Paul Andersen: Getting older can mean getting even
My wife and I were hiking up switchbacks on the Yosemite Falls Trail last month. The sun was hot, so we geared down to plodding mode, marching without much ambition, just to get our legs moving and stir some oxygen into our blood.
I was a switchback ahead of my wife when I heard someone asking her pardon as he passed. I glanced down and saw a fit-looking young man in his 30s motoring past my wife with focused intent.
Soon he was huffing up behind me, so I stepped aside. He smiled, said a dismissive “See ya,” and kept on truckin’. He was wearing leather moccasins, his pack was dangling with climbing paraphernalia, and he wore an arrowhead tat on his right calf.
Something nagged in my brain stem, an urge to pace with this guy, an atavistic semblance of competition with a man half my age. At 68, I’m nearing antiquity, but I still had some gas in my tank, so I opened the throttle a bit and upped my pace.
He was looking down at me from the switchbacks, and I was determined not to let too big of a gap fill in between us. I was breathing hard, and he was, too. He was carrying a lot more weight, but he was a lot younger, so the stakes were kind of even.
My wife was soon far down the trail, and it was just him and me. The harder I went, the stronger I felt, so I just kept going, taking bigger steps up the rock ledges where I fluidly positioned my feet.
I may be old, I surmised, but I know how to be efficient with upward mobility, so I was pulling out all the stops and feeling good. Acclimated to higher elevations in the high country of Colorado, my wind was good and I was matching his pace.
At one point, I topped a switchback and was surprised to see him just a dozen paces ahead. Upon seeing me, he quickly slung on his pack and sprinted off. I pushed harder, and so did he.
That’s when I wondered why I was doing this. Part of it was a refusal to submit to the typical geriatric surrender to gravity. I also was a bit riled by the bloom of youth this strapping lad had so conspicuously rubbed in my face. Mostly, it just felt good to go hard, and I felt the old fire burn inside. Damned if I would allow an upstart to blithely pass unchallenged.
Half a dozen switchbacks later, I topped a rise. Standing in the shade of a pinon tree was this young man. His chest was heaving and his pack was on the ground. Done!
I hyperventilated a few quick breaths to slow my heart rate so as to appear fully rested. “Howdy!” I smiled as if I were out for a casual stroll.
“You win,” he said, sizing me up. I felt a little sheepish, so I acknowledged his heavier pack. But inside I was brimming with pleasure, buoyed by denial of age, tempered with pride in my fitness. I had earned this, and the ennui on the lower switchbacks was gone.
“Thanks for setting a strong pace,” I acknowledged. He nodded and went on his way while I took in a dramatic view of the Yosemite Valley. My wife, who measured her own significant pace, arrived a few minutes later.
We kicked back on a huge granite slab and considered life, appreciating that we can still hike a steep trail and enjoy it. Where our parents’ generation had given up their physical lives by the time they were our age, we were still kicking — thanks to regular exercise and genetic advantages — the gifts of nature.
Last week, I read an article about aging in the New Yorker, where the writer concluded: “For many elderly Americans old age is a tragedy, a period of quiet despair, deprivation, desolation and muted rage,.
Evidently, we’re not “elderly” yet, so we’ll bask in our fading youth, holding off the certainties of age … and the occasional upstarts who challenge us.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.