Skiing with the oldsters

  Today, I got on a ski lift with a man who turned out to be a World War II fighter pilot. I couldn’t believe my ears. Three elderly gents had lined up with me to take a quad chair up the mountain, my only time with company on the lifts all day. We did the usual howdy-do, determining that we were "all from around here" -- translation: No Texans, Arizonans or other "ferners," when the three began quizzing the man farthest from me.

At first, I thought he surely must have fought in Korea. But he kept going on about being stationed in China and how the Japanese had given them a hard time. Then, listening ever more, I discovered that he was 78 years old, and had been married 54 years!

Myself, I’m a mere four decades old; I’ve been with the same guy 12 years. I’d stayed up till 11p.m. the night before, and gotten up at 5:30 the next morning, to grade a mound of homework so that I might ski. Not only was it Monday, but new snow graced the slopes and the sky was our usual looks-like-someone-put-a-yellow-filter-on-the-camera-lens blue. After my usual rusty first run or two, I warmed up and met the mountain. Turns out, many of those also meeting the mountain that day were older folks.

I began to admire them. How can you not admire a 78-year-old fighter pilot who "only crashed once" in his airplane, and who refers to his wife as "a real pretty skier"? Or his amiable companions, none of them a day younger than, say, 65, whose hats were off to him? 78.

My uncle, who also caught the tail end of World War II, and who was also 78, died just last week. I was struck by the contrast of one man’s perfect health and the other’s frailty in the face of cancer. I loved my uncle greatly; he’d look someone in the eye and tell them he was a card-carrying member of the ACLU whether they liked it or not, and he’s the only one of my parents’ generation who ever told my meddling, born-again grandmother to mind her own business. He worked as a machinist all his life, greased his hair Pat Riley style, and raised three smart kids. So perhaps old people, and thoughts about how to grow old with integrity and abandon, were on my mind today already.

You begin to think about these things at 40.

At lunch, I spied a foursome -- two men and two women. They couldn’t have been a day younger than 75. What were they eating? Not the usual hamburgers and fries, but carrots! And apples! Homemade sandwiches spread out between them. Whose fanny pack did those morsels rest in all morning? The same foresight that must have baked post-war cakes was at work providing healthy food three-fourths of the way up a mountain.

I looked at the women. Did they have arthritis? Back pain? How had this group escaped so much that cripples others their age? But they were hardly alone.

I remember hiking last autumn -- another mad dash to play hooky from grades, office hours, students, motherhood, writing. There along the aspen-lined trail, I saw almost no one save retired people.

As a result of these experiences, I find I’m no longer as prone to resent the wealth that has allowed retirees to buy property here, and thus perhaps contribute to cost-of-living increases. Instead, I see that they are much like the rest of us; they’ve come to this place at the cusp of both the Rockies and the high desert of the Colorado Plateau, because they need its mountains and rivers and canyons. Because life for them means to risk skiing at 78; to break bread and carrots at 11,000 feet.

What if one of them falls? Has a heart attack? "So?" I imagine them answering me, with stares. "You name a better way to go."

The rest of the day I caught sightings of the fighter pilot and his friends. They were usually ahead of me. While I expected release and wonderment from the skiing, I didn’t expect this other gift, these role models for aging. Hats off, a final hats off, then, to my straight-shooting uncle, to skiing fighter pilots, to the Carrot Ladies. May I run into you again.

Kate Niles is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She lives in Hesperus, Colorado.

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