Peaking at 50


After climbing the steep trail all morning, we missed the fork that would have taken us to the completely tame (or so I was promised) tunnel trail. Now we were high on the mountain side at Pinnacles National Monument, looking out over the state of California all the way to the foggy coast, and the trail only led higher.

TrialWe clambered around a corner and suddenly we stood at the base of a cliff. Footholds chipped into the rock face marched almost vertically into the sky. There was nothing but the rock, a pipe to cling to, and the air around it.

“Oh my god,” Jo said. “Do you want to go back?”

Camping buddy Jo, who is smart, brave, and intrepid, knows well that as I suffer from an inexplicable terror of heights. This fear is something new that has come with the years. Altitude never bothered me when I was a kid; at 12 I would have scampered right over that mountain face. Twice.

But now,  here I was, two weeks before I turned 50, having a hard time staying calm looking at the crazy steep trail. Maybe you know the feeling: your intestines crawl into your chest and cling to your lungs so you can’t get a breathe, your head gets woozy, and suddenly the only thing you can feel in your hands is a cold sweat.

To be honest, my upcoming birthday, the big 50, is making me feel woozy like I’m standing at the edge of a cliff.  I’m amazed at how two little numbers—a 5 and a 0—can open the door to anxiety and actually send out stamped invitations to an open-bar, fully catered worry affair, complete with band and disco ball. (Ok, ok, I’ve always had a worry party going on in my head. It’s just gotten more crowded as I—gulp—age).

In our culture that’s dirty word—age. Yes, yes, I’ve heard that 50 is the new 30 (Frankly, I’d be happy to see 40 again). Sure, Jamie Lee Curtis received applause for going topless at 50.  And I’ve read that employers are starting to value those of us who have more experience than we have collagen in our lips.  Even Barbie has lost only a smidge of popularity despite reaching the half century mark..

But I live in Silicon Valley, where we worship youth. And why wouldn’t we? The young are so lovely, so luminous. They don’t have years of living that cover the inner shine with a dusty layer of experience.

And I think they’re mostly not afraid to climb over a mountain peak.

Up on that mountain, I had to think hard. I thought over the trail we’d just climbed. We’d huffed and puffed up the Condor Trail (no condors to be seen), then wound our way around and up the side of the mountain. We had to clamber up and down steep rocky bits lined with poison oak. And Central California in May is already hot like summertime; we’d started hiking at 8 that morning in shirt sleeves, and the day wasn’t getting any cooler. The trail was on the west side of the hill where the afternoon sun would be blazing. Did I really want to descend the mountain  using the same trail I’d ascended?

I remembered my grandfather’s motto: Always go home by a different road. Never backtrack.

ClimbingI clenched my teeth. Wiped sweat from my eyes. “Jo,” I said. “We can’t go back. So we gotta go forward.”

And I climbed that mountain, dammit. White knuckled it all the way, pressed on even when I felt like I was so exposed that I was flying. Jo talked me over the really scary bits, and both of us slid down one entire passage on our butts.

I’d like to say that I felt victorious and renewed afterwards. I guess I did, a little. But mostly I was tired and hungry. And needing to paint something. Out came my little hiking journal, a waterbrush, and a afew Caran d’Ache watercolor sticks. I rested in the shade, ate a tortilla with hummus, and did what any artist at any age might do. I painted a picture of the mountains.