The old man and the desert

(Sometimes, when you are trying to convey the feeling of things, stories paint a more vivid picture than essays.  So I’ve decided add a few fictional accounts to my Letters on Aging.  Let me know what you think.)


Boarding the plane, he is relieved—no, more than relieved—he is really happy to take his seat in first class, order a pre-flight vodka on ice, and ease his seat back as the plane prepares for take off.  This is the kind of luxury he never allowed himself as a young man.  But, as they say, spend it now or your grandchildren will spend it in a few short years.

The luxuriating fades quickly, though, and the struggle he had with his wife and children floods in.  They are worried and they are angry about his solo journey.  “You are way too old to head off on some damn wilderness hike,” Jenny had intoned.  The truth is that they were upset at him thirty years ago when he wandered alone on the arid trails of the Superstition Wilderness in Arizona.  Over and again, he had tried to reassure them—and himself.  “The trails are easy.  They’re flat.  I won’t break a leg on steep descents or tax my heart above the tree line, like I used to do in my Sierra Nevada Mountains.”

God, he loved those mountains.  He and Sean used to backpack in the Sierras every summer.  They would drive to a high trailhead, climb 1,500 feet to the nearest pass, hike down for another mile until they found a good campsite, then settle in above the tree line for a week to ten days.  Pools and lakes filled basins that were rimmed by snow capped peaks.  The deep relaxation he felt each day when he sat down after seven or eight hours of hiking, gazing at the sunsets—that was as close to God as he ever got.

I guess I’m losing my train of thought here.  Even in the luxury of first class, his family’s cool send-off has the old man at loose ends.  “Why don’t they trust me.  I’m a reasonable man.  I’ll be careful.  I know those trails.  I know my many limits.  Why don’t they care for me enough to at least hide their anger and send me off with love.”  Even as he seeks the solitude of the trails, he yearns for the comfort of their love.  After the take off, though, he has another drink and falls off into a restful sleep.  Just what the doctor ordered.

You can actually see the Superstitions as the plane approaches the Phoenix airport.  They’re only about thirty miles from the city.  The southwest is weird that way.  There’s a city and it ends, just ends.  On one side of the boundary are the suburban homes with green lawns, the water drawn from God knows where; on the other side is desert, all brown and red, and endless.  The dust and the smell of sage brush will soon fill his lungs.  You’d think he was some ancient Apache warrior instead of a retired businessman from Boston, but, if you asked, he would assure you, the desert does call to him.

He leaves the airport with all the other passengers but he knows that they are off to tamer things.  He gathers his excellent, internal frame backpack, his boots, his canteens, his freeze-dried food, and his rental car, and he’s ready for adventure.

It’s early enough in the day to drive right to the trailhead, park in the lot, and head off into the Wilderness.  Everything has gone as expected.  If he could jump with anticipation, he’d do it.  Instead, he takes a few careful steps and then a few more.  He has a pretty good sense of where there’s a spring—he’d been here before—and he had vowed to himself not to go out more than a half-day’s walk.  That way he could hike out quickly if need be or if he got anxious or if he injured himself.  He’s playing it safe because, no matter what his family says, he knows that he’s a reasonable man.

Leaving from a trailhead is a mixed experience.  You’re always eager and feeling bold, and you’re always nervous, always hesitant.  You don’t know what’s ahead.  The old man is used to that combination of feelings.  He felt the same way when he came by these trails thirty years ago.

Still, he’s aware of his age.  How could he not be.  His knees and back are already aching.  By the way, it’s his seventy-fifth birthday and this is a celebration for a life that has gone far better than imagined.  His senses are up, his heart is beating strongly, his sunscreen is protecting him—especially his nose—and his trail map is readily available in his outer pocket.  He is alert to each turn in the trail because it’s easy to get lost in the maze of buttes and hills.  He knows to carefully chart his way.  The trail goes over the ridge and the trailhead is lost from sight.  Already, the sounds of automobiles have disappeared.  There is almost no wind today.  It is very, very quiet, and the old man is alone.

He had been afraid of this, afraid of being lonely and on edge.  But there is something pungent and poignant in those feelings, and, for reasons he can’t fully explain, he wanted to meet them again.

Most of his life is spent at home or visiting friends in Boston, Newton, and Cambridge.  He reads the New York Times and the Boston Globe every day and follows social media sights, like Politico and Slate and ESPN.  He spends time with his wife—lots of time—his  children, grandchildren, and friends, including some old colleagues.  He does his exercise and his meditation, his walking, and his healthy eating.  He likes all of those activities.  They help him glide as gracefully as possible toward the end.

As he sees it, he’s an obedient fellow.  He obeys the prevailing cultural ideas about what people should do to age well.  He follows his wife’s advice about food and medicine—most of the time, anyway.  He keeps his mind alive with reading and writing.  He’s living a prescribed life.

But, as he says to Sean—I hope you’ll forgive the strangeness of bringing an imaginary person into play, but Sean had been the old man’s constant companion on the trails and he brought him along for company—as he says to Sean, “I just need to get off the main trail for a bit.”  Sean still reads passages from the journal he kept during the thirty years when they hiked together.  So he understands.  They were city boys who somehow felt at home in those uncertain mountains.  They good boys who somehow needed to be outrageous sometimes.

As he walks slowly on the soft, dusty trail, he sees bullet casings, reminding him that this is where bad men come to get away from the law.  The Apaches used to enter the Superstition’s to get away from the Cavalry.  Outlaws came to escape the marshals.  And, he imagines—maybe it’s only his imagination—right-wing militias now come to get some survival training in before the apocalypse.  The old man is already lonely enough to want their company.

After two hours and twenty-one minutes of hiking—who’s counting—he found the spring he had been looking for.  There is a trickle that crosses the path; if you follow it, there is a small pool, set behind a great boulder, and all around it there are shrubs and small trees.  This is the oasis he had dreamed of.  He set down his pack, put up his tent, and, before making dinner, sat at the pool, breathing quietly, and feeling the spring-cooled air on his face.

He had never slept well in the wilderness.  He’s too nervous.  He always heard sounds that he was sure were bears or mountain lions or great, poisonous snakes.  At night, in particular, he’s a city boy, terrified by the dark and the unknown.  He always wonders “what I’m doing out here.”  Now, old and alone, he barely hold off his panic.  He lays awake for most of the night, wishing he were home in the comfort of his bed and the company of his wife.  “What the hell was I thinking?”

But first light comes, first gently, then in that brilliant way that you only see in the desert.  The night’s angst is gone.  He crawls out of his sleeping bag and out of the tent to sit by the pool.  Again, it is quiet.  His breathing is slow, easy.  It is holy by the pool.  He never wants to move.  He never wants anything but what he has at this moment.

And then he makes a decision.  It’s time to go home, which he does.


2 thoughts on “The old man and the desert”

  1. Love it! I think you know I have a love affair with Arizona and I struggle with myself over taking time away from Boston to just be in the desert. This year, I’ve been in Tucson from Christmas to Feb. 8 and again Feb. 20 through March 10. I’m working, but I’m warm. I miss Westy and the grandkids, but I share a need with the man in the story (you? Not you?) for this time for my soul. Thanks for a fun and thoughtful entry today.


    1. Susan, I do think that when we find something that touches our souls, we need to touch it and hold it, at least some of the time. I’m glad you understand. ……………… Barry


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