Bike Rides & Hikes

Grass Valley couple leads the way in senior travel boom

Gary and Monica Wescott saw many mountain bikers on the Tahoe Rim Trail, swapping information about trail conditions and water.
Gary and Monica Wescott saw many mountain bikers on the Tahoe Rim Trail, swapping information about trail conditions and water.

Gary and Monica Wescott traveled 40,000 miles and crossed 26 countries over two years as part of their epic journey from Western Europe to eastern Siberia and back. When they returned to their Nevada City home earlier this year, they unwound – with a 25-day, 165-mile hike through six counties and two states across the mountains of the Tahoe Rim Trail.

Like millions of other older Americans, the Wescotts are not sitting still. In fact, they’re helping to lead a graying population that’s on the move while, through their popular travel website, redefining active senior lifestyles.

“Practice makes perfect,” said Gary Wescott, 70, a longtime photojournalist. “We have been doing it for 40 years, so we got really good at it.”

According to a survey by the AARP, which advocates for people 50 and over, boomers will take an average of four to five trips this year, with nearly half planning to travel more than in previous years. That’s contributed to a surge of older travelers from the U.S. as well as newly moneyed seniors in developing countries such as China also hitting the road in overwhelming numbers.

The travel industry has responded with a flurry of packages, lodging and other amenities designed especially for older travelers, and not just cruises. The country has seen a boom in senior-oriented hostels, genealogy tours and packages for generations of families traveling together.

In fact, leisure travel is the top aspirational activity for Americans 50 and older, the AARP found.

“The (travel) industry is definitely paying attention to people over 50,” said Maria Gillen, AARP director of member value, products and platforms. “The desire for convenience and value is the same or more so for people than when they’re younger.”

Even at an older age, the Wescotts only notice a difference in their travel pace compared to when they were younger, said Monika Wescott, 62.

“We have always traveled so why not continue traveling,” she said. “We may be slower but we are still hiking.”

The Wescotts met on a Baja California beach in 1977; Monika was a Swiss-born elementary school teacher, Gary was driving down to South America. The two traveled together, became friends and fell in love.

“I think we were both born travelers,” Monika Wescott said.

The couple jokingly branded their adventures the Turtle Expedition, Unltd., based on the names they gave the vehicles they used. The Wescotts are now onto the Turtle 5, a 4x4 Ford F550, which they say is comfortable yet compact enough to cross the Amazon or the Andes.

They’ve published their travel stories in about a dozen languages, mainly on their website, and product sponsors have advertised on their succession of vehicles, as well as on their website. All the while, the travel has continued.

“We were doing things most people couldn’t do because we chose not to have a house, not to have children, not to have a dog,” Gary Wescott said.

From Monika Wescott: “It’s just great because now we know what our purpose in life was. Just getting feedback from so many people all over the world, that we inspired them to follow their hearts and do whatever they wanted to do.”

During their recent two-year trip, they first visited Germany, France, Switzerland and Northern Spain before starting their official Trans-Eurasian Odyssey in Cabo da Roca, Portugal, the western-most tip of continental Europe. Highlights included the Karakum Desert in Turkmenistan where temperatures rose to 125 degrees, a 900-mile trek across the Mongolia Gobi Desert and a 4,800-mile drive across Siberia to Vladivostok where winter storms pushed temperatures down to 23 degrees below zero.

For their summer hike, they crossed the tops of the Lake Tahoe Basin and hit the Pacific Crest Trail, averaging about 10 miles a day with packs varying from 45 to 55 pounds, depending on water and food consumption. They also carried about two gallons of water each due to the scarcity of natural sources of water on the drought-hit trail.

“I think it is one of the prettiest place in the entire world,” Gary Wescott said. “It was just an opportunity to do something really physical.”

The Wescotts weren’t in a hurry. They would start their days late, waking up at 9 a.m. to make fresh-pressed coffee, he said. Then they ate homemade beef jerky, brown rice, salmon, trail snacks and other foods that could be prepared on a single camping stove.

Mary Bennington, executive director of the Tahoe Rim Trail Association, said the average hiker spends 10 to 15 days hiking the trail all the way through. She said more than 100,000 people visit the trail every year for day or segment hikes.

According to a study by LSC Transportation Consultants Inc., 11 percent of surveyed hikers of the Tahoe Rim Trail were 60 or older while 37 percent were 19 to 35 years old.

Monika Wescott said traveling helps seniors exercise their minds by presenting new challenges and learning opportunities such as navigating a map and learning how to communicate in another language.

“Every day we need to readjust and do something new and something different,” she said.

Yet despite their globetrotting ways, the Wescotts have also learned that opportunities for learning and stretching can start in people’s own communities.

“For people who never travel, they should go to their neighboring town and start exploring,” Monika Wescott said. “Start there and become more comfortable.”