The most fundamental thing we fail to appreciate about the world. . .is how bafflingly astonishing it is that it’s there at all—the fact that there is anything rather than nothing.Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks
When I started this blog a little over a year ago, I envisioned it as a place to share my hiking adventures and in particular to celebrate the experience of solitude on the trail and lament the increasing difficulty in finding it as hiking becomes more popular and crowds make their way onto the nation’s trails.
But because I write about things that are important to me, as every writer should, I find that I keep circling back to the topic of aging. It must be an important topic for many people. These are always the posts that attract the most interest from my readers, who leave comments expressing gratitude for exploring the issues that come up for aging hikers like myself and apparently many others.
Often the topic is addressed by gleefully shaking a fist at it. Age defying seems to be as popular in articles about hikers as it is for skin care products. We celebrate well known older hikers like Billy Goat, who is still out there on the trails in his eighties, long white beard, looking like a leaner version of Santa Claus in shorts and a baseball cap. Hikers speak of him in hushed tones, an example for all of us that we need not give up on hiking just because we are old.
I too am proud of the fact that I still am out there on the trail every summer, now in my seventies, happy that good health has enabled me to continue to do the thing I love most. But I am also painfully aware that my hiking experience has changed in recent years. I am no longer willing to leap over raging streams for example. I want to be certain that when I land on the other side I am able to stand up again. Healing still happens, even in my seventies. It just takes a lot longer.
The sad reality is that, however robust our fitness and health may be, at some point our hiking days will be over. Shaking our fist at aging does not prevent its steady march. It simply gives us one more thing in life to battle, a battle that takes time and energy away from the more important business of living, getting out there on the trail while we still can, and getting up after we have fallen.
Death occurs because a life ends. That a life ever occurred in the first place is perhaps the most astonishing thing of all. But there you have it. And if you are a hiker like me, you have accumulated a bank of memories during that lifetime to help you celebrate it, however brief it might be.
While I do not plan to topple over dead any time soon, the fact remains that I do topple over more frequently than I used to, one more sad fact about aging. Yesterday I managed to slip on the ice while walking with my dog Lulu on a drive over the mountains. I had driven onto one of those beautiful and isolated roads so that Lulu could run free and get some exercise. At some point on a gradual slope my feet simply slipped out from under me, and I was lying on the road, Lulu hovering over me, licking my face. I was lying alone on an icy road, a big black dog standing above me, as if to check for doneness. “Not dead yet,” I told her, and the absurdity of the situation made me laugh. All I have to show for the experience is a good sized bruise on my hip and one more thing. . .a life experience that makes me smile, added to the bank of memories. Someday I will withdraw it and say to Lulu, “Remember the time I slipped on the ice and you licked my face?” And she will smile. . .the way dogs smile. And I will smile too, as I do now writing about the experience. I hope that you are doing so as well.