America is in love with youth. We see nubile faces splattered across billboards selling everything from sports cars to hamburgers, their sex appeal being bartered for higher profit margins. Yet, once that pretty, young face gathers some smile lines here, some crow’s feet there, she is discarded, thrown aside in favor of the newer model. We fight age with everything we have. People spend hard earned money on anti-aging serums peddled by multi-billion dollar companies claiming that they alone can stop gravity and halt time, the modern-day equivalent of snake oil salesmen. In America, we hide our elderly away in nursing homes, effectively segregating society from the natural processes of aging and dying. It is our value of youth and our disregard for age that causes most people’s lives to end in a slow crawl to the finish, a nursing home demise.
To many people, and to me, this sluggish downward spiral characterized by limited mobility, social isolation, and monotonous routine is a horror to be avoided at all costs, but, like the majority of my young peers, I have no idea how to accomplish this. However, the grey nomads of Australia seem to have it figured out.
The grey nomads are a group of retired people in Australia who have traded their comfortable lives in homes of brick and mortar for a mobile existence chasing the sun around the country. They proliferate at caravan parks and campsites around Australia, some set up for months at a time with their caravans and four-wheel drives. They follow the weather, wintering on the sunny northern coasts and escaping the oppressive humidity of the wet season by going south once again. The nomads form mobile communities of retired people, imitating the idea of a retirement community, except with fishing, gorge hikes, and adventure instead of bingo, mushy peas, and boredom.
We have seen the nomads at every campsite and caravan park we have been to on this road trip from Perth to Darwin and the one thing that stands out in my mind is how happy everyone seems. From the self-proclaimed ‘old farts haven’ of Indee Station to the hordes of older fishermen descending on 80 Mile Beach, it is very clear that there is a place for the elderly in the Australian outback.
One may think that this is a dangerous life for someone of advanced age, that they are taking unnecessary risk by heading out on the road in their 70s and 80s, but what is life, but one beautiful risk? There is risk inherent in life, from a car crash to accidental death by falling vending machine, and the grey nomads are choosing to continue living instead of holing up and getting on with dying. We all must die at one point, why not spend your golden years traversing a beautiful country?
We have met so many people who defy all stereotypes of what it is to be older, to be retired, that I can’t help but feel that this is a better way to age, out in the fresh outback air. There was the couple we drank wine with on my birthday, a couple who spends half the year back in their native England and half the year traveling Australia, visiting their East Coast based children along the way. There was the couple we met who spent five weeks on the Gibb River Road, an amazing pair of people who at 80 and 76 were still hiking every gorge in Karijini, drinking the river water, and shitting in the bush because they wanted to have space to take their grandchildren on trips so they opted for the no toilet caravan. I can only hope that I will still be able to squat at 80. Aging in the outback, spending your final decades moving, seems, from my perspective, to keep people happier and healthier for longer. The grey nomads have chosen to keep living rather than to start dying, but death does come for us all in the end.
It was in the soft light of dawn that I saw them. A group of older, silver haired people gathered around a roaring fire pit at 5 am. There were soft voices and laughter coming from the group, who seemed like a mirage to my just-awoken mind. I was on my way to the toilet, I wasn’t ready to think just yet. But why would someone light a fire at 5 am? Then I remembered. I had seen them the night before, all gathered around the same fire, telling stories, drinking beer, and enjoying life. They hadn’t seemed strange then, after all fires are quite common in campgrounds, but in the quiet stillness of early morning they were odd. I continued on my way to the bathroom and put the thought out of my mind.
Then two women entered the bathroom behind me, one saying to the other, “Did you just come from the funeral?” It had been a funeral! As I sat contemplating life and death on the porcelain throne, all I could think was, What a beautiful way to celebrate a life, with an all-night vigil, fire, beer, friends, and stories. To die like that, doing what one loves among friends, is not a bad way to die at all.