My wife wasn’t into canoeing, so she didn’t mind that she wouldn’t be going along.
I started out eagerly anticipating something new, but couldn’t know it would mark the beginning of a long friendship with two other men who were also heading south to the same program.
Upon my arrival at the campground, I was assigned a small room to be shared with those two men. We each had a separate bed, but it was cramped. None of us had ever met before. One was from Baltimore and the other from North Brunswick, N.J.
We introduced ourselves, and the spark was almost immediate. We were close in age, had served in the U.S. Army at about the same time, all of us married with families, and we shared a love for books, movies and the theater. We also shared common beliefs in many things.
We got along very well, but couldn't imagine anything else would come of it.
The program was incredible. Manatees brushed up against the bottom of our canoes and bountiful wildlife including exotic birds and alligators were everywhere. We ate together, swam together and stayed up late each night just talking.
The week went by swiftly, and we reluctantly said our goodbyes while exchanging addresses and phone numbers, vowing to stay in touch. Yeah, sure — everybody says that, but nothing ever happens.
This turned out different. We started writing to each other; no e-mails, only handwritten letters through the mail. We actually started planning the program we would like to do the following year.
It was hard to believe. Since we were in our mid-60s and in fairly good shape, we decided to pursue outdoor active programs. We also did Road Scholar/Elderhostel programs with our wives, but this has turned out to be our “guy” thing.
We have now done, as of this year, 17 annual consecutive programs. Everyone we tell our story to at these programs says that they have never heard anything like it. Quite remarkable!
Each year as we choose a program from their vast catalog, we always meet two or three days prior to it and stay a couple of days after it’s over. We feel as long as we’re traveling, usually quite a distance, we might as well do some sightseeing in that area. Sometimes that gives us almost two weeks together.
All three of us agree that we cannot choose a favorite program; we’ve enjoyed them all.
It’s more than just being a great program and learning something new; it’s the experience that we have together, and the program is the “glue” that makes everything come together so well. Each one has been unique and included exceptional hosts, speakers and activities. We’ve chosen things that were off the beaten path, and put us into corners of the U.S. and Canada that we probably never would have visited on our other travels.
Here are a few of the things we’ve done: We learned the ins and outs of sailing a 65-foot schooner in the Gulf of Mexico, biked 125 miles on the Katy Trail in Missouri, hiked the Pacific shoreline in Oregon, climbed down a Pueblo “Kiva” in Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, whitewater-rafted in Georgia, canoed in northern Wisconsin, and canoed 300 miles north of Toronto.
We even hiked, biked and kayaked at about 8,500 feet near Flagstaff, Ariz. This one tested us greatly.
Recently, we canoed and kayaked in Lake Fairlee, Vt. We took turns each day riding in the canoe with our group leader, who shared much of the local history and lore to each of us as we paddled with her.
Even though we go to each one together, we’re always welcoming the company of other participants. The people we meet are inquisitive people — eager to learn and participate. The three of us would stay up until midnight talking, and were joined many times by others in the program who wondered how we were able to leave our wives for a week or more each year. We told them that they were glad to get rid of us for a while.
So, all you seniors: Look what’s out there for you. Not all programs are physically demanding; some are purely a week of classroom topics of every description. The variety is incredible.
Also, keep this in mind — you might run into the “Three Amigos.”
— By Richard Hoffstedt, Tribune community columnist