Guest post by Lonnie Dillard. Lonnie and his life-partner Sandi Sain have traveled in almost 100 countries and on all seven continents. Before retiring at age 58, Lonnie successfully pursued careers in psychotherapy, banking, interior design and writing. His writing and design work have appeared in Architectural Digest, Met Home, Galleria, Le Journal Comtat, and several newspapers.
Lonnie and Sandi currently make their home in Austin, Texas.
I don’t mean old-er, as in marking another “big zero” decade, which I did recently. But still old. Not ancient, of course, like the Native American ruins carved into the walls of the Grand Canyon, where I spent my birthday. Nor “old as dirt,” like the billion-year-old layer cake rocks that squeeze the sky there into a winding blue ribbon. But still, well, old. As in suspenders-and-a-belt old. Early Bird specials, comb-overs and prunes old.
I had always believed that “old” happened somewhere around 85 or 90, certainly not 70. That you could see it coming for miles on the horizon like a West Texas dust storm. But no. It can fall upon you from out of nowhere, as suddenly as Apaches on a sleeping wagon train. One day you are Roy Rogers; the next, Gabby Hayes.
I know I should have seen it coming. The signs were there. Stairs getting steeper. Chairs too low to get up from. Stupid crossword puzzle clues. Young women holding doors open for me; or else not seeing me at all. Mysterious bruises. Dark streets with hidden curbs. Shrinking keypads; forgetting friends’ names; mumblers on TV.
But I did not. It took a rugged trip down one big river to jolt me off another: down the Colorado and off of De-nial. Admittedly, the face in the mirror has been looking more Gab lately than Roy-ish. But experience often trumps youth, on rivers as well as rodeos. Older coots than I had survived the Grand Canyon’s 187 miles of whitewater rapids, drops and falls. No hill for a stepper like me, I thought, mangling another metaphor.
Jesus warned that the flesh is weak. I thought he meant only once in awhile. He did not elaborate that parts of it might pack up without a word and pull out for good, leaving little behind but the wrappers they came in. But…
Arms that could once lift cheerleaders over my head, even buxom ones weighing almost as much as I did? Vamoosed! Legs that only a few short years ago carried me 250 muddy miles on the Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella? Skedaddled. Cut and run. The imposters they left behind could not haul tents and cots up a riverbank without staggering like cowpokes on payday.
Fingers and hands that wrenched caps off frozen water bottles on the push to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, changed film on the backs of camels or elephants, ate peanuts and peas with chopsticks? Hightailed. Days clinging onto a wet rope left little but cramped claws, barely able to snap clips to a tent or zip up a sleeping bag.
How could I have suspected the feet that sidestepped reptiles in Rajasthan, landmines in Laos, hookers in Havana and rope bridges in New Guinea above snapping crocodiles would be good for little more than play kick the can and all-fall-down with every hidden rock between camp and the river?
And who would guess that the eyes now groping for a flashlight at dusk, or a gin bottle inside a dufflebag, are the very same ones that could spot the blow of an Alaskan humpback at half a mile, or detect in the ripple of waving grass a leopard moving on the Serengeti?
How could wind off a river in Arizona make a sleeping bag and long johns feel as cold as sea spray in Antarctica on the prow of a Russian icebreaker?
When people get old they lose things. This week-long outdoor odyssey brought home how easy losing things can be: Swiss army knife, for example. Dry underwear. Dignity. Marital harmony. The respect of my traveling companions…
At this point in literature, the protagonist often experiences epiphany, the ah-ha that enables him to grasp the meaning of all that has happened to him. He realizes that he has been transformed by his suffering. His life will be forever different.
I get the different part; the meaning…not so much.
I have often been precocious; I walked early, read early. I was the first of all my friends to get ringworms; smoke grapevine; change from soprano to alto; file for divorce; or buy a car made in Japan. Maybe this is the same with getting old, too, and I will have extra time to master it before friends my age finally catch up with me.
Maybe geezer-hood won’t be so bad. How many travel merit badges does a good Scout need to collect anyway? Perhaps looking where I am going is more important now than going where I want to look. And re-living old adventures wiser than rushing out to chalk up new ones. Already I notice that past exploits—and my central roles in them— make much better stories after inconvenient facts are blurred by time.
Still, I cannot picture myself breeding parakeets, doing genealogy or making potholders at the senior citizens’ center. So I am refusing to turn in my passport. That is, until terrorists and mentals are flying all the airplanes. Or the TSA keeps my shoes. Besides, my younger, more spry sidekick would not hear of it. She had rather wheel my creaky carcass down a jetway or up a gangplank on a dolly than miss a trip.
Adventuring will be different, that’s all. Baggage will be lighter without scuba gear or life jacket, hiking poles or crampons. The views will be from the back of a tour bus or the porthole of a cruise ship, instead of a hot air balloon or a kayak. Nights will be spent in real rooms with running hot water and a proper loo, instead of chilly spit baths and a pee-cup in a tent. There are plenty worse things.
But dang nab it, once in awhile old Gabby might surprise everybody and saddle up with the posse again. No matter. Whether posses, portholes or even potholders, the adventure of each new sunrise will do. One thing old may mean is gratitude for all the great years of “Been There; Done That.” But also those of “Being Here Now; Doing This.”
Say, have I ever told you how I escaped those sharks down in the Galapagos back in ’93?