By Jerry Bowen
Los Angeles, CA, USA
My calves were still sore from our hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon the previous week when she made the announcement. My wife of 45 years had decided to throw herself into something called Contra dancing. I had barely wished her well when Val added that it would be good if I joined her. When you've walked with someone to the depths of one of the natural wonders of the world and out again how can you say no?
Contra dancing is what our ancestors did in the old days, she explained. Like square dancing. That made me think of my Grandma Gene. She was born in the late 1800s and grew up on a farm, a hardscrabble life in the rolling hills of southwest Iowa. Grandma met Grandpa Lester when they were 12-years-old and just out of the 8th grade. That was it for schooling for both of them.
"I stayed at home helping with the farm," she explained in a brief oral history. "We had lots of fun though. We got together with our friends because we had lots of parties with lots of dancing. We would roll up the carpets in the living room and use the kitchen and living room."
She didn't say what kind of dancing they did. Or how many friends danced the hours away in that small wood frame farmhouse down in the valley next to Troublesome Creek. It was a way people got together back then and it brought Gene (Eugenia) and Lester together for the rest of their lives. They married at age 19.
This is where Val and I find ourselves now. In that "rest of our lives" stage. It's when the years accelerate and the senses...hearing, vision, physical agility and, yes, memory...begin to betray the "forever young" boomer body.
Its a moment when you have reached that certain age...closer to 70 than 60...and realize acutely that time is oh, so finite. That while you have the time, you have a choice. Use it or lose it. You rest you rust. If you haven't embraced the philosophy of Carpe Diem already, now is the time to seize the day.
It wasn't always clear to me that there would be these late-in-life days to seize and run with. There was a time and I'm not exactly sure when. Probably nearing my 40s when many shudder at the prospect that life is half over. Toes up time is getting closer. There came this time when I started reading the obituary pages. I was drawn to notices of men around my age. Men who had passed away too early in life. Heart attacks, cancer, awful car accidents.
The possibility of premature death haunted me in a way. A little doubt stowed away in a dark place in my brain. There was a number attached to it. The number 56. That was my father's age when he died in his sleep from a massive heart attack. The number 56 became a curse and a goal. Live beyond it and you're free. But you're not free until you do. Irrational of course. I know that. Truth be told though, when I reached and passed the number it was a relief.
Now the numbers are higher – 67 (me) and 66 (my child bride) and in a way empowering. Which brings us back to the Grand Canyon. Hiking to the bottom was her idea. Something she'd always wanted to do. I never knew. Really.
The adventure was both a destination on her bucket list and a massive, metaphorical hourglass. A challenge to undertake before time...and physical ability ran out. One of life's adventures to seize while you can. So we did.
Seven miles and 4,400 feet down a steep but wide and well-maintained trail. A slow six-hour descent through millions of years of geological strata. Ending with a suspension bridge crossing of the cold, rushing Colorado River. We had two nights in a cabin at the Phantom Ranch before making the hike back to the South Rim. Ten miles and 4,400 feet up. A strenuous nine hours that left us feeling...vital.
This is a rather amazing time for us where chasing life's adventures brings a special contentment. Adventures large and small. Contra dancing is small I think. And it is now on the list along with other goals: Costa Rica, New Zealand, an African safari perhaps.
I am a changed man. I don't read the obituaries so much anymore. Life is far more interesting.