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When Selfishness May Be the Right Choice

An avid hiker finds that yielding to her partner for the sake of togetherness isn't working


spinner image a woman hiking up a hill alone
SÉBASTIEN THIBAULT

Paul showed up for our first hiking date 34 years ago wearing Italian loafers and carrying a Diet Coke.

Seven muddy miles later, his feet stained vermilion and paved with blisters, my parched Long Island–born beau wrapped me in his arms and asked which trail was up next. Paul was (and still is) no Jon Krakauer. But after years on the dating scene, I had finally found a smart, funny New Yorker willing to go into the woods with me. And with that, we were off and running.

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During our first months together, I shared with Paul my favorite trails within two hours of Greenwich Village. On our one-year dating anniversary, I helped him buy his first pair of boots and we hiked New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Two years later, Paul proposed in the Connecticut woods.

Health issues get in the way of adventures

Over the decades that followed, we moved to the burbs and started a small brood. It wasn’t the rugged existence I’d dreamed of. But we built a great life together in the civilized world, and Paul headed into the wild with me — and eventually our two sons — whenever our schedules allowed. We made some of our sweetest memories there, from the cliffs of California’s Big Sur to the Adirondacks rimming New York’s Lake George.

At points in our 40s, I fantasized about life once the kids had flown. After our careers calmed. Maybe Paul would finally go all in, get into fighting shape and buy a backpack. We would segment hike the Appalachian Trail. Do hut-to-hut trips in the Whites or the Alps.

As those years neared, though, our bodies had their own plans. Mine held up OK. But old soccer injuries haunted Paul’s knees. His once-mild asthma grew more taxing. A childhood seizure disorder came back to roost, bringing waves of drama, dread and doctor visits into both our realities.

There’s also this: My passion for everything wild, dirty and difficult never did become Paul’s, regardless of how mightily and perhaps foolishly I tried to bring him over. Healthy or not, he would be grunting up those hills mainly to humor me.

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So I let go of the rough stuff. We found other types of adventures. Driving Highway 1 from San Francisco to L.A. A snowy week in Quebec City at Christmas. Working remotely from an Airbnb for three music-filled weeks in Nashville. We’ve soaked up every minute and basked in each other’s company, fully recognizing how fortunate we are.

And yet. The mountains whisper in my ear at times like forsaken lovers. My heart still feels their pull.

I have friends­ — men and women — in similar situations. While they remain physically strong, their partners are dealt a different hand. Or while they hunger for new adventures, the person they hold dearest may be happier smelling the roses at home.

To me, and I’m sure to many others in long marriages, it seems we have to choose. We either let our passions and abilities fall by the wayside in the name of our maturing partnership, or we pursue what makes us happy and fulfilled, leaving the person we love on the sidelines.

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But what if that’s a false choice? What if we can make the most of our days together and still go after our own dreams before it’s too late? As far as my own body is concerned, I don’t know if next year, or even next week, I’ll be as strong or as capable as I am today.

That is how I found myself this year with a full pack on my back, my best friend from high school by my side, on a wind-pelted trail in the heart of Patagonia.

Checking off a bucket list item, without my spouse

Backpacking at the bottom of the Earth had topped my bucket list practically forever. But the idea of spending so many precious vacation days and dollars on a trip without Paul had never crossed my mind.

As my 60th birthday neared this year and talk of celebrating picked up, however, I reconsidered. I knew I didn’t want a party. I didn’t want presents. I wanted to take on Patagonia while I still could.

When I told Paul how I wanted to mark my big birthday, and that he wasn’t part of the plan, I knew he was a little hurt. But the guy came around. He kept me company at the REI camping store as I fleshed out my gear list. He greeted my every call from down yonder with an exuberant yelp, peppering me with questions about the mountain huts where we slept each night, about the Antarctic wind that blew our hair and bodies sideward in every picture, about the jagged peaks I conquered and the sloppy tears of joy covering my face in that last, brilliant shot surrounded by mountains and screamingly blue skies. And he was there at Newark Airport to scoop me up — a woman exhausted and rumpled but utterly sated and ready to take on her 60s. A woman with fewer regrets on her life list. A woman completely besotted with a man who loves her enough to send her off into the wild without him.

At some point this summer when the air is soft and the sun is warm, Paul and I will find a way to celebrate my 60th birthday together. Sitting somewhere with sturdy shoes on our feet and good bourbon in hand, we’ll toast this next chapter and hold each other close. Hello, 60. Either/or is indeed done. It’s time for this/and. Doing it all. Together. Alone. However we can. For as long as we possibly can.

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