BRIDGTON – Margaret Mathis probably trains more than most people as she rides her Peloton exercise bike five times a week. She also joins her hiking group every Friday for hikes that last an hour or two, and does a different hike every week, sometimes two. In the winter, the retired teacher does all of that, downhill skiing near her Swiss ski lodge in Bridgton.
Not an unusual outdoor lifestyle for many active Mainers. But Mathis is 93.
For Mathis – grandmother of 10 and great-grandmother of four – hiking, swimming, biking and skiing is just what she does. What she actually lives for.
Margaret Mathis’ remarkable fitness in her 80s took her on a multi-day hike through the backcountry to the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru, snorkeled with sea turtles in the Bahamas, and cycled the 250 mile Great Allegheny Passage Rail trail outside of Pittsburgh – which she did from the beginning – a year after she broke a complicated leg.
The exact recipe for their vibrant, active health in their 80s and early 90s (and beyond) is difficult to pin down.
When asked, Mathis refers to a childhood as a competitive long-distance swimmer in St. Louis – or perhaps to the years in which he was part of the excursion club Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
But these grueling outdoor activities existed in the 1940s, more than 70 years ago.
“She was athletic when she was young. She was a competitive swimmer and has great stories of participating in swimming competitions during World War II, ”said her son Sandy McKee in Pittsburgh. “But I attribute a lot (her active life) to genetics. And I hope I have the majority of these genes. “
What is clear is that Mathis began teaching math in high school in the decades after college and just when Mathis was almost finished raising her four children in Texas, and soon after began a life of world travel and outdoor adventures and never more let go.
Allen Crabtree is a co-founder of the local hiking group that Mathis is part of – the Denmark Mountain Hikers. He said the year-round hiking group consists mostly of retired Mainers in their 60s or 70s, with some in their 80s. But Mathis is an outlier at 93.
“She is a soldier. She was right there on this first hike (at the age of 83). Now she’s our oldest wanderer, ”said Crabtree.
In 1970 Mathis began teaching math at a boarding school in San Antonio, and after her divorce she did so in St. Louis, her hometown. Eventually she found her way to Maine, where she taught at Chewonki – which provided the outdoor education curriculum that appealed to her. During this time she was invited to teach at a boarding school in Switzerland.
There she taught for almost 22 years in two different boarding schools – one within sight of the Matterhorn – hiking or skiing almost every day. She retired in 2012 at the age of 83.
on During school holidays and after her retirement, Mathis traveled to Pakistan, Japan, China, New Zealand, Australia, Belize, Nepal, Zimbabwe and South Africa, where she helped tying penguins on an island. Sometimes she visited family or former students, or took her grandchildren on adventures. Sometimes she went alone.
“People say in their 60s that they are getting old. But I started doing a lot of these things, teaching, and traveling in my 60s, ”said Mathis.
Today a Swiss flag hangs at her home at the foot of Pleasant Mountain. In the finished basement next to the fireplace there are a dozen or more large photos of the students she taught in Switzerland for over 20 years.
“I try to take something home with me from every place I’ve been,” she says, pointing to a wood-carved giraffe from Africa and a clay sculpture from Nepal.
Mathis taught last year, she joined the Denmark Mountain Hikers when they were at home in Maine. Their adventures were not over. To this day she is a constant in the group – and an inspiration at the same time.
“She sets the pace and she follows that pace,” said Crabtree. “And she’s still skiing. Every now and then I meet her on Shawnee Peak. I remember the last time I went skiing with her, I took the chairlift with her and she said, ‘I’ll take the lead.’ She was out of sight before I got off the elevator. “
Crabtree isn’t sure what Mathis’s secret to adolescent life is. But he was referring to one thing Mathis has in her favor: A. Family – children and grandchildren – who hike, cycle and travel with her and who do not impair their thirst for adventure.
“It seems to be a common theme (for many): The family does not realize that their parents are not ready to throw in the towel. They don’t see that. Sometimes they are overprotective, ”said Crabtree, who is 80 years old and often hikes. “Every time you quit an outdoor activity and settle down and watch TV, it’s not a good recipe for longevity.”
Sandy McKee, for example, does not subscribe to this philosophy and wholeheartedly approves of his mother’s outdoor hikes.
When Mathis was in her early 80s, she went on a hike to Machu Picchu in Peru with Sandy and his wife Leslie and their two children – hiking and camping on the four-day trip. Mathis hiked in the front and Sandy McKee and his wife Leslie hiked in the back and met many new found “Margaret fans,” as Sandy calls them.
“People walking the other way looked at us, pointed at her, and said,“ How old is she? We don’t see many people aging out here. ‘ It was pretty amusing, ”said McKee. “And 10 years later – she’s still doing it. It is wonderful. It is extraordinary. It is unusual.
“I know she’s good at knowing her limits. The difficult thing is that she knows her limits and others set limits on her. It won’t come from me. I firmly believe in the theory that you throttle these older people down – and then it’s no fun. She still has a to-do list with the places she would like to travel to next. “
Mathis said that because of the pandemic, she was not inclined to fly internationally anytime soon. But she has a Florida snorkeling trip planned for next winter.
“My daughter and I plan to snorkel in the Florida Keys,” Mathis said of her daughter Peggy McKee in Bangor. “Because we both like to swim and snorkel, and I’ve never been this far south in Florida.”
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