We’re not graceful people. John’s a 6-foot-1 computer scientist, and I’m a 5-foot-3 writer. Our one attempt at dance lessons was disastrous. But on the seat of his Triumph, we were like synchronized swimmers. I let go of my thoughts and let myself be carried by the wind and the road. My trust was total, and the relaxation I felt was better than any spa.
I was a single mother when I met John, with virtually no involvement from my three children’s father. I’d been responsible for everything, 24 hours a day for seven years. Now my kids were teenagers, and once a week or so, I’d get on the back of his bike and let go of everything. Sometimes I’d get so mesmerized I’d drift into a sleep-like state.
We always wore armored gear, rarely went out at night and never drank alcohol while riding.
“You have roughly 10 seconds to react when driving a car,” John said. “On a motorcycle, you have one. It’s just stupid to do something that slows you down.”
Over a dozen years, John and I traveled by motorcycle through the South Dakota Badlands, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the Northeastern seaboard and the Florida Keys.
And this year, we gave it up: sold the bike, our jackets and helmets. It’s a decision we made together, just as seamlessly as we’d leaned into that first curve. At 52 and 57, it felt like time.
I am surrounded by people who say things like “You’re only as old as you feel!” and “Fifty is the new 35.” I disagree.
There’s good intent behind these silly sayings. Stay curious. Don’t let age stop you from living well. You’re no less important or worthy because you’re older. I’m a believer in all of these things.
But there are traps in the always-young advice. I’ve watched several friends go back to school in a flurry of career renewal at 50, only to graduate with mountains of student debt and the sudden, bitter realization that the job market is chock-full of 25-year-olds who have more energy and can afford to work for less.
Dressing and looking younger can come with the demand that you spend time — and money — on spas and pricey makeup and outpatient touch-up procedures, upgrading everything from your wardrobe to your eyelids. But at some point, the effort has a hue of desperation, and that’s when it undermines you. The world is cruel to those caught trying too hard to look young. (If you don’t believe me, Google Renee Zellweger and Mickey Rourke.)
Exercise and clean food help keep a body in working order. But there are certain realities involved in being an upright mammal over 50. Menopause is an eight- to 10-year tsunami of distressing and unpredictable symptoms. Everything in an aging body feels drier from muscles to skin. Though my husband and I both work out, weigh what the charts say we should and wear ugly $200 shoes with special cushioned soles, our feet hurt like crazy at the end of every day.
It’s a tightrope walk, knowing what to give in to and what to fight. Career-wise, we’re both filled with ambition and plans. John, a computer security consultant, is working internationally in a variety of cultures and languages. I’m studying and writing in new forms. The 50s are a fabulous time to learn, without the urgencies of dating, social climbing or child rearing pinging around in your mind. Ageism in the workplace is shallow and shortsighted. There’s no question our judgment is slower, clearer, better, and we’re wiser than we’ve ever been.
But our reflexes? Our eyesight? They’re not what they once were.
After 30 years of 12-hour days in front of a screen, John needs progressive, blue-light protectant lenses to see. Street signs are large and generally unmissable. But it takes perfect vision and lightning-quick response to avoid a deer darting across the road at dusk or a texting driver who runs a red light.
I was never any help with that part — always a passenger. My ability to sit still and yield control was what made us a good team. But even that had become harder with age.
When we met, I could sit on the back of the bike unobtrusively for hours; a decade later, I ached after 30 minutes and began fidgeting after 45. The helmet was rough on my skin no matter how well I cleaned it. A couple years ago, I broke a wrist catching myself on a door frame. I’m a small person with frail bird bones.
These aren’t things we can change. No amount of $120-an-ounce botanical cream will turn back half a century’s wear on the body. To fight would be quixotic — and dangerous, mostly for us, but also for other people on the road.
Last year, we bought a house in Fayetteville, Ark., which puts on Bikes, Blues and BBQ, a mammoth motorcycle rally and festival.
We’d been warned by everyone that traffic would be terrible as tens of thousands of bikers streamed in. But what took us by surprise was the age of the crowd. The milling, leather-clad throng was overwhelmingly white-haired and around 65.
It makes sense that older people can buy more expensive, showier bikes and take time off to trek to rallies. But the Bureau of Transportation Statistics shows a national trend: The median age of motorcycle riders has shot up from 27 in 1985 to the mid-40s in 2017. Crash data is keeping pace. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 35 percent of all motorcycle fatalities occur in the 50-plus demographic, making us the age group most likely to die.
Spring comes early in Arkansas, and we live very near Pig Trail — considered by many bikers to be the best windy road in the country. Yet we’d been riding less and less, enlisting neighbors to check on the dog if we went out and didn’t come back. One afternoon, as we slowly put on our gear, John admitted he could feel his skills slipping by inches.
“I just don’t love it anymore,” he said.
I felt a wave of relief, put down my helmet and said, “Yeah, me too.”
We sold the bike just a few weeks later — to a guy in his early 60s. John went over it with the buyer part by part, both front brakes and back brakes, making sure he knew all of its idiosyncrasies before he hopped on.
“Were you sad?” friends asked. “Are you going to go out and buy another one?”
The answer is no, to both. There are many things about being younger that I yearn for. Children whipping through the house after school, laughing and calling for me. The feeling of stepping out into a crisp moonlit fall night and feeling like the world is strange and anything is possible. Smooth, toned arms.
But the motorcycle? Not at all. We had 12 years of flawless, accident-free riding that was glorious. And the moment we weren’t having fun, we stopped. No regrets.
Ann Bauer is the author of “The Forever Marriage” and other books.