BIKING ACROSS COUNTRY AT 16. THEN AT 60. AND 65.
When I was 16, I took a bike trip across the country, riding from New Jersey to San Francisco with a friend in 54 days. We had ridden up to Martha’s Vineyard a couple of years earlier and we thought this would be a fantastic thing to do. We wanted to live fast and die young, even if we never made it to 30. And, oh yeah, we would be heroes to the girls.
When I got into my 30s–not surprisingly–I began to think differently about age. Curious as to why some people lived such long, vital lives, I asked them how they did it. My neighbor who was laying bricks, playing tennis and roller skating into his 90s, told me one day about the time he was trying to put his ladder on top of his car and found that his arms were too weak to get it up. I expected him to say, "Well, I guess I’m getting old." Instead he said, "So I got a steel bar and practiced lifting it until I could get the ladder on my car again."
In the trades where I work (I’m a self-employed house painter) it is common for people to die soon after they quit working. So if I wanted to live long, I realized I’d better learn to love what I was doing–and work till I dropped.
But at age 39, I came down with Lyme Disease, which caused severe arthritis throughout my body. I was suddenly experiencing "old age." One day as I was lying in bed, the thought came to me: "If I feel this bad, I might as well go to work." Besides, I had no health insurance. My first day back I hurt so badly that I literally worked in slow motion. Yet at the end of the day, I was surprised to discover how much I had gotten done. I worked like that day after day, thinking, "This could be the last day I am able to work." Until one day I realized I had been telling myself the same thing for years and I was still working–so stop thinking that way.
It is the nature of Lyme arthritis to be severe, but it goes away after about seven years. It’s hell while you’ve got it, but some comfort to know that it will eventually go away. While I lost over half my strength in my 40s, it began to return in my 50s. I did not start biking again until age 57 and I had to learn to ride all over again. But as I rode, I began daydreaming that I was 16 again–and I realized that my mind could actually recapture the flood of feelings from those memories.
Five years ago, as I turned 60, my 88-year-old father sat me down and lectured me that I was now "old" and I had better get used to it. I was visiting him last fall in Massachusetts–I live in Salt Lake City but often come east to Martha’s Vineyard to take on seasonal house painting jobs. But that was the last straw: I decided to get on an old bicycle with fat tires and head for San Diego, 3,600 miles away.
I had no idea if I could make it. My knees had been hurting and I wasn’t sure they would hold out. The first five days I rode 25 miles a day, then 50 miles a day. I was surprised that my knee pain disappeared and after a few weeks I was riding 60 miles a day. A few more weeks and I was hitting 70 or 80 miles a day, even an occasional hundred. I made it to San Diego in 75 days.
I proved my father wrong.
My arthritis was mostly gone, I felt strong, and decided I would do it again at 65. Still, five years went fast. While I didn’t doubt that I could make it, I did lose 27 pounds before the ride. I didn’t believe would be able to ride as fast or as hard as I did before. This time, I started my cross-country trip in April, starting out from Utah in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. The weather was cold with frequent snow. Some days I only could ride 15 miles and had to wear goggles to see in the snow. Other days I managed 30 or 40 miles through steep and long mountain roads. After three days of riding I was going over a 9,000-foot pass; a few weeks later I was faced with a 12,000-foot pass and I used oxygen I had brought with me to get through those altitudes.
By the time I reached Nebraska I realized that the experiences in the Utah and Colorado mountains had strengthened me a lot. I began riding 80-plus mile days, then 100-mile days, sometimes camping out overnight, sometimes staying in motels. My bike and gear weighed 84 pounds, and while I was careful not to overexert myself, I soon was doing 120- and 130-mile days. Riding across Iowa I thought, for fun, I would set an outrageous goal of 150 miles for the day. I stopped at 148 miles, close enough.
Then I came to the Lafayette Hills in New York State. These are not "hills," they are mountains. I thought, "I can’t do this." The road is fairly straight for a little over a mile, but so steep it looks like a wall. At the top it goes down about a mile only to go up again, and so on. After deciding to quit I decided, "What the heck, I’ll give it a try." And I did it.
I rode from Utah to the Massachusetts coast in 46 days–some 2,800 miles. At age 65 I rode harder, longer and faster than at age 60. I was typically riding 12 and 14 hours a day, and I was not using any performance-enhancing drugs or energy drinks. Getting back to my old riding routes and hills on Martha’s Vineyard, I discovered that these hills did not wind me anymore. Not now.
These days, I purposely don’t own a car. I make liberal use of buses and light rail, and occasionally borrow my wife or son’s car when I am back in Salt Lake City. But even in my paint business I do most of it using a bicycle and trailers to pull ladders and gear. Typically, I average about one or two hours of bike riding a day–rain, shine or snow.
At 65 I am much stronger and have considerably more stamina than years ago. That is not to say I am immune to the vicissitudes of aging, like a heart attack or cancer. And I do have some age-related rules with respect to biking: Never strain my joints; no heavy lifting; and no hard peddling. Bikes now have what are called "granny gears," so regardless of the steepness of a road, there is never a need to strain peddling. And no hard riding in the heat. Heat stroke comes easy and fast, even to young people.
Still, this last bike trip smashed the cultural myth of "old man consciousness," so long instilled in me. I have recovered my strength and vitality, been given a second chance of sorts, and I’m grateful for every day that I feel young again. My spirit does not age.
We can change our thinking about aging, get off our butts, and give our bodies reasonable, yet challenging tasks to accomplish. Each of us has to decide: Am I going to be old?
We have a choice.
Stephen Jones is a professional house painter and volunteer special projects director for Physicians for Civil Defense (www.physiciansforcivildefense.org), whose mission is to save lives of first responders and the general public in the event of disasters. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.