“I used to be such a badass,” said Shannon.
I pretended to ignore her. We were three days into a backcountry trek that had thus far involved limited trail, several unanticipated class-5 climbs with loaded packs, and 12-hour shifts of non-stop power-housing it through the mountains. Both of us were bleeding from every limb, sporting some fashionable new tan lines, covered with mosquito bites, and had ridden the adrenaline roller coaster more than a few times.
If that wasn’t badass, then I really needed to recalibrate my measurements.
Let me just add, Shannon is over 50, and I’m still flirting with fertility and a decade younger. Also, I’m arguably a badass. This season, I have run and rucked around and over mountains ad infinitum and have achieved the kind of fitness level that justifies a fair amount of donut eating. What we were doing: booking it through forehead-high infinite walls of alder brush on a steep slope at breakneck pace between episodes of exposed climbs up granite peaks. What I was not doing: holding her hand.
I don’t know when age becomes the demon we all try to outrun, but I do know that it is inescapable. Although, as far as I could tell, Shannon was outrunning it just fine, and I hope to grow up to be like her—minus the tragedy of her inability to see just where her body had taken her that day and every day for the last five decades.
There is a phenomenon that seems to occur during the aging process wherein we constantly compare ourselves with the blip of time in which we were perceived to be “our best selves” according to cultivated and potentially dysmorphic societal standards. In this dangerous exercise we zero in on a single quality (like our mile time or pant size) and measure our current worth based on this marker alone.
Obviously, this is bullshit.
First of all, we are the sum of our parts, our experiences, the lessons we’ve learned along the way, and the snacks we’re willing to share. Secondly, we are reflective of the myriad of things happening at us in this crazy world and thus dynamic, ever changing. Unless you’ve discovered a fountain of youth, you will never be stagnant in anything, least of all a level of badassery assigned to a specific sport, movement, or measurement.
This kind of thinking is what convinces us we are on an inevitable decline, and it is a lie we need to stop telling ourselves. It diminishes our joy in the moment, and it fails to honor the other qualities that make us formidable outdoor partners, friends, athletes, and guides.
Shannon, at 50-something, brought innumerable beneficial qualities to our excursion. One of them was her capacity to estimate risk and determine her emotional and physical ability to approach it. That is something that comes with wisdom and time (and maybe a few whippers). Her competence in the outdoors, from her ability to pace herself, cheer away bears, communicate effectively, ensure safety, and not panic when we found ourselves in harrowing situations is what made her badass—not the fact that she kept up (though this was also impressive).
Also, it was upon her recommendation that I schlepped a pair of flip-flops through the mountains for the luxury of “camp shoes,” and for this I was grateful every night and every morning – as if wearing them put me in an alpine lakeshore spa. Where one drains their own blisters with an oversized safety pin, of course.
To devalue ourselves and what we offer as aging outdoorspeople and humans is also to send a devastating (and untrue) message to those younger than us: It’s all downhill from here. And I don’t know about you, but I’m still planning on climbing a lot of uphills for years to come.
Originally published in the July-August 2020 issue.