If there is a path to aging gracefully, I am not on it.
My birthday began this year at 4:30 in the morning, deep in the Appalachian Mountains I had been referring to as hills for quite some time. Based on the elevation, I’ve just assumed those East Coasters are a soft lot, if not mildly overdramatic.
The forest sounds of Virginia are different from those of Idaho. The obvious crashing of moose is replaced by the constant scurry of giant bugs and the song of birds that sound exotic in comparison to our turkeys and woodpeckers – though both can also be found there.
My trip had begun a few weeks before when someone who knows me well suggested we do a really dumb thing for my birthday.
“It’s a 30-mile loop,” she said.
“Have you been training?” I asked, recalling that I’d successfully run 6 miles once in April after having cake for breakfast.
“I think I ran in February,” she said. “Maybe it was December.”
It was perfect, I said. I would bring snacks and the good painkillers.
The Virginia Triple Crown is closer to 38 miles with something near 8,000 feet of elevation gain depending on the mood of your GPS on any given day. Considering it’s just hills, I’m not sure where all that gain comes from. They do have big rocks. We climbed all of the iconic ones. I developed a new respect for the Easterners.
There’s something about doing epic things on my birthday that lends to denying my age (as opposed to defying, which would take far more water consumption and far less sun). I have a few years of my life for which to make up. Birthdays have become an exercise of gratitude.
Once upon a time, I spent my birthday smoking cigarettes and weighing an extra 70 pounds. In those pictures, it isn’t my round face or belly that strike me, but the deep sadness in my eyes. Anyone struggling with their health knows that journey is terrifying, sometimes hopeless, sometimes unstoppable. I smiled for the pictures, but the shame and sorrow were evident.
In that life, my childhood and the ways I was learning to cope with a distorted reality had taken its toll. First there were pastries and pasta. Then cigarettes. Alcohol. Romance novels. Risky liaisons. More pastries. Narcotics. If there was a way to dissociate from my pain, I probably consumed it.
I don’t regret any of it, only that I did not know how to care for that tattered soul earlier. But now I know what she needs. Usually, it is mountains or coffee, often both.
The climbs of the Triple Crown took us over Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee’s Knob, Tinker Cliffs. They took us through cow pastures, over streams, to views of the entire trek. The perfumed forests delighted our senses, the blossoming rhododendrons and bear grass were explosions of color against a green backdrop of lush trees.
Our knees ached, our ankles swelled, and our feet blistered. The temperatures climbed into the 90s and we soaked ourselves in sweat until a wild thunderstorm came crashing down over us. Warm rain poured down our faces and into our ears. The air took on an earthy, rich smell.
The sun set long before we were done. Our headlamps came on and we laughed at our awkward tottering down the steep terrain, at how naive we were, at how wonderful that naivety is. And then we praised these bodies, strong and able, taking us the places we want to go, forgiving us our ambitions.
By the time we made it back to camp, my birthday was nearly over. Our legs were covered in scratches and bug bites. My dog had collected the entire tick population of Virginia. Soaked, stinking and sore, we celebrated by inhaling a bag of chips.
Every breath of that day was a sweet (sometimes gasping) reminder that I am alive, that each year, day, hour is a privilege. I will accept the strange process of aging with the same gratitude. We cannot stop time, so perhaps being intentional about how and with whom we spend these precious moments is what matters most.
Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at email@example.com
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