The line had come to an abrupt halt in the warm Northern Canadian sun. The horses immediately began rubbing their muzzled faces on the butts of the horse in front of them in an attempt to remove them so that they could graze. From the middle of the line, I listened. We were surrounded by dense brush and tall trees, on the way up the mountain. Rough territory. Plenty more ahead.
Someone had come off her horse.
I knew precisely who it was, too. She’d been a liability from the moment she stepped off the airplane and said, “I’m terrified of horses!!!!”
Why any thinking human would sign up to spend at least ten to twelve hours a day with horses - and in this case huge ones, as they are draft horse crosses - when you are terrified of them is beyond me. For those of you who know your breeds, our biggest boy, aptly named Big Rig, was 18.2 hands at the withers. That’s simply enormous.
Yah. And wait until they put their hoof, big as a crockpot, on top of your foot. Happened to me twice. I am still limping.
I think it’s a great idea to push your boundaries and get outside your comfort zone. However, let’s please give this some thought first. Especially as we get older, the resources we have to bring to a challenge change. Depending on how we choose to take care of ourselves, some of them get stronger. Some we lose (teeth, hair, eyesight, balance, flexibility, hair, did I say hair?) Some of what we lose involves muscle and lung capacity. That is, unless we work at it. And that is part of what can make a huge difference.
I’ve been around horses all my life, started riding at age four. I train all year when I am not on a trip like this to be on horses and on extreme trips. If not riding, I am running, lifting, cycling, several hours a day. I’m 66. This is just what I do, not a brag fest. This has slowed down the inevitable, but the inevitable is just that. You and I will deteriorate. At this age, there are things I have no business trying (okay, okay, and one of them was to try to learn to inline skate, a setup for a comedy riff to be sure. I won’t try that again.)
To be able to come on extreme epic adventures like this, several weeks in very rough wilderness by horse, you really need to be fit. It says so several times on the website, and common sense might relay that expectation. That respects not only the trip’s demands on your body but more so, the others who are joining you.
Which is why Sandra (not her real name) had come off her horse. Not fun for her. Not at all fun for the rest of us.
Let me back up a bit here.
That morning Sandra had swung up on Toni, the outfit’s horse for beginners, and somehow had managed to plant her 65-yo butt behind the saddle. She, of course, slid off, and one of the wranglers assumed that Toni had bucked. Not at all. Rider error. Toni hadn’t moved. She’s a beginner’s dream.
Sandra had been put on Verne, a sweet-natured horse, but one who needed steering. Toni’s been on these trips for nearly 30 years and knows every turn and twist. Safe as a kid’s circus pony. Not Verne, but we were shy horses for extreme beginners. Stay with me here.
Sandra rode hanging on to the saddle horn like Quasimodo. She didn’t pick up the reins, which is akin to getting into a car named Vern, pointing yourself downhill, and never touching the steering wheel. As you whack pedestrians and parking meters and slam into other people’s cars, you keep saying Vern. Vern. Vern. As though that’s going to do a damned bit of good.
You don’t steer, correct or in any way take responsibility for riding your horse, your horse will treat you like a pannier. Because in effect, you are.
That’s precisely what she did. I rode behind her a few times, then got moved (thank you) farther back in line. She was a liability waiting to happen.
Of course she became one. She apparently banged a rib.
Became an invalid for two weeks.
Here’s the piece.
Sandra made a great deal of noise about the shape she was in. How much of an athlete she was. Every night she discussed her trips to the Arctic and Antarctic. I was duly impressed until I watched her in action. Listened over time. As it turns out, her husband is the athlete, and provided a bubble of protection for her on all these trips. She’d never been away from him, and she was scared. She wanted the kind of protection she got from him, and the best way to do it is to get injured. That ensures special treatment, lots of attention.
It also sucks up valuable resources from the horses and other riders as necessary. The thing that irked me was that it was preventable. She had apparently decided that she was capable based on her experience. Her version of that experience, at least, which in some cases was clearly a fantasy version of what she was capable of doing.
It’s very much what a friend from Australia told me years ago: you put two pebbles into coffee can and shake it hard enough, it makes a lotta noise. Impressive until you open the coffee can.
In Patagonia, if you want to hike the Perito Moreno glaciar, if you’re over fifty, you can’t. Here’s why: too many folks of a Certain Age claimed a level of fitness they didn’t have. Too many times the operator had to spend a fortune plucking overconfident and under-fit oldsters off the glaciar. Hence, the new rule. Doesn’t matter if you and I are fitter than ten twenty-year-olds. They got tired of dealing with unfit oldsters. Now, to be fair, there are plenty of youngsters they have to pluck off the glaciar now, but what do you do? You see my point. Other people, who had no clue what they could no longer do, cost a great many more fit older folks a shot at seeing a natural wonder. Happens all the time. People vastly overstate their physical prowess. It’s perfectly understandable, too; we badly want to believe we are more than what we are.
When I visited Patagonia, I was turned away. The year before I had climbed Kilimanjaro, done the Everest Base Camp and Macchu Picchu, all in the space of about seven months, at 60 and 61. Nope, they said, you’re too old. Being a journalist, I wrote a scathing review about ageism. I can think of hundreds of folks over fifty that can handle a little day hike on the ice. Please.
I climbed the Franz Josef glaciar, which was a walk in the park. Nearby, a 70 year old woman was scrambling up an ice face, making right fools out of all the kids she had left below. Age isn’t the issue. Fitness is.
Sandra had climbed Kilimanjaro….twenty years ago. She skis and hikes. A few times a year. Fine. For 65, she’s in fairly good shape. However the occasional hike and ski trip does not an athlete make.
As she said to me when I was making a joke about gym lockers,
“I don’t go to the gym.”
Said with that dripping condescension that people employ when they are deeply insecure and badly need to feel superior. Look, I’ve done the same kind of insulting thing myself when I was a lot younger, but like to think I’ve grown out of that compulsion. As one of the guides rightly said, people cascade their anxiety on others on trips like this. Which is why I refuse to respond in kind. She’s not going to change and an ugly exchange can escalate into something much worse.
The fact that she doesn’t work out was very evident, and that was the problem. One injury and she was down for the count. That’s not fit. That’s not resilient.
It is entirely understandable that we aren’t particularly honest about the shape we’re in. As humans we’re vain. We are not only terrified of aging, but we tend to deny what we’ve lost. Look at any online dating profile and then compare that with what shows up. It’s what we do. We are frightened of what we are losing, but all too often don’t have the moral courage to own who we are today as opposed to what we were fifteen years ago. To do so acknowledges that we’re mortal. Of course that’s terrifying.
The awful truth of our bodies is that starting around 25 we begin to lose muscle mass through sarcopenia. We lose lung capacity. It’s a steady decline-unless we work at it. You and I can stem a great deal of that deterioration with steady exercise. Every single year, along with the accumulation of injuries or disease or bad diet or whatever, the body changes. Hanging on to a picture of ourselves at peak health forty years ago is a bad plan. It’s no different from the 69-year-old men who post photos of themselves from high school. Come ON man.
On the same day that Sandra banged her rib, my horse Leon knocked me to the ground on a narrow clay track, steep and rocky, because he was anxious. He could no longer see the other horses that had disappeared into the heavy brush up ahead. That happens. Leon’s still new to the herd, and on top of that, he’d been roughly ridden by a rank rookie the first two weeks of my trip. I knew what I had signed up for when I asked to ride him. Again, I train for that. Still, that doesn’t guarantee you a damned thing. Strange horse, hard environment, new riders - they all combine to create challenging conditions for horse and rider alike. I kinda like that. This outfit had plenty of what’s euphemistically referred to as “bomb-proof” horses for beginners, which in truth no horse is, but I like challenges. My body telegraphs that fact. You should see the scars. Wouldn’t trade it for the world, either.
As soon as I stood on the very narrow, steep trail, the next two pack horses pushed by me in line, both Percheron mixes, laden with heavy panniers. WHACK! WHACK! I was about as important to them as a sapling spruce. Get. Out. Of. Our. Way.
They sent me spinning. That was the start of my day. Didn’t slow me down one damned bit. I got up, dusted off, and started hiking, knowing I’d catch up to Leon at the lunch break. For me, moving helps me deal with injuries unless I’ve snapped a bone. Done that a few times too. And got up and walked several flights of stairs with multiple fractures in my pelvis, and another time with eight broken bones in my spine. Being fit helps. Just a little.
A few hours later, we had another steep, rocky climb for which we had to dismount. The moment I had my right leg halfway over the saddle, Leon bolted again. He was having a bad day. I landed hard on my back and slammed my head to the ground. Leapt up and did my level best to calm him down. Your horse has to be your first priority. You can handle your injuries later. Leon was extremely anxious about something. He was jerking around the way horses do when they disturb a wasp’s nest. Probably had. Hell, I’d jerk around like a marionette puppet, too, if a bunch of wasps were stinging my butt.
He wouldn’t be soothed. I curled the reins around the saddle horn and let him go. Again. Not his fault.
As others had their second lunch, I took a quick nap on a saddle blanket. I was seeing stars, my body hurt and we were still a good long way from camp. When they left, I walked at the back.
Twenty-two horses and riders disappeared into the forest. For my part, I got the intense pleasure of moving at my own pace through some of the most magnificent, fern-filled, fairy-inhabited forest on the face of the earth. I was deliriously happy to be alone, in the quiet, able to soak in what I had paid a fortune to see. Real wild. Nobody in sight. My god what a gift.
The more I walked, the better I felt. The pain of the injuries subsided as I was soothed by the green. Calming beyond anything else you can possibly do in life. Being calm and moving go a very long way towards energizing the healing process.
A few minutes into my walk, one of the young wranglers appeared. He had cut me a walking stick (oh, to have been able to bring that home….) so that I could maneuver over the streams we had to cross. We had a lively, fun talk, and bonded during that walk. The time we spent laughing, working our way through one of the world’s most pristine places, was as helpful as a long night’s sleep.
By the time I woke up at 3:30 the next morning, I was raring to go. Ready to set up the campfire and get the coffee going. What happened next is another story.
I train for resilience. Functional fitness. I don’t build muscles for show but for hard work. Sandra skis and hikes a few times a year. I train every. Single. Day. While it is her sacred right to have her opinion (I don’t go to the gym), the problem is that she imposed a very low level of fitness and her fear of horses onto people who were indeed prepared, at least most of us. That’s a burden to the entire trip. And a legitimate danger as well.
Think of it this way.
Say you save up for several years to pay for a heli-ski trip. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and it’s going to cost you major, major dime. You train your ass off, day after day. You pay twelve grand for this trip, money you had to scrimp and save. You’re an expert skier. This is your gift to you. You land on top of a pristine mountain and get ready for the runs of your life. Then a kid steps in front of you and goes stupid. Turns out he doesn’t ski. Never has. In fact he hates the snow and cold. But rich Daddy paid for this, and here he is blocking your way. Getting in front of you every single time you try to start your run. He cries and complains. As a result, because the helicopter has left, you and the rest of the group have to walk this bonehead down the steep incline, inch by inch. The very runs that you dreamed of speeding down, powder flying.
That’s how you spend your-once-in-a-lifetime heli-ski trip.
Sandra’s that expert skier. Imagine had I done this very thing to her. You get my point.
That’s precisely what Sandra did.
The inability to understand her role in this was part of the issue.
Towards the end of the trip she sat down next to me at the campfire to regale me with a story about her Big Trip to the Antarctic.
According to Sandra:
The guide told us that if anyone got injured, we all had to go home. So one day we’re out hiking on a glacier. This girl comes running by me and falls down. I was shocked. She had no consideration for the rest of us. None at all. What about the rest of the group? She didn’t take anyone else into account. It was so selfish.
I nearly bit my tongue in half, said I had to go do laundry, and walked away.
I do trips like this all year long. I’m a cranky old broad at times and I make no bones about it. However, I am very clear about what I cannot do at this age (or at any age). Never in a million years would I impose my lack of experience, fears or lack of fitness on another group of travelers - especially when most, if not all, had put the time and training in to prepare. As most of us had.
In fact, as I prepare for a trip to Africa next February, I have reached out to some experts to help me with my scuba skills. They’re rusty, and I am not going to show up on Mafia Island without putting a shine back on my underwater competency. I owe that to the outfit, and anyone else I might be diving with on the trip.
As you and I age, we reach a point where we can to do some pretty interesting things if for no other reason than we finally have time and a touch of cash to do them. I am a huge fan of those who are willing to take a chance, push their boundaries and discover what they can do. According to the Adventure Travel and Trade Association, the largest block of folks who do adventure travel is between 50–70.
But that’s mostly soft adventure travel. This is epic. Extreme physical demands for hours on end, the potential for injury (especially if you push yourself and are as clumsy as I am) and with thousands of moving parts in deep, dark Canadian wilderness. If you are not both fit and resilient, and please, come ON man, like and can ride horses at a very basic level, this is not the trip for you. Not at all.
The fantasy we live in
If you’re a fan of football movies, you might have seen Disney’s Invincible with Mark Wahlberg. New coach Dick Vermeil comes in and opens up tryouts to walk-ons for the Philadelphia fans in a desperate attempt to energize the city. And to see if there is any latent talent in the fan base.
This movie is an object lesson in the fantasies we tell ourselves about the shape we’re in.
This real-life story about Vince Papale, a bartender in his early thirties and a Very Old Man for football by that time, is a perfect lesson in how we talk to ourselves about our bodies. He was humble, doubted his ability, and made no claims. He assumed he would bonk. Yet, he blew out all the competition, made the team, and played for several seasons with the Eagles, who went on for the first time in years to winning seasons. Papale was an NFL-level athlete, working as a bartender.
Most of the other Philly fans who showed up on the field that day were grossly out of shape, but they thought they had a shot. Over confident, under-prepared. It’s a good way to get hurt and badly humiliated in the process.
Just to make the point further, NFL great Kurt Warner, considered one of the greatest stories in NFL history, was stocking shelves for $5.50 an hour before finding his way to NFL immortality. Humble, gracious, and immensely talented. I find that the more folks yak about how X they are, be it talent or job skills or athletic ability, the more likely the opposite is true. I have done it myself as a deeply insecure young woman. It’s not hard to spot.
That’s what happened to Sandra. Her arrogance and her superciliousness were defense mechanisms. Perfectly understandable. She became rude, at least to me, perhaps in part because I knew what she had done. Nobody likes to be revealed as a bit disingenuous. However, to her credit, she found ways to be useful, like putting ropes up and helping with packing.
Nobody wants to be dead weight
She was still dead weight on the trip. And she knew it. Nobody wants to be dead weight. While I have compassion for that, I don’t have compassion for her imposing herself where she had no business showing up. Sandra has no clue how fit she is or isn’t. This trip, I suspect, was tough feedback. It’s no fun for anyone to find out that you just aren’t who you think you are. But the middle of deep wilderness is not a good place to discover that.
In all the years that I’ve been doing this kind of trip, and I’ve done a great many of them involving cycling, kayaking, horse riding, climbing and a lot more, I’ve seen a lot of folks do what Sandra did. This is just one of the worst examples I’ve seen, because of where we were. Supplies for injuries have to go to the horses first. No horses, no trip, no safety, no nothing. If you and I want to have adventures as we age, we simply must begin where we are, tell the truth, and do one of two things:
- Ratchet down our expectations a bit to reflect what we really can do, and/or
- Get in shape to be able to do more demanding trips.
If there is a lesson I draw from this, which I am doing my best to do given that I did indeed invest twelve grand in two of these trips back-to-back, I am hoping that I have learned to watch my propensity for exaggeration. That I never, ever overstate my capacity, my competence or my fitness level on a trip. That I never, ever, ever, ever become a resource-sucking invalid on someone else’s treasured adventure of a lifetime. Not. On. My. Watch. I have far too fat an ego to let that happen. And, I also give a damn about other people.
As a military person who has been both a platoon leader and an officer, one of the key things you learn early on is that you are there to serve the larger group. That’s your responsibility. If you are injured or unfit, you self-select out. Because you’re a liability. It is hugely embarrassing to have this happen to you or me or anyone else, to have the fantasy of our fitness claims to be publicly peeled back to reveal that we are, indeed, incompetent. Age or lack of regular exercise or both have taken a toll. We aren’t what we used to be and on top of that, we are now a burden.
Oy. No fun. However, as plenty of articles have pointed out, a bit of exercise would do us all a lot of good. Unless you’re Sandra, who doesn’t go to the gym.
What do I know? I’m just a doddering old gal of 66. Now if you’ll excuse me, I am indeed going to go hit the gym.