When many of us hit a milestone birthday, our celebration might include cake, ice cream, and maybe even champagne. Lake Effect essayist Cari Carlson laces up her hiking boots.
I’m sweaty, sprawled on a rock at the bottom of Elephant Canyon. A man about my age hogs the only shade. I throw him a fake smile and hope he’s enjoying his apple on his cool rocky perch. I stand up, swing my daypack onto my shoulders and he says, “Hello there. Where’s the spring in your legs?”
At this moment I’m fifty-five miles into a hundred mile trek in Utah’s canyon country, panting like an out-of-shape septuagenarian as I hike to celebrate a significant birthday. Am I up to the challenge? Not as sure about that as I was at fifty when I hiked a hundred miles in Door County to mark a half-century birthday.
Now I’m in Utah, a place I love, surrounded by multi-colored cliffs, rocky domes, and twisting narrow canyons. I do this for myself, dive into denial of ageing and attempt to prove that at seventy-five I’m still off the couch and on the trail.
On the first day I encounter two attractive young men. I smile and flirt, enjoy their tight bodies. Do I remind them of their grandmothers?
The next day I follow a flat trail that promises to end at a waterfall until I spot a series of steep steps, too many to count. How badly do I want to see that waterfall? I turn around. This is where I realize this journey will not be easy. At fifty I would have skipped up those steps. No problem. No challenge. At my age, no thanks.
In Arches National Park I head for Delicate Arch, a blip of a hike I’d done many times. Is it the heat, the sun, or too many consecutive hiking days that leave me exhausted? This is no blip. It’s a slog. But I never tire of the moment when I round the final corner to view that giant red arch hanging on the edge of a rocky terrace.
In Canyonlands my ego takes a hit when a hiker says, “You went all the way to the end? I didn’t think you’d make it.” Could he have noticed how I use my walking stick to haul my body over large rocks?
At Corona Arch, where I need to climb a metal ladder up a steep incline, a twenty-something guy comes up behind me and says, “Are you going to do that?” I see him on the way down and he says, “You are such an inspiration.”
I’m not sure about that. People have told me I’m a role model, but inspiration? That sounds like I have one foot in the grave.
I’ve hiked in Utah for thirty years. Arches, Corona Arch, Canyonlands, they used to be effortless. Now legs throb, heart pounds, lungs burst, but my joy and enthusiasm remain undiminished. I will never tire of this land. I walk slowly and need to rest more often. But no matter how I struggle, I love this journey in slow motion. There’s time to admire the gnarly shapes of juniper and pinyon pine that lay bleached on the rocks. There’s time to ponder the complex geology and the stories told in the multiple sedimentary layers. There’s time to inhale the smell of sagebrush and to sit and listen to the canyon wren. There’s time to observe a skittish lizard sunning on the trail, and time to photograph arches, mesas, canyons, and Indian paintbrush, vivid red against grey rock.
On one of the last hikes up to Hidden Valley in the Moab area, I break out some unladylike language. It’s not a trail, it’s an endless pile of giant boulders leading to a valley. I scramble over them on hands and knees and wonder how the hell I’ll get down. At the top I meet two men about to start their descent. The older one says, “I’m sixty-six and I may be too old for this hike.”
I nod and trudge on.
Lake Effect essayist Cari Carlson is a freelance writer, outdoor guide in the west and overseas, and a former environmental educator. She lives in Milwaukee.