I smelled her before I saw her. She reeked of week old sweat and salty ocean air. Clutching her trekking poles, she made her way to the outside café where I had just bought a latte and was about to leave. Before she could reach the window to order, I was there, by her side, like a groupie waiting for an autograph.
“Are you a thru-hiker?” I asked.
She stepped back from my enthusiasm and reluctantly nodded. “Yes…I am.”
“I knew it!” I laughed. “I just got off the Pacific Crest Trail two weeks ago. My load was too heavy, eighty-pounds to be exact, from carrying too much water.” Thanks to the drought. “Of course,” I went on. “The weight injured my hip…so here I am.”
She smiled, took her sunglasses and head buff off, and her short silver hair and severely weathered face appeared, announcing she could have been my grandmother. I was stunned. How could an elderly woman be a thru-hiker? To observe her small, muscular stature from afar, she looked younger and more physically fit than me, not an elderly woman. Now, I was even more in awe and intrigued by this mysterious woman.
Her backpack slid down her arm and rested on a picnic table next to her trekking poles. “Yeah, that’s a lot of weight to carry,” she replied and wiped her dirty, sun-beaten forehead. “My pack’s at thirty-seven pounds.” This meant she was an expert and not a novice like me, but hey, I had a good excuse, I had just come out here from Oklahoma and there were no hiking experts within two states to consult about long distance pack weight during a drought.
“I started a month ago back in California,” she stated before glancing up at the café. “Where am I?”
“Lincoln City,” I said.
“Oh, okay, I thought so but wasn’t sure,” she went on. “Anyway, I’m making my way up 101, walking and camping on the beach when I can.”
Cognitive dissonance and confusion captured my mind. How was this possible? She was an elderly woman. Elderly women were supposed to sit at home, garden and never travel alone. Society said it was so–this was the way it was. All the fun, all the crazy, daring, solo adventures were supposed to come to an end. I was 44, and fifty was right around the corner. They told me it was downhill from here.
Before I started training for the hike, I felt old, really old. And my depression didn’t help. My body ached and was easily injured. A simple shoulder tear took seven months to heal.
As a writer, I had spent hours at a computer desk, pecking away at a keyboard, rarely moving. There were times I got so caught up in my work, I would forget to eat and around four p.m., I’d realize, I hadn’t had a meal all day. I could get away with this lifestyle when I was younger but after hitting forty, my body couldn’t take it anymore.
I was having an identity crisis. I was young one day and then the next day I found myself in this strange land called middle age. When I looked in the mirror, I just kept saying, “What happened? Where did my youth go? And how did it slip away so fast?”
So I took this sabbatical to do something for my out-of-shape, aging and severely neglected body, and I chose hiking to: One, cross thru-hiking off my bucket list before I got too old, and two, to feel alive again before my time had run out. The clock was ticking, and I could hear it every moment of the day.
But this woman, this amazing woman in that brief five minute conversation changed my views about that ticking clock and growing older. She, in her late years was still taking life by the balls and living. She didn’t care about age; she didn’t care that society would label her too old for the task. She had something she wanted to do and she did it. No excuses.
She had just walked hundreds of miles through California and Oregon and was going on up into Washington and all by herself. Most young, physically fit women wouldn’t dare take that journey on.
This lady deserved a medal or some kind of award, and most of all, she deserved reverence from all of us younger women. Because whether she knew it or not, she was showing us the way: a new way; a braver, fearless way. She didn’t preach to me or say it, but her actions told me: Little sister, go, live. Give up these societal beliefs about growing old. Have fun, be free and most of all, follow your bliss.
I wanted to ask her age, name, why she would choose such a solitary and rigorous experience and tell her of my deep respect for her fearlessness and how I wanted to be just like her. But, I didn’t. She was tired and exhausted from hiking all day and needed that drink, and I needed to let her be.
Later, when I was sitting on the beach, I saw her again, trekking through the sand, hiking gear and all, clueless that someone was watching her and thinking: Wow, what a badass. I want to be just like her when I grow up. I took a photo of her, my nameless shero, as a reminder that life, no matter the age, is what you make of it.
I went home changed, a different woman with an improved perspective on growing old, and I started a new bucket list, a much longer and challenging bucket list with the title: You’re Never Too Old – Try it All.
And I am…