Are you Too Old to Go?

A guy I’ll call Harold wrote me recently. He said (and I’m paraphrasing), “I’m seventy-one years old. I’ve always wanted to take a long saddle trip like yours. Am I too old to go?” This reminded me of a quote by Saul Bellow. “When someone asks for advice, they’re looking for an accomplice.” It also reminded me of my dad, Art Harberts.

My dad Art Harberts on his 87th birthday. He never was much of a cake man so I just put the candles on a bottle of his favorite whiskey, Jack Daniel’s Black Label. You can read the obit I wrote him right here.

Here’s what I wrote back to Harold. Yes, I’m paraphrasing again. “Harold. I don’t know you. I don’t know what shape you’re in, or if you can even ride a horse. I think what you’re really asking is for someone to give you permission to go do what want to do. I say you should go. Let me know how it goes. Bernie”

I can’t be Harold’s accomplice and ride into the sunset with him. I might be encouraging Harold to do something really stupid. But my gut is that at his age, Harold’s probably got his life squared away enough to take the trip. He didn’t say how far he wanted to go. He didn’t say how long he wanted to be out. He didn’t say what obligations he did or didn’t have. So why should I discourage him?

Harold reminds me of my dad. I recently wrote how he sailed 19 days with me on my sailboat Sea Bird from Oriental, North Carolina to St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands

He was an unlikely candidate to go offshore sailing on a small sailboat.

He was 72, had high blood pressure, needed a hip replacement, walked with a cane, and had one of those pillboxes with seven slots in it, each labeled with a day of the week. Each of those slots had about half a dozen pills in them from high blood pressure medication to aspirin to some round white ones I had no idea why he was taking. When we got to St Thomas, he hung out with me for two months. I got a job training horses. During the day, while I was off working, he hung out on Sea Bird and read. Weekends and evenings, we pottered around the island. He walked with a cane. Yes, he walked slowly. But he got around.

My dad, Art Harberts, on my old sailboat Sea Bird (St Thomas, US Virgin Islands)

We walked on Megan’s Bay. I walked barefoot and he wore his old leather sandals. His cane left a hole next to every sandal print. We watched the horse races at the Clinton E Phipps race track. We sat on the front row of the bleachers because he couldn’t climb them.

We rolled dice with the bartender at the Poor Man’s Bar in Red Hook to see if we paid double or nothing for our drinks. When we won, we drank double. When we lost, we drank double. Whatever we rolled, his hip hurt a little less and it was okay. He was off on his adventure instead of sitting at home wondering if he should have gone.

A few months later he flew home. It was one of the greatest times I ever spent with my dad. It meant as much to him as it did to me. He lived into his late eighties and cherished those memories right to the very end (you can read the obit I wrote him right here).

Something’s Going to Happen

It’s natural to wonder, at a certain age, if we’re too old to take a trip. If you’re wondering if you can do it, you probably can. From what I’ve learned in my travels, age isn’t so much a factor as how you deal with all the unexpected things that happen on a trip.

And they’re going to happen. Whether you’re 22 or 82, your horse is going to bolt. A broken bottle is going to slice your tire. Your transmission is going to pack it up. You’re going to hit a reef. Your boot is going to come apart.

And you know what? It’s going to be alright. You’ll get your horse pulled up. You’ll change the tire. You’ll figure out how to fix the engine. You’ll wait for the tide to float you off. If you punch a hole in your boat, you’ll fix it. If your boot blew up, you’ll glue it, replace it or just wear sneakers. (Free boot-gluing tip: 3M 5200 polysulfide can’t be beat.)

Fixing my wife Julia’s boot with 5200

If you’re in a bind, there’s a good chance someone will help you out. You’re out there doing what other folks have thought of doing and they’re thinking, “damn, that’s cool.” And because you’re living a tiny part of their dream, they’ll help you.

I know this first hand, as both a person that’s gotten help and given help.

A few years ago, I was driving up the highway and came across a truck and horse trailer broken down on the side of the road. I pulled over to see if I could help. The trailer had a flat tire. The woman driving didn’t have a spare tire. I helped her remove the flat tire and drove her to a tire store to have it fixed. We got the tire fixed. I helped her put it back on the trailer and she got back on the road.

I was happy to help out. I’ve done a lot of riding. I can’t always be in the saddle. But I daydream a lot about riding. So when I see someone riding, or just hauling their horses, it’s like they’re living a little part of the dream. Helping them out is a way for me to live out my dream through them.

Did you notice how I didn’t mention the woman’s age?

That’s because it doesn’t matter. Someone stopped to help her because she was out doing something cool and it caught another person’s eye and they helped.

You Ain’t What You Used to Be

You’re probably not as strong at 71 as you were at 21. Your reflexes might not be as quick and you might not be as resistant to heat and cold. But most voyages aren’t about strength. They’re about mental endurance. They’re about interacting with people you don’t know. They’re about patting a horse’s neck when you’re riding it and it acts nervous. They’re about figuring out how to mend a broken tent pole when all you have is a stick and some string. They’re about steady movement, not sprinting. They’re about eating enough, not too much. Those things are only somewhat, but not completely, related to how old you are.

Not that you can do anything at any age. If you’re older and your balance isn’t what it used to be, maybe you shouldn’t ride a skittish horse on a long-distance ride along busy highways. There are still plenty of things you can do. If you want to take a horse trip, consider shorter rides. Go for an overnight trip. If that works, go for a longer one. Most states in this country are blessed with enough public lands to trail ride on for weeks, if not months, on end.

If you can’t ride a horse, ride a bike. If that doesn’t speak to you, go on foot. Or float a river. Or travel in a camper and day hike. Whatever you want to do, go do it.

Ride Like Mesannie

When she was 62, Mesannie Wilkins was a mess. She’d worked hard all her life. She didn’t have much money. She was in poor health. Her doctor told her she didn’t have much longer to live so she should take it easy. She’d always wanted to see California but never had the money or time to get there. Many people would have listened to the doctor and settled for the easy way out. Not Mesannie. She bought a horse named Tarzan, loaded up her dog Depeche Toi and headed out from Maine to Los Angeles. She left in winter, which is crazy. She suffered all sorts of hardships and yet she made it. Her book “Last of the Saddle Tramps” is one of my favorite accounts of long-distance saddle riding. (Mesannie is also the subject of Elizabeth Lett’s book “Ride of Her Life”)

Mesannie ended up living into her eighties and I’m convinced it was the trip that bought her two decades more life.

Mesannie Wilkins’ book “Last of the Saddle Tramps”: a must-read for anyone that enjoys adventure, horse travel, or just a great yarn

Go Ahead and Ask me

So, go ahead and tell me what adventure you want to tackle. Then ask me if you’re too old to go.

I’ll be happy to be your accomplice. I’ll probably tell you that yes, you should go.

Let me know how it goes!

Maybe Just Want to Read About a Great Saddle Adventure

I’d be happy to let you know when my new book “Trash to Triumph” comes out. It’s about my seven-month saddle journey from North Carolina to Idaho with my mules Brick and Cracker.

My mule Brick napping (Atomic City, Idaho)

Just sign up for my newsletter and I’ll send you an email when the book is ready. You can do that by clicking right here.


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