No, 70 Is Not the New 50

A good friend and I are trying to plan a moderately unscheduled motorcycle trip, meeting in South Dakota and traveling up the Hills into Teddy Roosevelt and across to Bismarck, before we split up and he heads north into Canada and I go back home. At least that’s the plan as of this moment. We’re both riding Suzuki TU250X’s, so speed isn’t a thing for this trip, hence the “moderately unscheduled” aspect of the trip. We won’t be pounding out big miles, ideally. Mostly because I’m old. I mean I started this GWAG thing when I was 50-something. I thought I was old then and I was, but I am really old now.

I’ve been sleeping on the ground since I was a kid and that was a long time ago. To avoid being drug to church by my parents, I would sneak out of the house late Saturday night—with a blanket and a canteen and a flashlight and a bag of potato chips I’d smuggled into my room and had hidden in my kid’s crap pile—and cross the Highway 50 bypass to the ruins of an old Catholic school in an abandoned lot not far from our house. The only thing left of those buildings were the basements and I’d found an old wooden ladder that I propped up next to the ruins of the basement stairs of one of those buildings and that was my hideout from church “duty.” It worked for most of a year until my parents gave up and let me stay home if I would have lunch ready for the family when they all came plodding back from being preached at and scammed out of their allowances and an unreasonable portion of an already meager teacher’s salary. I was about 12 at the time. I’d still rather sleep on the cold ground than listen to a sermon.

After I moved out on my own, the summer I turned 16, I took a “gap month” after I’d dropped out of the worst community college in the planet and the band I would spend the rest of the summer touring with got a late start for the summer because the band leader crashed his Thunderbird into the only tree in Oklahoma on his way home to Little Rock. I didn’t have any real camping gear, but I remember scavenging a canvas Boy Scouts’ pup tent and a nasty looking sleeping bag I’d found somewhere. I lived along the Arkansas River between Dodge City and Cimarron, Kansas shooting squirrels and jack rabbits with my single-shot .22 and pretending to live off of the land, while occasionally sneaking into town and ripping off food from some of the south Dodge residents’ outdoor freezers and refrigerators. 

A few years later, I was living in Hereford, Texas (the place the hose goes when they give the world an enema) and struggling to make a living and clinging to my sanity as a new father, a barely-trained and unskilled electronics technician, and a failed ex-musician. The only escape from the pressure I could afford was backpacking the occasional free days in Palo Duro Canyon, mostly in the winter when no one else wanted to be there, but I hiked the Canyon any time I could get away for three years running (literally, often). About the same time, I lucked into Colin Fletcher’s The Complete Walker, one of the few books I have kept throughout the last 50 years. Fletcher taught me about gear, preparation, survival tactics, climbing and descending (with a loaded pack), and most of the “skills” I’ve used in backpacking, running rivers, and solo motorcycle camping. Sometime in the 90’s, I swapped out my trusty North Face tent for a Lawson Blue Ridge Hammock, but I still have much of the gear I started with. I’ve camped in ditches, abandoned farm house backyards, forests and windbreaks, by the ocean, streams, and lakes, and, even, official campgrounds all over the country; from California to Nova Scotia.

But I’m done with all of that now. Scott and I wrestled with all sorts of trip plans, with the assumption that camping is the safest way for old guys to stay away from the goobers spreading SARS-CoV-2 across the country. Camping just isn’t a practical option for me anymore. I might consider a trip that could guarantee trees for the Lawson Hammock, but this trip won’t be in that kind of terrain. My last trip was pretty much a disaster, but even if the “campsite” hadn’t been a dumb idea and well-tipped into idiotic if hilarious I learned that the costs of sleeping on the ground are too high now. I could do it if I had to, but I’d wake up stiff all over, the arthritis in my hands would be crippling, and that’s if I managed to sleep at all. If we’re going to do this trip, it will have to be with motel rests at night so I can boil my hands in hot water, ice my knees and shoulder, and sleep in a reasonably comfortable bed.

No, 70 is not the new 50 and anyone who says it is knows nothing. As Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel said in "Why I Hope to Die at 75, "over recent decades, increases in longevity seem to have been accompanied by increases in disability—not decreases. For instance, using data from the National Health Interview Survey, Eileen Crimmins, a researcher at the University of Southern California, and a colleague assessed physical functioning in adults, analyzing whether people could walk a quarter of a mile; climb 10 stairs; stand or sit for two hours; and stand up, bend, or kneel without using special equipment. The results show that as people age, there is a progressive erosion of physical functioning. More important, Crimmins found that between 1998 and 2006, the loss of functional mobility in the elderly increased. In 1998, about 28 percent of American men 80 and older had a functional limitation; by 2006, that figure was nearly 42 percent. And for women the result was even worse: more than half of women 80 and older had a functional limitation.” I was playing basketball fairly competently at 50, I probably couldn’t reliably catch a pass today. I confidently took off on a 30-day motorcycle trip to Alaska in 2007, when I was 59. I might still consider an Alaska trip at 73, but I wouldn’t have much confidence in the outcome. My 50-year-old self would kick my 70-year-old self’s ass any day of the week. So would sleeping on the ground for a week.

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