In the Belly of the Whale

Nine months ago I realized I was in serious trouble.

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My lower back had been bothering me for some time, progressing (slowly, as things always do) from slight discomfort to a persistent pattern of hike all weekend, struggle to get up from chairs all week.

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By the end of Fall, things had become untenable. I missed a day of work because I “wasn’t feeling well,” which meant I couldn’t stand up, more or less finish my 2.5 mile walk to to work. A few weeks later, it was time for our long awaited (and quite expensive) deer hunt. This simply could not be missed.

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I am not going to raise the hiker vs. hunter debate here. For now, know this: we scouted for months, dry camped many miles within a wilderness area…

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…walked up this hill 3-5 times a day…

…spent hundreds of hours freezing on hillsides…

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…and left with nothing.

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Two days after getting home I had my first back spasm. At first I was standing upright. An instant later I was laying on the ground, completely immobile. After a few moments laying their a drug myself hand over hand across the pavement lot to the driver side door, which I had thankfully left open, and pulled myself up onto the seat. In a moment I went from being a a twenty-nine year old who hiked 3-6 days a week to a person who couldn’t lift his kid out of a car seat or walk without a cane.

I’d love to tell you that these doctors at the hospital helped me very much, but ultimately they didn’t. A few pain killers and instructions to go see my doctor later, I landed at Functional Performance Center of Tempe, whose staff proved to be kind, generous, and ultimately exceptional (Editor’s Note: Hope you made it into PT school, Gracie!). Despite their incredible efforts, after about six weeks of therapy I began to periodically lose feeling in my feet, which resulted in several hours inside an MRI machine, followed by a great many injections into my spine, and ultimately the ablation of several nerves in my back. A year (and 20lbs on my waistline) later things finally seem to be on the mend.


Now that things are looking up, I have begun thinking about what I have learned from all this. There are a great many small lessons, I guess.

First, I should have sought care sooner.

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I’ve written about this at great lengths now, but the greatest strength of hikers is their stubbornness persistence. We, hikers, get good at telling our bodies yes– yes, you can keep going— and no– no, you don’t need to stop. These are important skills for the hiker, but they are also dangerous, dangerous because at some point your body is sending you warnings for reasonable reasons.

I put my care off far longer than I should. That was dumb.

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Second, I should have taken better care of myself when I was younger. I have also written much about the fallacies ultra-lighting on these pages, and I think it is uniquely stupid to draw a 1:1 correlation between my back problems and the fact I don’t think most people should spend a billion dollars on ultra-light gear they will never see the marginal benefits of. That being said, during a much younger, much darker time of my life I hiked many miles with a great deal of weight. This was probably dumb as well.

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Third, I wish I had spent more time outside before and during the injury.

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Before is easy. Of course I wish I had spent more time hiking when it didn’t hurt for weeks thereafter or threaten my ability to go to my job. That’s obvious. During is more complicated.

Small hikes, easy hikes, still require a few days of significant pain and recovery. I hope that this will get better with time, but it was worse in the past. I tried a great many things to scratch my get-outdoors itch while I was at the peak of my back problems, from “easy” hikes

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to easier mixed fishing/hiking trips

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…to dedicated, stand-at-the-edge-of-a-stream-and-move-as-little-as-possible fishing trips.

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From these trips I learned two things:

First, go on them.

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And second, but more importantly, make sure you have the support in place to get home safe. There were some scary moments on these trips, all of which were avoidable, regrettable, and impossibly stupid.

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Finally, being injured has helped me see the value in little trips. Years and years of trying to push hikes further and faster had left me feeling that much of the value in the outdoors came from pushing things further and faster. After a year of contemplating simple things like cabin trips with my family…

…and fishing trips on local streams…

…not as a temporary substitute for real outdoor time, but as the only recreation my body might ever be capable of made me consider what it is I get out of all this. Pushing myself to the limit on the streams and hills where I cut my teeth has held a simple and profound beauty I was not prepared for.


Those are the small lessons, though, and big lessons are harder. I think it comes down to this:

I remember, as a kid, sitting at a Boy Scout camp in the Southern Rockies. We were staying at one of the high elevation backcountry sites and we’d already completed a hard enough hike to filter out nearly ever other troop. Over the next couple of days we would move from peak to peak, dry camp to dry camp, slowly leaving everyone else behind. One of the workers had drug a Martin backpacker guitar back to the site, and on our last night before we abandoned the last vestiges of civilization his voice echoed across the valley…

I think about that moment a lot, watching the sun set across our tiny alpine meadow, allowing the anxiety that comes before any long hard tip to sink in, listening to his voice echo over and over again:

There’s gold in them hills. 

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I loved that moment. There was gold in them hills and it was waiting to be got. Hiking was simple, and hiking was beautiful, and hiking was perfect. All hiking required of us was that we persevere, and damnit, we might not be perfect but we could find it in ourselves not to quit.

I still love that moment, though older it doesn’t seem quite right. It’s too righteous, too forward, too domineering. That moment needs another to make much sense now:

Stay gold, Ponyboy. 

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Stay gold. 



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

 

 

 

 

 

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