Getting Up There
We forgot the pancake mix. So, instead of eating at the campsite we have to drive back into town for breakfast. Plus, it takes way longer than we anticipate to reach the trailhead. A bridge is down for repair and the detour requires fifty miles along a narrow mountain road, the last ten unpaved. It will be noon before we begin hiking. As we climb to our starting elevation of 7000 feet, I anxiously monitor the dashboard thermometer, hoping it will cool down. But it’s 86 degrees when we pull into the parking lot, the sun beating down. We’ve had no time to acclimatize to the altitude as we drove up from sea-level the night before, and I’m worried about making it in the heat. The “girls”—as I still think of them, although they’re almost thirty—seem unconcerned. I would have been the same at their age. But I’m two months shy of my seventieth birthday and hoping to continue my favorite thing: wilderness backpacking in the California high country.
I couldn’t do it without these two strapping young women—my daughter Abby and her friend Jen—carrying more than their fair share of the weight. My pack, with one of the tents, the stove, and our first day’s lunch, weighs a hefty thirty-five pounds, but they have the bear-proof cans and the rest of the food, and I know theirs are heavier.
Even so, I struggle. The trail ascends through forest at first, so there’s partial shade at least, and I’m in my happy, happy place, inhaling the intoxicating sweet smell of the dry Sierra pines. But I stop frequently on the switchbacks to catch my breath and lean forward, pack on my back, to fight off lightheadedness.
“I need a break,” I gasp after only three-quarters of a mile.
Even in a healthy individual, the heart muscle becomes more rigid with aging; the wall thickens, the chambers hold less blood and refill more slowly, with less ability to increase the heart rate for strenuous exercise. According to the established formula, my heart could be expected to pump up to a maximum 150 beats per minute, compared to Abby’s 190. The diaphragm also weakens over time, with some studies showing a 25% reduction in maximum respiratory capacity by the age of seventy, even in healthy non-smokers. Muscle mass decreases by 3-5% per decade after the age of thirty.
I’m a nurse. I know all this on a theoretical level. But I have a hard time believing it applies to me. Just last month I managed a longer backpacking trip with Abby. It must be the heat, I tell myself, the late start, the fact that we’ve had no time to adjust to the high altitude.
Jen offers me an effervescent electrolyte tablet. I plop it into my water bottle and watch it dissolve as I chew on trail mix. The drink tastes better than I expect and is indeed just what I need. Soon, we’re off again, and we make it to the top of the incline, to a gorgeous place for lunch, with our first glimpse of the rugged Minaret peaks in the distance.
Our living room at home has a built-in bookshelf each side of the large picture window, one of the reasons I fell in love with the house thirty years ago. My wife and I both brought scores of books into our relationship, and they’re dispersed through every room. We sometimes cull the collection to make space for new purchases, but the living room shelves are reserved for old favorites, most of which I haven’t looked at in years: works by Marge Piercy, Doris Lessing, Isabel Allende, Tracy Chevalier, Amy Tan, Barbara Kingsolver. They serve as a soothing background, partially hidden by the large armchair that is our dog’s favorite perch.
I never re-read these books; my To Be Read list is packed with more recent releases. The old favorites just sit there, making the house a home. But the week before my seventieth birthday, I happen to notice May Sarton’s At Seventy. I remember reading it soon after it was published in 1984, when I was in my thirties. Inside, I find a bookmark from Old Wives’ Tales, the women’s bookstore in San Francisco—long gone now, like all the other lesbian-owned businesses that lined Valencia Street and thrilled me when I first arrived in the city.
Re-reading At Seventy is a profound experience. I know I loved it when I first read it, but what was it that inspired me then? I suppose I admired Sarton as a fiercely independent older woman, who wrote about women loving women and her life in her cottage by the sea in Maine. I have a vague memory of going to hear her read once, somewhere in Marin, north of San Francisco, probably in the mid-1980s, and an even vaguer memory of speaking to her briefly at the event. Could this be true? In my memory, I’m talking to her while standing in the aisle of the auditorium, but this seems unlikely. Of the nine books of hers I have on my shelf, none are signed, so I don’t know what to make of this recollection.
I’m sure Sarton seemed very old to me at the time—and here I am, the age she was then. Three-score years and ten. I shake my head in disbelief. Seventy signifies old, decrepit, almost done. I’m none of these things. When I look in the mirror, yes, I do see the gray hair and the creases around my neck, and I notice the liver spots on my hands. But I don’t focus on them. Inside I feel the same.
“What is it like to be seventy?… I do not feel old at all, not so much
a survivor as a person still on her way. I suppose real old age begins
when one looks backward rather than forward, but I look forward
with joy to the years ahead and especially to the surprises that any
day may bring.”
Time expands and contracts like an accordion. Events from ten years ago, feel close to the present—not exactly “like yesterday,” but recent. Yet milestones in my life from the years 1980 and then 1990, for example, feel separated by so much longer. In another decade, I will be eighty—if I’m so lucky. Aging is a privilege; I know that. But eighty? I admit to a twinge of terror. I’m getting up there.
By mid-afternoon, we reach the first lake where we refill our water bottles and stretch out on the sun-warmed rocks. We’ve met a few other hikers on the trail, and some are setting up camp here, but we want to go farther. There’s a network of trails leading to different lake basins and their surrounding peaks, and our original plan was to continue to Lillian Lake. I’ve hiked throughout the Sierras for forty years, but this is a new, unexplored corner of the Ansel Adams Wilderness. I check the map and the Xeroxed sheets copied from my guidebook and see that Lillian Lake is another three miles with more climbing. I suggest instead a side trail off the main route to a lake that gets a rave review and is only another mile-and-a-half. The girls are easy going, happy for me to make the decision.
When I study a topo map, I always yearn to see more, go beyond the bend, over the ridge, on to the next valley, to claim every corner as my own. But nowadays my stamina cannot always match my ambition. On a day hike I can go eight to ten miles no problem, but it’s hot and my pack feels heavy, and I’ll be happy to stop soon, even though we will have hiked only five-and-a-half miles, a tiny speck of distance in this vast wilderness.
We take the spur trail through a lush section of forest dotted with the last of the season’s wildflowers, and by five o’clock reach our new destination. The lake is stunning: deep blue, edged with trees to the left and smooth slabs of granite on the right, the glassy water reflecting the steep cliffs at the far end. It’s blissfully quiet, with only one other party far on the other side, out of earshot. We drop our packs, and Abby and Jen find the perfect site to pitch our tents, nestled in the rocks. A quick, refreshing swim is exquisite. After our dinner of freeze-dried bean stew, we explore a hidden upper lake with views toward the Ritter Range at sunset.
The following day, I teach the girls how to navigate off trail and scramble up the ridge behind the lake for the best views, expertise I’ve gained from my decades of mountain hiking. Without the pack, I feel strong, leading the way with confidence. I like having something to offer, and they seem thrilled to learn how to select the best route. “We can do a lot more of this,” they say to each other. In the future, they mean.
I don’t go in for what a friend calls the ten-minute organ recital. My organs are just fine, if you must know. I do have a chronic neuroma in my left foot that aches at times; my left knee acts up now and then; and I have a persistent tendonitis in my right wrist that prevents me from doing downward-facing-dog with my palms outstretched. And I can’t read a thing without my glasses. There: I’m done. Oh, and my bladder sphincter isn’t great; I rush to the bathroom the minute I return home from running errands. On occasion, truth be told, I don’t make it in time. Other than that, I’m fit as a fiddle.
Last year, in lab work performed for my routine physical, my doctor discovered my kidney function had deteriorated. Stage 3 chronic renal disease, she said. “Not to worry,” she chirped, “it’s normal aging.” Not to worry? I was shocked. It had to be a mistake, I insisted. Chronic renal disease is associated with high blood pressure, diabetes, or long-term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications such as Ibuprofen. None of which applies to me. “I could send you to the kidney class,” my doctor offered. I went to the class, where they talked about high blood pressure, diabetes, and Ibuprofen, while I shuffled through the handouts searching for something relevant to me. Hidden deep in the dietary guidelines I found mention of avoiding magnesium supplements. Ah ha! I’d been taking magnesium along with calcium for my bones. Did I mention that I have osteopenia? That’s slightly weak bones, you understand, another aspect of “normal aging,” not the really weak bones of osteoporosis; no, I don’t have that.
I stopped taking magnesium and focused on drinking more water, and this year my kidney function is back to normal. See? I don’t have old-lady kidneys. I’m like a faithful Toyota with 100,000 miles on the odometer: a few creaks here and there, but probably good for another 100K.
Or not. Who knows?
I’m drawn to the obituaries in the Sunday newspaper, many for people born in the1950s, the decade of my birth. No mention of them leaving “far too soon.”
Our lake sits at 9000 feet, and it cools down at night but not as much as I expect; no need for the wool hat and gloves I always carry. I’m exhausted and ready to crawl into my cozy sleeping bag before it’s fully dark. I’ve set up the tent without the fly, so I can watch the emerging stars through the mesh ceiling, listening to the hum of the girls’ chatter as they sit by the lake. They ooh and ahh at the shooting stars streaking across the sky.
The Perseid meteor shower occurs every August when the earth passes through the orbit of the comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. Dust particles from the comet enter the atmosphere at high speed, creating friction and heat and fleeting flashes of white light. The shooting stars swoop over the city too, but go unnoticed in the shrunken, light-polluted sky.
Sleep doesn’t come easy in a tent these days, even after a long hike. I toss and turn to find a comfortable position for my hips and neck. But I don’t care. With each turn I peek at the black, black sky speckled with a million points of light.
At dawn, I rise to watch the morning glow unfurl over the granite. Chipmunks scurry between the gnarly pine trees that survive in this high alpine terrain. At the water’s edge, fish jump while I splash the sleep from my eyes.
I find a deep serenity here like nowhere else.
At Seventy is a journal of Sarton’s life for the year commencing on her seventieth birthday. By that time, she was a celebrated writer with a long list of publications. Much of this journal is focused on her personal friendships, and her house and garden through the changing seasons. But she also describes preparing for poetry readings and corresponding with fans from all over the world, and I’m fascinated to read of her struggle to complete her eighteenth novel, The Magnificent Spinster, eventually published in 1986, and also sitting on my bookshelf. She speaks of her “agonizing self-doubt,” and her need to remind herself that “this novel is like all the others, a continual effort to … spur myself on like a rider through a frustrating thicket.”
When I read Sarton in the 1980s, I had no idea I would become a writer myself. I enjoyed a long career as a nurse practitioner and published articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, and I was often persuaded to write policies at work because I knew how to put words on the page. But I didn’t consider creative writing until after my mother’s death in 2002. I felt compelled to preserve the story of her escape from the Holocaust, and her life as a refugee in wartime England. There were too many gaps in my knowledge to write it as non-fiction, so I decided to write a novel—an endeavor that took twelve years.
My early drafts were overladen with adverbs, superfluous adjectives, cumbersome backstory, and telling not showing. But I took classes and workshops and attended writing conferences and I improved. Improved to the point where I have a novel out in the world that has won awards and sold a few thousand copies. Five years after publication I continue to receive emails from readers saying how much it resonates with them.
And I discovered that I love writing. I can’t stop. I’m often stuck, of course, like Sarton’s rider in the thicket, but when I’m working on a piece and the words are flowing, or at least trickling, or are being constantly rearranged in my mind as I walk the dog or take a shower, I feel alive, tingling with a sense of purpose. Writing is like mountain hiking, I’ve learned; you plod step by step, word by word, and encounter false summits and detours and shifts in direction you didn’t anticipate. But when it finally comes together and yes! that chapter or story or perhaps merely a paragraph magically comes together and clicks, it’s as exhilarating as reaching a perfect high mountain lake.
My father began turning gray at the age of thirty, and I only knew him with a shock of thick white hair. My own hair began to gray in my forties. I was in denial for years. Some women freak at the first gray strand, but I somehow didn’t see it. It wasn’t until a work colleague joked, after we’d been through a particularly stressful period, “No wonder your hair is gray!” that I looked in the mirror and realized it was true. I shrugged it off and was never tempted to go to the trouble or expense of dyeing it. I laughed when some elementary school parents mistook me for Abby’s grandmother. I refused to succumb to vanity, rejecting the sexism that expects women to dye their hair while their gray-haired husbands look “distinguished.”
Cells in the hair bulb produce tiny amounts of hydrogen peroxide and another enzyme, catalase, that breaks down the peroxide into water and oxygen. Over time, the level of catalase decreases, causing a buildup of peroxide that destroys the melanocytes, the pigment-producing cells of the hair. It’s a natural process. Medically speaking, graying is not considered “premature” unless it occurs by age twenty in Caucasians, thirty in dark-skinned races.
My hair is now a brilliant white and I sometimes receive compliments, a few tinged with an odd wistful envy from women who say they would never have “the courage” to let their hair “go.”
Hair coloring is a lucrative business.
On my return home from backpacking, I post gorgeous photos and receive plenty of Likes and comments: “I can’t believe you’re still doing this!” Friends seem to take vicarious pleasure from these pictures. I hope they don’t think I’m flaunting. I’m not trying to prove anything. I go to the mountains searching for that sense of contentment, and I’m already yearning to return—if I can.
I spent most of my clinical career in the field of rehabilitation nursing, caring for patients with severe neurological conditions such as stroke, spinal-cord injury, or multiple sclerosis, helping them adapt to the changes in their lives. I was inspired by their resilience. I met activists in the disability rights movement, many of whom became good friends, and I learned to recognize the ableism that judges a person by her limitations instead of her potential.
The irony is not lost on me: I hate the prospect of losing my own abilities. Like everyone, I suppose, I would like to live to ninety-five with full possession of all my mental and physical faculties and then go peacefully in my sleep. But what if it doesn’t work out that way? Will I be able to heed my own counsel and gracefully accept becoming less able-bodied?
My patients struggled to come to terms with their shattered lives and had trouble imagining a fulfilling future. Simple everyday activities such as getting dressed or going to the bathroom became challenges. They encountered pain or depression; infections or skin breakdown; barriers such as steps leading into the home; or radically altered relationship dynamics. Yet many were eventually able to find new sources of joy. They reinvented themselves, some in extraordinary ways. One young man, paralyzed by a stray bullet at the age of seventeen, became an avid wheelchair basketball player. A woman whose stroke left her unable to use her left arm and leg now enjoys adaptive skiing. Another performs dance in her motorized wheelchair.
And here am I, lamenting the fact that backpacking is becoming harder for me.
Two weeks after my trip with the girls, the area where we hiked is engulfed by a huge wildfire, one of dozens burning throughout California. One hundred campers are rescued by helicopter from a campsite off the same access road we drove to the trailhead. The fire becomes one of the largest in the state’s history, still burning eight weeks later.
Our beautiful lake may be charred beyond recognition. Nothing is eternal, not even in the mountains.
I am not so sanguine when my hair begins to thin; bare patches appear on my scalp. Another natural process, whereby hair strands become smaller, and some follicles cease production. Turns out, I’m not immune to vanity; I balk at going bald. I may have saved on hair coloring over the years, but now I’m paying for minoxidil foam, which increases the blood flow to the scalp, improving follicle size and density. And I’ve become absurdly focused on my eyebrows. I stopped plucking at the age of twenty and ignored my eyebrows for fifty years, but now I hate the sporadic coarse white hairs and the irregular thinning that has created a misshapen appearance.
I’ve purchased an eyebrow pencil.
This age-related hair loss is capricious. The hair missing-in-action from my eyebrows seems to have migrated south a few inches to my nostrils. I wasn’t expecting nose-hair trimming to be part of my routine.
Out of the blue, my former secretary sends a card containing an old photo she’s found clearing out cabinets. It’s of me circa 1988, in a Halloween costume, going for Glenda the Good Witch, I believe. I marvel at my chestnut-brown hair, firm jaw, smooth neck, and perfect eyebrows—without makeup. I confess I do miss that face.
It happens every time: the final mile of our backpacking trip seems to drag on forever. My feet ache, I’m hot and sweaty, I’m ready to be done. Surely, we must reach the parking lot soon. Yet the first glimpse of the cars through the trees is bittersweet. I relish the prospect of a shower, clean clothes, and an ice-cold soda. But before long I will miss the feel of the pack on my back, the crunch of the earth beneath my feet, the smell of the pines in the breeze, the triumph of reaching a beautiful vista.
I’m soon plotting my next trip to the wilderness, with a visceral craving from deep in my core. But will I be able to get up there next year, or the year after that? I pore over a map and spot a canyon in the far north of Yosemite National Park that I would love to explore, but it requires a five-day trip, which seems unrealistic, not because of the duration itself, but rather the weight of the food. I mourn the fact that I will probably never see it.
I return to May Sarton’s wisdom. She writes of her joy at the arrival of spring in her seventieth year, and the sharp realization that she has so little time left, at most ten or fifteen springs in her future. But then she reflects: “What I do have is seventy springs in my head, and they flow back with all their riches now.”
Flowing through my head are images from fifty years of backpacking. I recall the sun rising over an isolated lake that posed like an infinity pool against the backdrop of Mount Ritter; the hard slog up and over dry, rocky Donohue Pass to discover the lush waterfalls of Lyell Canyon; the first time I ever saw the Pacific Ocean, a dramatic end to a four-day hiking trip through the Olympic Peninsula; sleeping on golden sand amongst the tamarack trees at the bottom of the Grand Canyon; elk grazing three feet from a tent pitched just below the Continental Divide.
Riches indeed. And yet, I yearn for a few more.