Hiking training for a long trail is a different puppy for a senior than it is for a young person. On a recent morning five-mile hike while walking off the stress of nightly presentations about hiking and backpacking to an eager, older audience, I was like a horse let out of the stable: my stride lengthened with each step until I found the rhythm that sustains me and lets me breathe deep and free.
Working at night doesn’t suit me anymore, but crowds don’t show up at 2 p.m. when I’m ready to download my enthusiastic stories about walking, hiking, and backpacking. So evenings it is. I see the ones in the audience who yawn behind their hand, hoping this talk won’t go too long. It’s been a long day for them, too, and they need to be in bed. As the days lengthen, I enjoy the rhythm of getting up earlier when morning light visits me at 6:30 a.m., slowing down my activity at 6:30 p.m. and getting to bed at hiker midnight… 9 p.m. Travel and presentations have interfered with my bedtime routine and my trice-weekly training hikes up into the hills, snow or no snow. My trail date is only a month away and when I climbed 1,900 feet over four miles to Ostrich Peak in the snow with 25 pounds on my back, I could feel I was ready. So now I have to hang on to this state of physical readiness by hiking short hikes regularly and work on my mental readying.
The conditions on the southern part of the PCT in the desert are rainy and snowy. Postholing those four miles uphill last week told me I don’t want to start my 600-mile trek in snowy conditions, sleep in snow, bite down to deal with cold feet and wet gear, and pull out my toughness from the start. Toughness lives deep inside me. I don’t have to prove it to myself and I don’t have to seek it on the trail. My mental training for the trail happened long, long ago. It happened when I gave birth to my children, or when I challenged high-risk youth who needed to drop their tough stance and learn to trust. It happened when I watched my life partner’s strength diminish in his terminal illness. When I sat in “adhitthan” (no movement) in month-long meditation retreats I found my determination. My mental training came through living, and because I’m native Dutch, my trail name became The Iron Dutchess.
Senior hikers who seek a long trail differ from the young ones who need to find their toughness. Senior hikers find other things. They find freedom from ageism, they find transcendence, and they find a reboot of their aging body. Many older people forget that they have that mental toughness and let their lives shrink. I can tell you, if you’ve made it to 60 or 70 and are still walking and doing, you have what it takes. You just have to activate it.
I go back to the trail every year to find freedom. Freedom from the jaws of comfort, freedom from the lazy-making stream of food and conveniences I ingest. I wean my self from the ever-open spout of stimulation, and entertainment our advanced society pours out. I go without, and I find inner freedom.
In these last weeks before I take off on the trail, I’m like a squirrel preparing for winter. I gather nuts, seeds, freeze-dried foods, and luxury tidbits to sustain me as I walk the miles. After six years of section hiking the PCT, I still think I need a fixed number of calories, I still am attached to the spout of daily living.
For me, physical training is easy compared to the psychological preparation. My brain gets anxious when it faces the unknown and I find my senior brain more anxious as it ages. As a senior hiker I’ve lost my “It won’t happen to me!” thinking of the junior hiker. I fret more about the unknown and prepare more than many a junior hiker. Until I set foot on the trail I’ll have to deal with the unknown. No matter how many miles I’ve hiked, the preparation for the Long Trail always challenges me.
Folks who say they don’t worry and take it as it comes must be ignorant of what awaits them, or blissfully young and foolish about what they think they can do.
So I walk and watch my mental gyrations about daily distances, food packages, devices that might not work, gear I might need and will forget. At the end of today’s five-miler my mind is calm and ready to do some more prep without feeling anxious. Hiking training has the benefits of what the trail offers: strong focus, mental clarity, confidence and an emerging feeling of freedom.