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Adventure Calls

Planning on a quiet retirement? Think again. Retired educators seize their opportunity to see the world beyond the classroom.

By Thomas Grillo

Wondering what to do on your next vacation? Teachers often use their travel experiences to enrich their classes back home. But if you’re not sure where to go, you might want to take a tip from some NEA-Retired members who have found their inner explorer since filing their own lesson plans under “Finished!” 

Jo Ann Evans shares a hot meal on a very cold Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.

Thirty years ago, most Americans believed the stereotypes associated with aging: hit 50 and the road led straight downhill. At most, there might be a bus tour or an island cruise along the way. But these days, many retirees, especially educators, are using their newfound freedom to be more daring.

Nighttime on Kilimanjaro

Take Jo Ann Evans, 63, who taught elementary school near Portland, Oregon. “When I was teaching, I wasn’t physically fit,” she says. “I was in a classroom all day, corrected papers at night, and, in the summer, I just did projects around the house. After I retired, I assumed I would lead a quiet life. But my husband had always wanted to go to the Mount Everest base camp to see what it was like.”

See it they did—and much more. In a span of six years, Evans has climbed Mount Saint Helens in Washington, hiked the Vatnajökull Ice Cap in Iceland, and completed a 190-mile coast-to-coast trek in northern England.

Last year, she and a group of younger teacher friends decided to tackle Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. At an altitude of 19,340 feet—nearly four miles—the extinct volcano is Africa’s highest point. One reason Evans wanted to make the trip was that scientists estimate that the glacier atop Kilimanjaro will melt by 2020 because of global warming. “I wanted to see it before it disappeared,” she says. “I didn’t realize that Mount Kilimanjaro was climbable for someone like me, but I decided that this was something I could do, even though I was the oldest in the group.”

The most challenging part of the seven-day hike was the final trek to the top. The group started the final ascent at 10:30 p.m. with the goal of reaching the summit by sunrise. “We turned on our headlamps and traveled all night long,” she recalls. “It was pretty grueling. We climbed over and around giant boulders in the dark.” In the end, 7 of the 12, including Evans, made it to the top. Not bad for “the oldest in the group!”

Into The Yukon

Last summer, retired family and consumer science teacher Lilchy Huffman booked an action-packed, 10-day trip to Alaska with her great niece and nephew. Huffman, 58, is no novice traveler. While teaching for 33 years in Prince William County, Virginia, she toured China multiple times. She also flew in a hot air balloon over the Australian Outback, spotting wild horses and kangaroos from the air, not saying a word because “we wanted to enjoy the beauty in silence.”

The intrepid traveler got the idea to see Alaska after flying over the state several times on her way to China. Her journey to “America’s last frontier” began in Vancouver, British Columbia, with the trio boarding a cruise ship that made its way up to Ketchikan, Alaska, and through the islands of the Inside Passage to Skagway. In the port of Skagway, they boarded the White Pass Yukon train—a narrow-gauge railroad that was built during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898—for a three-hour trip that took them up the mountains to White Pass Summit at 2,865 feet.

Lilchy Huffman clowns with a bear skin in Alaska.

“The trip was spectacular,” says Huffman. “We saw the Skagway River, glacial cut valleys, and beautiful rock formations. By the time we reached White Pass there was virtually no vegetation because it’s above the freeze line.”

Perhaps the most exhilarating part of the journey was a bus excursion to Denali National Park to take in the beauty of Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest mountain. Denali includes more than six million acres and encompasses a complete sub-arctic ecosystem, home to grizzly bears, wolves, sheep, caribou, and moose.

Huffman and her companions then boarded a nine-seat plane to Coldfoot, Alaska, located 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle, a leg of the expedition that might give a less adventuresome traveler pause. “I don’t have any fear,” Huffman says. “I can’t explain why.” From Coldfoot, they drove to the Arctic town of Wiseman, population 30, where the small tour included a visit with a year-round resident.

“It was a trip back in time,” she says. “The man lived in a log cabin, trapped furs to make into coats for warmth, and had cut six cords of wood to get through the winter. But I couldn’t help but notice that he owned a TV and a computer!” 

The Steep Stone Steps of Machu Picchu

Then there’s Marilyn Boyce, a retired elementary school teacher from Michigan. Three years ago, she and her husband fulfilled a longtime dream of climbing to the ancient Peruvian city of Machu Picchu, nestled high in the Andes Mountains.

Built by the Incas some 500 years ago, Machu Picchu is perched on a ridge between two sharp mountain peaks and overlooks the Urubamba River. The city, spread over five square miles with over 3,000 steps linking its many different levels, is one of the largest pre-Colombian sites found virtually intact. It shows an astonishing architectural design and execution, including a terracing system built on extremely steep terrain.

Marilyn Boyce takes a break from climbing at Machu Picchu.

“We wanted to see it before we got too old, because it’s a very difficult climb,” says Boyce, who is 61. To arrive at the site, “we spent four hours walking up stone steps chiseled into the mountain with no railings. It’s dangerous and a guide takes you up very carefully and slowly.”

Asked what she saw on the trip up, Boyce laughs and says, “My feet. I’m clumsy so I had to watch my step.  But when we stopped at various plateaus along the way, we could look down into the Valley of the Incas and the river where we went white water rafting.” Her advice to anyone who might follow in her footsteps? “It helped that my husband and I walk an hour a day, because there’s lots of walking to do on these tours.”

If, like these three retired teachers, you’re thinking of exploring a more exotic locale, you won’t be alone.

“Americans are much more interested in the world than they used to be, and they want to go beyond the usual tourist destinations,” says Stephanie Nichols, a spokeswoman for Overseas Adventure Travel, a Boston-based travel agency that organizes tours for people over 50. And educators, she adds, are among the most avid travelers—they make up nearly a third of her customers. “It’s a natural for them,” says Nichols. “They are interested in lifelong learning and curious about the world. That’s who they are.”

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