The holy terror of turning fifty
He was Canadian. A slim man, just under six feet, with the coiled, corded body of a runner. He arrived with his daughter in tow. She had long Rastafarian braids to her buttocks and refused to wear shoes. They were part of the group that showed up to take on Macchu Picchu in spring of 2014. Our group was a mixed bag of folks from all over the world, as is often the case. We gathered in Ollantaytambo, weighed our goods and were given our bags and tents.
Armed with a supply of coca leaves and coca candy, purported to help with altitude sickness (it does), we headed out and up, accompanied by the donkeys and local folks who would bear the bulk of the heavy load so that we might enjoy the view.
Right from the beginning, the Canadian man left us behind in his dust. I'll call him Lew. I doubt he ever noticed the view.
The Inca Trail is barely 25 miles long, not terribly intimidating just as a number. However it's a thin line leading to very high points including Dead Woman's Pass, which at its highest point is 13828.74 feet or 4215m. When you're from Colorado, as I was at the time, that wasn't even as high as many of our everyday peaks. However for non-high country folks, it's a hike indeed.
For my part, the previous year I'd trained for and completed Kilimanjaro. That was my gift to myself for my 60th birthday year. Having been excited about that summit, I promptly planned the Peru hike, since that had long been on my list to accomplish. MP is incredibly popular and getting more so, with trail degradation an increasing problem as well as overbuilding in the once-tiny town of Ollantaytambo where you start your journey. You can find good advice on how to plan and what to expect in this post:
As with all high-country hikes, I settled in to take my time, and above all, take in the scenery, which along this route is some of the most lovely in the world.
Lew didn't see much of it, if my impressions are right. They may not be. This is that story.
From the moment we started our climb in April 2014, right at the edge of rainy season and happily, without a big crowd around us, Lew was determined to demonstrate to anyone who would listen that he was MOST CERTAINLY NOT FIFTY YEARS OLD.
He was out to prove a negative.
In that way the folks who are in high denial prove to everyone around them that what they say doesn't bother them REALLY bothers them, Lew spoke incessantly about this milestone. His daughter rolled her eyes, walked away from the campfire for air. Lew was so incredibly focused on his fifty that he drained the rest of our group of energy when more than a few of us were already trail-weary at the end of a long day of hiking.
Look, I totally get it that if someone chooses to take on a big hike like this one, and is focused solely on proving a point, that's his journey. As a writer, however, his journey, since it coincided with my own at eleven years his senior, I had the opportunity to learn from what I observed. None of those observations make me accurate about his inner world, as Lew and I didn't speak much, I can only share what watching him taught me about my own aging process.
He was up early, as was I, which is how I knew. He would go through elaborate preparations for his hike, and then disappear long before the rest of us had finished breakfast. Off he would go in the early dark in his shorts, while the rest of us made coffee and sucked coca candy.
For many who take on the Inca Trail, it's less about the immensely beautiful spiritual journey, which it was designed to be, than it is about bragging rights and a plaque on the wall proving that you did, indeed, make it. While I don't share that compulsion, I can understand it. You and I all have the need to prove ourselves, and for some this is how we do it. As I age, I like really hard adventures. But a huge part of the reason is where those adventures take me. What I get to see or experience as a result of the epic journey to get there. How the scenery brings me to my emotional knees in gratitude.
While I was standing in awe staring out over a valley, couples would pass me by, oblivious, arguing about their kids' math scores. I still remember that. You can argue about your kids' math scores at your kitchen table. You're in one of the most beautiful places on earth and YOU CAN'T SEE IT.
But I digress. Where was I? Oh. Lew.
Lew would strap on his hiker-runners and fly off, his face glued to his timing watch. As you must, especially at speed, you have to watch your footing, especially on a trail where stones are worn to sea-glass smoothness from millions of booted feet. I injured myself badly on the way down from Dead Woman's Pass when I looked up at the view and kept walking, which is a serious no-no on a path that steep. Stupid. I paid the price, tore my ankle up. Wrapped it, laced up and kept right on going. More slowly, which in this case only increased the pleasure of the hike.
At least for me.
When we would arrive at our camp, where our crew had already set up our tents, Lew would be strutting around pushing his watch in people's faces. He'd brag about how fast he was, how he not only kept up with but even passed those porters who slogged along carrying all our gear (which he wasn't carrying, of course).
I get it that there are folks who do these spectacular climbs for no other purpose than to tick off an accomplishment. The sides of the world's great peaks are littered with the corpses of folks who were trying to break someone else's speed record. I get Outside Online, I read the stories, mourn for their families. And I wouldn't for one moment tell them not to do that, for that is who they are. In my heart I share the same urge for adventure. This, however, smacked of a bit of desperation. I fully recognize that those feelings arise only in me, but still. I can embrace that while also questioning what I see in others.
I was 61 at the time. In the best shape of my life. At a time when far too many of us are "too old for this shit," I was waking up early on those mountains, chewing coca leaves, taking time with the resident donkeys for as long as they were with us, and gearing up for another long day of hiking.
Lew leaned into the business of racing all of us, every day, all day, and reminding us at days end ad infinitum that he was THAT fast, THAT healthy, THAT youthful.
His daughter gave him a wide berth after two days of this. She hiked the whole trip barefoot. Maybe it's a genetic thing. Who knows. She was harmless, sweet in that way that kids can be with wildly overbearing fathers. I had one too but I wasn't harmless; I'd be harmed, and that's another issue entirely. I had no idea how Lew had sold the idea of this trip for her, but watching this unfold it felt like he was putting on a show for her benefit rather than actually do the hike with her.
I am reminded here of a father/daughter pair, who for months like me trained for the September 11 stair climb. They were a team, hiking together, climbing together, resting and snacking and laughing together. You could see in her eyes how she loved her dad. This wasn't that.
Eventually I learned to get food, head to my tent and hide from Lew, who would bark at me about what I needed to do to stay as young as he was. It was exhausting, his sucking need to be validating, his constant demand for validation that he WASN'T FIFTY.
I've been that needy for validation, too. You turn into an energy vampire, and people turn away from you, as they did from Lew. In some embarrassingly awful ways I was watching playbacks of an earlier me. Oy.
There are times that, after the life I've had, I am so goddamned glad just to be alive I do this:
As I watched Lew force past people on the narrow lanes, which is damned dangerous as people do fall, I thought about this aging thing. Back then I had only just turned 61, and after a year of hard work had turned myself into something of an athlete. I will never be graceful (I would lose ALL my comedy material) and I will never grace a magazine cover. Those things do not matter to me. Might have once, but at least for some of us, with age comes some sensibility, which means we can let go of those things which aren't so terribly important and concentrate on things that are. Which, of course, varies wildly, as it should.
The other day I read an article wherein the writer pointed out that at 47, Stacy Abrams had reached the age where she is now "invisible." I took umbrage, not without respect, but the comment annoyed the holy shit out of me. Those of us past sixty can definitely relate to the slow mantle of invisibility that envelopes the aging woman. A while back I noticed that the new number had been pushed down to fifty.
When is 35 going to be the new elderly? Next year?
When you and I know such a thing to not be true, why on earth would we repeat it, when as Trump demonstrated so aptly, you bark a lie enough times it takes on a life of its own? This is how we kill off hopes and the futures of so many, who, upon reading this utter nonsense, will now fear forty as much as any of my generation feared ninety. Kindly, how dare you do such a thing.
Lew was effectively communicating the same fear to his daughter on that climb, the unholy terror of getting older, even as he was clearly hale and hearty. But he apparently couldn't enjoy it, for the terrible passage of every single second towards his next birthday. His need for speed sucked the air out of all of us.
Is this what we want to give our children? Gerascophobia is already a thing. And it's getting worse because people focus on how AWFUL it is to pass another year, another decade. You and I will run from a number until our days are numbered and we right right out of them.
We apparently are so scared of a number that we would turn ourselves into physical wrecks in the race to prove we aren't aging. In the process we age ourselves with fear, worry, dread and disgust at the very things we cannot change. For my part, all I know is that every single day is a gift, and inside those days I get to choose. Some are good, some, not so good.
The older I've gotten, the slower I go when it comes to noticing the beauty around me. I still move WAY too fast, which in some cases means I go ass-over teakettle down a stairway. I still leap back up, because I do the work to make sure I can. However these days I don't do it to show off. I do it to show up in my own life. I write about it to make the point that there is life after fifty, sixty and seventy, where I am knocking at the door. Bagging Macchu Picchu, at least for me, wasn't so much bagging a peak or bragging rights, but the right to see a magical place before I die, engage with different cultures and be transformed by all of that and much more.
The more I see people write about how old they feel at forty or fifty, the more lies I read about how 47 is the new invisible elderly for women when we are barely just coming into the fullness of ourselves, the more I see this desperate BUT I'M NOT OLD behavior. That alone ages us, stress us out and costs us precious, glorious life.
Slowing down to smell the roses isn't just a saying. It's a way of being, and a way to stretch out time. By time you get to my age and beyond, rushing it doesn't have the same attraction any more. Being so busy denying your number that you aren't living doesn't strike me as any kind of way to live.
But what do I know? I'm just an aging adventure traveler with a lot of countries yet to explore.