It’s been about five weeks since I left the AT – I’ve rested my feet and legs so they have been ‘back to normal’ barring some early morning stiffness. I thought it about time to get back to the NH White Mts. to see how my rehabilitation fared with some mountain climbing.
I signed up to go with a group on a short 5.2 mile ‘hard’ hike up Mt. Tremont with a 2,532 elevation gain – the last 1000 feet almost vertical. The day’s temps topped out in the mid 80’s although that’s not specific to the area and elevation I was at – it sure felt warmer. It was also quite humid especially under the canopy of leaves and the first third of the trail followed a stream which gave the impression of ‘cooler’ air but it most likely contributed to the humidity factor. There were no pesky insects hovering and whether that’s to do with season, heat/humidity or my deet-free spray I’m not certain but it was a relief that I didn’t have to tolerate the pests. It was significant to note that the trail was thin, over-growth of greenery and rocks, roots and trees were all very damp and slimy. I use trees as leverage or stabilizers so the fact that they were slippery was noticeable.
The ascent was mostly easy footing with some roots or rocks but not much. As I mentioned, the last thousand feet were extremely vertical so the group was bottle-necked most of the time. The pace was fine with me as I found myself very tired and welcomed the sporadic and short ‘rests’ while waiting for my turn to climb sections. I’m not a breakfast eater so I used the opportunity to grab a protein bar from my pack and take bites for the last third climb – I’d assumed my fatigue was due to both inactivity the last several weeks and that I’d not eaten that morning. We all rejoiced when we reached the summit and enjoyed a view and, for me, it was tolerable as most of the time as long as the sun was hidden behind layers of skittering low and high clouds. When it did ‘come out’, I found the sudden heat intolerable – almost nausea inducing. When I sought some limited shade on the peak the black flies found me. I decided I needed to head back down both because I started to not feel well and because I was a little anxious to see how my knees would do with the steep descent. I was only a little ahead of the group, knowing they’d eventually catch up as I descend at a snail’s pace.
It wasn’t long before I started to feel the effects of descending – I don’t know where I notice it first, my feet or my knees – perhaps both. Long before the half-way point I am feeling both despair and anger; my joints in my feet, ankles and knees all start complaining and subsequently my feet start to become numb making the manipulation of rocks and roots difficult – like maneuvering blocks of wood attached to my ankles among the obstacles. I am reminded of my AT hikes and how servere the pain became after long days hiking UP & DOWN multiple peaks and I become anxious and a little nauseated. My neck and shoulders become stiff with the tension.
Being alone – a little ahead of the group, I can sometimes see and usually hear the talking and laughter – I can concentrate on my own thoughts and feelings. I finally realize that hiking for me is no longer ‘fun’ nor is it really physically beneficial. I tell myself that, although I’ve used hiking in the mountains the last decade or more as a retreat; being alone in nature, getting a ‘workout’ and physically fit and the fulfillment of the exercise of ‘bagging another peak’, I am no longer fit for the task. I have come to an age and deteriorated condition that I can no longer do what I have been doing. I realize I have now become what I’ve witnessed in many aging and older people; unable to do what I used to do. It’s a depressing and humbling feeling to know that I’ve passed a point that cannot be regained, not with determination of will or by physical force.
I can certainly keep hiking and just ‘endure’ the pain but at what cost physically? And why? The fact is I’ve been living in the after-glow of the good hiking days – thinking I just need to get back out there and make it a habit again, get that good feeling back, get back in shape and be a regular hiker, finish the NH 48, etc. etc. But – I finally gave-up-the-ghost of the idea that hiking is my religion, that it’s ‘my thing’. I finally, finally realized on that slow and agonizing descent that it’s a thing of my past and I need to put it away and just be glad of what I have done and what I’ve enjoyed. I need to stop romanticizing “the hike” and just let it die a dignified death; find a new hobby, something that is good for me and good for my body and isn’t painful nor cause me sadness.
I decided on this last hike that I will set aside my hiking gear until snow flies. There is a chance, albeit a small one, that winter hiking – with the packed snow surface minus roots and rocks (and bugs) – with less technical footing – will be okay. I am hoping. But, if the winter descents are as heinous to my legs then I will give up entirely. It will be the end of a chapter and I will gracefully move on to other things. It sounds overly dramatic but I’ve identified with being a ‘hiker’ and I’ve envisioned my future as a hiker so it’s a little like giving up a part of my identity and it leaves a void. Who am I now?