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Kristin Butcher: Old Enough To Know Better?

With age comes wisdom—or the discovery of true middle-aged happiness at a weekly jorts-optional jump jam

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The following story first appeared in the winter 2021 print issue of Beta. To get print, sign up to be a Beta Pass or Outside+ member. Membership details HERE.

It’s just another Wednesday, which for me has come to mean hanging out with a small gaggle of middle-aged women as we collectively work to improve our steeze at the local dirt jumps. With the sun making its final display on a fall night that’s gripping onto summer’s warmth, here I am amid a cacophony of giggles in a sea of jorts with a group of curiously like-minded women “old enough to know better” as they say.

As a kid, people always ask what you want to be when you grow up. Like, sure, I’m still figuring out how to smash a straw through a Capri Sun without impaling my hand, but let me put together a career plan real quick.

My answers to this question always flitted between the practical and anything but. Some days, I wanted to become a computer programmer like my mom. Other days, I dreamed of running a giant playground for adults with massive rope swings, a bike park with music blaring 24/7, and bigger, better versions of the kind of slides they don’t make anymore. For all the times I was asked that question, I’m almost positive that my answer never included being a divorced middle-aged mom whose side-hustles have side-hustles in the name of college funds and electric bills. 

And yet, here we are.

Back when I was a kid, I spent a lot of time escaping into fantasies of the future, but I never imagined I’d end up with a scrapbook of adventures most never get to experience. Since I’ve been lucky enough to find myself doing strange things in strange locations in the vicinity of some photographer’s artful eye, I’ve ended up with a smile pile of photos of life at its most magazine-worthy.

There’s the pan shot a young Reuben Krabbe snapped of me flying down an empty Vermont street with my legs shooting backward like Superwoman—a trick I perfected as a kid on my pink and purple 10-speed. I may not have been able to wheelie like the boys with my drop bars and toptube shifters, but they couldn’t do my trick without squinching their junk, and that was motivation enough for me to practice the bejeesus out of it.

Sterling Lorence snagged another brilliant shot right as a guide stopped me from sliding off a scree slope and into a river in the Middle of Nowhere, British Columbia. And, of course, there’s the photo Bruno Long snagged of me giggling as I pumped the PSI in the fork of a ridiculously nice test bike to 69 (yes, we’re both 12). And the shot Anne Keller took when we stumbled upon one of those bungee trampoline things after a ride and decided we definitely needed to bounce around in a full-face helmet and kneepads. 

As I stand on my pedals and drop into a line with friends who enjoy these moments every bit as much as I do, I'm undeniably happy.

But the picture that makes me appreciate where I am and where I’ve been isn’t found in that pile of glamour shots. Instead, it’s the embarrassing picture my kid tried to torture me with by making it appear everywhere from my phone’s background to the coffee table. What he didn’t realize is that Br’er Rabbit always wanted to be in the briar patch—and I love this picture so much that I use it for my work profile.

It’s the school photo where I was the poster girl for pre-teen blunder years, complete with a feathered haircut, enough space between my teeth to send my orthodontist to Hawaii, and a personal aesthetic that said, “I bet I know more cat facts than you.” This was the ’80s, so naturally this picture includes both an image of me staring intently into the camera along with a profile perspective to ensure my tween-dom awkwardness was captured from all angles.

These were the years when I had one foot cemented in reality and the other steeped in fantastical dreams about what could be. I dreamt of being able to wheelie like the kid down the street and becoming the youngest comedian to appear on “Comic Relief.” I fantasized about a fridge that was always full and being called to the Maury Povich stage where a surprise DNA test would reveal that my father was actually Robin Williams. I imagined a lot of different renditions of what my future would hold, and yet, none of those versions included ripping laps at the local dirt jumps a few years older than my mom was when I threw her an “over the hill” themed birthday party.

Around the time that picture was taken, a substitute teacher handed out a freshly delivered stack of busywork. The papers were still slightly warm and reeked of toner with a bold, black title that read, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” For the first time, I wrote down an answer I’d hold on to every time I churned this question around in my head from that point on.

When I grow up, I want to be … happy.

There it was, the real dream buried beneath the fantasies. It’s the dream I’ve held onto through both the chaos and the banality that defines life. 

For better and worse, my life isn’t anything close to what middle-school me fantasized about. My Choose Your Adventure life story has taken me to pages where I’m slaying dragons and walking down dark hallways into the unknown. But it’s nights like this one that I dog-ear so I can read them over and over. It’s these nights that can so easily slip away, their simple perfection left unnoticed under the guise of it being just another Wednesday. As I stand on my pedals and drop into a line with friends who enjoy these moments every bit as much as I do, I’m undeniably happy.

I didn’t end up where I imagined I would as a kid, but eventually I got old enough to realize that happiness isn’t an endgame, but comes in smattering moments that can slip through your fingers while you’re reaching for the next rung on the ladder. I never did take the stage at “Comic Relief” and I still can’t wheelie worth a damn. Flipping through my life story and realizing how many pages are dog-eared, I think middle-school me would be pretty darn proud of middle-aged me.