Older & Bolder: Vermont’s Seniors Are Hiking, Raising Crops and Redefining What It Means to Age Well 

By Seven Days Staff, published June 12, 2024

Age 65 isn’t what it used to be. Seventy-five isn’t too old, either, at least for some.

Instead of retiring, many seniors are staying on the job or finding new outlets for their talents and passions. Advancements in health care, technology and living standards are helping people live longer, healthier and more productively.

Examples abound. At 82, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has announced a run for another six-year term. If his democratic-socialist sensibilities are sometimes questioned, his cognitive fitness is not.

Across the state, seniors are also keeping up their pace. Attorney Peter Langrock, 86, still runs an active law practice based in Middlebury. Jim Coutts, 81, is starting a cannabis cultivation business with his grandson in East Brookfield.

“People’s lives can be rich right up until the moment they take their last breath,” said Erica Marks, director of volunteer services at Age Well, a resource center for seniors.

Some are choosing to work into their advanced years as society’s definition of old age is itself shifting, said Jeanne Shea, an anthropology professor at the University of Vermont who specializes in social gerontology. Life expectancy for Vermonters is 78.8 years, according to the 2020 census, slightly higher than for all U.S. residents. Average lifespans have grown considerably during the past century, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

All of this is not news to WCAX-TV reporter Joe Carroll. For more than 12 years, he’s been profiling remarkable older Vermonters for the station’s “Super Seniors” segment, which airs each Thursday during its 6 p.m. broadcast. Some of the people he profiled stood out because of their talents, such as 76-year-old singer Rosalind Fritz, who’s had hits on European pop charts. Others, such as 70-year-old Carl Cushing, who survived polio and cancer as a child, impressed him with their tenacity.

All have shown Carroll what it means to age gracefully.

One subject in particular, Claire Duke, stuck with Carroll. For close to seven decades, she kept secret her dream of attending college. She never did enroll but volunteered thousands of hours to public service in her hometown, Barre Town, starting the first local chapter of the League of Women Voters. Those efforts won her an honorary degree from Northern Vermont University. She was 87 at the time.

“Some of the most interesting people I’ve talked to seem pretty average on the surface,” Carroll said. “But they have a certain dignity about them and a positive outlook on life that I find aspirational.”

As part of a yearlong exploration into aging in Vermont, which has one of the oldest populations in the country, Seven Days reporters sought out seniors who are pushing boundaries by working, volunteering and exploring. We profile seven of them here, including a dump-truck driver, a rabbi-turned-comedian and an Appalachian Trail through-hiker.

Together, they show that people can pursue the skills they’ve mastered over decades or can reinvent themselves — not only in spite of advancing age but also, at times, because of it.

— Rachel Hellman

Another Walk in the Woods

Thru-hiker Phyllis Rubenstein, 71

Phyllis Rubenstein clambered over house-size boulders and slogged through cold, ankle-deep mud as she hiked the full 2,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail last year.

Along the course of the six-month journey, Rubenstein blogged regularly and posted more than 1,000 photos of flowers on the iNaturalist website. And she bonded with fellow hikers, almost all of them younger, as she pushed her body to its limits. Rubenstein turned 70 during her first week on the trail.

Trekking the full AT is a grueling enterprise, and only an estimated 1,000 people complete it each year, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Being one of those people, Rubenstein said during an interview at her home in Montpelier, brought lasting joy. Yet it also drew tears.

“It really took a toll on my body. And on my emotions,” she said. Hitting her limit physically, after a lifetime of training as a cross-country skier and hiker, was sobering. “Would I ever do it again? I don’t know if I can.”

Rubenstein had long dreamed of hiking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. Over many years of outdoor activity, she had ascended all of the nearly 100 peaks that top 4,000 feet in the White Mountains and Adirondacks. Between 2000 and 2013, she hiked the AT in sections over several summers.

But thru-hiking the trail had to wait until Rubenstein was able to retire from her law practice. Just weeks after settling almost all of her remaining cases, she was off, launching her trek north on April 15, 2023, from Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia.

Rubenstein had planned her journey with care. She prepared about a dozen packages for her house sitters to mail to her and arranged to return home briefly for the Jewish High Holy Days in September. Years of studying outdoor gear came in handy when Rubenstein chose her sleeping pad, lightweight down quilt, tiny bear-proof food box, and tent that packed to the size and heft of a bread loaf. When she set off, her load weighed 24 pounds.

Because she moves a bit more slowly than younger hikers, Rubenstein headed north from Georgia for the first half of the trek and then jumped to the end point at Mount Katahdin in Maine to finish the rest heading south. That way she could end her trip on November 7 in Pennsylvania instead of at Katahdin, where early winter conditions can arrive in October.

Rubenstein avoided shared shelters, choosing instead to camp in solitude.

“Life is simple when you’re carrying your home on your back,” she said. “I like my tent and to be immersed in nature.”

But Rubenstein also became part of the companionable culture of mutual support that has developed during the trail’s nearly 100-year history, with AT hikers swapping stories about bears, terrain and water sources. Through a well-known system of “trail magic,” volunteers along the way offer food and first aid supplies.

Her account is interwoven with tales of companions sporting trail monikers such as Honeybun, Cheeks and Mosey. Last month, Rubenstein, who came to be known as “Green Mountain Girl,” traveled to Virginia to swap memories with some of her fellow hikers at the annual Trail Days Festival. She recalled her weeks on the trail with a new friend nicknamed 3rd Wheel, whose speed advantage came from relative youth.

“At age 44, 3rd Wheel is blessed with fully flexible joints and good balance and agility,” Rubenstein blogged on a website for long-haul hikers. “He made a game of rock hopping on the trail.”

The two sheltered from the rain for three days at a hostel in Delaware, dining out and catching a jazz band at a nearby inn.

Rubenstein, who has a slight build to begin with, lost about 15 pounds on the trail. At first, she said, she underestimated how much food she would need and often felt hungry. She remained healthy, though the risk of injury and the limits of age were everyday company.

“I stretched my limbs in unimaginable ways. I used all my strength,” Rubenstein wrote in her blog after enduring the difficult Mahoosuc Notch, known as the AT’s hardest mile for its colossal boulders and the scrambling they require. Most hikers, she noted, can get through the notch in two hours. Rubenstein and a companion, Georgia, 58, took four. Of her 187 days on the trail, that one was the toughest.

— Anne Wallace Allen

Read the full article on the Seven Days website.