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For many years, I’ve both envied and looked down on people who go south for the winter. Softies! They ought to stay home and slug it out like the rest of us. Real Canadians don’t flinch at the fourth ice storm of the season. Real Canadians don’t whine when the snow falls on the Easter Parade and the baton-twirlers’ knees turn blue. Real Canadians know that sunshine in February is highly overrated. Real Canadians have better things to do (such as work).

As my husband and I slogged away in winter’s trenches, I liked to imagine the lives of snowbirds as a bit pathetic. Endless boring rounds of golf. Stifling humidity. Tedious visits from the grandkids. Long days killing time as they waited for the Early-Bird Special. What kind of life was that? As more and more of our friends fled south for more and more protracted stretches, we righteously refused to follow them. We weren’t ready to join the ranks of the idle, unproductive old. Not us.

Then, some time last fall, my husband said he was thinking he might take part of the winter off. (He is an itinerant symbol-manipulator, so he can do these things.) I immediately found a place in Arizona, and booked it for a month. He seemed pleased.

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We congratulated ourselves on our bold originality. At least it wasn’t Florida. Florida is a such a cliché. Everybody goes there, so why would we?

Of course, we were wrong. It turns out that everybody who doesn’t go to Florida goes to Arizona. At least 100,000 Canadians own or rent places here. Snowbirds clog the parking lots and supermarkets, the liquor stores and golf courses, the happy hours, the Pilates studios and the street fairs, and eventually they clog the cemeteries, too. Everywhere we go, we are amazed at the sheer crush of old people. At first, we were convinced that we were quite a bit younger than everybody else. But the truth is that we fit right in.

I’ve often asked my snowbird friends what the heck they do down south (apart from lounging in the hot tub as they sip their margaritas.) They swear they’re busier than ever. On the whole, they are big self-improvers, and they bring the same energy to their leisure time as they brought to their careers. They paint, go to the gym, play tennis or practise the piano, learn Spanish. My husband and I decided we would emulate them by setting goals for ourselves. We wouldn’t just sit around. We would climb mountains, get fit and learn the names of all the birds and cacti. Even if we were doomed to grow older, we were determined not to deliquesce. We would become lean and tan, healthier and sharper. We even bought new hiking boots.

Our plan went brilliantly until our first actual hike up a mountain. After 20 minutes, I was gasping and wheezing. I swore it was the altitude. “How much time do you figure this trail takes?” we asked a volunteer park ranger. “Three hours,” he said before he sprinted off ahead of us. “But I can do it in two.” To my dismay, I realized he was considerably older than us.

Gradually, it dawned on the two of us that it might take more time and effort than we thought to become as fit as the other geezers we encountered. Wherever we went, oldies in their 60s and 70s (and beyond) zipped politely past us on the trails. “Lovely day,” they’d say cheerily as we stepped aside, panting. One day, far from the trailhead, we ran into an old man with a tripod who told us that he made a point of hiking every day. He was 92.

By the end of our month in Arizona, many of our smug assumptions about snowbirds had been shattered. Balmy weather and blue skies have not rotted our moral fibre, as we’d feared they would. We were surprised to discover that we felt neither unproductive nor useless. We have grudgingly begun to realize that work, not sunshine, is highly overrated. We learned that we have many mountains left to climb. And we’ll really miss the margaritas in the hot tub.

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