Don’t let her small, withered frame fool you, Dee is the baddest 85 year old to walk this planet. Her petit face is framed by short white hair, and her bright, restless green eyes scrutinize the faces of those hanging on to her every word. If you didn’t know any better you would think she was a woman at least two decades younger than she is – especially if you scanned through her recent passport pages.
Her story started back again, painting the picture of her rickety bus ride through one of the 180 small towns she trekked through in Costa Rica during her three month stay backpacking from tip to tip of the country. Bunking in youth hostels or house sitting for friends of a bygone era, she was always the oldest traveler, and certainly the oldest solo-female traveler, I have ever encountered.
She accentuated her stories of the scorpions in the shower, the languid iguanas in her bed, and intrigued college students, with bright pictures and selfies – often with men that are far more attractive than the ones that I know. Her joy and infectious laughter about her quirky misadventures filled the room and we, her captive audience, found ourselves wondering how someone who could easily be considered in the very last hours of her sunset years could still be so badass.
A decade or two ago Dee found herself widowed and childless with a retirement unspent and a house too big for her needs. She could retreat to life as a snowbird in some big cookie cutter community of aged conformity in Florida or she could do something a bit different. So she made a decision. Ditching her sedentary life of cleaning, making dinner, and tending to a husband, she sold her house, her car, all of her clothes except that that would fit into a suitcase, and set off to see the world.
Bouncing between continents, staying in youth hostels, and exclusively taking the roads less traveled she spends most of her year on the quest for a new experience and a new story to tell. Contemporaries her age, my own grandparents included, are usually strained, tired, and in need of a rest after a visit to a farmer’s market or a leisurely afternoon stroll. But not Dee. Here she was hiking up the side of a volcano with four students from Kansas State, learning about sloth conservation at a local rescue run by a co-op, and playing cards late into the night with several elderly gentlemen callers in a lean-to in the jungles of Monteverde. And in every picture and weaving tale, her vibrant energy was palpable, and it was soon obvious: travel had to be the fountain of youth. Her energy, her natural air of vibrancy, was only animated and made alive by the meandering tales she told.
As someone who constantly shifts between being a narcotic planner and a go with the flow (almost) hippy, I often contemplate what my geriatric years will look like. Will I be surrounded by grandchildren, or will I be alone? Will I be mobile, or will I be trapped in a nursing home with Alzeihmer’s?
Will I be alive at all?
How do you plan for a future that is merely a breath of smoke in the night? Many things get lost in the years, sometimes it might be our goals, our ambitions, and often our patience when things go awry. But looking at this steely-eyed woman, I knew that I could at least never give up enjoying the experience of the journey – finding the humor in the unplanned bumps, the occasional iguana in the bed, and everything else that this world has to offer.