This is a brief entry on not-hiking because I have been doing just that since mid-November. I busted up my ankle rather spectacularly right before Thanksgiving and a big plastic clunky boot along with slowly healing old(erish) lady bones can put a real damper on enjoying a trail.
To tell the truth the down time hasn’t been that horrible. Here’s one reason why: whenever I was forced to acknowledge or deal with the big grey boot (i.e.; everyday) I frequently pictured my friends and acquaintances who had been laid low by Mr.Death and how they would have gladly opted for a broken ankle. I can’t even say ‘my friends that got sick and died just like that’ (finger snapping for added emphasis) because the diseases and illnesses that carried them away generally took their damn time. (Exit stage left…slowly…slowly…one more grimace please before the final bow; that’s it! Now scram. Forever.)
So while not-hiking I smiled for my dearly departed friends when any one person (and there were many) would acknowledge my big boot and murmur sympathetic words. I thought of my friends so much I ended up creating a phantasmagorical scene in my head where they were given the choice of a chipped-up tibia or a lethal dose of cancer. An other-worldly do-over if you’d like. This mental one-act took my mind off not-hiking and allowed me to envision long-gone friends with a happy choice in front of them. (“I’ll take door number two!” asserted with the angelic confidence of someone who knows precisely what is waiting for them).
My busted ankle, which made me one with the couch for weeks on end, enabled me to think about my missing friends in a different light – new images of them in a hopeful place with a new hopeful choice (and I acknowledge it was all pretend – but nonetheless…). Weirdly, that is what my smashed up ankle came to symbolize: hope. My own do-over. As I focused on my missing friends I was able to toss out some of the anger I held on to about their absences (angry only because they left so soon). No fear, I am not breaking with the real world, I acknowledge the make-believe nature of it all. But it was a good mental crutch to use during my confinement. And it was a relief to think of friends happily and not with the usual sense of deep loss / of smothering sadness I seem to have embraced for many years.
And now my father is sick too, probably nearing end of life. Cancer is cutting down the big D (dad, Don) and has reduced the man to a confused shrunken being muttering nonsense on an endless loop underpinned by a good dose of paranoia. Sorry, I can’t make his cancer story any prettier; and he wouldn’t appreciate the nicety anyway. If the end is long (no swift heart attack, no fiery car crash) modern medicine can quickly turn a vibrant person into a clucking confused being with dull eyes and knotty hands worrying the edge of hospital sheet. The long stroll toward death can strip people of their privacy and dignity (in exchange for a few more days, another month). I have witnessed numerous (otherwise considerate) humans walking into my father’s hospital room only to comment on his urine output or shout questions like ‘how are you feeling today’ as if he was dying of deafness and not multiple myeloma.
I am not especially close to my father and during my formative teenage years he wasn’t around so I don’t have a strong familial tether to him. But I acknowledge thatmany of the moments he and I shared helped shape the better parts of me.
- I am brave because he is brave. ‘Look at me! Just look at me’ he shouted over the roar of a roller coaster as my 5 year old self whimpered about an upcoming drop. ‘You won’t be afraid if you look at me’. Honest, that image has stuck with me forever and I call upon it when needed. I see his young face, not much more than 30, with his thick black hair lifting in the wind and his face smiling, nodding, encouraging and urging me to welcome the upcoming thrill.
- I am not afraid to enjoy the things that make me happy because I saw him chase happiness his whole life. It is such a simple thing, and yet so many generate reasons that stop them from defining and embracing their own pleasure. My father was a straight up ‘yes’ man when it came to life’s opportunities.
- And I do not to spend time worrying about other people’s life choices because he let me know that was, ‘none of your business or mine’. It’s not that I don’t care about other people’s lives, but in one way I kind of don’t care. While not the most open-minded person, my father never gossiped or fussed about what people did with their lives.
- He was inclusive and I aspire to that too. Again, not the most open-minded person but if he came close enough to someone/anyone he always gave a genuine and hearty ‘hello’.
- My deep love and appreciation for the outdoors is the result of his insistence of the importance of being outside as much as possible. He did not approve of playing indoors and most of my childhood was spent outside, even when it was raining, even in the dark.
For one who was often oblivious to the impact his actions had on people around him, my father noticed the smallest details in the woods, the slightest changes on the beach.
So it was appropriate that as I began to bury my childhood grudges with him we opted to get to know one another again outdoors. We started with small walks in grey drippy coastal mornings in the early 1990’s, when I would slip out to Oregon for a week here or there. And we gradually moved on to longer, bigger trails when our conversations became easier and we found we had more to say to one another. If we were alone we would often zip to places quickly on the coast because companions often complained of hours in the car. But he and I agreed on one thing, that hours in a car were often worth a perfect costal view or hike.
He watched the outdoors like a sly detective. He was always present in the outdoors, not distracted as he often was when indoors. He was always looking and he would elbow me with new sightings or announce the information in his overly loud outside voice (often spooking away what he was trying to point out).
It is a powerful human theme that resonates with me this: walk yourself (your relationships, your problems, your fears) to a better place up a mountain trail, along a prairie path, next to a lake or river. And make time to bury meaningless grudges along the way because that weight only draws attention to the unimportant.
As expected, as eagerly awaited, my ankle is growing stronger after 3 months of down time. My goal is to hike St. Helens in the long mid-summer light with my great good Andy, the best hiker buddy and ankle-nurse of all time, and our wonderful new, strong, and funny friends Lori and Jeff.
And on that good summer day, I will remember my long gone dear friends as I haul my happiest memories of them and my healing ankle up St. Helen’s.
I guess this entry, in the end, was just as much about hiking as it was about not-hiking. And I think I owe a tip of the IP hat to Jude (she knows what I mean).