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Observations: Courage in getting older

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image Standing on a beach near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, there were no lifeguards. Sometimes there aren’t lifeguards in life, either, but that shouldn’t always prevent you from jumping in. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Bravery? Maybe. But with age also comes wisdom.


I made the trip to Cambridge, Maryland in two days of driving, the reverse of a trip that took me two months on my sailboat two years ago. It is amazing how different your perspective can be at six miles per hour, versus 70 miles per hour.

The thing about living in a long and skinny state is that, if driving, there are only a handful of ways in and out. It doesn’t take long for that handful to get old, seeing the same old things over and over again. Fortunately, Florida is not a place to take for granted. While in some areas things move fairly slowly, they do move and nothing ever seems to remain the same. Besides, it’s almost a sure bet that a few hours spent on any Florida roadway will yield something colorful.

For those traveling from the Tampa Bay Area to the east coast, the most sensible route involves taking I-75 to Ocala and then U.S. 301 to I-10 just outside of Jacksonville. Yes, you could take I-4 but who in their right mind would?  You never know when the muck might start on fire again, closing down the freeway, or if your life time clock will be punched by a wayward car careening over the median from the opposite direction. It happens.

Regardless, U.S. 301 is a perfectly nice drive, almost pastoral, but it does include Florida’s presumptive Trifecta of Travel Terror in the forms of three small towns. Waldo and Lawtey have a long-standing reputation of being speed traps and Starke, situated between them, has a bunch of old-fashioned, not-well-timed stoplights. Starke also is the place where people go to be executed and there’s just something scary about that.

I’ve never been stopped for speeding in any of those towns but some years ago, one or more drivers had apparently had enough of being forced to do the speed limit. Black billboards with giant, shocking-yellow letters went up along the road warning drivers that the town ahead was a speed trap. The billboards went unanswered for a time but soon enough, the town, or, perhaps, a concerned resident, decided to respond with a billboard of their own, explaining that it isn’t a speed trap, they are just concerned about public safety.

On my recent trip north, I saw someone pulled over in one of the towns. They had jumped the gun a bit, accelerating well before the 55 mile per hour speed limit sign (it was in sight, it just hadn’t been reached yet). Regardless, based on what I saw, I’m not sure the town would qualify as a “Boss Hog Southern Justice” kind of place. The police officer was a man in his 30s, bespectacled, balding slightly and looked to be a pretty nice sort of guy, as opposed to the “giant hulk of a tobacco-chewing-leviathan-swinging-a-billy-club” kind of guy. I’d be willing to bet that the police officer has never billy-clubbed anyone in his life. He looked like the kind of guy that liked to go home and read a good book.

Regardless, I don’t think anyone could make a great argument that law enforcement is the true problem on our highways today. Of course, we all know the true problem is stupid people. People who choose to text, email, read, apply makeup or shave (yes, I’ve seen both) and watch movies from the driver’s seat while hurtling down the highway at more than 70 miles per hour.

Suffice to say that driving I-95 amongst all of that made me miss freezing my tail off sailing an old boat south during an icy winter. Despite the obstacles presented by I-95-Death-Race-2013, I arrived intact in Maryland and for the first time since sailing off, pulled into the little town of Cambridge.

I love the brick streets and the boulevards lined with stately old homes and big, leafy trees in Cambridge. They serve as a tangible reminder, proof, perhaps, that the world has not always been running at a breathless, breakneck pace. That the world hasn’t always been a crazy place. I spent a lot of time in this town preparing my boat for the long sail to Florida and it came to feel like home. And now, seeing it again, I suddenly became aware at how much I’ve changed in the relatively short time since I untied the dock lines. It was an awareness I wasn’t happy with.

Back then, I was standing on the cusp of a grand adventure. I’m sure it seemed like a vacation to some who read the stories but it generally didn’t feel all that vacation-like for the most part. There were long moments of boredom interspersed with distinct moments of sheer terror. Plus, with each passing day, I felt an increasing pressure to get home.

But the end result was that I accomplished something I had set out to do. I sailed a thousand miles through weather calm, cold and sometimes downright wicked. But at the end of each day, I felt as though I had accomplished something. I hadn’t lost any body parts and the boat had not sunk and, most importantly, I was at least a few miles further along towards reaching my goal.

Only two years have passed since then but I started thinking that I no longer have the energy, stamina and willingness to take risks that I had back then. Then, after some thought, I realized that I could most certainly, with a little effort, muster up the energy and stamina, but what I’m lacking is the courage to do so. That is not a pleasant revelation.

You’d think a willingness to roll the dice would increase with age. After all, I have far less to lose now in the big picture than when I was 30. Unfortunately, the opposite appears to be true and before long, some of us age and become shells of our former selves.

Fortunately, that revelation gives me the opportunity to do something about it. Yeah, if I were really brave, I would have hopped into my car and joined the madness on I-95 for the long trip back home. But with age also comes wisdom. I’ll figure out a way to summon some new courage over a glass of wine with a fine dinner aboard the Auto Train for the trip back to Florida.

Having courage doesn’t always mean you have to suffer and not everything in life needs to be a huge throw of the dice. Besides, Waldo will wait for all of us. And there, as in other aspects of life, the wise thing to do is to take it slowly and safely. Maybe what’s really happening with age is that I’m finding there can be some balance in life.

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