Life gets mighty precious when there’s less of it to waste.Bonnie Raitt
As I have shared in previous posts my mother often boasted that I started walking when I was just eight months old, and I have been walking ever since, which means well over seventy years now of carrying myself upright on two strong legs. I am happy to share that those legs are holding out just fine. I have managed twenty mile days without particular difficulty, regardless of the terrain, and I seem to just keep going.
I have also shared that at times those long walks included an extremely heavy pack, as much as sixty pounds in my younger years, when I would regularly manage ten to fourteen day treks without any resupply points. I carried food, supplies, and just enough luxuries to make my evenings and mornings in camp especially enjoyable, such as a cup of tea and a good book.
Though it has been many years since I have carried a pack that heavy, my old back has not held up as well as my legs. Beginning last summer, for no apparent reason, I started waking up with a back ache. I did not think too much of it at first. Most backpackers will at times experience back aches, and in my life they have been brief, and complete recovery has occurred without much effort on my part, usually in a few days.
So it was that I began to take that pain seriously, for “complete recovery” did not seem to be happening as usual. I take pretty good care of this aging body, so I was already doing yoga daily. I began getting a weekly massage. I used a heating pad twice a day to relax those aching muscles. When nothing seemed to help, I went to see my primary care provider and received a referral to physical therapy. While my twice weekly sessions seemed to help lessen the pain, the benefits seemed short-lived, even while I continued to do my exercises daily. I was growing increasingly discouraged, for it seems I was doing everything right, and nothing was helping. Finally I went for a bone density scan, something I had been putting off, for I feared bad news.
A week later I received exactly that from my primary care provider. I have well advanced osteoporosis in my spine and hips. There was some comfort in understanding the reason why the pain was not improving, but it did little to help my sorry mood, and I remembered why it is that putting off bad news has a certain appeal.
I was not surprised. My mother had developed symptoms while considerably younger than I am now and had fractured a vertebra simply by reaching down to pick up something she had dropped on the kitchen floor. I have all the risk factors: female, white, small, and a family history. While all the weight bearing exercise I have done over many years probably delayed the onset and has lessened the severity, it does not change the fact that my back hurts, and it hurts right now as I sit at my desk in front of my laptop. In fact, it hurts almost all of the time.
The pain is manageable, however, and serves more as an annoying reminder that I am getting older and that aging is a process of letting go, little by little, while trying to maintain gratitude for a life well lived, however much it may be changing. “Not for the faint of heart,” someone once said about the process.
I can still walk of course, and I plan to do so for as long as these strong legs hold out, and I have no reason to believe that will be anytime soon. Backpacking is another matter though, and I definitely will not be carrying any more heavy packs nor going on long treks. This is a reality I have already come to terms with, as I have embraced ultra-lite hiking in recent years. A heavy pack is the enemy of an aging hiker.
Though I am told that there are new and effective treatments for osteoporosis, I run the risk of further damage to my spine as it crumbles in on itself should I subject it to heavy loads. In the meantime, it is May, my favorite month of the year because a whole summer of hiking and backpacking lies ahead. What does that mean for me this year? I have not figured that out yet.
When I sit down in my rocking chair this evening by the window, I will look to the east and the summit of Copper Butte, the highest point of the Kettle River Mountains. The clouds are high, and heavy snow is still present. In past years I have waited just long enough for the snow to melt sufficiently to take my first backpacking trip of the season to that mountain top, a short one as it is only about three miles to the summit from the eastern approach on the Old Wagon Road. It is enough to pitch my tent, melt snow over my stove for water and dinner, then awaken the next morning to watch the sun rise over the distant Selkirk Mountains while I sip my tea. There it is, calling to me, even with the heavy snow that remains on the mountain tops. How can I possibly say no?