I read the other day that a growing body of research shows that people who feel younger than their age actually tend to live longer.
One British study of about 6,500 people, for example, reported that those who felt older than their age had a 41 percent greater risk of dying in the next eight years than those who felt younger than their age.
A second study found that those who had positive views of aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer than those with negative attitudes.
It seems that emotional vitality—feeling enthusiastic, hopeful, and engaged in life—is also linked with a reduced risk of heart attack and stroke.
So there is some truth to the idea that you’re only as old as you feel.
But what if you’re not feeling so young lately? No matter what your age, there can be times when you feel like things are just slowing down. Maybe you’re overworked, having trouble getting enough sleep, or simply bored with what’s going on in your life. Suddenly those calendar years can start to feel like they’re catching up with you.
I found something that helps turn back the clock: go back and retrace your steps.
The Exploration of My Youth
I had the pleasure of visiting my mom a few weeks ago. She lives on the same 10-acre ranch where I spent most of my childhood. It’s a beautiful spot, and backs up to a wide expanse of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land. We’re talking miles and miles of hills, small canyons, trails, dirt roads, and more just waiting to be explored.
As a teenager, I did a lot of that. I had my own Quarter horse mare, and she and I headed out as often as possible. (Check out the About page for a picture of her.) I rode with my mom on her Morgan mare much of the time, but sometimes she wasn’t able to accompany me. Other times, I wanted to take a day-long trip, and that was usually a solo adventure. I’d pack a lunch and go, which was fine, as long as I was back at a designated time.
After a few years of checking out all the trails, I learned that if I took one specific one that pointed south, I’d travel for about three miles in a small canyon between two hills, and emerge overlooking a wide valley. On my left would be the Grand Mesa, the largest flat-topped mountain in the world (seriously!).
In front of me, down a steep and crooked dirt road, was a brown valley marked with a number of deep gullies. Some I would discover were basically impassable on horseback, because their walls were too steep to overcome, and if you tried, they’d simply crumble underfoot and send you back down.
At the south end of the valley rose a row of small hills. The largest one, shaped like a trapezoid, sat by itself directly across from me. It had a lot of personality. I decided it was my hill, and tried one day to get to it, but I ran out of time and had to turn back. I also ran into some of those deep gullies. It would have taken me weeks to figure out how to get around all of the dips in the ground to arrive at the base of that hill. It was just too far away.
On my right rested a dirt road that wove around the base of the hills on my side of the valley, eventually coming out near the canal, where I could catch the road back home. It was a long trip, but I went that way several times.
In essence, the valley and all its many mysteries would become my favorite place to go, mainly because that was where I could continue exploring. Once I went east in the direction of the mesa, topped another high hill and came upon a doe grazing on the juniper bushes on the backside. I don’t know who was more surprised—the doe, my mare, or me! We all stood and stared at one another for a few moments, and then she ran away.
I could have kept going, down the hill and up the base of the mesa, but again, I would have needed a lot more time to have made that trip. And I was never equipped for overnight journeys. Besides, the land was full of coyotes and lynx and sometimes even mountain lions, and I didn’t fancy the idea of staying out alone all night.
Still, that area remained magical for me, as it was where I could allow my imagination to flow most freely. It was a sort of meditative experience just to ride and ride and see where the road would take me. I never ran out of places to explore, and so I was always looking forward to the next adventure.
Why do I tell you about this beautiful place? Because years later, it still held some of the essence of my youth, and recently, it gave some back to me.
Finding Everything As It Once Was
When I visit the ranch, one of the things I love to do is jog. The land out there is so soft and forgiving, it’s great on muscles and joints. I haven’t found any other land quite like it, though that in the Phoenix hills comes close.
I took a couple runs during my visit, but one day, I was in a bit of a pickle as to where to go. It had rained, and the usual dirt roads were mucky. In desert terms, that means “sliding” and “packs of heavy mud on your running shoes.” Not fun.
I didn’t want to run on the pavement, though. I do enough of that as it is, and, well, ouch!
So I went looking for some dry spots. I found them heading south. There were enough raised areas, gravel, and wild grasses that I could pick my way. Soon, I found myself headed out to the valley.
I hadn’t been there in years. So long that I’d forgotten about some of the twists and turns, the ones I used to know so well. The wide crater-like space that used to be a pond, but over the years had dried up and now was home to a rich growth of wild greens and flowers. The tall black boulder that sat on the side of the trail as if marking the halfway point. The fork in the road where you could make your choice to go up toward hte mesa or on toward the valley.
I didn’t think I would go all the way. But the further I went, the more determined I got. I had to see the valley once more.
Soon I found myself jogging steadily, feeling more energy than I had felt running in a long time. I didn’t need to stop and rest. I bounded over rocks and crevices and dodged prickly pear cactus, of which there are many. I kept thinking the valley was just around this corner, and then this one, and this one. It was getting late. The rain clouds were gathering again. It could be a disastrous trip home if they decided to let loose .
And then finally, there it was. The valley spread out before me open and breathless. Once again I heard the penetrating quiet, interrupted only once by a coyote’s cry. He’d spotted me, I was sure, and soon he turned tail and ran. A raven cawed a few times from the top of a power line, seemingly disturbed by the fact that I dared enter his kingdom. Otherwise, it was quiet, so quiet, only the breeze whistling by my ear.
The mesa rose black and magnificent on my left, the flattop partially hidden in rain clouds. On my right the dirt road made it’s way back to civilization, a couple houses barely visible in the far distance. And directly south, my trapezoid hill, the same as I remembered it, untouched, looking back at me as if in recognition.
Everything was as it had been, open, wild, peaceful. I stayed as long as I could on the top of that hill, covered in sego lilies, until the coming darkness and rain forced me to return.
Reconnect with Your Sources of Joy
I don’t get as much time these days to explore. Only on the occasional vacation do I get a few days to try some new trails. Certainly I don’t have the convenient back yard and eager horse waiting for me like I used to have when I was growing up.
But retracing my steps on that trail gave me back some of the emotions I used to feel back then. That delicious sense of freedom, of connection to nature, of wildness allowed to emerge. I ran faster and longer than I have for a long time, and I returned with cheeks flushed and a wide grin on my face. My years had fallen off me, and I felt 16 again.
We’re only as old as we feel. If your years are catching up with you, try retracing your steps. Go back to those things that brought you joy before. Most likely they will again, and you’ll get that electric-like surge of youthful power.
It feels great.
“As long as you feel young at heart, age is just a number.”