photograph courtesy of Julie Christmas

How hitting the trails taught me that aging isn’t all downhill

utumn leaves created
a kaleidoscope on the muddy trail as I slogged up Owls Head Mountain in Long Lake, in October 2015. I was 49 years old and facing major changes in the coming year. In February I would turn 50, and I was less than thrilled about the milestone. Age had never really mattered to me, probably because I had been blessed by good health. But 50, I realized, is half a century, and by doing some simple math, I concluded I could no longer say I was “middle aged.”

In addition to turning 50, I knew in the next few years my three children would leave for college. After they left, I planned to sell the home where I had raised them to move to a town 40 minutes north and live with my fiancé and his two sons. Although I was excited about this next chapter, I was also feeling scared and uncertain. My father had been diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer, so I knew my 50s would probably also involve losing him.

Physically, I was feeling older. I was troubled with menopausal migraines, mood swings and hot flashes. And a recurrent problem with an arthritic foot was hampering my outdoor activities. I was feeling a sense of loss—of people important to me, of my kids’ childhoods, of my own youth.

On that initial hike I decided I wanted to meet my half-century mark looking to the future with ambition, not fear. I came up with an idea: I decided I would log 50 hikes in the Adirondacks over the next decade. I would conquer my 50s, rather than succumb to them.

My first step was to create an Instagram account to document my journey. I knew if I set my intention down for the world to see, I would not back out. I bought 50 Hikes in the Adirondacks by Barbara McMartin, and used the book’s blank pages at the back to record my hikes. I had noble intentions. I had a plan. I had rules. I would choose only strenuous, significant hikes. And with 10 years to hike, I would certainly climb all the 46 High Peaks. I would scale every fire tower and I’d follow the Northville–Lake Placid Trail from our camp in Long Lake to Lake Placid. Hell, maybe I’d even hike the entire Northville–Lake Placid Trail from start to finish!

This is not at all what happened.

Life often messes with grand plans. I was working full-time and still had two teenagers in high school. As an involved parent, I taught religious-ed classes and donated time to the booster club. I found myself fitting in hikes wherever I could—short, half-day affairs, sandwiched between work, kids’ sports and school functions. During that first year, I reframed my idea of what a hike could be. It did not have to be long or arduous. It just had to be memorable.

Many hikes were done en route to or from our cottage in Long Lake. I remember one November hike with my daughter up Panther Mountain, a trip we had done together many times when she was little. Light snow covered the trail, and we went late in the afternoon so we could see the sunset from the top. But that also meant the last portion would be completed in darkness. My daughter had never hiked in the dark before, and the stars burning above us created a feeling of excitement and mystery.

I created rules for my 50 hikes and then consistently broke them. I realized my rules were hampering, not helping, my mission and I began to allow other factors to shape my hikes—my companions, the weather, trail conditions, whatever was going on that day. In this way, my hikes became a perfect metaphor for aging gracefully, for taking whatever life was handing me in stride.

Originally I decided every hike had to feature a different trail. This proved impossible due to time and work constraints. Because of its proximity to our cottage in Long Lake, Owls Head Mountain has featured prominently. One particularly significant visit, hike number 10, was with my beloved dog Marcy on a lovely October afternoon. Marcy died of a seizure disorder the next day.

Another rule I broke early on was that all hikes must occur in the Adirondacks. I logged hike number 11 with my dad along the Erie Canal in Fayetteville, New York, near his home. As I pushed his wheelchair along the walking path, I decided this qualified as a hike. It was among the most meaningful conversations I ever had with my father—my position behind him making it easier to communicate difficult feelings. I snapped a photo on the trail—now a favorite of my dad and me.

Hiking has taught me to learn patience with my aging body. Since turning 50, I have undergone three surgeries to correct my arthritic foot. The last procedure required 12 pins and screws in two toes. Each surgery meant several months to rest and recover, and hiking provided me with a goal and a purpose. A month ago, I hiked up Wakely Mountain with my oldest son. It was only 5.7 miles—but the final stretch was straight up a rocky ravine that doubled as the trail. My foot, still healing from the last surgery, throbbed at the end, but I finished feeling strong, appreciating my recovery.

My hikes have framed my 50s. I pin memories to them, like photos to a corkboard. Hike number 24 remains a favorite. My daughter and I were hiking Black Bear Mountain with our one-year-old golden retriever, Charley. As we neared the summit, we heard excited barking. I was reluctant to proceed, not knowing how many dogs we would encounter or whether they would be friendly. As we tramped over the final ridge, we were delighted to see five gorgeous goldens with their owner. At the top, Charley romped with his new friends and we marveled at our luck to meet so many goldens—our family’s favorite breed.

Hiking has enhanced my relationships. Hike 34 provided the perfect backdrop for a conversation with my older son trying to find himself; on hike number seven, as my husband and I explored Plumley Point, we discussed the intricacies of stepparenting. As an adoptee, hike number 28, into Copperas Pond, turned into a bonding experience with my birth father and his niece, my only first cousin by blood. On hike 25, my stepson hiked Goodnow Mountain with me, gingerly trying out his new knee after ACL surgery.

Each hike connects me to the wilderness, exposing me to sights I would not ordinarily see: a fisher family crossing the trail to Upper Sargent’s Pond, an enormous white pine on the Cathedral Pines trail at Seventh Lake, a pitcher plant at Spring Pond Bog, a flawless heart shape on a rock near the snowy trail to Blue Mountain. They are tiny treasures.

At 55, I am halfway through my journey and I have learned what to bring (flashlight, spare socks, bug dope, plenty of water and food) and what not to bring (dog treats in the pack of a retriever who insists on swimming in every pond). I have learned to apply Vaseline under my hiking socks to prevent blisters and to watch for trail markers after a harrowing experience losing my way near Lower Sargent’s Pond. I have also learned about myself and the importance of silence in my life, and my own real and personal need to refuel my “quiet bank” after particularly stressful times.

Mostly, though, my hikes have taught me about the futility of worrying, the uselessness of planning for years ahead that I cannot yet see. My hikes have taught me how much more enjoyable your 50s can be when you let things go, when you allow experiences to happen.

Which reminds me of hike 14: I set out for the Trout Pond trail near Horseshoe Lake, walking several miles along a gravel road in the July sun. Arriving at Lows Lower Dam, I realized with dismay that the dam was under construction, blocking my way forward. Frustrated, I turned back, when through the trees I glimpsed a hidden trail marker. One mile and 400 feet in elevation later, I climbed up Lows Ridge, which has one of the Adirondacks’ most pristine views.

This was not my plan. I did not know this trail. I was hiking along, with no idea where I was going or what I would see, and suddenly before me lay a re­­markable Adirondack scene—spectacular shades of summer blues and greens, lakes and mountains. It was unexpected, it was completely unplanned, and it was beautiful. It was like turning 50. 

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