If you have a mental picture of what an 82-year-old woman is capable of, you’ll need to toss it out the window when you meet Vancouver resident Peggy McCarthy. Peggy walks five to eight miles most days, is still able to twist herself into a pretzel doing daily yoga – which she also teaches – and completed a 300-mile pilgrimage through Portugal and Spain in early 2022, solo. She’s also co-written six books – three on cancer-related topics and three for teens – and is working on her seventh, a memoir that includes details about her pilgrimage.

Peggy McCarthy headshot
Peggy McCarthy figures she still has at least one good walk left in her, and when she says walk she undoubtedly means long, long hike. Her next destination is yet to be determined, but Italy, Morocco, the Mayan ruins, or a return to Portugal are all possibilities. Photo credit: Ginny Smith

Early Role Models Opened Peggy McCarthy’s Eyes to the Joys of Travel

Peggy credits her interest in the world and her love of travel to a wealth of horizon-expanding role models when she was growing up in Flagstaff, Arizona. “The father of one of my childhood friends had a goal of exploring and mapping all the Native American trails in the Grand Canyon, and he spent his weekends and most vacations doing just that,” she says.

“When I was in fifth grade, he and his wife took me and his son on a hike down one trail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, then up another trail back to the top,” she continues. “While the rest of us were slowly hiking back up, he ran up the switchbacks to the rim, then 10 more miles to retrieve the car. He was such a good role model for me, even into his 80s when he was still playing tennis.”

Peggy’s fifth grade teacher inspired her to get a pen pal, and soon she was writing to pen pals in every state, and one in England. And her seventh grade teacher was a worldwide traveler who brought geography to life for young Peggy.

Worldwide Travel, Yoga are Big Parts of Peggy McCarthy’s Life

During college, Peggy became fascinated with the way the immune system fights infectious diseases. “It was 1961 when I graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in microbiology, and one of my first jobs was at Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation, where immunology research was way ahead of its time,” she remembers.

black and white photo of Peggy and Jim on their walk in the Grand Canyon
One of Peggy’s first long hikes was with her friend Jim and his parents – to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back to the rim. It was 1949 and Peggy was 9. She’s pictured here with Jim, exhausted after a full day of walking more than 10 miles. Photo credit: Roma Butchart

Her own immune system began sending worrisome signals about that time. “I was in my 20s and a newly divorced single mother, working full time to support my two small children,” she says. “My job was stressful, and I started developing autoimmune symptoms – losing the circulation in my hands and forearms,” she says. “My doctor recommended medications that were pretty toxic, and I knew I didn’t want to deal with the side effects.”

That’s when she saw an ad for an upcoming yoga training, featuring world-renowned yogi B.K.S. Iyengar. She enrolled in the class, started practicing yoga, and her symptoms disappeared. She’s been devoted to yoga ever since. “It’s helped me keep moving, stay flexible, and build stamina as I’ve aged,” she says.

Peggy’s career included helping to launch Zovirax, the very first antiviral medication, and explaining the potential of antiviral medications to the worldwide medical community. Later, she founded two medical education companies and served as the CEO and executive director for the next 30 years.

All of those jobs involved worldwide travel, and Peggy found plenty of opportunities to explore, mostly on foot. “I walked many of the magnificent trails in Europe that were started by animals and later followed by the Neanderthals, Cro-Magnons, settlers and missionaries,” she says.

Peggy McCarthy’s Dream of Doing a Pilgrimage Spanned Four Decades

Peggy McCarthy sitting in a pretzel yoga position
Peggy McCarthy can still twist herself into yoga positions that many younger people can only dream of. She practices yoga daily and teaches at least three yoga classes every week. Photo credit: Ginny Smith

Peggy was 40 when she decided to do a pilgrimage, but it would take another 42 years to accomplish that dream. She worked more than full time until she was 80, including the last six years as executive director of NAMI Southwest Washington. And even in early 2020, when she was in Porto, Portugal, ready to start walking, her trip was postponed by the outbreak of COVID-19.

Finally, in January 2022, she set off walking from Porto and completed her pilgrimage in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, after hiking about 300 miles. “I’m so glad I finally got to take the trip,” she says. “It was one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

When asked about the secret to her long, healthy life, Peggy says she’s blessed with good genes. “My mother and siblings all lived to be over 90, and none of them was as physically active as I’ve been most of my life.”

Attitude is also a big part of her zest for life, she says. “Einstein once said, ‘There are two kinds of people – those who believe everything is a miracle, and those who believe nothing is a miracle.’ I believe everything is a miracle, and every day is a hallelujah day to me.”

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