Like many of us who have lived in the West for a long time, I think it’s the best place to be. We have more open space, grander vistas, cleaner air, purer water, more wildlife, and less traffic than those who live at lower elevations. The country itself — all that public land close to towns — encourages an active, healthy lifestyle. Hiking, mountain biking, skiing and kayaking can be part of one’s daily schedule instead of being consigned to the weekend.
It’s disconcerting, then, to feel crappy in such a wonderful place. Of course, I didn’t get out of bed one morning and think, “Wow, do I feel bad.” But as I entered my 50s, each month seemed to leave behind more lingering stiffness and maladies that I really couldn’t attribute to too much exercise. After all, I rested, I cross-trained, I did my yoga and stretching. And I ate well — organic veggies, wild meat, no fast food. Why then were my hair and skin perennially dry, no matter how I supplemented my diet with fish oil and Vitamin E?
Nor was I alone.
“Isn’t this getting old a bitch,” virtually every one of my 50-something friends would say when we’d compare notes. They too led active lives in the high country and were spending more and more of each week in physical therapy just to keep going. And it wasn’t merely our sports that caused our complaints. It seemed that everything from sitting at a desk to stacking firewood and even doing the dishes was exacting a greater toll, making us stiffer, drier, and less flexible.
No one ever mentioned that our wearing down might also be caused by where we had chosen to live. Where we lived? The best place in the world? Impossible.
Then one winter, after a six-month-long stint at my desk finishing a book, I was feeling particularly beat up. My torn hamstring wouldn’t heal despite weeks of rest and P.T. My back was killing me despite an hour of careful stretching each day. And none of the lotions and emollients my dermatologist prescribed seemed to give my itchy skin anything but temporary relief. On a below-zero morning, as I put a pot of water on the woodstove, I had the sense — holding my stiff, cracked hands over its humid warmth — that I might be turning into a piece of jerky.
Was it possible, I thought with horror, that I was becoming one of those people whom I had always pitied — those snowbirds heading to Arizona as soon as the temperature fell? For a moment I closed my eyes and imagined the desert — cactus ... juniper ... red rock. No, thank you. Going to Arizona seemed like baking in front of a bigger woodstove.
It was then I remembered something my neighbor, Margot Hunt, had once said. A pithy and outspoken woman in her 70s, she wasn’t averse to giving me advice.
“You should visit us at the beach,” she would say, “it would do you a world of good.”
Though she summered in the Tetons, she spent much of the rest of her year on an island in the Caribbean.
“And give up a powder day?” I had scoffed. “Never.”
Margot and her husband no longer came to the Tetons, and they had sold their island home, but some beach time, somewhere, suddenly seemed just what my body was craving.
I packed some books, my laptop, my Crazy Creek chair and a towel. A dozen hours later, when I stepped off the plane in Bora Bora, the air felt like a warm soft kiss. And like every good kiss, it was sweet — filled with the scent of plumeria, the flower leis are made out of. The sun, filtered by 6,700 feet more atmosphere than in the Tetons, was tender on my skin. And so was the water. Plunging in before breakfast, I’d swim down the turquoise lagoon and walk back on the golden sand. After coffee, I’d sit in my Crazy Creek chair, reading and taking notes. Then I’d swim again, then read more, alternating until the sun went down.
It was more exercise than I had gotten in weeks, yet my hamstring healed and my back felt fine. And I wasn’t doing any physical therapy — no massage, no ultrasound, no e-stim. The cracks in my fingertips closed and my hair became soft and shiny. In fact, my skin felt as if it had grown half a size and my bones had more room to move around inside it.
Some might say that I was feeling so supple because I was away from the stress of work. But, in the middle of the Pacific, I was doing the same thing I do in the Rockies: reading, taking notes, writing. No, I had to admit that Margot had been right: Humans are mostly water, and the West I love is a very dry place. It feels terrific for a while, especially if you’ve come from a humid place, as I did. Then, after years of living in the high country, a lot of us start to shrivel up, and drinking even four liters of water a day is not even close to being immersed in our first home: the old, warm, embracing sea.
Ted Kerasote’s last book, Out There, won the National Outdoor Book Award. His next book, Merle’s Door: Lessons From A Freethinking Dog, will be published in June.