One summer when I was in my twenties, a new wilderness ranger showed up at our compound. She was a woman, which was unusual enough, since I was resigned to being the only one. But the most interesting thing about her was her age–41. “Whoa,” we whispered among ourselves. “How can she even do it? She’s amazing!”
Cringe. But in our defense, the work was hard. Gear weighed a ton back then, our backpacks seven pounds empty, our full weight ten times that when you added in all of the rest of the stuff, along with a pulaski strapped onto the ice axe loops, a shovel clutched in our gloved hands, and all the ginormous amount of trash we hauled out of the supposedly pristine backcountry. The long days of chopping through thick deadfall solo, digging out waterbars, and dismantling illegal fire rings pushed us to our knees sometimes, at twenty-eight.
But back then, I did all those things and more. I ran 22 miles one day just because I felt like it. I ran after my ranger hitches, and I hiked cross country and hauled myself up and over passes. I kept up with the trail crew guys and on fire crews and nobody thought much of it. It was just what you were supposed to do, or else risk being sent home in disgrace.
Now, though, now that I’ve reached a “certain age”, I find that I am somehow exalted in some people’s eyes. “You’re amazing!” people say. “You’re a freak!” Well, no. I’m just doing what I’ve always done. Why is it that when people are at some calendar age, we start to regard them as “amazing”? I’ve had younger people tell me sincerely that they “hope they can do half as much as you do when I am your age.” Is this supposed to be a compliment? Maybe my skin is too thin, but I don’t take it that way. To me it sounds condescending at best, ignorant at worst. Why can’t women (men too) pull off long hikes, ultra runs, or whatever they want to do, even if–GASP–they’re over forty?
There are people my age who have, sadly, given up. It’s not from health issues, lack of time, or having kids. They just don’t have the drive anymore. They shake their heads when asked to go along. “I can’t keep up,” they whimper. “I can’t climb mountains anymore.” I see them sinking into middle age without much of a fight. This, I suppose, is the stereotype I am working against.
There are days, I admit, when the thought of running just doesn’t appeal to me. It’s snowy. It’s icy. My couch is nice. But I always do it, that or something else. It’s not that I’m trying to prove anything. It’s just that I don’t see a reason to give in and blame it on age. If I can hike 20 miles, why not do it? If I can run the moraine, why wouldn’t I?
If it were up to me, the younger people I encounter wouldn’t gasp at how much I can do in my advanced age. They would just hike along without comment. No more of this, “you’re amazing” nonsense. I’m not amazing because I am a certain age and can still get out there. This isn’t the Olympics, people. It’s just life. I plan to get as much out of it as I can.
And Valerie, of wilderness ranger fame? I apologize. Wherever you are, you’re quite a bit older than 41 now. I have no doubt you’re still crushing it. When I’m your age..I will be too.