The Hill Ahead

A cyclist adopts a unique approach to climbing the next hill of her life.

Experienced cyclists know this, and novices are delighted to discover it: The hill up ahead you are about to climb looks bigger from a distance. As you pedal closer, its daunting incline flattens out a bit. I don’t understand the optics of this phenomenon. Each time, I remind myself, “it’s not as big as it looks.” Then I start pumping my legs to make the most of momentum and gears.

Years ago, on the precipice of retirement, I saw a different kind of hill ahead. The next two decades of my life looked like a steep climb. I wasn’t sure I had the legs for it. But with only one route available to me—up and over the last crest—I needed to start pumping.

Live-It List

I also knew I needed some momentum and the right perspective if I were going to get that hill to flatten out. So I began, idly at first, then with more intent, to compile a list of things I wanted to “do” in the coming years. “Befriend a child,” I wrote. “Give something away once a month.” When a friend referred to this growing document as a “bucket list,” I bristled. Why? A bucket list, in my mind, is a collection of exotic, once-in-a-lifetime acts to be achieved and checked off with a satisfied “Done!”

Instead, the items on my list —which I began calling a “Live-It List”—were discrete acts capable of repetition and integration into my life. Just as one turn of a bicycle wheel gets you nowhere, I surmised that a one-and-done approach would have little impact on my hill. Besides, I’d no desire to jump from an airplane or see the Taj Mahal. I wanted a blueprint for day-to-day living that might carry me to, and through, my third act. And, not incidentally, address some big questions.

How shall we live? What makes meaning? Why does this or that—or anything, for that matter —matter? These questions are implicit in every decision we make, every task we undertake, every moment of gratitude, anger, frustration, and joy. They persist, not because they can be answered, but because they must be heard. We live the answers—messily, inconsistently— rather than puzzle them out neatly. As if that were possible.

But I am a puzzler and a list-maker. A Live-it List, I thought, could be my guide on this final cycle of life.

Making the List, Checking it Twice

Creating the list took time. What did I love about my life and want more of? What was missing? How might I fill those holes? Most importantly, what were the values I wanted to embody as I aged? How might I align my everyday activities with those values?

As I worked categories emerged reflecting what I assumed would be important to me in the coming years—health, friends, giving back, and so forth. I crafted specific undertakings for each category to test my assumptions. If “family” was important to me, why hadn’t I visited my aunt in so long?  #17. Visit Aunt Joyce once a month. If “fitness” was a goal, what, exactly, would I do to get there? #8. Cycle 20 miles a week. What did “giving back” look like, in practical terms? #11. Attend volunteer orientation at local food bank.

I decided the list must be fluid and that the process of testing, evaluating, and integrating undertakings with an eye toward enrichment, rather than achievement, meant that some would fall away and others expand or change. I hoped for surprises along the way.

Climbing the Hill

Surprises there were. My early ideas of what might sustain me in the coming decades were partly right, partly wrong, and still in flux.

On a whim, I had added “go camping” to the list, something I’d never done. Did I have a glimmer that spending serious time in the great outdoors would become an integral, deeply fulfilling part of my later life? Was its addition an unconscious acknowledgment of a nascent desire to live more simply, to problem solve more self-sufficiently?

I don’t know, but my first camping trip, at 60, shifted me into a whole new gear, providing momentum that has lasted to this day. I’ve since camped across the country, built my own camper van, made friendships, learned skills, improved my fitness, and developed a relationship with nature that has fed my soul in ways I could only have imagined.

Other items left me spinning my wheels. A lover and writer of poetry, I’d included “submit poems for publication to three journals.” But when at year’s end I’d sent not a single poem anywhere, I asked myself how I felt about that. Just fine, it turns out. A little shift in perspective was all it took to flatten out that bump in the road.

The View from Here

Nine years after starting my Live-It List, the inevitable has happened: I am older and closer to the crest of the hill. I’m still cycling, though now on an e-bike, and the climb ahead is still steep.  But as I pump my way toward the top, my Live-It List is doing the job I’d hoped it would. I can feel momentum building. And, if I squint, the hill ahead doesn’t look quite so daunting.

Amy Horton is a former lawyer and current cyclist, camper, poet, and lover of the open road. A previous article on an EarthWatch adventure she did watching cranes appeared in Sierra magazine.

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