On Hope, and Turkeys

One of few the problems with being a guy who grew up in the 90s is that your are going to spend long periods of time thinking about The Shawshank Redemption.

Unlike Bill and Chris, I’m not going to call Shawshank the most rewatchable movie of all time. Hell, in a world of inescapable inequality it is hard not to see the holes in the films’ central idea about the relationship between striving and justice. But like the Obama posters of yore, a relentless fixation of hope in the face of incalculable injustice has a way of pulling you in. And so everytime I see Rita Hayworth flash across my TV screen I know I’m committed to three hours of TNT commercials, horrifying run ins with The Sisters, and serious questions about how you can make a hole in a pipe big enough to fit a grown man with three strikes of a rock, until it all culminates with in Red on a bus slowly making its way toward Zihuatenejo. There he says:  

I find I’m so excited that I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel. A free man at a start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.

And then I’ve got a lot to think about.

For those of you who have never had a back spasm, I recommend you don’t. I can’t speak for others, but here is what it is like for me: First there is a moment where you can feel the spasm coming. For this moment pure, unquenchable fear washes over you body. Suddenly you are cold and your mouth tastes like you bit an old penny. Then the seizure comes. Mine radiates across my right hip, but yours might be elsewhere. For an unknowable period of time your muscles work to rip your body apart from the inside out. You try to get away from the pain by straightening your legs and back further than you knew you could. The world becomes very small. You don’t see anything and you don’t hear anything, but you are screaming. All you can do is wait, so you do. When it is over you reacquaint yourself with your surroundings before breathing deep and being overcome by the knowledge that this can, and will, happen again. Then it happens again.

Let’s move on.

About a month ago I was riding in the back of an ambulance. Earlier that day I had put my kids in their car seats, suffered a crippling back spasm, and crumpled to the ground. I had tried to get up for more than two hours, but a final try that involved a walking stick and a table ended with a fall and me screaming on the floor. Soon the fire department had arrived and pumped me full of every which drug they had on hand. It took four of them to pick me up and move me to the ambulance. As the ambulance got moving I began to babble incoherently about the being outside.

Long time readers will know this isn’t the first time my back has landed me in the hospital. In the winter of 2017 I had my first episode like this one, resulting in a month out of work and extra semester in grad school. On the upside, it did result in a period of often morose, but ultimately meaningful, self reflection. On the downside, I was in constant pain daily.

A lot of good things happened over the next two years. Henry was born and baby number 3 was conceived. Jack began to hike on his own. I finished my PhD, started a job I like very much, and lost 45 lbs. We bought our first house and a new truck. I began to take fishing more seriously, writing a guide to fishing Fossil Creek I am particularly proud of and started really thinking through a uniquely Arizonan sport, fishyonnering.

My world also became measurably smaller. Before my back injury I could pull out a map and with some certainty know that I could get to anywhere on it. Though most of my most monstrous trips were pre-Jack and pre-blog, I still had the muscle memory to use a map well, keep track of distance covered, and read the land. But after my back went I quickly lost my edge and made some truly stupid mistakes along the way. Quitely and insidiously, holes in the middle of wildernesses, places I just couldn’t get to, started opening up. And as I got further and further from my peak, they grew. And they grew.

Which brings us back to the hospital, where I came to a serious and important conclusion: things were never going to be the same again. In 2017 the consequences of my back injury was easy to write off. Healing would, I assumed, be painful and take time but it would, like the countless other muscle tears and sprains I’ve experienced in my life, occur. When the same injury puts you back in the hospital after years, countless hours of physical therapy, and daily stretching it is difficult to believe that this is the case.

Which is why, a week after the injury I found myself pulled over to the side of the road crying. Without consciously thinking of the topics a thought had popped into my head, I will never know the freedom of being able to go anywhere I want without fear ever again. Even if I do get in great shape, and even if I do find a way to get back to the holes that have appeared in my maps, the spasms of Damoclese will always hang over my head. And before you decide this conclusion is to dramatic, think about this: everyone realizes their body will never feel young again at some point. The forests and deserts are still there and they can still be explored, but the experience of exploring them with the knowledge that my body has a reasonable likelihood of sudden and immediate failure is very different than bounding confidently into the fray. Having such a central part of your life change changes you, whether you accept it or not.

In 24 hours I will be on the North Kaibab, just a stone’s throw from the vastness of the Grand Canyon, hunting for grouse and turkeys. We have been preparing for weeks, patterning shotguns, cleaning gear, and dieting hard to cram ourselves into camouflage bought in skinner days. As we have gotten closer, the hunt has taken up residence in the front of my mind. Visions of crisp mornings and hot coffee, still moments sitting next to a tree, pounding heartbeats as you struggle uphill, and full bellies have taken over my mind.

I don’t know what will happen, but I am sure it will be different than previous trips. A cane will likely make the trip to help with getting up and down from long sessions sitting. The forest might feel bigger, and perhaps more ominous, now that it is more difficult to cross. I may see more in the quiet moments sitting than I ever saw bounding across hills. I may manage to bring home some game. Regardless, I will learn from the land, and regardless, I will feel the warm, purifying sun on my back as I piece together what all this means.

So as I sit here typing I find that I am so excited that I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it is the excitement only someone who has lost can feel. Someone at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it four days without crumpling to the ground. I hope we can pick the turkey’s out of the vastness of the plateau and I can feel the warmth of cold nights huddled around lanterns with my friends. I hope the aspens are as golden as they have been in my dreams. I hope.



Max Wilson is a born and raised Arizonan with a love for all that is beautiful and strange about the Southwest. He studied at Arizona State University, where he received his PhD in ecology. He writes here at Lesser Places, occasionally for Backpacker, and even more occasionally for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.