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Geezers gone wild

Paul Andersen
Bernie Rogers, a mentor in achieving perpetual youthfulness, surfs a wave in the Sea of Cortez during a self-supported, weeklong sea kayak trip celebrating his 70th birthday. (Paul Andersen)
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“We’re not only twice your age. My God, we’re three times your age!”Randy shook his head at this sobering observation, then searched for solace over the frozen whiteness of Capitol Lake. It was February, and we had spent five hours breaking trail to the lake with 17-year-old Colin. In the sum of our ages, Randy and I represented 109 years, while our companion was barely out of puberty.I laughed until I did the math. Tripling Colin’s age totaled 51. I had turned 55 in January, which means I was even more than three times his age. We had drafted Colin for a marathon ski tour, and now he made Randy and me feel like Methuselah. He didn’t groan like we did while bending down to attach his ski bindings. He didn’t cough, snort or wheeze like an old draft horse. He didn’t tender a dull ache in his knees, or a sharp pain in his hips, or a chronic stiffness in his shoulders, or if he did, he never mentioned it. For that matter, neither did we.Maybe that’s why Colin, a celebrated track runner at Roaring Fork High School, responded kindly to Randy’s musings. “Well, you don’t ski like you’re three times my age.”

“That’s because we’ve refused to grow old,” I quipped. Then it was my turn to gaze over the frozen lake, pondering the reasons that my friends and I so adamantly cling to our youthful habits.Most Americans drop their active lives long before they get into their 50s. As contrarians, my friends and I resist the popular trend by ratcheting up the activity level the older we get. The half-dozen geezers cataloged on my e-mail list rally on weekends for epic days in the mountains as if they were being called to arms.There exists among us an informal competitive approach to athletic exploits where we goad one another into keeping up the rigorous pace that has become our collective fountain of youth. We know from experience – and from elder mentors – that to stop moving means losing the essential momentum for a youthful approach to life. We seek that life in the outdoors, in all kinds of environments and in all kinds of weather. We are rolling stones who abhor the unattractive accumulation of moss.

For me, the lesson was brought home one summer day five years ago while backpacking with Randy in Pierre Basin, a remote glacial cirque hemmed in by vertical rock escarpments. We met a man on the brush-choked, boulder-strewn trail who had a weather-darkened face, bright, sparkling eyes and a sage, calm demeanor. He wore earth-toned khaki clothing and a floppy brimmed hat. His square shoulders carried a vintage Kelty frame pack.So taken was I by his obvious tenure in the outdoors and by the fact that he was hiking solo through one of the more rugged areas of our local wilderness, I couldn’t resist asking his age. “I’m 70,” he replied matter-of-factly.

“How do you keep doing this?!” I intoned with a note of incredulity that came mostly from respect and admiration as I sweated and toiled on the trail.”Well, you just don’t stop,” he said. “You just keep on going and never quit.”If there is one thing I can sum up about me and my geezer friends, we are implacable when faced by a self-imposed physical challenge in the wilds. What amuses us, and often confounds our wives, is that our challenges have grown more demanding as we age. We are driven by the closing window of opportunity to celebrate as much time in the wilds as our lives will allow, chased over hill and dale by our encroaching mortality.”It’s really nothing but male menopause,” quips MT, “taken as a challenge to get in as many adventures as possible before infirmity takes over, around age 94. We’re down to four decades remaining on the clock, dudes!””The only thing that redeems us is a hike like Sunday’s,” remarked Randy last fall after a grueling and beautiful march above Avalanche Creek. “This may be why we are happiest outside, fully immersed in a real space, with the time to enjoy it. And the rest of life? This may be why it feels like a bit of a prison – the square rooms, the societal expectations. We were born to move, born to travel, born to tick in sync with the great weather.”

“It would be a good intellectual exercise to try to determine why the hell we do what we do,” remarked Graeme. “Staying in good health is certainly part of it, but not the most interesting aspect. I think there is a good comparison to meditation, where you empty your mind of the daily concerns and then more creative and unexpected solutions float up through the subconscious ether. We would do best to discuss this in the backcountry.” When we’re not panting too hard for words, or shielding our faces against a driving blizzard, or deciphering a route on a topographical map in some desert canyon, we talk about the meaningful things in our lives – home, family, career, politics, environment, philosophy, life and death. It’s not always serious, but words spoken on the trail or around a campfire are often thoughtful, at least compared to the gutter talk we lapse into on the third pass of the scotch flask. From it all comes a fraternal bonding derived from simply enduring one another and whatever the wilds dish out. Any ideas or epiphanies that spring up from this fount of middle-age wisdom is a bonus.Despite the obligations of home, family and career, there is an irrepressible drive to our outings that often focuses a week’s worth of activity into one long, grueling, blissful day. Randy calls it a “purge,” when we cleanse our minds and bodies of the accumulated detritus of living. We welcome physical exhaustion in a serene wilderness where our spirits are enlivened by esthetic awe, reverence for nature, friendship, physical endurance and deep appreciation for the wilds and our continued ability to feel like we’re part of it. Most of us are in our mid- to late 50s, and the clock is ticking on our recess. When it’s time to play, we play long and hard.

“I took my dog to the vet’s last week and saw the dog/human years chart on the wall,” wrote Randy in a recent e-mail. “It just made me antsy. We spend our lives waiting to live. Meanwhile, our prostates are growing, some cells are contemplating various forms of gene mutiny, and it’s amazing we are still out and about. No matter how crippled we get, we’ve got to carry on.””It’s hard to imagine proclaiming that this is the year I think I’m too old to ski, bike, climb, etc.,” points out Clark. “Actually, part of aging gracefully is accepting the inevitable slowing down in all areas, including recreationally. But in the ongoing struggle to ‘slow the slowdown’ we need to occasionally push ourselves beyond our comfort zone. If you just keep doing it, why does it have to stop? Plus, I find I sleep really well after a significant adrenalin experience!””As my brother John said after the Betty Bear/Skinner trip we took him on last winter,” confided MT, “‘I am honored to be invited to be a member of the Old Farts Club, but I don’t think I can pass the physical.'”

My friends and I – the Geezers – could be faulted for over emphasizing fitness, but since that’s the entry fee for the wilderness that brightens our lives, no price is too high. We don’t aspire to look like Adonis at the health club (none of us belongs to one), and immortality is not a viable illusion. We just do the best we can keeping our bodily vehicles in tune, avoiding injuries, and sustaining a level of activity that enhances the rigors of a 10-hour forced march, a weeklong mountain-bike trip, or a ski tour to Capitol Lake with a 17-year-old who makes us feel our age with a pang of urgency for the next big outing.Paul Andersen is a columnist and contributing writer for The Aspen Times who thinks that life is too short.


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