Jewish World Review
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. The day is sunny, but the wind whips off hats and tugs at clothing as Elsa Bailey's weekly hiking group makes its way around a 3.1-mile loop trail at the Florissant (Colo.) Fossil Beds National Monument.
The women stop to gaze at the park's signature trees - crumbling, petrified sequoias that date back 38 million years.
With a deep, throaty laugh, Bailey breaks the silence. "At least I'm not that old."
By most measures, though, she is old - on this hike, just three days away from her 90th birthday. Like the trees, she has staying power, but she is far from fossilized, not crumbling at all and still full of energy.
Bailey has spent most of her life exploring and studying, and she hasn't let her age change anything.
In fact, as she hikes the wide, gravely trail at the Fossil Beds, Bailey plans other adventures: a trip down the 12.7-mile Barr Trail on Pikes Peak, perhaps in the fall; a camping trip, if she can find a willing friend; a ski trip to end all ski trips.
"I think I'd like to ski at least two green runs when I turn 100," she says.
Spoken by most 90-year-olds, that plan would sound just plain silly. But Bailey has a better chance than most. She has been skiing for 65 years and still skis regularly with the Silver Streaks, a local seniors club that remains active late into the season.
She was with the group last month, celebrating her birthday by skiing a few runs and munching on pizza at Arapahoe Basin.
She was the center of attention, says Streaks member Joyce Maile.
"It was very crowded, but after we were done skiing, Elsa decided to dance ... with her ski boots on," Maile says.
Bailey hikes at least once a week with a group of friends from church, except in the winter.
"I remember the first time Elsa told us she couldn't hike in the winters with us, because she was skiing then," says Barb Kohlhaas, a member of the hiking group who has known Bailey for a decade. "I was amazed when she said that."
Bailey loves the outdoors and loves to be active even when she's not skiing or hiking.
She works in a small garden plot outside her apartment at the Medallion senior citizen complex, where she favors pansies and bleeding hearts, and helped place a peace pole, and she practices her ballroom dancing moves weekly at the Colorado Springs Senior Center.
She is a practicing Sufi, following the Eastern mystical religion she embraced 30 years ago, after a lifetime as a "dyed in the wool" atheist.
And she has definite ideas about the world: Marijuana should be legalized, peace is the answer, and you are truly as old as you feel.
NOT MUCH ON COOKING
Earlier in the week, as Bailey prepared for her regular hike, she relaxed in her apartment, where sunlight floods the floor-to-ceiling windows, illuminating Bailey's possessions that are stacked, strewn and haphazardly displayed on every free surface.
A coffee table holds a collection of crystals shaped into balls and polished.
A meditation area with incense holds a simple rug, candles and a picture of Bailey's spiritual leader. Newspapers are piled and books fill chairside tables.
The kitchen is nearly buried in piles of papers and books as well, but that doesn't matter to Bailey.
"When I moved here, I decided to give up cooking altogether," she says.
Bailey moved to Colorado Springs 12 years ago from the foothills outside Oakland, Calif., where she lived for 45 years.
She'd been thinking about moving to Colorado; then, in 1991, her home went up in flames with 3,000 others in the worst urban fire to ever hit the United States.
"You have to be careful what you wish for," Bailey says. "I had decided to come here, and I was wistfully thinking it would be great if I didn't have so many things. Then, the fire came, and I lost all my things - even my kayak."
But she didn't lose her spirit. A tiny woman who says she just hits the 5-foot mark, Bailey is strong and nimble.
At the Fossil Beds, she hikes along at a speed that's respectable for any age; slowing a little on the uphill sections and jogging briskly on the downhills.
As she walks, she talks, in a soft, patrician accent that hints of an unknown European country.
"It's old Manhattan," she says.
LIFE WASN'T EASY
She grew up in that New York borough, the youngest of six daughters of a successful, career-driven real estate mogul.
He lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929, then rebuilt his life in Florida.
Her life wasn't easy, she says. "Father wanted a boy, and I was the last try. He basically had no use for me. I had no self-respect and thought seriously of killing myself at age 10."
But Bailey decided that was too big a decision to make as a child; that she would wait until she was 26 to decide.
She made it through school and went to Sarah Lawrence College.
"It was a time of awakening to me," she says.
"My family was very conservative, and college wasn't. At college, I learned to think for myself, and I began working on myself."
Bailey had a brief marriage with no children, and went on to a career as an occupational therapist. "I've continued to work on myself and am still working," she says.
It wouldn't be accurate to say age hasn't slowed her down at all. She used to ski "steep and smooth" groomed black diamond runs until recently. Now, she stays on mostly intermediate slopes.
But that doesn't mean she doesn't try anymore.
"I'm always trying to be a better skier, every time I go out. I might have a minor setback, but I know I'll get better."
She's also fighting her failing eyesight, the result of macular degeneration.
She doesn't ski alone anymore, because she can't read the trail signs far enough ahead.
On the Fossil Beds hike, she has to squat down to ground level to examine a blooming pasque flower.
But Bailey believes it's a momentary setback - one she's working on.
"I think my eyes will get better," she says.
Bailey attributes much of her attitude to her beliefs.
"Sufis teach you to be your best self. We believe in God and eternal life. We love our brothers."
Recently, Bailey traveled to India for a religious retreat. She loves to travel, usually alone, and has been on four continents.
A fan of TV documentaries, she has learned of several places she still wants to see for herself.
"I'd like to go to Norway to see the fjords. I'd like to see the polar bears in Hudson Bay."
And then there's that ski plan: to celebrate her 100th birthday on the slopes.
"I love to swing down the hill. I love the air and the snow, the sky and the sun," she says.
Bailey's sunny disposition is fueled by the surprise she feels about her long life.
"I never thought I'd live this long. No one else in my family did. My father died in his 60s, my mother in her 70s." All her sisters have died.
"When I turned 50, I thought I was nearly finished; that I should live my life differently from then on. But I didn't.
Now, since I'm still here, I'm happy to put out the information that life isn't over when you're 90. It's important for people to know that."
There's also much less competition, Bailey says.
"I've risen to the top of my age group in ski racing."
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