The virtues of walking vs becoming part of the mountains

Under the heading, To Age Well, Walk, a new study written up in the NYTimes tells us what we already knew (but sometimes choose to forget). 

While everyone knows that exercise is a good idea, whatever your age, the hard, scientific evidence about its benefits in the old and infirm has been surprisingly limited.

“For the first time, we have directly shown that exercise can effectively lessen or prevent the development of physical disability in a population of extremely vulnerable elderly people,” said Dr. Marco Pahor, the director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Florida in Gainesville and the lead author of the study.

Countless epidemiological studies have found a strong correlation between physical activity in advanced age and a longer, healthier life. But such studies can’t prove that exercise improves older people’s health, only that healthy older people exercise.

Okay, but looking past Captain Obvious, how much can we expect walking to help? And what does that kind of aging look like? How do we not just exercise in a general way, but walk in the mountains as we age? How hard do we push ourselves? 

So happens that Backpacker magazine has a superb story on exactly that topic, although — to my bewilderment — I cannot find it in the Backpacker webite, even though the featured "senior hiker," Joe Kelsey, a climber still at 75, a former guide and writer, has been written up in past issues, and the writer of this piece — Hike Forever — Matt Jenkins, has a long association with the magazine.

And believe me, I looked through their site. But no matter — if and when it's posted, I'll link to it. For now let me link to a past mention of Kelsey's favorite trips in his beloved Wind River range in Wyoming and manually quote the rhetorical heart of Hike Forever, from adventurer/writer Matt Jenkins, which has some of the best such writing on the physical mysticism of hiking in the moutains I've seen in some time:

Now you might think a man in his 70's might be a little creaky for hard climbing, but not Joe Kelsey. He moves upward like a dancer. Of course, he's not the only senior hiker to remain physically fit at an age when most people are looking at photo albums, not making them. Heck, Earl Shaffer, the Appalachian Trail's first thru-hiker, hiked it for the third time at age 79. But unlike record-setters, whose feats can appear unattainable for us mortals, Kelsey's path seems like one I can follow. Keeping doing what you love. Go for a short hike if you can't go for a long one. Use packhorses if you'd rather spend your energy climbing backcountry rocks than carrying a heavy load. 

At lunch we lie in the meadow, close our eyes, and swap stories. This is the finest gift of the mountains: to be utterly unattached to the outside world. We are in an alpine meadow so close to the sky we need only reach out our arms to touch it — while the rest of humanity is far down below, entangled in a morass of emails and tweets and text messages. the spiritual freedom of this recognition gradually fills us like a snowfield fills a tarn. for a while we simply listen to the exquisiteness of nothingness, allowing ourselves to be absorbed into the landscape, to become part of the mountain like the purple fleabane and the flecks of feldspur. 

I am dozing, in a dream-like state but still conscious of the warm rock under me and the sun upon my skin, when I once again fast forward to inhabit the body and mind of my older self. I can see that I will enjoy what I presently resist: taking my time, observing more than doing, accepting limitations. I can imagine no longer constantly pushing, but rather accepting the world for what it is rather than what it should bve, and myuself, not for what I weill become, but for what I already am. 

That's why I keep going back to the mountains I guess. Haven't found a pic able to express what Jenkins puts so well, but this one — of a pinyon pine in the Mojave — gives some sense of that warmth and that timelessness on the trail. From one of the best campsites I have found on the PCT — entirely by chance. 


[at about mile 637 in Section F atop a hill beyond a water cache] 

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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