the new we. Like hiking a popular trail in the Blue Ridge

I took two small bottles of water and an extra shirt. I took sunglasses and a sun hat. I wore long pants and sturdy shoes. But I forgot my daypack – even the small string one that I take to yoga class. Neither my pants, nor my shirts (the sleeveless one I wore and the long-sleeved one I carried) have pockets.

So I decide to just carry my phone, for its camera and my safety, up the trail. And one small bottle of water, not both. And the small pack of Kleenex. Oh, I might need the Wet Ones, you never can tell, and the small foil packet with the lens cleaning tissue for my new glasses. What about the drops for my dry itchy eyes, the antihistamine pill, the small nail care kit I got for free from an organization I had donated to – that could come in handy. But I have no pockets, no daypack. And anyway would my purse be safe in the van even locked? I guess my purse is coming with me up the trail. I’ll extend the strap and wear it as a cross chest bag. That won’t be so bad.

Eight-tenths of a mile, that’s all. And just about everyone I know, young and old, has walked it. Today is perfect. Sunny and breezy with enough tree cover to keep me from burning since I also forgot the sunscreen. And enough wind to keep the bugs off since I forgot the bug spray. I will be fine, this will be fun. I remember 30 years ago, laughing and paying no attention as we caroused up the trail with our children flitting around us like those dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly. All we want to do today is slowly stroll up and back down, careful of aging bones and dicey cardio fitness.

The trail is broad and inviting until it isn’t. Log-defined steps, dry washouts, uneven rocks and always uphill. Soon, too soon, I feel old, I feel unfit, I feel anxious, I feel weak, I feel unwell, I feel my heart beating unevenly. Should I go on? Could I have a heart attack? Is this physical stress or just anxiety? How could I let myself get this unfit? Where now my trail walking skills, my climbing experience, my years backpacking? I was the one who ate hills. I count my breaths, matching them to my steps. Inhale for four steps, exhale for four steps. Until my steps are so slow that my breaths are two by two steps. I pause to study a pebble.

Ahead of me, Woody has found a bench. From bench to bench we go on, sitting as long as walking. Across or around those deliberately placed cross-path logs, over rocks, up steps of wood and gravel. From bench to welcome bench and then, when the trail becomes too narrow, too rocky, too steep for benches, from one sitting rock to another. Watching, helloing joggers with dogs, young couples with babies in backpacks, overweight walkers, sleekly dressed hikers, families, a toddler – a toddler, for heaven’s sake! – with an older brother and parents. Like rain to a parched plant come the words of a passing woman, “This is an eight-tenths mile trail and I have a one-tenth mile body.”

We reach the end. Well, not THE end but our end. On the final rocky switchbacks, we say enough. We declare victory and withdraw. It’s an American tradition after all. But withdrawal simply means facing the challenge of the equally long downhill trek back. I remind myself that the way back always seems shorter. And so I am surprised when it doesn’t.

I hear traffic. I glimpse a strip of road through the trees. I see the beginning of the parking lot. I remember running with the children to the treats in the van. Woody and I continue our slow careful walk to the tepid water in the van.

We talk of the effort itself being the achievement. We vow to return again next year, as this year, in the week of his birthday, and compare what we can do then to what we have done now. I resolve to spend more time on the stationary bike at the gym.

We drive to a winery and have Chardonnay, cheese and crackers. Sitting, sitting gratefully still, at a table overlooking vineyards and horizon hills.

“I don’t know much about growing grapes,” says my horticulturist husband.

“Here’s what I know,” I respond, “grapes don’t grow in ugly places.”

We finish our wine and snacks, drive home and take naps.

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