The journey is my home.Muriel Rukeyser
It has happened to every hiker and therefore most likely to you, since I know most of my readers are themselves hikers. We get injured on the trail. Fortunately most of them are minor. . .scrapes, lacerations, sprains, burns, bruises, blisters. It is just not possible to scramble over fallen logs, leap across streams on slick stones, or make one’s way across a rock slide when the trail has been washed out without getting injured from time to time. Sometimes they occur for no reason. We wake up in the morning and an ankle is swollen, a knee is in pain, a tick bite is inflamed and itching.
Fortunately most of these injuries are minor, and we keep going, keep hiking. I’ve had some close calls. So have you. I wrote about some of mine in an earlier post, The New and Improved First Aid Kit. What continues to amaze me is not how often injuries occur but how rarely they seem to be serious, given the kinds of risks hikers often take.
But this is not a post about emergency preparedness nor safety on the trail. You already know about that. It is instead a post about aging. Some of you, not everyone, will know about that as well. If you are in the former category like me you will know what it is like when your relationship to injuries changes. At some point it is no longer just a matter of being hurt and moving on. As soon as the fall happens, I am asking myself, “Is this the one? Is this the injury that will keep me from hiking, that will put an end to my hiking days?” These days I ask the question even before I hit the ground, perhaps as I am flying through the air. And so far the answer has always been, “Not yet.”
Last summer I did not have a chance to go backpacking until mid-September. I do not usually hike in late summer, as I tend to get cold easily, but the decision is always an easy one when the choice is to go and be cold or not go at all. I had planned a trek in the Selkirk Mountains near my home, a ridge top traverse almost entirely above six thousand feet in elevation. I wisely packed extra warm clothes and an all-season sleeping bag, which meant carrying a larger pack to accommodate the extra weight instead of my Ultra-Lite Osprey. The heavier pack made my back ache, but of course, a back ache is part of the experience on such a trip.
Still, I was glad that I had planned for the cold. I crawled into my sleeping bag every night and was grateful for that extra warmth. And though by my earlier standards this pack was certainly not excessive at thirty-five pounds, I had not carried anything but my Ultra-Lite pack for several years. Aching backs are not unusual on a backpacking trip, more the norm than the exception, but this time, eight months later, the ache has not gone away. It is not so bad really, just there, a reminder that I am not as young as I used to be and must be kinder and gentler with my aging body if I am going to stay on the trail. The pain is mild. It will not stop me from hiking. It is not “the one.”
But I had to ask that question again last weekend. My husband, Stan, and I had descended to the bottom of a ravine that runs across our property. A small stream runs through it in the spring. Last year there had been too much snow to make a safe descent, but this year the ground was dry, and I was eager to see the stream before it dries up completely in early summer. The descent is a steep one, and is choked with underbrush and fallen logs, no problem for this intrepid hiker. Stan was a short distance ahead of me and had climbed over a log that spanned the stream. I followed, swinging one leg over the log and then straddling it for awhile because my feet could not reach the ground. I sat there for awhile, debating about what to do next. There are not a lot of choices when one’s feet are dangling in the air You might say I was not very grounded. I leaned to one side thinking I would make a short leap and land one foot on the ground, then swing the other leg around to other to follow. If this sounds complicated, I should add that I have always been short, and have performed this maneuver probably a hundred times. This time did not exactly go as planned. As the first foot hit the ground it landed on a slick log in the stream and slid forward, stretching me into a kind of aerial version of the splits.
It might have been balletic, but when I heard and felt the pop, I let out a shout that was anything but graceful. The pain was worthy of such a whoop, but what I was really putting out there into the air was that same old question, “Is this the one?”
For some time I lay crumpled on the ground, convinced that the answer to the question was, “Yes.” Stan tried to comfort me and help me to my feet, but standing up meant bending my leg at the hip, and that was excruciating. Finally with his help I was able to stand up and look ahead at the logs and brush I had to navigate over and around to get up the hill to the house. I was able at last to get beyond the underbrush, where I lay down on the ground for awhile. It was late afternoon, and I was beginning to get cold. Getting up the hill to the house seemed like an impossible task. Eventually I found that if I kept the injured leg perfectly straight I could inch my way sideways up the hill without exacerbating the pain. It felt at first like one of those nightmares when no matter how fast you run you never get anywhere. Finally the house came into view at the top of the hill, then the deck, and then suddenly I was making my way up the steps to the front door, walking sideways as I had done for several hundred feet by that time.
One week later I am still in pain, despite a muscle relaxant that eases the spasms when they occur. I am spending most of the day in bed. Lying on my back seems to be the most comfortable position, though I can sit for short periods in a rocking chair. I have been told that I should avoid weight bearing as much as possible, though I am able to hobble about when I need to. The pain has not lessened much, though if I take my time and move mindfully I can generally avoid the worst of it.
Well, there is that question looming again, the one I flung into the air last weekend as my foot slid out in front of me. Is this the one? I cannot answer with confidence, but I think the most likely answer is once again, “Not yet.” Soft tissue injuries do heal, albeit slowly, six to eight weeks I was told. Sadly for me this is the start of hiking season, when I would ordinarily be taking daily walks around my home and weekly hikes into the high country as the snow melts, as well as planning a long trek later in the summer. The long trek may not be possible this year, as I may not even be able to start training until early July. Since daily walks have always been essential to my emotional healing I am deprived of that one thing I need to feel better.
But there is this. That photo at the beginning of this blog is the view from my living room window. Last night we had a rain storm, and I sat in my comfortable rocking chair and watched the light change as the clouds shifted position over the Kettle River Mountains. When the sky is clear, I can trace the route I took three years ago along the crest of those mountains when I hiked the Pacific Northwest Trail, the hike that led me here. I can follow the route to the summit of Copper Butte, where I ate my lunch next to the remains of an old lookout tower. It is not the same as being there, but it will do, at least for now.
Hopefully by the end of the summer I will be sitting up there again, having some lunch, perhaps with a pair of binoculars in my hands so that I can gaze to the west across the valley and maybe see my home. I will be remembering myself remembering. And eventually I will probably have a few more confrontations with that unwelcome question, “Is this the one?”
“Not yet,” I will reply. “But someday.”