I’ve been a wanderer all of my life; fact is, I was never a big fan of settling down, afraid that I might miss something important. That’s why, at the age of 28, I found myself driving around southeastern Alaska, hopping from city to city on a ferry, and basically heading into the backcountry without a care about where I was going or what might happen.
I’m 50 now. And man, am I surprised that I’m still alive. There are a lot of things that you do differently with 20 more years of experience—things that, if you have common sense in the first place, you probably already know. Like taking a map. And knowing how to read it. And letting someone—anyone—know where you’re going to be if you decide to take off on a hike in unfamiliar territory. Oh, and staying hydrated.
I’m embarrassed, and slightly proud, to admit that I survived screwing up all of these things. But being lucky is not the same as being prepared…and being prepared is much, MUCH, more important.
Here’s what I know now, that I wish I had known then:
- You have to let people know where you are. I remember being in Wrangell, AK, and deciding to leave the Geo Tracker off the side of the road and take a short hike. Which I did. Until I got lost. Hours later, I found myself back on the road with no idea of which direction to go to find my car. I took a lucky guess, and dehydrated, mosquito-bitten and exhausted, I finally found my way back after hiking a few miles more up the road. I have never loved the sight of a vehicle more. Looking back now, I realize that had something really bad happened, no one knew where to even start searching for me. Or my bear-nibbled body.
- You have to know your limitations. When I was in my 20s, I could do anything…or at least that’s what I thought. Hike up a mountain in Colorado? Sure. Jump off a cliff into a ‘bottomless’ pond in Belize? No problem. Camp beside a buffalo herd in South Dakota? What a great story that will make. Now that I’m older, I’m realizing that what was fun then could actually be dangerous now, and I have to keep that in mind when I’m ready to jump in with both feet (and two injured ankles and a busted knee) before accepting my next death-defying trip.
- There’s no shame in setting your own pace. I admit that I still feel like I’m 20, but my driver’s license, and my stamina, tell me different. While I love hiking with younger people, it’s madness to try to keep up with them. It doesn’t mean that you can’t take the trip, but focus on your strengths and accomplishing goals that you know you can reach—this is not a competition.
- Plan ahead. Yes, I drove to Alaska with a roadmap, a CB (seriously, it was years ago) and a promise to call my mom each week. That was it. No cellphone (really, we used to go EVERYWHERE without cellphones), no Internet, no auto club to save me. But I did research where I wanted to go and how to get there (using a library, if you can believe it!) and I did just fine, though I had to be flexible when it turned out that I should have reserved a space on the ferry months in advance. The good news is that I had other options—thank you British Columbia—so that a slight delay didn’t make that big a difference.
- Trust yourself. If there’s anything that I’ve learned over the years, it is to trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right—from staying in a certain campground to climbing up a particularly steep mountain—don’t do it. Period. I’m pretty sure that this reason alone is why I’ve lived this long.
Age may just be a number, but hopefully, with added years comes extra wisdom. Have you learned anything important about travel as you got older?
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