Middle age and what that means for a thru-hiker
First: I am unable to post on-trail due to iPhone battery issues and data charges – that’s why I haven’t posted since April.
Second: I’m currently off-trail and this post will explain some of why.
Age is everything:
I’ve made my age clear in my posts, 54, and I was delighted to join the ranks of flip-floppers and realize that most of them are over middle-age. That’s important for the reasons dealing with commonality; one being the “hardships” on the trail effect us differently than they do younger people.
I won’t synopsize all of the problems I have thus far encountered – I am only going to highlight those that effect older persons on the trail; my problems in particular.
Joints: not the extracurricular kind:
I’ve been home for five nights and last night was the first that I slept through almost the whole night. The problem is my legs: feet and knees to be specific. After the initial trauma to my feet (which is a common problem to those starting a thru-hike) I started experiencing extreme pain in my feet and knees.
I’m sure many, if not all, hikers will claim that they experience pain from the chronic pounding that our bodies endure backpacking but we older hikers have the addition of decades of using, and possibly abusing, our feet/knees. This means we experience more pain/injury with less exercise and much less ability, if any, to bounce back or recuperate.
My feet and knees are in chronic pain: throbbing, sharp stabbing pain, hot and swollen. Moving during the day is painful enough but it continues through the night, waking me multiple times and repositioning my legs – due to extreme stiffness – is almost unbearable. I’m not sure if this is temporary or permanent and it’s scary.
Of significance: I changed out my “trail runners” for “boots”. I learned through not only my own experience but noting what other ‘older’ hikers were wearing, we older hikers – we need the additional support and protection of BOOTS. Trail runners are for the youthful and perhaps those who have extra sturdy feet/ankles.
It’s a female thing:
The other issue I have encountered that only a middle-aged woman could is night-sweats (menopause). Thru-hiking means you carry as little as possible and that means the clothes you wear and the dry set (camp clothes) you carry. The problem with night-sweats I have encountered is that my only DRY clothes become soaked (literally) and with constant wet conditions – as it’s been this year – those clothes don’t dry. So now, through the night I went from being cold to wet and cold alternating several times a night = piss-poor sleep. There has been no change at home either. This is a new and unwelcomed experience.
Another “female problem” (explicit content):
I’m going to say it like it is: the constant sweat, rain and the lack of a shower and being able to be dry for any reasonable length of time takes it’s toll on the perineal area (that’s the tender space between the vagina and the anal sphincter). You can use a cleansing or baby wipe all you want, if you can’t get and stay dry at least some of the day/night, you’re going to experience a very unhappy peri-area; itching, swelling and possible infection. I tried to “air-out” while in the privacy of my tent but with frequent damp or rain and night-sweats, it was all but possible. Not fun.
Imbalance, fear of falling & fractures:
Everyone knows we older folks don’t move as easily or fluidly as the younger set. Bouncing from rock to rock or descending a rocky peak becomes a challenge – to not fall. Falling at my age (or older) means broken bones or torn ligaments/tendons. Once again, we are more likely to hurt or break something and less likely to bounce back than those in our younger thru-hiking community. We are extremely careful to place our feet ‘just so’ – in other words, we are s-l-o-w. I’ve moved aside to let those bouncy younger hikers pass. I’m glad to do so. Go, I say, go on your way so I can creep along at my own pace and not feel rushed.
You don’t necessarily have to fall to suffer a fracture: an older (than myself) thru-hiker in my bubble has been off trail for a week and will not be able to get back until July due to a “stress fracture”. Stress fractures occur, just as it sounds, due to stress. We take our everyday weight and activities and then place a backpack weighting upwards of an extra 30 pounds on our frame and then march our poor feet 10-16 miles a day over the most rough terrain and – BAM! – the small bones that support all that weight and work crack. There is no alternative but to remove yourself from the trail for 6-8 weeks so those fractures can heal.
Don’t let all this stop you:
Yes, I’m off trail right now but…I keep having dreams when I sleep, dreams of being back on the trail. I had not any idea if or when I’d return but I think I’ve decided to get back to where I left off. I do not have a burning desire (anymore) to complete the trail but I do intend to try; at this point it just feels a bit unfinished.
I will make some equipment and other small adjustments before I get back on – hopefully some things (lessons learned) that will make my next several hundred miles a little more “comfortable” – but, it’s hard to plan for the future when you are not sure what will meet you along the way.
I am hoping that with continued exercise, at a more moderate pace and more frequent rests *stopping when I need to instead of pummeling myself to the next destination* , my feet and knees will adjust and become less painful. If not, I’m not sure what I will do but deal with it when the time comes. I will not hesitate or feel like a failure if I do decide to get off the trail permanently (for 2017).
Not much can be done about menopause, it is what it is. I have a herb that I will bring with me and hopefully it will help alleviate the symptoms. Possibly an extra dry pair of clothes; there’s only so much one can plan.
Ultimately, I will have to make sure to hike-my-own-hike. I will not make a destination, mileage or my bubble be my daily guide. I will hike until I take a break or I’m done for the day. Trying to do as others do or keep up with the pack is only asking for problems – and, as satisfying as it is to be with people I have befriended and have much in common, it’s not why I am hiking in the first place.
And last but not least: to those who want to ‘comment’ to criticize – we older people, we don’t give a rat’s ass what anyone else thinks. When you grow up, you’ll learn what I mean.
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