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A Guest with a Quest

Cotswolds villageImage by Ian Proctor from Pixaby

One of the great joys of having a home in Italy is hosting friends and family coming to sample a little la dolce vita.  April brings the beginning of the time of year when people start venturing out to parts unknown, so our little guest apartment is booked with visitors.  Travel is a funny thing – sometimes people travel with unlikely partners.  Friends that you may not be particularly close to but share mutual interests or family members that plant a seed about a destination that somehow takes root in your brain. 

We recently hosted a woman very familiar to us who was traveling with her 86-year-old father whom we had never met.  I’m not entirely sure that 86 is the oldest guest we’ve had (I don’t make it a practice to ask the age of my guests, but have a general idea), but it is certainly in the top two.  I’ve written before about the power of being around young people, but being around this man was an inspiration that I didn’t expect.

Harry is a man with one of the most interesting life stories I’ve ever heard.  A theologian and attorney, a father and a widower, he is determined to make the most of the time he’s been given here.  Listening to him talk about his experiences, an image emerges of a man who never compromised his principles, but who did it with grace and dignity.  I was drawn into his story and felt like I had known him for years after our first happy hour. 

But for all his accomplishments, the most impressive thing about Harry is that he hatched an idea to backpack through Italy and England.  Alone.  His daughter, our friend, decided that she might like to visit Italy and England as well, so they compromised on a trip where they’re taking the train through Italy from Bologna to Sorrento, then she will leave Harry in London to do his solo backpacking.

Now I don’t know about you, but the thought of backpacking through any country gives me pause.  It sounds like a great idea and it appeals to me on a spiritual level, but I’m way too lazy to make it happen.  I like to take long walks and can tromp up the 463 stairs of the top of the Florence duomo, but give me a car or a train or a bus or a motorscooter – anything with wheels – to get from point A to point B.  Traveling like a turtle with my belongings on my back is not something I would naturally be drawn to. 

Harry has decided to hike the path of the Thames River from its source in the Cotswolds to Heathrow Airport.  The entire path is about 185 miles, although he’s only doing something like 150 miles.  Only.  I looked at the route and the charming names of the places he’ll visit – Cricklade, Teddington, Petersham Meadows – and the sweet inns he’ll stay at along the way and started to see the pull of doing something like this.

This is something that you hear of young people doing all the time.  I see them hiking around here with their backpacks bulging and their hiking boots dusty.  They look so vital and healthy and, well, young.  I imagine hiking in England is a bit easier than hiking in Tuscany.  I know it’s hilly, but not like here.  It’s also along a river, so it should be relatively flat.  It makes me wonder what other hikers Harry will encounter along the path.  Maybe this is a route that draws older people instead of the youngsters that I see climbing the impossible hills here.

This isn’t the kind of vacation you would expect of an 86-year-old.  We have such a notion of what it is to age and what that means to our bodies and minds.  Let’s face it, 86 is old by any standard.  But Harry has a young spirit and that spirit comes through in his attitude, his demeanor, and his worldview.  He’s lived his 86 years with an open mind and an open heart.  I know his children must be concerned about him doing this solo hike through the English countryside.  But what a marvelous thing it is that he wants to do it.  I hope he completes his entire route.  I hope his feet don’t get too sore and his back doesn’t ache from the pack he carries.  I hope he has time to pause along the way and reflect in the pristine woods.  I hope that his spirit, his wonderful spirit, is touched by what he encounters and that he winds up at Heathrow with yet another chapter of his fascinating life story.

We learn so much from the young and from the old.  We think we need to look out for both of them, these bookends of life.  It’s the part in the middle where we make the wrong decisions that we have no excuses for.  When you’re young, bad choices are chalked up as lessons and excused as inexperience.  When you’re old, bad choices are often seen as slippings of the mind, that thing that we all dread more than death itself.  But when you’re in the middle, bad choices are you own fault.  You have no excuse.  So I look forward to aging so that I can be given cover for my own flights of fancy.  In many people’s eyes, I’m already at that age.  But I, like Harry, don’t see myself as old yet.  I’m certainly out of middle age and slipping into seniordom.  I hope when I cross that imaginary line I don’t know it.  I hope when I’m 86 I’ll shock everyone by wanting to walk the Great Wall of China. 

Harry, I wish you all the luck in the world.  You have inspired me on so many levels.  I cannot wait to hear about your adventures along the Thames.  I hope the weather is uncharacteristically good and you encounter only kind souls who share a piece of their spirit with you, as you will share yours with them.  Thank you for your visit and for reminding me that life is what you make it and you can make it whatever you want. 

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