This is the first installment of a multi-part series.
The Colorado Trail meandered ahead through an unyielding expanse of tundra above timberline. A hot June sun pushed the temperature above 80 degrees, an early summer day sweltering and unusual for that time of year. Sweat drenched my T-shirt, and my shoulders and neck ached from an unrelenting pack burden amplified by gravity.
Our equipment was outdated, presenting a dual challenge of inefficiency and brutality. Our North Face VE-24 expedition dome tent weighed over thirteen pounds, and even though my hiking partner carried the aluminum poles while I carried the tent body and rain-fly, effectively splitting the weight, this tent was much better designed for car camping than backcountry trekking. This Buckminster Fuller inspired product design deserved its place in the Museum of Modern Art, but the blizzard-capable shelter had been created to withstand a Mount Everest base camp, intended to be shuttled from place to place by Nepalese Sherpa’s hardened for impossibly heavy loads.
Our overweight packs felt like bags of rocks. We carried enough food to feed four and then some. We had twice as much white gas for our cook stove than we would ever need. We had winter layers although summer had arrived and planned on staying for a few more months. We had too much miscellaneous crap.
Less fit than I, my walking partner looked exhausted and frustrated. He was ill-prepared to hike at altitudes above twelve-thousand feet, and that arrived to my awareness as an uncomfortable awakening. He was clearly angry at me for filling his pack with essentials that prudence cautioned against, and, from the perspective of hindsight, many dispensable items that had not been used during our multi-day trek and would remain unused through arrival at the final trailhead.
I became worried about him near the summit because he was showing signs of altitude sickness, dehydration, and unambiguous disillusionment. The liberation we were seeking with a wilderness trek had shifted to the condemnation of trail pain. He had been overcome by mountain misery due to my poor planning, his inadequate understanding of the challenges we faced, and a mental framework lacking resilience.
Given a choice, my friend would have left half of his pack burden strewn along the trail: no-strings-attached gifts for future passersby. Even though I was guilty for betraying his trust in my unseasoned judgment of what to take and what to leave behind, I nudged him forward, step by step, until we finally reached a planned campsite situated seven more miles ahead at a lower elevation. Our campsite conversation lacked insouciance.
But we pushed through to the finish of our route a day later; all the fun had been sucked from our journey. Our relationship shifted from carefree and supportive to constrained and adversarial. I had become the unwelcome taskmaster who had nudged him forward with counterfeit optimism, promises I couldn’t keep, and macho bravado aiming for maximum humiliation.
This experience inspired me to reconsider everything connected with the purpose and value of the wilderness backcountry experience. Though deep in my heart I yearned to walk into the middle of nowhere, self-sufficiently carrying everything I would need on my back, to discover those exceptional moments of private communion with nature, I finally betrayed my innermost needs. I hung my backpacking equipment to wall hooks in my basement and walked away from the soul sustenance the gear represented.
Now, more than thirty years later, I’m in the time of life that sometimes has been dismissed as “the sunset” or “winter.” Potentially a lonely, cold time to finish business and get out of the way. Still energetic, still fit for my age, I have sensed the quiet invasions of aging, from an arthritic left knee—a decades-long reminder of one haphazard fall while skiing near Aspen—to diminishing stamina.
Baby Boomer classic rock artist John Mellencamp poetically addressed the unique challenges and clarion calls that come with aging. Through his memorable song, The Real Life, two stanzas call to me during my moments of heightened mortal awareness, the inevitability of the end:
I guess it don't matter how old you are
Or how old one lives to be
I guess it boils down to what we did with our lives
And how we deal with our own destinies
But something happens when you reach a certain age
Particularly to those ones that are young at heart
It's a lonely proposition when you realize
That there's less days in front of the horse
Than riding in the back of this cart…
Less days always remain, no matter our age. So at some point most of us hear the murmur of a simple aphorism and existential challenge: “If not now, when?”
These four words expand to encompass the entire well-known rabbinical saying attributed to Hillel the Elder: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?”
Some readers will sense with me the arrival of a crossroads, choices to make, changes to oblige. I have begun to answer these questions in more than one way that may look familiar to those of you who are on the same journey toward a more authentic and engaging future, the possibilities of adventures yet unplanned, of dreams to be requited before it’s too late for adventurous dreaming.
I have burrowed deeper to tap into my creative self, that ephemeral part of me that yearns for the sublime moments of creative invention, the brief but profound instances when I can “flip nonbeing into being,” as Dr. R.D. Laing, a prominent existential psychiatrist, taught me many decades ago within the pages of his bestseller, The Politics of Experience.
The clarion call: I must create something new.
I’ve searched for more genuine relationships. I have thought more about my legacy and with whom I should try harder to share my values and life experiences. And I’ve circled back to the activity essential to my spirit, the clarion call of the wilderness where nature has no pretense or expectations. Where life can be simpler. Where raw challenges to intellect and strength await. Where companionship can achieve new levels of communion.
I have discovered that modern technologies can help liberate me from all that is nonessential, with few compromises in comfort. I can go out there more liberated than our pioneering forebears, not as a self-flagellating wanderer but as a modern trekker empowered by human inventiveness that lightens the load while providing tools to see more, go farther, and come to know mother planet better: this tiny blue orb shimmering and vibrant in a vast, dark, cold, and unsympathetic universe.
Through this personal journey, I have returned to those aspects of living that inspired and uplifted me: the times of my life when everything seemed bright with possibilities. But I have returned wiser, circumspect, and more intent on learning and teaching. I have discovered something equally essential about the nonnegotiable part of living called aging. We all must traverse this same path if blessed with enough time. I have asked why and why not, and I have discovered a few keys to self-empowered aging that I shall share with you. I call this approach to living more fully as time passes, Ultralight Aging™.
Ultralight Aging™ is a trademark of Brent Green & Associates, Inc. "Boomers" blog contents © Brent Green, 2005 — 2016. All rights reserved.