It’s the only birthday I’ve ever dreaded and I’ve been dreading it for the past two months: the Big 5-0.
A lot of people write about this milestone and that means I’m not alone in wrangling with thoughts of my own mortality, the shock of my sagging face in the mirror, and how to tell AARP to forget I exist. As Linda Flanagan wrote in the Huffington Post:
“What bothers me more about this birthday is the stake in the ground related to how much time I have left. Unless you’re a 90-pound Japanese fisherman, at 50 you’ve likely crossed life’s median.”
Misery does love company, but I find as much comfort in that idea as I do in the preposterous phrase “50 is the new 30.” Of course at this age, we all like to brag about our ailments which sneak up on us like a purring cat that suddenly sticks its butt in your face.
I suffered through my first gout attack last May. And in 2009, I was diagnosed with a pinched nerve in my neck that a neurosurgeon sympathetically said would only get worse. Surgery, he told me from behind a gleaming walnut desk in an office half the size of my house, probably wouldn’t help in the long run. I appreciated his honesty, even if it was apparent he really didn’t need my money.
Because of the pinched nerve, I had to give up riding diamond frame bikes and became a recumbent rider. That actually turned out to be a positive, because riding a recumbent is pure bliss. But recumbents aren’t always around when you travel.
In 2010, I rented a beat-up mountain bike for a 20-plus mile loop ride to the Dragon Bridge in the Yulong River valley in China. I pedaled through an unreal landscape of towering limestone teeth, shimmering green rice paddies and centuries-old villages that took my mind off the discomfort (not just the pinched nerve, but the ass and wrists — I’m telling you, if you haven’t tried a recumbent you are missing out).
On the way back, I threaded past water buffalo on a single track that was also the only path between villages. I stopped at a small brick house that doubled as the village store to participate in one of my favorite travel activities: sampling local beers. Sitting with five villagers who stared at me while I guzzled a bottle of some now-forgotten brew was one of the highlights of my ride. And that brings me to my gout attack.
Apparently, beer contains compounds called purines which can cause an increase in uric acid in the blood. When the kidneys can’t handle all that uric acid it settles in your joints as these sharp, little crystals and — voila! — you have gout. There’s still a lot of unknowns about the exact causes of gout, but beer is a definite “No, no” on the doctor’s list. Damn.
From the moment I forced myself to acquire a taste for beer, I have loved it. My three favorite beverages: Coffee, beer, water. Typical travel routine: Coffee in the morning. Drink a bunch of water while exploring. Find a place to try out the local brew.
But now that routine has changed because gout really sucks, and could seriously impact one of the most important activities of my life — hiking and backpacking. I’ll gladly give up beer if it means I can keep walking through cities or trekking in remote places.
I did a search on websites catering to travelers over 50. They use terms like “elder” and “senior.” Why 50? Wouldn’t 65 be a better threshold? Aren’t senior travelers doddering folks in polyester shuffling along a cruise ship buffet, or following a chattering tour guide through Roman ruins? No way! When Julie and I travel we feel independent and rugged, hanging with young, tattooed Australians and laughing at those organized tours where everyone wears a matching cap in case they get separated. I refuse to consider myself a “senior” traveler. And yet …
Turning 50 has reminded me that traveling is getting harder. And I think that is ultimately what is freaking me out. I am terrified of the day that I can’t carry a backpack or I’m flat-out exhausted from a three-hour flight. Or, I watch younger travelers climb steps while I take the elevator. My 50th birthday is the lens that’s forcing me to focus on the inevitable.
But rather than let it get me down, I’ve decided to focus even more on experiencing everything life has to offer and seeing as much of this glorious rock as I can before my body says “Okay buddy, let’s just sit down now and play some Rummikub.” And that also means focusing on staying healthy to prolong the inevitable as long as possible. I’m still enjoying great health and fitness, and giving up beer and eating better will actually be easier than ever.
I get energized by memories of that glorious bike ride in China, or the magic I felt when I first arrived in Black Rock City. And I know that I’ll look back on turning 50 someday and think “You were such a whining little punk.” I also take comfort in knowing that I will be one of those difficult old bastards who is constantly running away from his residence in a retirement home.