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Over the Hill
...and laughing down the slope

by Julia Sneden

The other day I received one of those black-bordered cards with "Over The Hill" printed in large letters on the front. It was an invitation to the 50th birthday party of a friend, and gave me a good indication that the party would be full of black balloons and tacky jokes. No thank you. Not for this ancient hill-climber. Laughing at old age takes a bit of brio, and I'm happy to muster that whenever possible. But that "Over The Hill" stuff turns me off. 

Face it: the climb up wasn't any picnic, so the trip down ought to be a lot easier, and a lot more fun! Where do people get off behaving as if the down slope were a lousy place to be?

When my brother and I were children, the school bus dropped us off at the foot of a large hill. We had to hike up a steep mile and a half to get home.  It was wartime, and the school board in its wisdom decreed that there was enough gasoline for just one trip up that hill per day. It never occurred to us to question why they picked us up near the top of the hill in the morning, when we were rested and could easily have run downhill to the bus stop, but in the afternoon, when we were tired, delivered us to the foot and left us to trudge UP. Their decision left me incredibly fit, and with calf muscles that to this day bulge like softballs.

In my late teens, I was invited to join a hike up a small mountain on the Appalachian Trail. The mountain was called Shuckstack, and my friends and I were told that it was a challenging climb. Nowadays my rock climbing, glacier-hiking sons would ridicule that claim, but at the time, Shuckstack sounded like a real adventure. I was confident that I was up to the hike, even though I was by then in college and a long way from the school bus stop of my childhood. Little did I realize what dormitory life had done to my level of fitness! The first part of the climb was very steep, and the day was hot and humid. I huffed and puffed and sweated and tried not to whimper. There was no conversation in our small group, only an occasional muttered curse or groan.

Once the initial, steep ascent was past, the trail ran along a wooded ridge, full of bushes that caught at us, poison ivy that we tried to avoid and fallen trees that we had to struggle over. Then came another long, steep climb. By the time we reached the top, we were completely out of breath, dehydrated (this was in the days before anyone thought of carrying bottled water), and almost too hot to care that we were at the summit. The views were lovely, and there was a certain sense of satisfaction in having made it, but we were mighty tired. We collapsed on the rocks, tactfully trying not to sit upwind of anyone.

The descent, however, was a different matter. Suddenly, we were full of energy. We took time to notice the delicious and deceptively cool looking shade in the woods around us. We saw small flowers and vines that we had overlooked on the trudge to the top. We jumped off low rocks and clambered over fallen trees as we trotted along the ridge. We chatted happily about how difficult the climb had been, and congratulated each other on our success. We identified several birds and small critters along the trail. When we got to the bottom, we took off our shoes and socks and waded in the lovely, clear stream where we had started our climb. We collapsed in the car on the way to a friend's house where a big victory feast awaited us.

That Shuckstack experience is probably a pretty good metaphor for a life's journey. The trip up was hard, and we were too concentrated on succeeding to enjoy our surroundings very much. The very brief stop at the summit was exhilarating, but we were still too stunned by the struggle to celebrate our accomplishment. But the trip down was full of fun and mutual congratulations, with opportunities to appreciate the surroundings and each other. Coming away from the summit I did sport a pair of huge, painful blisters, and at one point took a tumble, and slid down a granite slope for about 30 feet, giving myself a week's worth of minor aches and pains. But such small discomforts were unimportant compared to the triumph of completing the hike successfully. 

It doesn't do to make too close and glib a comparison, of course. For many of us, the chronological down slope isn't nearly as trouble-free as that hike back down the mountain. Bruises and blisters gained along the trail are nothing compared to the indignities and ailments that come with age (and sometimes the poverty that accompanies it).

Nonetheless, life's down slope shouldn't be undersold. It can be a time of great rewards and possibilities. It takes a bit of determination and imagination to navigate it with style and humor, but it can be a pretty good ride.

Of course there are some negatives, but then, there are negatives at any stage of life. If being over the hill means having to wear bifocals and comfortable shoes, it helps to recall that being young often meant that (in an effort to look adult) you wore spike heels that hurt your feet. 
Being over the hill should mean that we've come to some kind of self-knowledge and peace with the things that have - or have not - happened in our lives. It should mean that life's lessons have begun to sink in, and that we may even have some wisdom to pass on to others. If we're lucky, we have surrounded ourselves with family or friends or both.

There is much to recommend life on the down slope. We can celebrate the things we used to hate doing and no longer have to do. It's true, for instance, that I miss my students and my fellow teachers now that I'm retired, but I do NOT miss having to set my alarm clock. I do NOT miss having to be dressed, brushed, and out of the house by 7:30 a.m., Monday through Friday, no matter what the weather. I do NOT miss conducting parent conferences or back-to-school nights. I do NOT miss having to scrape my windshield on an icy morning. And I most certainly don't miss feeling continually exhausted as I worked to fit my career as a wife, mother, daughter and grandmother around the edges of my career as a teacher.

I find that it helps to laugh, here on the down slope. Friends have become more important than ever. When we share stories of life's latest annoyances and indignities, even the problems of old age can seem funny. There is great strength in realizing that we are aren't alone on this down slope, and that the ride will be interesting, all the way to the foot of the mountain. But I can't help thinking that it will be nice if there's a cool stream and a victory feast waiting for us at the bottom.



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