I climbed Mt. Liberty in the White Mountains National Forest this past week. It was the first 4,000 ft mountain there I had climbed. It will likely be my last.
I’ve always been an outdoorsy person, from the time I was a little girl. In fact, when I was seven I wanted to quit piano because practicing took away from my time to play outside. (I am thankful my Mom didn’t let me quit.) I was fascinated, and still am, by the natural world. It has always been a source of wonder and enjoyment.
Weirdly, aside from canoeing with my Dad, I really didn’t grow up in an outdoorsy family. I remember going hiking only three times as a kid, nature walks aside. When I was six or so, a group from my church hiked in the Blue Hills south of Boston, MA. I was fifteen the first time I hiked in the mountains of New Hampshire, when we were visiting friends. When I was a senior in high school, I took a friend along a challenging trail near where we lived in Rhode Island and found the way back to the car by intuition.
My junior high youth group did a one-overnight camping trip in our local state park. The next time I camped was a few months after I got married, when a college friend and I went up to New Hampshire for a weekend and set up camp off-trail near the base of Mt. Moosilauke. We attempted to hike up the Beaver River Trail that weekend but didn’t make it to the summit. The beauty of the river and the challenge of the hike caused my jaw to drop, and ever since I have wanted to go back and try it again after more practice. Now I don’t think it will ever happen.
My husband was born-and-raised a city boy, but I convinced him to try outdoor activities. He fell in love with it as well, and all our camping and hiking experience is what we have gained as adults, including some bloopers. One time, I took my daughter up Mt. Monadnock; the clear day turned to rain as soon as we got to the summit. It is very rocky there, and concerned about my balance, I decided to slide down some rock ledges on my behind, tearing a hole through both my hiking pants and my underwear. I was truly em-bare-assed. Thankfully I had a jacket to provide some cover! A friend of mine then said he learned lessons like that when he was a kid. That’s great – if one grows up in a family that provides those opportunities. But I’ve had to learn, make mistakes, and collect proper gear as an adult.
Those opportunities have been slow to come. For five years, my husband was in seminary in Louisville, KY. While we did hike in the area and included short trips to locales a few hours away, such as the Shawnee Hills in southern Illinois and Mammoth Caves in southern Kentucky, our trips back home to visit family were short and didn’t include enough time to get up to the mountains.
Then, in the spring of 2011 while walking our dog, my back got twisted. I was in excruciating pain 24/7 for six months because the doctor believed that physical therapy would help the “bulging disc” return to place. I was treated like I was seeking drugs until finally in October, after taking the maximum amount of Ibuprofen, Prednisone, Gabapentin, and Vicodin I could one morning, I ended up in the ER with pain so intense I could not cope. After giving me yet more pain medicine, the nurses watched as my leg buckled under me as soon as I felt better enough to get up to use the restroom. No, I wasn’t faking; surgery was scheduled for two days later. The surgeon went in thinking she was taking care of a bulging disc, but discovered that she was actually going to have to cut out bone and also remove a cyst that had been hidden in the MRI. She later admitted she was nervous as she saw my sciatic nerve squashed flat. Thankfully, it began to reinflate immediately as soon as the pressure was relieved.
I am so thankful to God that I no longer have pain. In fact, on a normal day I have less pain now than when I was a teenager. (I used to think all that pain was normal.) However, that doesn’t mean all is well. In the course of treatment, my physical therapist discovered that I have a loose sacroiliac joint. She warned me to stay away from certain activities that would aggravate the problem, which includes basically anything that causes one side of my pelvis to be higher than the other. Unfortunately, even walking down the stairs can cause my joint to go out, if one foot hits the floor too hard.
I wasn’t sure how I would do hiking. Having been laid up for so long, then having my mobility restored and being pain-free like never before really motivated me to be proactive about pursuing more hiking. For the most part, I was fine. Hiking is a comparatively slow activity compared to running, so I could carefully consider how to place my feet. I was doing great, and every time we went hiking we progressively tried something more difficult.
Mt. Liberty did me in.
I didn’t have a problem with the ascent. The only break my husband and I had to take on the way up was to eat lunch because we just couldn’t wait to reach the top before addressing our dropping blood sugar. The problem was not the steepness alone; we had hiked a steeper trail in Grand Teton National Park. The problem was the combination of steepness and rocks, particularly on the way down. Yes, the rocks form a sort of “staircase.” Yes, there is a lot of sure footing. But it is extremely uneven, and that unevenness is what my loose SI joint can’t handle.
When my SI joint goes out,the left side of my pelvis drops several inches lower than the right, twisting my lower back and putting pressure on my sciatic nerve. It causes a lot of pain, but not just pain. It also reduces movement and lowers response time. It becomes harder to lift my leg, so it’s easier to trip. It’s harder to twist my leg to maneuver around obstacles. And I definitely cannot go fast. It took me as long, or longer, to go down the mountain than to go up. My physical therapist had showed my husband and I how to push my SI joint back into place when it goes out, but there’s no flat spot on the trail for me to lay down on the ground to do that. Even if I had borrowed a tent platform for a couple of minutes at the campground, my SI joint probably would have been out again fifty feet down the trail. At points, I was very nervous. What would have happened if my sciatic nerve got so irritated that my leg wouldn’t hold me up any longer? The fear of going back to that place is always there.
So, Mt. Liberty showed me my limits. In an ironic twist, Mt. Liberty liberated me from a daydream of ever trekking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. Backpacking at all is completely out. The question remains what day hiking I can manage. Even though exercises can help stabilize the SI joint, I can’t risk getting stuck on a mountain somewhere because my legs quit working. It’s hard to judge what a trail is really like based on a short description in a book. I know I won’t be able to hike “difficult” trails in the White Mountains, but what about places I have not yet been? How will I be able to know what I can do? “Rocky and steep” is such a subjective description.
I don’t care that I can’t run; I’ve never been a runner. I don’t care that roller skating bothers my hips; roller skating was out of style years ago. I can’t go bowling. I did that once months after my back surgery and ended up in pain for three days. But it isn’t a major loss in my life to not do something I only did once in a great while. Hiking is a different story. It is an activity I have enjoyed and intentionally pursued. It is tied up with the types of vacations my family has taken for the last twenty years: we camp and we hike.
Driving through Franconia Notch on the way home, I sadly looked up and knew my one brief taste of the ridge was the only one I would ever get. I won’t get to any other ridges. I will probably never hike up Mt. Washington. A congenital skeletal condition that puts me at risk for getting seriously injured makes it unwise to make any more attempts at difficult trails. I have to be glad I got off Mt. Liberty without incident.
I usually write about music in my blog posts, and while this post is mainly about hiking, it does tie into advice I have given my kids. Success in music is not guaranteed. A person can be the most talented, skilled, and devoted musician and still have their career derailed by things outside their control. An illness or an injury can end the pursuit of a musical career, like it did for my husband whose desire to pursue classical guitar performance was thwarted by severe tendonitis in his arms that, to this day, is aggravated by overuse. Perhaps the need to care for a loved one will cause musical dreams to die. A lack of the kinds of success one desires is not always (often?) a reflection of how hard one works. I’ve heard and read more times than I can count that the main thing that separates a successful artist from an unsuccessful one is stick-to-it-ive-ness. “The one who keeps going is the one who makes it.” Well, sometimes you can’t keep going, and that’s not a character flaw. In those cases, one must learn to satisfy one’s love for one’s art in ways that are different than one originally intended, the same way I need to learn to enjoy hiking only on easy and moderately difficult trails. No amount of exercise, preparation, stamina, perseverance, guts, or determination is going to make it safe for me to take a difficult trail that could get me stranded on a mountain or worse. Like many others who have had to put dreams to rest, I have to learn to not feel “less than” because I can’t do what others can do.
Whether it is personal or professional, laying dreams to rest is hard and depressing. If you have faced these kinds of disappointments, you have my sympathies. A lost dream does not make one a loser. I know well that enormous amounts of desire and effort don’t mean things will work out the way we hoped, and I know how much it hurts when our dreams don’t come true. It’s not the ones who try and succeed who have the most courage. It is those who try and “fail” and learn to live in a new reality amidst disappointments who I admire the most.