Earlier this spring, I met up with my dad as he finished hiking the final kilometres of the Bruce Trail, which is a 900 km trek through South-Central Ontario. As a master’s student with a background in leisure studies, I was curious to learn about my dad’s decision to hike this strenuous trail and to know why he decided to do it now, in retirement. In order to better understand my dad’s transition from working life to retirement, I spent a few days walking the trail with him and our family dog, Gus. Our time together gave me the opportunity to learn about his decision to hike the trail and, since our walk, I’ve been reflecting on our conversation in the context of my own work in ageing and leisure studies.
My dad is a 59-year-old retired electrician who describes his trade as hard work with lots of overtime and long hours. It’s a job that requires knowledge, skills, and precision. Since he retired five years ago, he has been working around the house, taking care of his grandchildren, and pursuing his leisure interests.
When I first asked my dad what motivated him to walk the 900km trail, he explained “I guess they talked about it in school and I always thought it would be really nice to do it. And I always wanted to do it, and now, all of a sudden, life is passing by and I wanted to get it done.”
Our time together gave me the opportunity to learn about his decision to hike the trail and, since our walk, I’ve been reflecting on our conversation in the context of my own work in ageing and leisure studies.
In leisure studies, retirement is viewed more as an opportunity than as a burden and older adults tend to revisit activities from their youth (Liechty & Genoe, 2013). In fact, leisure in later life can be viewed as a means to a larger goal, such as beginning a new life phase or making a decision to maintain physical and mental health (Liechty & Genoe, 2013).
Rob Leonard on his first (top) and last (bottom) day of his hike.
My dad noted the physical and mental changes he experienced through his hike. He told me he breathes better now, feels stronger, and can climb hills without becoming winded. He also said that his knees don’t ache as much. The pictures above account for the physical transformation he experienced on the trail.
Rob and his wife, Chris Leonard.
My mom was also part of this journey. Throughout the hike, she was my dad’s logistical companion and supportive partner. My mom and dad communicated daily using their smartphones. He would tell her where he was and where to pick him up at the end of each day. My mom would frequently use her smartphone to provide updates on my dad’s progress by sharing posts with friends and family on Facebook. My dad told me that my mom was a huge help during his hike: “It would have been way harder if it wasn’t for your mother. She’s been with me pretty much the whole way”.
My mother retired around the same time as my dad. Before retirement, she worked as a recreation coordinator. She participated in this hike to support him and to see parts of the trail herself. She told me that she somewhat regrets not walking the trail with him and wishes that she could have walked it herself. Unfortunately, her injured knee prevented her from doing so.
Leisure theorists discuss the importance of leisure pursuits in retirement. Leisure provides new opportunities, a sense of purpose, and a way to continue one’s identity from work into retirement. Leisure activities allow individuals who are transitioning into retirement to take advantage of increased free time and devote their time to activities that they may have wanted to do during earlier stages of life (Liechty & Genoe, 2013). In my dad’s case, this was certainly true. When I asked him if he would have done the hike while he was still working, he said “No, I wouldn’t have taken this much time to myself when I was working because I wouldn’t have been able to take two months – I couldn’t take a leave of absence. You have too many responsibilities when you’re working”.
My dad also told me how impressed he was by the volunteer community that cares for the trail. He explained that the volunteers “cut up all of the trees, put the blazers in, and build and install miles of boardwalk. They also build steps and put in ropes.” He also explained, with amazement, that land owners generously allow people to walk across their property. I asked if he had encountered any volunteers during his trip and he explained that the volunteers are usually older, retired people. During our walk together, we encountered a couple who were in their seventies. Today, more than 1,400 volunteers donate their time and talents to the Bruce Trail Conservancy.
Leisure theorists explain that volunteering can also become a work replacement in older adulthood (Nimrod, 2009). I was curious to know if this experience influenced my dad to become a volunteer himself, so I asked him if he would be interested in volunteering for the Bruce Trail Conservancy. He said, “Yeah, I have thought about it. I think I might get in contact with them when I get back. The only problem is, I am about two hours away from the closest part of the trail, so it’s not as easy for me.” Volunteering as a leisure activity is characterized by a considerable amount of commitment and perseverance and it tends to consist of a well-organized group who hold like-minded associates with whom members can identify with. Furthermore, volunteering can lead to psychological benefits such as increased self-esteem and a sense of belonging (Nimrod, 2009).
As our hike neared its end, and with only one day from the end of my dad’s journey, I asked him how he felt about finishing the trail. He replied, “I’m going to be glad that it’s over and I’m going to be sad that it’s over. I’m looking forward to everyone coming together and finishing it up with me.” But he said, again, “I feel a bit sad though that it’s over. I really enjoyed it”. This is not the end for my dad; instead, it’s a beginning. After experiencing so many positive changes, such as physical and mental health, and participating in a leisure activity, he plans to continue his hiking journeys. He wants to try the Killarney trail next, which is about 60 km, deep in the wilderness.
Walking with my dad and talking to both my parents has taught me that aging is about accepting lived experiences. I’ve also realized how important it is to continue to pursue activities that provide enjoyment. I agree with leisure theorists Liechty and Genoe that retirement is an opportunity to pursue leisure activities that were not available during working years. I also agree that leisure provides fun and enjoyment while improving physical and mental health. Despite the barriers with which one may be challenged in later life, activities can be modified or adapted in order for individuals to achieve their goals. Thus, leisure should not be seen as an activity that prevents boredom in later life, but should be viewed as a pursuit that maintains quality of life.