Senior Hikers Scale the Heights
Many seniors find that, in the words of Grandma Gatewood, hiking takes "more head than heel." Whether you're going 20 miles or 2,000, motivation and consistency is as important as mileage and speed. Sometimes more.
Take Verna Soule, a retired clerk from Michigan Center, Michigan, known in long distance hiking circles as "Gran-ma Soule." (There is a noticeable trend in the trail names, if not the spellings, selected by older hikers. The tradition of "trails names," which are the hiker equivalent of CB and trucker "handles," started on the Appalachian Trail, where hikers trade their real-life identity for more descriptive appellations: say, "Ratman" or "Stinko.") Gran-ma Soule's hiking dossier includes the AT, the Long Trail, Michigan Shore to Shore, Susquehanna Trail, the Grand Canyon, and many shorter trails, along with time spent as a trail volunteer and lecturer at schools and community groups. Looking a good 10 years younger than her 73 years, the spry great-grandmother fits in easily among her younger hiking peers, and she keeps up with them too, despite her lower daily mileage. How is that possible?
Simple: in a past life, Gran-ma Soule might have served as the model for one of Aesop's more famous fables.
"I go slowly, but I keep going," she says. "Some of the younger people will do these big twenty mile days, but they tend to take off a lot of time in town. I don't do that: I'll just stop in town to resupply and then I'll go right back out again."
She doesn't deny that hiking is sometimes hard: In fact, her last two attempts at thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail ended mid-hike, first because of a back injury, and second because of the illness of her sister. "I'm not sure I'll be able to do another entire thru-hike," she says. "I'd like to, but you never know if you're going to finish. Not even the younger folks can say for sure. But it doesn't matter whether or not it's a thru-hike. I'll just see how I feel. The important thing for me is to be out there."
Why? What motivates a 73-year old to kiss her husband goodbye, put on a 40 pound pack, climb a mountain, and sleep on the ground for days, or even weeks, on end? After all, many younger folk have long since hung up their packs and locked away their dreams.
"Because I can," says Verna, giving the senior hiker's answer to Mallory's "Because it's there."
"Some of those mountains down southI start climbing them and after a while I wonder if I'm ever going to get to the top. And then I make it and I think, "Wow! I did this! I can still do this!"
Of course, the sense of accomplishment that comes from finally making that pass or summit is not unique to seniors. But seniors seems to take special pleasure in the realization that being able to do something so difficult and so wonderful as stand on a mountaintop is not to be taken for granted.
"There were times when my hiking partner and I would wonder, "What the hell are we doing out here," says Keith Douglas, a 72- year old hiker from El Dorado, California, of a week-long hike in the High Sierra. "Then we would come over a rise and another beautiful vista would come into view and we would think, ah, yes, this is what it's all about. This is what we struggle day after day to see, what no one else can see without the effort that we have gone through."
And some hikers, like 68-year old Donna Tovey from Ladson, South Carolina, simply love everything about backpacking, from the muscle-wrenching climbs to the sound night's sleep that follows. The diminutive hiker and her husband, Jim Tisdale, 58, go by the trail name The Cheerios, and nothing could describe this couple better. Having taken up backpacking shortly after retirement from the real estate business, Donna and Jim have jumped wholeheartedly into a lifestyle you might associate with someone half their age. When asked for an address, they give an itineraryvolunteer trail work in one state, a hike in anotherand then conclude that maybe it's best to send mail to a relative for forwarding. There's no promise that their mail will catch them anytime soon.
"I never felt I had any talent or skills with sports in school. I couldn't swim, I couldn't bike, I couldn't do anything like that," says Donna.
"She grew up in an orphanage," interjects Jim.
"I was delighted to learn that I could hike," Donna continues. "I like the physical exertion. I love the feeling at the top of the mountain, that I have accomplished this thing. And at night, I go to sleep so well. I like that you can eat whatever you want. And I like the comradeship. In this community, you're just another hiker, no matter what age you are."
When asked about whether being older makes a difference, Donna, like most seniors, downplays the aches and pains. Instead, she comes up with a list of advantages: "People look at you and think you're frail and they want to look out for you," she laughs. "Like one time, I hurt my back, and younger people came back to check up on me and offer to carry my pack. Or people want to cheer you onthey say I remind them of their grandmother, only she's sitting back home on the porch, and I'm carrying this big pack up the trail.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication