I recently took a road trip to Sacramento, driving alone up the I-5. This is a trip I made many, many times when I was working, and although the I-5 has never been known as a picturesque drive, I always loved it. The California landscape is never boring to me. The mountains are lovely, even sensuous with their undulating contours and changing colors. Wild radish and mustard, lush California lilacs, line the roadside. The tumbleweed and scrub grass scratch the dirt, farmlands have gone to dust, trees dead and uprooted, alongside carefully tended groves of citrus or almonds. Sheep and cattle graze the hills, and horses, too. If you are lucky, you can catch a rainbow or a sundog. I saw a tiny little cloud this time, with a turquoise tail, fading slowing to rose and then pink. Astonishing in the hot, barren, blue sky.
I approached this trip with trepidation. Even though it was to be a holiday, a break, some time away just for me, I realized as I was packing that it had been a long time since I had made the trip alone. Yes, I traveled it hundreds of time on my own when I was working, but I have been retired for over seven years now, and in all that time I have not made that trip without my husband or a friend at my side.
Everyone knows that a “journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Walking means you lift one foot up and then fall onto the other, expecting your knees and your hips, and your entire body to balance and land expertly without fail. When children learn to walk, they learn to fall safely from one foot to the other. And they usually fall down many times before they have perfected walking or running.
You may realize this whole process needs to repeat itself when you find yourself on the other side of middle-age. Older people can fall down when they find their knees or hips are not quite as responsive as they expect them to be. Or when they find they haven’t lifted one foot quite high enough to make that stair, or curb, or bump in the road. It can create a certain kind of fear – a fear of very ordinary, everyday tasks – that threatens to restrict choice, narrow life, keep us in our chairs. Taking certain risks becomes overwhelming, even though those risky behaviors were once taken for granted.
Who will catch you if you fall? When you are very young, your parents catch you. And it is a game “Daddy, Daddy catch me!” and you jump or you run away. And Daddy catches you. Someone holds the bike when you are learning to ride. Someone holds your hand when you are learning to roller skate. Someone shows you how to dive, “spots” you as you do a back-flip. Someone teaches you to knit, and picks up the stitches you drop.
But what if? What if something happens along this solitary journey I am undertaking now? Who will catch me if I fall?
Practically speaking, it will be the triple A that comes to my rescue if the car breaks down, or I suppose 911 if I break down. But it also is true that I must come to my own rescue even if I am to begin this journey at all. I must go carefully, take into consideration my age and limitations, and be aware. I must do the equivalent of that first step, I must back out of the driveway!
I have learned that making assumptions about what I am capable of accomplishing is risky business at this point in my life. But that doesn’t mean I have to limit myself to a range of motion that makes me feel trapped. There are ways to do things safely, ways to catch oneself before a fall, that those of us in the last quarter of our lives may have already learned in matters of the heart and relationships. But we need to continue to find ways to protect ourselves in the practical matters of living. We need to plan for best ways to keep ourselves mobile, best ways to keep ourselves engaged without risking everything. I backed carefully out of the driveway.
The drive was an easy one, very little traffic, and I made good time. I did find that the last hour was more tiring than I had remembered, but I took it easy and reached my bed and breakfast before rush hour.
And when I saw the staircase I would be negotiating at the bed and breakfast I had chosen, I reminded myself that it was one step at a time, holding the handrail, and making a careful assent and descent, and I would reach my goal safely. I would catch myself before I fell.
And I did. It was a lovely trip.