Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace.Flannery O’Connor
I sit at my desk this morning with an aching back. It is not unusual for me. It is just a little worse than usual. For that matter, it is not unusual for many adults, more common in tall men and increasing in incidence and severity as we age. I am neither tall nor male, but I am old, and I am a hiker. I have been a hiker and backpacker since I was a very young child, as my readers know by now.
The backache I experience this morning was exacerbated not by hiking but by sitting, which always makes it worse. I have returned from a trip to the southwest, which involved four days of driving, four days of sitting. That is never a good idea for people with aching backs, but sometimes it cannot be avoided.
There is a silver lining here, of course. It never helps to lie in bed and feel sorry for myself, nor even to sit in the recliner with my feet up and an ice pack braced against my lower back. What does help is to move, pure and simple. It is worse in the morning, when I roll myself out of bed and slip on my shoes, careful not to lean over in doing so, which makes it worse. It gets progressively better as I begin walking around the house, and since our house is a three-story log home, there is plenty of walking to be done, as well as the climbing of stairs. It is rather like spending a day hiking. Typically by early afternoon the pain is almost completely gone.
I take great comfort in this fact. The very thing that I fear most about aging. . . limited mobility. . .is the antidote that makes the pain better: walking, hiking, climbing. Everyday I am reminded of how important it is for me to keep doing what I have always done, whatever my age: to keep moving, to keep hiking, to keep doing what I love. This is hardly a sad story.
My pain transitioned from occasional to chronic following a backpacking trip I took last year. I delayed the trip until mid-September, never a good idea for me, and planned a trek on a high ridge in the Selkirk Mountains of northeastern Washington. I wisely planned for cold weather. . .an all-season sleeping bag instead of my usual ultra-lite sleeping quilt, and extra warm clothes. I am glad that I did so. My campsites were all above 6000 feet in elevation, and when I climbed into my warm sleeping bag every night, I was glad for those extra layers of goose down.
Unfortunately, warmer clothes and gear inevitably mean a heavier pack, and after several years of ultra-lite backpacking this extra burden, literally and figuratively, was more than my old back could manage without lasting consequences. I returned from the trip with an aching back. Unlike the backaches that always occur after a long hike in the mountains with a heavy pack, this one did not go away. Only more walking and hiking would make that happen, and even that was a temporary fix until the next morning.
It would be an exaggeration to blame my current pain on that particular trip, despite the heavy pack. I began backpacking as a young teenager, and throughout my many years on the trail, I regularly carried packs that far exceeded what a small woman should carry. No one ever heard of ultra-lite hiking in those days, and I was out for as long as fourteen days at a time without resupplying. Of course my pack was heavy. And that I now pay a price for those heavy packs is all right. I have memories of mornings in camp with a book and a cup of tea that make a back ache merely a consequence of an active life spent in beautiful places.
I do not want to be flippant about chronic back pain. There is a reason the World Health Organization has labeled it a “priority disease.” Its economic impact is staggering, and it is the leading cause of impaired mobility in adults throughout the world. Such labels do nothing to describe the emotional toll that chronic pain takes on its sufferers, who must wake up every morning with that familiar ache, an ache that does not go away.
Mine does though, most days anyway, which is why I write this piece. It gets better with weekly massage and daily yoga and occasional Tylenol, and most of all from moving. I am more fortunate than many. I do not suffer with back pain, I simply live with it, along with wrinkles and arthritis and the many other markers of aging I have gathered along the way.
And speaking of wrinkles, they tell the same story. Sometimes when I look into the mirror and trace the smile lines, I am reminded of long walks under the hot sun of the Arizona desert, where I spent the last week. I am reminded of those hikes on high mountains ridges above timberline, of walks across slick rock in Canyonlands, of the many climbs I have taken to the summits of mountain peaks, where no shade interrupts the view, and there is only the sun and the wildness of it all and the satisfaction of accomplishment. Yes, it is worth a few wrinkles.
Then there are the scars, every single one of them acquired on various hikes, beginning with the very first one on my right knee, when I was about five years old. My father warned me to be careful on the slick surface of Red Rock Reef. I dropped to my knees and began to plummet towards the roiling waters of the Skokomish River. He reached down & grabbed me by one arm, lifting me out of harm’s way. I remember watching that scar form and feeling some degree of pride. “Now I have a scar,” I thought, believing that it made me tough. There would be many more, acquired on many different hikes and scrambles, and like the wrinkles, each one tells a story. And yes, they did make me tough.
In truth, I would be happy if that back pain just went away and never came back. That may yet happen. But until it does, I have reminders and memories of a life spent outdoors, under the sun, breathing hard, living well.