Jeanne Stallman spends a lot of her time trying to convince retiring baby boomers to visit Southern Oregon. As director of Elderhostel at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Stallman manages vacation programs for seniors. In past years, a large part of her efforts have centered on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
But for an increasing number of boomers, the Bard doesn't quite cut it. They want to play, not watch plays. They want something with more pizzazz. Something that makes them sweat. Something with a little challenge — like shooting rapids, hiking mountains and biking the backroads.
"More and more retired folks are physically active. Being retired you have more of an opportunity to be in shape, beyond the office workers," Stallman says with a laugh. "Like me."
"We're seeing more people in the 55-65 [age] group, the younger retirees. They want to experience the area, not just see it," Stallman says. "This is a generational difference."
Elderhostel is an international program for travelers, 55 years of age or older, who vacation for five to six days and experience the culture, history and natural beauty of a region. According to Stallman, 40 percent of SOU Elderhostel travelers hail from California, 10 percent from Washington, 10 percent from Oregon and 40 percent from other states, with a handful from Canada.
Elderhostel trips are ranked according to activity level, from one to six, depending on the degree of physical exertion required. Seeing a play is a one. The highest degree of difficulty to date for the SOU chapter of Elderhostel was a recent bicycle trip through the Rogue Valley that rated a four, but the group is turning up the heat, with level five programs planned for September and June.
A six-day hiking trip on the Pacific Crest Trail will be offered from September 7-12. Next June 1-6, the group will shoot the rapids on a rafting trip through the Wild & Scenic section of the Rogue River.
The leaders for the recent bicycle trip and upcoming PCT hike are Steve Shrader and Bill Heimann, both recent retirees themselves.
Shrader is a former wilderness ranger for the U.S. Park Service. Heimann is a veteran trip leader, having led several transcontinental bike trips for the national organization Adventure Cycling. Heimann and his wife, Annette Lewis, took a year off from work in 1994 to bicycle across Asia, Africa, Europe and North America.
"I like the customer contact — building relationships with people who will expose themselves to adventure," Heimann says. "To take a wilderness experience, and make it a good one, is very positive."
Hikes of eight to 10 miles per day await those sign up for the PCT trip, according to Heimann.
After a warm-up hike in Lithia Park the first day, participants will begin their PCT experience near Pilot Rock. On the following days, hikers will pass through Lake of the Woods, Sky Lakes Wilderness, Mount Thielsen Wilderness, and finish up on the rim of Crater Lake. The first and last nights will be spent in Ashland, the rest in rustic cabins in the woods.
To help with the Rogue Valley bicycle trip, Heimann asked his friend, Paul Nylund, to ride "sweep" behind the last of 15 cyclists to make sure no one got lost, and to help with other potential problems, such as fixing a flat tire. Nylund, of Ashland, who is retired from the public relations and advertising industry, has ridden on several previous Elderhostel bicycle trips around the country.
"This valley is a fantastic destination for that (bicycling)," Nylund says. "There is incredible variety, and a lot of things to do here."
The recent five-day bike adventure included day trips from Ashland to Emigrant Lake, local vineyards, orchards, Jacksonville, and a streamside tour on the Bear Creek Greenway to Medford that included a tour of Harry & David.
The worst thing that happened, according to Nylund, was that it rained one day. "People dealt with it. They had what was required," he says.
Elderhostel is a franchise organization, much like a chain of retail stores. The local chapter maintains autonomy over program offerings and logistics, while the national office provides marketing assistance and ensures that standards are met.
The national office is having its own struggle to attract baby boomers. Their initial marketing research shows a great resistance to the word "elder" in Elderhostel.
"Baby boomers don't like to think of themselves as old," Stallman says. "The national office is going through a name-change process." She expects a new name for the organization to be announced next year.
But whatever the name, the Southern Oregon chapter is hoping adventure travel is the wave of the future for retirees.
The message they are sending is this: don't just get older, get fitter. And, while you're at it, experience Oregon. Firsthand.
For more information, visit the SOU Elderhostel Web site at www.sou.edu/siskiyoucenter/elderhostel
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at email@example.com