Editor’s note: Alan Jackson died on Feb. 20.
BILLINGS – Walking in his downhill ski boots through the hall of an assisted living facility, octogenarian Alan Jackson set a unique tone for the film “Last Tracks.”
“That dichotomy of two different worlds was an interesting component to me,” Livingston, Montana, filmmaker and photographer Erik Petersen said.
Plus, he was intrigued by the idea of “this old-timer who was still ripping it up on the ski slopes.”
Jackson was 86 years old when Petersen started shooting the 13-minute movie two years ago. The film examines the Bozeman man’s athletic past and his zeal to continue outdoor activities like downhill, backcountry and Nordic skiing.
“It was impressive that this 86-year-old was out there backcountry skiing and cross-country skiing … but there were these other layers that I felt added to the story,” Petersen said, such as Jackson’s bid to make the U.S. Olympic modern pentathlon team while he was in his 20s.
The pentathlon combines cross-country running, fencing, shooting, swimming and riding. Once ranked fifth in the world, Jackson narrowly missed going to the Olympics to compete when his horse failed to run after the starting gun was fired.
Bozeman writer and editor Megan Regnerus was introduced to Jackson during a Nordic ski coaching session in which they both participated.
“I was really impressed with him, but I had no idea how impressive he was,” Regnerus said.
Jackson’s athletic resume includes scaling every 14,000-foot mountain in the United States, she added.
Despite his robust outdoor ethic, she said genetically Jackson is not an “outlier” in terms of his health. He battled cancer twice, suffered a bilateral subdural hematoma and a stroke in one eye, Regnerus recounted in a 2020 Montana Quarterly article that was a spinoff from the film. But he always rallied and pushed on.
“Alan is someone who thinks of attitude as your personal responsibility,” Regnerus said. “He also loved, absolutely loved, being outside.”
Seeing Jackson participate in the 10-kilometer West Yellowstone’s Rendezvous ski race with his daughter Marianne Amsden, or tirelessly shuffling up Bridger Bowl ski area’s mountain on backcountry skis, inspires hope for aging fiercely. Thin, bespectacled and sporting stubbly gray whiskers, Jackson’s reedy voice sounds as if he’s been screaming against growing old for decades.
“He’s cheerful, upbeat and has an amazing attitude about life that I think you only get after 80-plus years of living,” Petersen said. “His zeal and his excitement about getting outside, getting exercise and being outdoors was contagious.”
Another example of Jackson’s exercise ethic, and the discontinuity of his surroundings, is revealed in a clip showing him using blue elastic bands attached to a bathroom grab bar as a workout in the care facility. As he advised, everybody feels better when they exercise.
“I enjoy skiing. My god I’m still going out every day,” Jackson told Petersen.
The film also reminds viewers of the other side of aging. Alan’s partner, Nan Pizitz, moved into the care facility after suffering macular degeneration and repeated falls that led to injuries. Yet she still plays piano, the music accompanying parts of the film.
In another eight years, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts more than 30% of Montanans will be over age 60, up 43% from 2012. The aging of the Baby Boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 following World War II – is coming to about 73 million Americans.
“Part of the intent of this film was to point out that there is this gray wave coming,” Petersen said. “Not only is this all coming for us, but there’s this shift in society that we have to address at some point.”
Since Petersen shot the film, Jackson has been afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive form of dementia that robs its victims of their memories. Even while making the movie, Jackson, a former civil engineer, struggled to remember his grandchildren, laughing and consulting a notebook while acknowledging that his “memory is shot.”
“By the end, doing interviews was really difficult,” Petersen said.
Despite the underlying dramatic tension of the film, it ends on an upbeat note with Jackson carving turns down a snowy mountain on a clear day.
“As far as dying goes, bring it on!” Jackson said and laughed. “I know it’s going to happen. No one gets out of it, so why worry about it? You just march on till you can no longer march.”
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