Andrew Terrill

The outdoor diary of a writer, photographer, and wilderness wanderer

Acting My Age

I ENJOYED A memorable encounter this weekend. It occurred while I was walking home from camp, and it involved a young couple, the only two people I met all morning out in the snowy woods. We didn’t speak for long – less than five minutes – but the exchange was unforgettable. It was heart-warming at first, then comical, then thought-provoking. So much was said in so few words. In fact, an entire chapter could be written about it if I wanted to go deep…

But I’ll try to keep it as short as I can!

andrew terrill winter camp
In camp, Saturday morning, February 10.

Conditions when the encounter took place were magical: a February morning newly softened with feather-light snow. Ten or so inches had fallen overnight and flakes were still wafting down. Trees were heavily laden. Sharp-edged rocks had been smoothed into sinuous pillows. And a trail that had been icy and slick the day before now provided sure footing. I was following its seductive twists through the winter forest with a broad grin of delight plastered across my face when the couple appeared ahead… and I noticed right away that they were both grinning, too.

“A big smiles day!” I observed when we drew closer. They happily agreed.

winter woods in snow colorado foothills 10 february 2024
A snow-softened day.

The pair were young, early twenties I’d guess now, although assessing their age didn’t cross my mind at the time. All I really noticed were the smiles, clear evidence of ‘joy in the moment’ – joy I could completely identify with. In fact, I more than identified with it; I felt myself feeding off it. Their smiles and joy further increased my smile and joy. And I could tell that they felt the same way. We were complete strangers, and yet here we were already on the same page, sharing identical emotions, elevating one another. Their smiles said everything. We feel the same as you! This moment: wow! This forest, this snow: wow! Just being here: wow!

It was a real connection, instantly achieved, and it was profoundly heart-warming. A beautiful reminder: we are the same! It’s something too many people too often forget.

winter woods in snow colorado foothills 10 february 2024

With enthusiasm, we began chatting. We swapped opinions on the location and conditions; our opinions matched. Then, prompted by my English accent, we began a ‘where are you from?’ Q&A followed by ‘and what brought you here?’ For their part, they were from Connecticut, in the area to study at Golden’s School of Mines. For my part, I briefly summed up my ‘previous life’ as a long-distance wanderer, and explained how it had led to meeting my wife here in the Rockies then moving to be with her. On a roll, I gushed about how extraordinary it still felt even after twenty years to live where I could easily walk from home into a snowbound forest. (And, for the record, it does still feel extraordinary. It’s something I will never take for granted.) Possibly, I got carried away explaining this – speaking with too much exuberance, too much joy in the moment – because the next question caught me off guard:

“If you don’t mind,” the girl suddenly asked, “how old are you?”

andrew terrill hiking winter colorado foothills

I laughed at that. Couldn’t help it. A spontaneous burst to match a spontaneous question. I laughed because the girl looked instantly embarrassed, as though she hadn’t seen her question coming. But I laughed, mostly, because the observation behind the question was clear: you look, well, oldish, and yet here you are, playing in the snow, raving about life, happy as a toddler on Christmas morning. You don’t seem to be acting your age

The question, and everything that informed it, was fascinating! I knew from how it was asked, and from the girl’s face, that no rudeness or judgement was intended. And certainly, no offense was taken. Quite the reverse! But still, deeply ingrained societal beliefs and expectations about age lay within it.

Finally, I got my laughter under control. “I’m fifty-four.” I answered, grinning broadly. “Old enough to know that doing this,” I gestured at what I was doing, backpacking in winter, “is exactly what fifty-four year olds should be doing on a snowy Saturday morning!”

mount galbraith in heavy snow

Eventually, after chatting and laughing and sharing the moment for a while more, we parted ways – as instant friends who will likely never meet again. As I walked on, I couldn’t stop smiling at the encounter, but especially at The Question. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. There was a great deal within it that could be unpacked, such as: how is one supposed to act at certain ages? And: where do these age expectations come from? And: do we have to follow them? Do they really mean anything, anyway?

But, rather than heading down any of these thought trails, I took a different fork and focused instead on my age, on how old I felt at that precise moment – or, rather, on how ridiculously and vigorously and vibrantly young I felt. Why, I wondered, do I feel so damn good?

hiking winter colorado foothills

The answer came right away: because of nature. Because, since stepping out my front door the previous day, nature had been stirring my senses and instincts, filling in the missing pieces of being fully human that indoor life couldn’t touch… doing what it always did, and had been doing for decades, essentially: keeping me ‘young’…

Physically, my body is now well into decline. This is a fact. As a life-long runner, as someone who has been in tune with their body for decades and who knows what he was once capable of (which was, I discovered, far more than I ever imagined), the evidence of decline is irrefutable. It’s there in black and white: the stopwatch doesn’t lie! And neither does how I feel lie: the heaviness and tiredness now felt during (and after) hard physical activities, and even during normal daily life, is an undeniable reality. Please understand, I’m not sharing this to whine about it. I’m well aware that fifty-four will appear young from certain perspectives and that outings I take might make it look as though I’m still in the prime of fitness. But the simple truth is I’m not what I once was. I’m not even close. The fitness and resilience that I once marvelled at has gone. Back when I was at my fittest – at twenty-seven I reckon, in the Northern Apennines during my longest walk – I could tramp over mountains all day beneath an epic load until I could barely take another step, then bounce right back and do it again the following day… and then again the day after that… and then again…

andrew terrill apennines italy 1997
At twenty-seven: resilient and unstoppable!

But these days, it’s not so much resilience as resistance. So much of what used to be possible is genuinely impossible. And this decline appears to be accelerating: physical youth fading at an exponential rate. Which shouldn’t be surprising. After all, at fifty-four I’m closer to eighty than to twenty-seven…

And yet, as I strode through the forest, grinning broadly, filled to the brim by an overdose of the miracle drug that is nature, high on wonder and awe, I felt as though I were still twenty-seven, and acted as though I were still twenty-seven…

And this is why I’m writing this blog. This is the point of all this waffle, the reason why I’ve shared the “how old are you?” question. It’s this: that nature can keep us feeling young even when we are not. It can keep us acting young.

hiking winter colorado foothills 10 february 2024
Acting my age!

As we all know, staying physically active throughout our lives has immense long-term health benefits, not only on our lifespan but also on our healthspan (the span of life within which we enjoy good health). But there’s another critical aspect to long-term health that doesn’t so often seem to be considered, something that I’ll call our ‘happyspan’ – a span of life that I think is just as important as our healthspan.

It’s my experience that nature increases our happyspan. It makes us happier for longer. And it can rekindle happiness when happiness seems to be fading. I’ve felt it myself, many times. When I’ve felt tired and jaded, a short stroll somewhere natural swiftly renews happiness. A great many factors explain this – science is finally getting a good handle on exactly how complex environmental stimuli found in nature cause all manner of beneficial neurological responses. Not that the science matters. The beautiful thing is, we don’t have to know or understand how it works for it to work – it just does. The mood boost is an instinctive response, a natural response, hard-wired into us. Step away from the demanding human world into nature and happiness will likely follow… especially if stepping into nature becomes a regular practice.

As I see it: don’t only schedule time to exercise. Schedule time for nature!

morning light forest snow mount gabraith - 4 feb 2024

I continued pondering on all this as I paced onward, and it led to one more ‘beautiful thing’, a final happy realisation grounded in direct observation: that even as we age, even when physical decline becomes a fact: happiness doesn’t have to decline. I paused for a moment. What an idea! Happiness doesn’t have to age! Striding on again, I knew deep down that I was not as physically fit as I’d been at twenty-seven… but I also saw that I was as happy. Immersed in the winter wonderland, I was, at that moment, as happy as a toddler on Christmas morning. Yes, I might not have been acting the age I looked, but I was acting the age I felt.

And that’s what counts. That’s the simple but profound truth of it. The joy of it! Nature can unlock the feeling of youth. It can unlock happiness. It can unlock the joy in being alive that modern life can too easily lock away.

Some of you already know this of course. But if you don’t, you can test it for yourself. Get out into the woods or up a mountain. Or stroll around the local park. Go on, I challenge you: do it! Go increase your happyspan. Get out into nature and act your age. Your felt age. Your happy age.

And don’t just do it once. Keep on doing it.

sunrise over golden snowy morning mount gabraith





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