The Decade Saga

It was Kimmer’s brilliant idea, more than 20 years back. “What if,” she said, “as each of us reaches 50, we propose a trip and everyone else shows up for it?” A novel and intriguing challenge.

Everyone else, in this case, is a group of 8-10 of us (somewhat variable depending on partner participation) who have all been united by a zest for adventure. Some of us have known each other since college. In various combinations we have ventured off together on backcountry jaunts for roughly fifty years. Exploits that range from the epic and serious to the ribald and silly.

We all signed on, but hey, talk is cheap, right? The wreckage of failed brilliant schemes dots the arc of human history, a junkyard full of the skeletons of big talk and not-so-big action.

It turns out that I was first up, back in 2002, and it has earned me the tag of Elder ever since, whatever that means. I have the advantage of being alone in my year, which makes me a dictator free of any obligation to negotiate. And that’s a bigger advantage than you might think.

The 50s decade went largely according to plan. My outing took us down the Continental Divide spine through the Anaconda/Pintler mountains in SW Montana for a week. Over the years, with some fluctuation in group size, we sallied forth through the Kootenai Mountains of British Columbia, made a south-to-north traverse of the La Sal Mountains in Utah, and finished up with a week in Glacier NP in Montana. All more or less on time, with a few wobbly planning moments (notably on the main drag of Moab in 104-degree heat trying to decide where to go). All pretty robust multi-day outings full of goofy games, comical food hanging episodes, unbelievable blooms of Indian Paintbrush, kick-stepping up snow couloirs, morning yoga in mountain meadows, skinny dips, and grizzly bear encounters at 10,000’.

Before I knew it, my turn came around again to kick off the 60s iteration. I picked a hike in Escalante, notable for poison ivy, gobsmacking canyons, and hilarious swims with packs through route-blocking pools. Timing got a little less rigid in the second decade. One team who shall remain nameless dawdled more than five years before finally pulling off a base-camp, day-outing week in the Methow Valley of Washington, a medley of hikes, floats, bike rides, and game nights. Another team put together a moving base camp week in central Utah, featuring petroglyph panels and slot canyons. An eclipse-focused, horse-pack assisted hike and basecamp outing in Wyoming’s Wind River Range rounded out the journeys.

Notice the slippage here, from outright Point A to Point B backpack trips to base camp forays, help with carrying gear, less sleeping on the ground, more vehicular shelter. Sixty may be the new fifty, but still . . . By the end of that decade jokes about trips devoted to shuffleboard and lawn bowling were more prevalent and less far-fetched.

Now, signs of the creep of age haunt us more dramatically as we enter the decade of the 70s. I go first again. There is some wiggle room on timing, spanning both the year you turn 70 and the year following your birthday, before you turn 71. Well, I’m about to turn 71 and I’ve only partially gotten around to my outing. I looked seriously at the year preceding my birthday, but things came up. Namely, for me, a diagnosis of and surgery for prostate cancer. Kind of focused my attention. Also, one of the other participants endured a life-threatening fall on a bike ride that was no picnic to recover from. So, I put it off and blithely turned 70, like it or not. I had another year to get it done, after all.

My plan was to put together a river float and get back to a sustained outing without succumbing to the basecamp routine. There were a lot of logistics to consider – what level of whitewater to accept, who had boats and paddling skills, synchronizing calendars, and the rest. I finally settled on a week-long stretch of the Yellowstone River in Montana. I know it well, even down to the gravel bar campsites. It is upbeat current without being scary. Blah, blah . . . Anyway, everyone agreed, we set a late fall window, and time went on in its inexorable way.

What ambushed the plan was health. First, Marypat had a knee replacement. Her recovery was going well until she developed excruciating back pain that kept her from doing anything remotely rigorous. Then Charlie threw out his back picking up pinecones in his driveway (it’s never something heroic, is it?). Carol reported rotator cuff issues that would keep her from doing any strenuous paddling. Then, Sue, on the first day of a John Muir Trail hike in California, got lambasted by a random rock fall that threw her off the trail where she ended up with a gruesome compound fracture of her lower leg. Long story, highlighted by helicopter evacuation, medivac to Fresno, complicated surgery involving rods and screws, and a long drive back home to recover.

Weeks away from our late-season launch, we were down to a 50% healthy crew, and I was imagining Sue trying to gimp out of her tent on a frigid morning, Marypat cringing in pain trying to paddle, Carol being relegated to hood ornament status, and the rest of us dividing our time between paddling downriver and being assisted-living care-givers. I succumbed to the obvious and pulled the plug.

Only, the gang didn’t want the plug pulled, at least not completely. Plan B would be to meet and camp at a riverside site in Paradise Valley, downstream of Yellowstone Park along the Yellowstone River. At least we’d have a chance to catch up, gather around the fire, take on whatever outings we could, and patch together some kind of substitute.

And we did. In the end there were 8 of us. All but one, by now, had either a trailer or camper van or RV. Carol’s was the last tent standing, but it was quite the boudoir arrangement with carpeting, a chair, a sleeping cot, even a heater (although, to her credit, she says she never turned it on). The rest of us retired to our mobile getaways, complete with luxurious heat, galleys, beds, and tables.

Activities included grizzly watching, some trail walks, hot springs, and two pretty sweet fall paddling days on the Yellowstone with snowclad peaks and brilliant fall cottonwoods for scenic splendor. Not bad, but I asked everyone to promise to hang in there for a river float in April, maybe in Utah somewhere, to complete my 70s commitment. I argued that it really wasn’t my fault that time ran out on me, given the suite of setbacks we’d encountered. Besides, we’ve gotten decidedly less stringent about timing over the years. Not surprisingly, given the crew, everyone agreed. So we’re on for the culmination of my decade trip come spring, when, presumably, everyone will be back to full strength, right?

I mean, what could possibly go wrong?


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