.Caroline Paul’s Adventurous Aging

Author encourages women of a certain age to explore the outdoors in ‘Tough Broad’

Setting out to resolve a puzzling question about why women over the age of 50 choose or are forced into lives of fear over flat-out fun and fulfillment, New York Times bestselling writer Caroline Paul uncovered the answer of her dreams: They don’t have to.

In her new book, Tough Broad, the Bay Area-based former firefighter and lifelong outdoor adventurist tells stories of explorations she took in nature with women during the pandemic. The book is published by Bloomsbury and will be released March 5. 

Paul’s investigation of BASE jumping, boogie boarding, airplane wing walking, orienteering, BMX bike racing, swimming, birdwatching and other activities carries all the life-affirming signatures of her previous books.

Those titles are: Fighting Fire, about her 14-year career as one of San Francisco’s first female firefighters; East Wind, Rain, a mystery novel set in Hawaii and loosely based on a true and tragic story; Lost Cat, which told of searching for a wayward feline using GPS technology; and two books aimed at middle-age women and empowerment: The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure and You Are Mighty: A Guide to Changing the World.

Tough Broad’s 15 chapters are divided into four sections: spirit, body, brain and heart. In a call-to-arms that seems inevitable given Paul’s history that includes flying experimental planes, commuting on a Onewheel, mountain biking during a blizzard in the Bolivian Andes, open-sea kayaking and more, her message to women is backed by hefty scientific and cultural research. 

Numerous studies and facts shared by experts in medicine, psychology and gerontology find their place without disturbing the narrative voice of the true experts: women in their older years. Many of them, like BASE jumper Shawn Brokemond and orienteer Penny DeMoss, are from the Bay Area.

These lives stand in clear counterpoint to broader society’s storytelling. Aging is not, as even Paul once believed, “the downhill slide to imminent death.” Instead, while admitting her joints creak more than in the past, and injuries sometimes cannot be dismissed quickly, accompanying each woman in her chosen endeavor reveals—for Paul and readers—the curative aspects of outdoor experiences allowing women well into their 70s, 80s and 90s to thrive.

In an interview, Paul says the takeaway after writing the book was that her definition of outdoor adventure was irreversibly altered. 

“In my heart, there were things when I started the book I didn’t think were adventurous or would satisfy me, although they would certainly add to quality aging,” says Paul. “Birdwatching or boogie boarding, two activities I didn’t think would fill me up, I found really could. In that way, I was changed. When I was younger, the adrenalin and being first in things were a lot of what I found in adventurous realms. I never appreciated the (physical and mental health) aspects of awe in nature. Now I do, and there’s lots of science to support that.”

Arguably, Paul took nature for granted because she grew up immersed in it. Her parents practiced “free-range, 1980-style parenting.” By allowing Paul and her identical twin sister, actress/activist Alexandra Paul, and their younger brother, animal rights leader Jonathan Paul, to roam the Connecticut outdoors at will and without dinner table interrogations, they learned self-dependency and confidence early on. 

“I was loved and cared for, make no mistake,” says Paul. “My parents were clear they wanted me to be well-rounded. I also played flute. We went to church to have the option of spirituality. They put us on skates and cross-country skis, even though we hated it. They wanted to expose us to everything. My mother had grown up with a mother who was especially fearful, so she exposed us to things because she thought it would give us a social life she didn’t have. I have stitches in my head and remember I was just taken to the doctor, stitched up and never told not to do what I’d been doing again.”

The hands-off parenting extended to her identity as an identical twin. Her parents never had DNA tests done and addressed them as fraternal. Their primary concern was that no one call them “the girls.” Dressed differently and expressing themselves in different ways, Paul says they could be competitive, but not in a win-lose way. 

“We switched that into a positive thing: swimmers who never swam the same stroke but had fights in the middle of the lake about swimming an extra mile to be better,” Paul says. “I learned doggedness and was inspired by her, but we’re different. She became an actress who played a rescuer (on Baywatch); I became a real-life rescuer and firefighter. She’s straight; I’m queer.  We didn’t even know we were identical until we were in our 30s.”

Turning her attention to the book, Paul says wondering about her future as she neared 60 caused her to examine the messaging directed at women as they age. She wanted to continue leading a vibrant life, and in part was inspired by seeing her mother flourish and redefine herself multiple times after age 40. (Chapter 14 tells her mother’s moving story as a skydiving and cycling enthusiast who turned to gardening only when balance issues prevailed.)

Convinced the outdoors is key to combating society’s ageist messaging and slowing the realistic but undeniable effect of time on human biology, Paul was surprised that “badass adventures” included not only running into a burning building but simply going outdoors. 

“Novelty is super important, physically and neurally,” Paul says. “The outdoors is inherently an adventure. It will always throw you a curveball. It constantly changes, and that creates opportunity for invigorating novelty, physical health training and wellbeing in terms of access to trees, bird songs, wind and something super important: community.”

Miss Kittie (Westpn-Knauer), a BMX biker featured in the book, is involved in an individual sport, but practices in community with other bikers, Paul emphasizes. “Penny DeMoss, the orienteer, her experience confirms research that movement and brain activity improve creativity. She was running at speed while navigating through thistles that triggered her brain. A lot of things I do, like surfing and Onewheeling, I do on my own. But even with those, I come into community with others. There’s a sense of belonging. Things happen physically, emotionally and mentally when you share the same wave boogie boarding.”

Paul says the biggest problem with ageism, like other isms, is subtlety. “Remember, we didn’t march through the streets protesting racism until it was way too late. We marched in the ’60s and then not until 2020, and racism had been going on the whole time. Isms are deeply woven into our institutions. Ageism’s a glance or word that out of context doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s pervasive. 

“All I have to say is ‘women at a certain age feel invisible,’ and women that age and older start nodding,” says Paul. “Not everyone’s a bad person, but we’re all doing it. We’re ageist about our own aging by trying to be younger. You’re wasting your time, and now that we’re older and in an exciting place to be, we should embrace it with curiosity and enthusiasm. Upend yourself, get outside, adapt physically, look at your fear instead of metrics, then walk to see birds, boogie board in cold water, find outdoor adventure that works for you.”

Paul says examining the women’s desire and determination for adventure altered her perspectives in crucial ways. Birdwatching changed her view of the outdoor world. Similarly, observing adaptations made by women like her mother, or the creativity and power of women with physical disabilities as they adapted to changing circumstances, supplanted any ideas she held that balance issues, loss of brute strength, wheelchairs, limited financial resources, or naturally aging bodies and minds placed outdoor adventure off-limits. 

Ultimately, Tough Broad shows everyone that a straitjacketed mindset is the primary obstacle preventing women as they age from overcoming fear and finding fun and fulfillment.

Lou Fancher
Lou Fancher has been published in the Diablo Magazine, the Oakland Tribune, InDance, San Francisco Classical Voice, SF Weekly, WIRED.com and elsewhere.


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