Peak Experiences Around the World

The mountains of Central America are generally off the tourist circuit, but everyone we met on our road trip went out of their way to be helpful.

I love retirement! After 30 years hunkered down with single parenting, professional work, and home ownership, I was ready to stand up and shout “Liberté!” and set out to explore this brave new world. I soon found a companion: The online personals showed me a lithe, gray-haired man on a rocky, alpine ridge high in the North Cascades. My one-line overture—“That looks like my kind of place”—kindled a partnership unimaginable in midlife. The freedom, perspective, and grace of maturity opens new windows!

I am now geographically unstable, wandering between Alaska, Seattle, and the world at large. My Seattle home is an unfinished house-barge that Mike-the-artist is creating. After four years we still have no bathroom or stove, but it’s not that different from my early years in a summer cabin. The dancing figures on the windowsill, made out of the leads from wine bottles, are joyful companions. I devote my precious time to grandkids, civic action, writing, travel, and climbing. And I get eight hours of sleep on a regular basis!

We love the mountains. I am mindful that my aging body is no match for my youthful ambitions, but I have great role models in my older climbing buddies. Tom Choate (who calls himself “the mountain goat”) set the record as the oldest person to summit Denali despite his hip, knee, and foot problems. He knows how to manage his disabilities with pacing, medication, and the support of younger climbers who find him inspirational. Kay McCarthy no longer climbs, but she still launches multiweek paddling trips in the wilds of Alaska with her much-younger husband. Paul Emerson suffered severe osteoporosis and was hunched over, but he still knew how to use his hiking staff, weight, and balance to safely ford a mountain stream.

I have shed my heavy, 30-year-old gear for an ultralight backpack. I protect my knees with trekking poles. Although I have metatarsalgia, slight osteoarthritis, and tendonitis in my feet, I manage these with good boots, custom orthotics, prophylactic foot exercises, and vitamin I (ibuprofen). With this regimen—plus attention to how I walk and the pacing and perseverance I’ve learned over a lifetime—I have climbed the highest summit in every country in Central America. We are now planning a 502-mile hike along the crest of the Pyrenees. When I can’t hike anymore, I will take up biking. When I can’t bike anymore, I will ride the mules to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. When I can’t ride the mules anymore, I will roll my wheelchair through the arboretum.

People were among the joys of our climbing trip in Central America. The mountains are generally off the tourist circuit, and everyone we met on our road trip—from officials to gas attendants to local people—was honest, friendly, and willing to go well out of their way to be helpful. For example, while heading for the summit of Cerro El Pital, the highest point in El Salvador, we were halfway up the steepest, curviest, narrowest mountain road we’d ever seen when the engine of our VW Eurovan started making a horrible racket. We pulled over. Mike had been staring at the engine for about 20 minutes when an extended-cab Ford full of Salvadorans on a family outing pulled up. Despite little shared language, the muscular guy leading the family expedition went right to work, diagnosed the problem, improvised a temporary solution, and got us on our way back down.

Later,  at a used auto parts store in northern Honduras, we tried to explain in Spanish what we were looking for when the lean guy in line behind us said—in perfect American English—“May I help you?” For more than two hours, in the middle of his workday, Rafael translated for us and helped find a creative work-around for our problem—then he invited us to spend the night at his house with his two kids.

Similarly, we didn’t have the requisite four-wheel drive for the access road to Cerro Mogoton, the highest summit in Nicaragua, but decided to just go and see how far we might get. We ended up parking on the side of the dirt road and getting a ride with the Jimenez brothers on their way to their finca. After our hike, they gave us a tour of their coffee operations and dropped us back at our van.

We returned home from our 15,000-mile road trip with vivid memories, nourished spirits, and a new sense of kinship with people throughout the Americas. We may not ever manage such an ambitious trip again, but the memories and satisfaction from what we accomplished—physically, logistically, and emotionally—will abide with us the rest of our lives.

Sharman Haley retired from a 30-year career in research, teaching, and public policy. She now devotes her time to civic activism, writing, and adventure travel. Read more of her writing at rauxaseny.blogspot.com.

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