My dog Ginger is 80 years old in people years, but she runs circles around me. She speeds like the wind, leaving me far behind. Scoliosis and three herniated discs that cause me to walk mostly bent over, plus 23-year-old artificial knees, are my 80-year-old reality.
When I moved to the High Country 16 years ago, I became a devoted hiker, checking off a list of 50-plus easy-to-moderate hikes, from the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Appalachian Trail. With Chargers and Re-Chargers and Senior Scholars, I trudged up Table Rock, Hawksbill and other fairly challenging trails. I was usually the last one to reach the top, but at least I got there. At the Wellness Center, our fearless group of four, the “Mountain Deer,” once took third place in the “Reach Your Peak” competition, chalking up hundreds of exercise miles to summit Denali and win t-shirts.
Gradually over the years my replaced knees got creakier and my back bent over more. I became a little old lady with a hiking stick, determined at least not to use a cane.
Now I consult the diminishing short list of what I still can do while standing up straight. I can hike downhill. Hey, maybe I could try the Grand Canyon, if I could get airlifted back up! I can walk backwards up a hill, a not-particularly-useful skill. I can push a cart around the supermarket, stand and chat with friends for up to three minutes, and get through 45 minutes of Stretch and Flex class. My partner says, “There are so many people who are worse off than you are.” Somehow that doesn’t cheer me up.
I fight every day to maintain that paltry level of fitness. I faithfully walk Ginger downhill, and do a ton of exercises, working hard at two of the three “P’s:” Pilates and Physical Therapy. I’m now on the third “P,” Personal Training. If only there were a “Bent-Over-Back Boot Camp,” like the “Biggest Loser Camp” on TV!
For decades I fantasized about taking the three-hour boat trip to Isle Royale, a remote island in the far reaches of Lake Superior. No cars, no roads, no civilization, only endless trails, 1,500 moose, and a handful of wolves. Finally, this past year, my 80th, was the big year. Alas, I was no longer able to hike those beckoning trails. All I could do was kneel and kiss the ground, eat a quesadilla at the lodge, hang around for a ranger talk on loons, and board the boat back to civilization, a tear in my eye.
Another highlight of my 80th year was attending a performance of Bach’s St. John Passion, my all-time favorite Bach work. It was a musical night beyond belief. Even more notable than the ethereal music was the flood of old people leaving the auditorium, many with canes, walkers or wheelchairs. My hand tightened on my faithful hiking stick. It kind of gave me hope to think of myself hobbling into future Bach performances. No one’s going to take our Bach away from us!
For a few years I had had another big dream: taking a small team of volunteer medics to do physical exams for the 400 very poor and extremely bright students at Mother Miracle School in Rishikesh, India. Marcia, Diane and Rob were ready to go. While they examined students, I would at last get my long-awaited chance to write about the school. But, with my physical limitations, could I manage? A scary thought. It was now or never to fulfill my dream. I had to make a, well, leap of faith.
“It’s 700 steps from your Kailasa Guest House to the school,” my friend Mike, who had introduced me to the school, announced. Would I be able to walk the whole way there and back each day? “Be sure to take your hiking sticks,” he cautioned. “And watch out for broken pavement, cow patties, cows, runaway rickshaws, holes and sewers. The streets are treacherous.”
With fear and trembling, I started out walking to Mother Miracle on our first morning in India. Would I make it without incident? Miraculously the cow patties were few and far between, and I completed the 700 steps, and entered the main assembly hall to the din of 400 kids shouting greetings. Just the blessing I needed to let me know I was indeed in exactly the right place.
Our first night in Rishikesh, our new Mother Miracle acquaintances offered to take us to puja, Hindu evening prayers, where thousands gather at a ghat beside the Ganges. Getting there involved a rickshaw ride, then a hike across Mother Ganga on Ram Jhula, a famous long footbridge. Since I would be unable to walk that far, Shahla, the school’s ever-vigilant founder-director, scheduled me for my first-ever motor scooter ride. Off I went on the back of Deepak’s scooter, flying along beside the Ganges, with the foothills of the Himalayas looming in the mist. Who needed a hiking stick?
More times than I could count, whenever I sat down to rest on a wall or a bench, a bubbly bunch of hoofers approached me, dragging their elderly mother or grandmother, and seating her beside me for a photo op. Arm in arm we mugged for the cameras, pressing our hands together and murmuring “Namaste.” What was this about? Would our picture be labeled “Two Old Ladies” in someone’s scrapbook?
The last straw was going through security in the New Delhi airport on our way home. A TSA guard grabbed my hiking stick, my third leg, twisted it, pushed and pulled it, grinning like a malicious kid with a toy, and finally deliberately broke it over his knee. He was playing to the crowd of travelers, making a show of looking for drugs. I was furious, but even more I felt helpless, with my protection, my way of getting around, gone for good. It seemed like a final defeat.
Broken hiking pole, broken body, often a broken heart. And yet I did it! I made it through the trip of a lifetime halfway ‘round the world. I’m writing up a storm about amazing India. I may never run out of things to write about. Mother Miracle keeps on throwing me challenges and surprises. I sponsor a girl, Kalpana, who will soon be ready for high school. The school needs help beginning a coding program that will guarantee every student a bright future. Shahla is starting a recycling program for the city of Rishikesh. We’re invited to concoct a recipe for an inexpensive, nutritious breakfast cookie for the students, to accompany their morning cup of milk.
I’m gathering a group of women who want to change the world. And who knows what life-changing dream will emerge for me next? I’m ready. I already have a brand new hiking stick.