Getting Better at Getting Better

As some of you know, I’ve been dealing with a pretty severe back injury since THE GREAT DEER HUNT OF 2016, when what started as some annoying soreness following big hikes turned into debilitating back spasms. Under strict “don’t do anything dumb” orders from my doctor and physical therapist, I’ve been cooped up since then, sticking to fishing trips, easy hikes, and family fun. Last weekend, I finally couldn’t take it anymore. I hadn’t had a really bad back spasm for a couple of weeks, so caution be damned, I was going to do something fun.

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Not wanting to die alone in the woods, collapsed from another round of back spasms, I decided to keep things reasonable. Wet Beaver Creek, which goes from very easy near the trailhead to a light moderate after Bell Crossing, fit the bill perfectly. To avoid completely infuriating my physical therapist, I threw in my fly rod. No, no, no, I would tell her, I didn’t go hiking last weekend, I went backcountry fishing.

Now, we should be honest: AZGFD does stock Wet Beaver Creek with rainbow trout, but only on the lower end below the weir. While Will Jordan’s seminal Flyfisher’s Guide to Arizona mentions rumors of ancient brown trout in the creek’s upper reaches, at it’s heart this is a bass stream. It’s too cold for the bass to be very active right now, so I knew my chances were slim. Regardless, I snuck up on my favorite hole and gave it a shot.

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Nothing, but that was what I expected. If there were any trout lurking here they would be further upstream.  Unfortunately, upstream means going up, and going up made my back scream.

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A couple of miles later, while looking down from the rim of the canyon I saw a promising pool. It was a long way to the bottom, and the only obvious route would take me first through a couple of dense patches of cats claw, then scrambling down a few 6-10 foot drops, before finally putting me on the wrong side of the icy stream. In short, it would certainly violate my “don’t do anything dumb” orders.

But perfect fishing holes are hard to find, so off I went.

The cat’s claw wasn’t too bad. My clothes did a pretty good job of keeping the worst of it off my skin, and I emerged from the thicket a few minutes later with couple of nasty cuts but no worse for the wear. The scrambles, on the other hand, were a problem. For one, I had my fly rod out and I didn’t want to take it down just to put the whole thing back together after scrambling just 20 vertical feet. More importantly, my balance hasn’t been the same since the injury.

But I hadn’t crawled through all that cat’s claw for nothing, so I put my rod in my teeth, and started down climbing.

The first climb went reasonably well. The second, not so much. As I worked my way down the rock face my right foot, on my bad side, slipped. Normally this wouldn’t be too much of a problem, I’d just catch myself, recenter, and keep working my way down. But for whatever reason, my leg just wouldn’t do what I wanted it to and my slip quickly became a fall. Luckily it wasn’t far to the bottom.

The final scramble was the shortest and the shallowest, only a couple of feet of rock just steep enough I couldn’t walk on it. I decided to go down sliding on my butt since that is always easiest. This worked fine until I hit the bottom and my feet suddenly shot out from under me. Laying on the ground my back started spasming and for a couple of moments it felt like all the muscles in my hips and legs were going to tear my bones apart. On the upside, this gave me some time to inspect my situation. Ice. Every single rock was covered with a thin layer of ice.

When my back finally calmed down I stood up and carefully worked my way over the the hole I’d seen from up above. The pool beckoned.

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The wind was blowing hard and cold. Around me, little bits of skim ice form in the slower parts of the pool. On the second or third cast finally, blessedly, I watched my fly line jerk into the water. The fight was on.

Or at least it should have been. Watching the tip of my line I clearly had a fish on, but I felt nothing on the rod end. When I tried to set the hook I felt a sold wall of resistance rather than the tug-tug-tug of a fighting fish. I gave the rod another tug but the tip of the line didn’t move at all. Horrified, I watched helplessly as whatever was on the other of my line got itself off the fly and disappeared.

With everything calm, I had time to really figure out what had happened. It was simple, really: As my line had drifted through the slow moving pool a section had gotten frozen in the skim ice. I tossed a rock in to break it free and reeled the entire line back in. I’d had enough adventure for one day.

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Carefully I crossed the stream, slipped and fell on a few more rocks, held on for dear life through a couple more crippling back spasms, and finally worked my way up the scrambles to the main trail. As I limped my way down the trail, the very trail I’d learned to backpack on as a kid, I had only one thought, How the hell have I ended up like this? 

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Hiking is an act of persistence. Somewhere there is a hill, you find it, and you climb to the top by persistently putting one foot in front of the other. In my heart of hearts, I think this is why many people love hiking. Where you’re born, the color of your skin, your gender, sexuality, the affluence of your family, and a great many other things that are beyond your control have an impact on how your life turns out. In a world that is often unfair there is something reassuring about a task where success is only dependent on your ability to persist. All that the mountain asks of you is that you don’t quit.

Like anything else though, persistence is only good in moderation. There is a reason why nearly every major mountaineering disaster started when climbers pushed on past their turn around time. When you’ve spent a lifetime learning that not to quit it is impossible to recognize when quitting is the right thing to do.

This is what makes hikers so uniquely unqualified to deal with injuries. When we suffer them, we adapt and persist. When they get worse, we ignore them and persist. When they finally grow so terrible that they can not be ignored, we do the only thing we know and persist anyways. Persistence turns into stubbornness, pain into injury, and quickly the mountains we were fighting to get to become inaccessible.

Getting better is going to require getting better at getting better. It will take practice and time, patience and learning. Getting better will make me better. A better hiker, a better fisherman, and probably a better person. Yet, as I schedule my billionth doctor’s appointment, as I get ready for another day of PT, all I want is mountains and all I hope for is to be outside again. I know I have to get better at getting better. I just don’t know how.


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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. He writes here at Lesser Places, occasionally for Backpacker.com, and even more occasionally for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.

13 thoughts on “Getting Better at Getting Better

  1. Good for you! I know from experience how debilitating back injuries can be. The desire to regain a sense of yourself is overwhelming but the possibility of too much too soon is also very real. After a number of relapses, I learned that the hard way.

    Best of luck, though! I’m sure a poxy bad back won’t keep you down for long!

    Liked by 1 person

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