Caroline Paul’s ‘Tough Broad’ Proves that Age is Just a Number

Caroline Paul’s ‘Tough Broad’ Proves that Age is Just a Number

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Few things scare Caroline Paul. Not scuba diving with sharks, nor flying a motorized gyrocopter that looks like a dubious cross between a bobsled and a whirlybird. The 60-year-old adventurer has been chasing risk since she was a girl growing up in Connecticut. At 13, she attempted to break the world record in crawling—12.5 miles—but was thwarted at mile 8.5 by skinned knees and hypothermia. That same year, she went whitewater rafting on Connecticut’s Housatonic River, in a boat she and her twin sister made out of milk cartons.

Paul writes candidly about her lifelong relationship with risk in her new book, Tough Broad: From Boogie Boarding to Wing Walking—How Outdoor Adventure Improves Our Lives as We Age. I first connected with Paul, who lives in San Francisco, in 2016, after the publication of her bestselling memoir, Gutsy Girls. At the time, she explained the unconscious biases often evident in how we talk to children about risk in sports: we warn girls to be careful, she suggested, while encouraging boys to be brave. Fortunately, as a girl growing up in the 1960s, Paul didn’t listen to adults telling her to dial it back.

After her intrepid childhood, Paul made half a dozen kayaking first descents around the world, worked as a firefighter in San Francisco for 14 years, and took up hang gliding, Onewheeling, and skydiving. By her early fifties, though, she found herself facing a new challenge: staying adventurous through perimenopause and beyond. “I thought this was going to be a good stage,” recalls Paul, whose mother took up cycling in her forties and thrived well into her eighties, “but all around me my friends were talking about plastic surgery. I wanted to embrace elderhood, but I didn’t know how.”

So Paul set out to learn. She delved into the science of aging and searched for women who pushed the edge of adventure far into their later years. “There were always a ton of men older than me outside, but no women,” she explains. One by one, she tracked down a sisterhood of role models: an 80-year-old scuba diver; a 72-year-old champion orienteer and trail runner. There was Britta, 55, who taught her to fly a gyrocopter and land it in a crosswind, and a 52-year-old grandmother who illegally BASE-jumped off Yosemite’s El Capitan. Despite the range of sports and ages, these women all reaped the same powerful benefits from recreating outside: a strong sense of community, wellness, novelty, purpose, and positivity about aging, which Paul believes are five of the most important markers for healthy aging.

Paul leaning on a gyrocopter
Paul has been flying a Cessna since her twenties, but it wasn’t until her late fifties that she learned how to pilot a gyrocopter. (Photo: Cayce Clifford)

“Outdoor adventure checks all the boxes,” she says. “If we shift our mindset, our later years can be a time of exploration, adventure, and joy.” Research backs this up. As she writes in Tough Broad, studies show that daily exposure to nature relaxes frenetic brain waves, leading to improved memory and cognitive function. Take Dot Fisher-Smith, a spry 93-year-old who spent much of her golden years logging impressive long-distance treks at high altitude. Now Fisher-Smith gambols daily around her suburban neighborhood in Ashland, Oregon, planning her walking routes to maximize time among trees, grass, and bushes. “She’s onto something,” Paul writes. “Chemicals released by trees, called phytoncides, strengthen our immune system and lower blood pressure.”

Just as powerful are the psychological perks of moving around outdoors: delight, optimism, and a healthy perspective. “Old? You’re not old!” Fisher-Smith told Paul indignantly. “Just do what you’ve always done. It gets better as you get older!”

Paul was curious to find out what happened to her brain when she tried something new, so she booked a wing-walking lesson with Cynthia Hicks, a 73-year-old cancer survivor and endorphin junkie. The activity is just as hairball as it sounds: you walk onto the wing of a biplane while it’s airborne and strap into a harness, then the pilot maneuvers through hammerheads, loops, and rolls.

Paul learned to fly a single-engine Cessna when she was 20, but wing walking teetered on the far edge of extreme even for her. She thought back to the daredevil she’d once been, realizing, “The truth is, that person barreled through life with a clenched jaw. She wasn’t a show-off, but she had a lot to prove. She didn’t seem to be enjoying herself a lot of the time.” Now in her late fifties, Paul was wiser and perhaps a touch more circumspect. Was she still as piqued by adrenaline? There was only one way to find out.

On the day of her lesson, Paul watched with disbelief as her fellow students went first and then, once safely back on terra firma, flopped to the ground, exhilarated. When it was her turn, she says, “I kept thinking, Why am I getting out of the cockpit?’” Her account in Tough Broad of what happened next is mesmerizing: “The horizon curdles, falls away. Spinning earth, buffeting air, iceberg clouds flashing by… I am no longer afraid. I am something else entirely. Oddly, I begin to laugh.”

She had discovered one of the most powerful predictors of happiness and good health at any age: awe.

She had discovered one of the most powerful predictors of happiness and good health at any age, and something else she’d been seeking all along: awe. “Wing walking showed me it wasn’t adrenaline I craved as much as it was awe,” says Paul, who has a new appreciation for bird-watching and “awe walking”—meandering around without destination or goal simply to notice and be present, the way Fisher-Smith does. “I used to worry I was losing my edge or becoming boring. Now I see that I can keep being myself and be more with less.”

While Paul admits to being content sitting on her couch with her wife, the illustrator Wendy MacNaughton, and her cat, she shows no signs of slowing down. After her lesson with Hicks, she got her gyrocopter license. But she’s adamant that she’s not trying to act young, or even young at heart—a phrase she rejects. “Being curious and brave and energetic aren’t just reserved for 20- or 30-year-olds. We’ve assigned them those attributes, but they belong to all of us.”

As for new adventures, Paul has plenty on her tick list. “I’ve been eyeing the electric unicycle,” she says, then catches herself and laughs. “Maybe I should wait until after my book launch, in case I get hurt!” Most of all, she wants to learn to sail. A friend has a boat and offered to teach her. “I’d like to navigate by stars with a sextant.”

By the end of Tough Broad, Paul has given us a road map for aging adventurously: stay curious, try new things, be adaptable, cultivate awe—and, above all, keep moving.

Tough Broad book cover
(Photo: Courtesy Bloomsbury Publishing)

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