Monday, July 12, 2010

And then I was 49

     I'm not sure how it happened so quickly, but over the weekend, as I completed my 49th orbit around the sun, another layer of wrinkles appeared, a few more pounds hopped on board, a new creaky ache moved into my knees,  and a host of gray hairs sprouted aggressively from the cowlick on my forehead.  I woke up suddenly another year older, not that much wiser, and baffled as to how the last 49 years had slipped by in the wisp of a breath.
      Thanks to the gift of children--albeit children that are now calling themselves young adults and at the tender age of 20 have permanently left their teen years behind-- I was not allowed to discuss my imminent aging and was constantly forced all week to behave as if I were still the agile young mom they remembered from preschool. This resulted in a weekend packed with activities that would normally have killed me if I weren't so intent on trying to prove that the last 49 years had barely registered on my physical stamina meter. So I hiked, and walked, and swam in rivers, and loaded canoes into cars, and hauled fishing gear to lakes, and drove down treacherous mountain roads, and at the end of each day, I crawled into bed loaded with painkillers and slept the sleep of the living dead.
Through the mud pit
Rhododendron tunnel
     To prove that mortality was not chasing me with a vengenance as I clicked off the years, my son insisted on taking me on our annual "birthday hike" around the Boone Fork Trail.  I am convinced he truly believed that each year I was still able to complete this strenuous five mile loop around mountain streams, up rocky paths, over mud pits and creeks, and finally through cow pastures and rhodendron groves and blackberry patches and wild apple trees-- that the completion of this trail was the validation that I would be able to survive another year on Planet Earth. And so even if it were the last breath left in my body, even if I died smack dab on the middle of the Boone Fork Trail, even if they had to send a rescue team up to haul my dead body back down,  I was determined to prove to that younger version of myself that I was still capable of hefting this old bag of bones up and over boulders and through streams and over mountains and that I could in fact keep up with a twenty year old and live to see another year flash by.
      And so we set off on a clear warm day with nothing more that two bottles of water, a couple of hiking sticks, some sturdy shoes,  and a bag of peanuts.
     I tripped along the first half of the path barely breaking a sweat. It was generally flat, followed the creekbed, and even a beginning hiker could trot along without much effort.  After Mile Marker One, things began to change as we started the uphill climb.  Wide paths became narrow rocky ledges, ladders replaced tundra, and the gentle creek had turned into a roaring river gushing over boulders and spilling in waterfalls down the mountain. This is where I began to lag behind, but quickly covered my faltering pace with the help of my camera. I took pictures of everything I passed: flowers, mossy  logs, waterfalls, trees, leaves, pebbles, rocks, birds, mushrooms, human footprints, tree fungus, mud, poison ivy. Anything that I could photograph was game, as this was the only excuse I had for stopping long enough to catch my breath, take a sip of water, eat a few nuts for energy, and sneak a quick break.  After about 500 photographs, my son yelled down from the path above me, "Mom, I know what you're doing. You're taking all those pictures so you can stop and rest. Come on now, you can make it,  put the camera up and keep moving!"
At the turnstile...
Straight uphill and straight downhill
      Darnit, so now I was busted, but the guise had worked for at least three miles, and all that was left was the hill from hell, the last leg of the trail that climbed straight up before you spilled into the level and meandering cow pasture. It was the part of the trail that I dreaded the most, loved the least, and prayed I could endureI had often wondered why everyone we passed on the trail was going the other direction, until the day a few years back when I finally  figured out it was because of this final uphill leg of the path. If we had started from the other side of the lake like most normal people, we would be hiking downhill for the majority of the distance, but my son preferred the more challenging direction of the uphill climb, and so we endured the agony of marking off the miles on an uphill plane.  He waited patiently at the top of the hill, leaning against the turnstile that marked the entrance to the cow pasture and the final leg of the trek, as I trudged slowly up, up, up, panting,dripping, gasping, but determined to succeed.  
Still alive at the halfway mark...
     And so I made it, on the occassion of my 49th birthday, a successful hiker on a five mile mountain course that proved my longevity, or so one could think, and I was proud of myself and pleased with my son for forcing me to overcome lethargy and gravity and old age by trekking up a mountain trail.  I could now rest and remember and gloat and brag about how I greeted my 49th orbit as a conqueror of rugged terrain, a true mountain gal, a survivor of the elements, a hiker of substantial proportions.
    Until the next morning, when my daughter and niece insisted we go swimming in the rockiest section of the Watauga River, right next to the jumping off rock and the swinging rope, right by the spot where you had to crawl straight down the side of the road, wriggle over rocks and poison oak, smack a few branches to scare off any sunning snakes, jump into ice cold water that took your first breath away, wade over slippery submerged rocks that could take you down quicker than black ice, then finally crawl back uphill after an exhausting plunge in the river just to reach the haven of your parked car.  All this, again, to prove that as I faced the half-century marker, as I celebrated my last year of my fourth decade, as I evaded mortality and the reality of the brevity of life, all this to prove that I was still alive and kicking, that dear old Mom still planned to be here for the long haul, God-willing and the creek don't rise.
     Next year, as I celebrate the official marker of my half-century, I shall be alone, at a spa, having a full-body massage, with heated rocks gently placed on my swelling joints, with fragrant eucalyptus oil lovingly rubbed into tender muscles, with cucumber slices resting on aching eyes, with soothing dulcimer music relaxing my soul, with a chilled glass of wine waiting by a chaise in the "quiet lounge" at the end of the day. I shall retire on a king-sized bed and wiggle my toes under 600-count Egyptian cotton sheets. I shall order breakfast in bed, a full pot of freshly ground coffee accompanied by blackberry jam and hot biscuits. And then, as I am fifty, I shall smile as I remember hiking with my son and swimming with my daughter, and I will laugh as I rest in bed.

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