Too Old to Hike the Pacific Crest Trail?

Ever since I’ve started walking with a twenty-five pound pack two or three days a week, I’ve been waking up extremely stiff and sore and wobbly even on non-hiking days. Apparently, that’s what I get for trying to build up my strength!

Still, I would have thought that increased activity would eventually translate to an increase in agility and and mobility, but that’s not happening. At my age, tendons and ligaments lose elasticity, muscles lose strength (at a whopping 30% per decade without high intensity workouts and additional protein intake to offset the loss), and joints can be painful even if there is nothing particularly wrong with them. (So if I weren’t trying to build up my strength, I’d probably still wake up stiff and sore.)

Once I’ve “oiled” my muscles and joints by moving around and stretching a bit, I am okay, but I worry about the night stiffness and early morning adjustment on the trail, so I’ve been researching the feasibility of long-distance backpacking for older adults. I know there are quite a few famous folks who backpacked well into their eighties, but some of them were life-long athletes, others seem naturally strong or obstinate. But what about regular folks like me who aren’t particularly athletic and who come to backpacking later in life? The prospect of a long distance backpacking trip, or even a short one, is daunting enough without adding the challenge of age to the mix.

Apparently, though, for someone in reasonable health, there’s no reason not to attempt such a trek, (though anyone with even the beginnings of heart or lung problems would need to check with their doctor before setting out). From what I can gather, everyone, no matter what their age, hurts on the trail. Older folks just have to be careful to stretch when possible, use trekking poles to save knees, elevate the legs when resting to redistribute the blood flow, and carry as light a pack as is feasible. (Feasible for an older person is different than for a younger one. Some hikers can get by with a tarp for a tent, or an almost non-existent sleeping pad, but not me. I need a bit of comfort or I’d never sleep, and if I never slept, I wouldn’t get very far.)

Of course, age is truly relative when it comes to backpacking. I recently came across a demographic survey of hikers, comparing the younger folks with the older folks, and the cut-off age was thirty-four. (The “young” group was under thirty-four, the “old” group was thirty-four and up.) And, in a forum discussing the advisability of older folks thru hiking, I came across a query from a fellow who said he was going to be turning thirty, and he wanted to know if he was too old to attempt a thru hike.

Interestingly, older folks who did long-distance backpacking trips after retirement seemed to have more fun than the younger ones because they knew what they wanted from a hike. Some wanted to go the distance, others just wanted to be out in the wilderness for five months. While a lot of the younger folks complained about the hardships, the older folks enjoyed all of it, even the rain and such because often they were fulfilling a lifelong dream. Some of the experienced older hikers did the same sort of insane mileage as the younger ones, but most seemed okay with going slower and savoring the journey, whatever the length. Older people are also more liable to enjoy the hike because after a certain age, pain and stiffness are a fact of life, so physical discomfort might not as much as an affront as it would be to a younger person.

If I were looking for reasons to give up my idea of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (more than the day hikes I have already done, that is), I didn’t find them.

So, this weekend I will add another pound to my pack weight for my conditioning hike and bring my impossible dream a step closer to possible.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

What Pain Are You Willing to Embrace?

When I was young, I thought it unfair that those who liked physical activity, who preferred sports and exercise and dancing to all other activity, should reap the rewards of beautiful bodies and glowing health. We bookworms might have reaped the rewards of a deeper empathy, but who cared about that? Though we had sluggish bodies with low energy reserves that were easily depleted, we were always urged into doing what didn’t come naturally, as if the athletic folk were somehow superior. And maybe they were, but they were only doing what came naturally, as did those of us who read.

wantIt still don’t think it fair that both groups do what comes naturally, but if we in the non-athletic group want to achieve better health or better muscle tone, we have to put ourselves through a regimen that is not only beyond our meager physical resources, but sometimes downright painful. I don’t believe the good things in life should be accompanied by pain, especially because if it’s a pain we cannot like, we will soon give up.

For a long time, I followed groups of women on Facebook who thru-hiked (or attempted to thru-hike) the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail, and so often it seemed that those who finished the hikes were those who loved the challenge of the trail and who enjoyed even the pain of it. (And apparently, there is a lot of pain to work through, which is why thru-hiking is as much a mental challenge as it is physical.)

This is National Novel Writing Month, where perhaps millions of “book athletes” are running their own sort of marathon, attempting to write 50,000 thousand words in a single month. Oddly, though I am a writer, such an effort is beyond my imaginational resources, and is even painful. There is no way I can dredge that many cohesive words out of the depths of my mind and there is no way I can focus on the story for so long. My untrained mind begins to wander. And so does my untrained body.

I recently read an article that claimed it is the pain we are willing to sustain, the pain we want in our life that determines our happiness. Those who love working out in the gym or running marathons or dancing until their feet bleed, will be rewarded with gorgeous bodies, good health, and grace. Those who love writing for hours on end will be rewarded with a finished book at the end of a month.

Me? I never liked pain of any kind, though I am willing to make an effort. I enjoy physical activity, such as dancing and walking, but when it gets to the point of pain, I lose interest. (Which is probably a good thing since so often pain means damage and sustained pain means irreparable damage.) I do write, but only what I like and when I like. (Even though I know the sort of books that would catapult me to the level of being able to support myself through writing, I can’t sustain the emptiness and pain that kind of writing would bring me. The people who get the rewards from writing those books are the ones who love it.) I had considered doing NaNoWriMo, but here it is, the second half of the month, and I pretty much forgot to do it. (That’s my problem. I forget. Once upon a time, I ran a mile every day, but then life took a different turn, and I simply forgot to get out in the morning and run. It took me years before I remembered, and by then it was too late.)

Luckily, with both walking and dancing, many of the rewards come from effort and dedication and concentration rather than sustained pain.

Still, I do accomplish some things while avoiding pain. I have written hundreds of thousands of words and walked thousands of miles. I’ve learned dances and even danced on stage.

My life is not pain free, of course. No matter how much I have tried to avoid pain and embrace comfort, pain came anyway. (After a certain age, aches are a given.) Oddly, because of it, I am now more wiling to do things that might be painful than I once was, but even so, pain is not something I value.

And anyway, maybe the point is not pain so much as energy, not what pain we are willing to sustain, but what sort of energy we have to spend. Some people simply do not have the energy resources for a physical life. Some simply do not have the energy resources for a mental life.

But somehow, we all muddle through, doing the best we can, doing what comes naturally, even doing a bit that doesn’t come naturally.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)

Pain is No Gain

I’ve joined some women’s hiking groups on Facebook, following their hikes, and gleaning what information I can from their experiences. I have to say that as much as the various trails beckon me, I have no interest in the pain and hardship of a thru-hike. So much of what they talk about is how to deal with leg cramps, shin splints, blisters, tears (the weeping kind), emotional and physical traumas, and an overwhelming desire to quit. In such a situation, I would have no problem just calling an end to that hike. (I don’t particularly like hiking anyway — I much prefer walking.)

For me, life is trial and error. Actually, that’s not true. I believe in trying new things, extending myself, seeing how various aspects of line work out for me, but when things don’t work out the way I envisioned, I don’t consider it an error, just a different kind of learning experience.

I do push myself, or rather nudge myself (pushing sounds like too much effort), so I am always going just a bit beyond what is comfortable. Pain is no gain, as far as I am concerned, and yet I do accomplish much. Dancing. Walking. Embracing uncertainty. But pushing myself beyond my strength seems a blueprint for disaster.

Still, I am planning on walking the Appalachian Trail in a couple of years, but all that means is I will gradually build up my strength and trailability, learning what I need to know, and trying to figure out if it’s possible to do a fairly pain-free hike. (If being pain-free means hiking just a few miles a day, that’s fine with me!) And if what I learn is that hiking long distances is not something I can do . . . well, that’s all part of the adventure.

***

(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”)