No Pain, No Maine
It starts with my right foot. Or ankle, if I intend on this being anatomically accurate. At least I think it’s my ankle. Truth be told, it’s somewhere between the two, where they connect. I think.
I’ve known this pain going on two years now. I believe it’s tendonitis but, as evidenced by my inability to correctly identify the afflicted area as belonging to foot or ankle, I’m no expert. Not even slightly knowledgeable. Though, I try to be. Every so often, when the pain needles me to attention I fire up the old MacBook Pro and search the miry depths of internet health sites: surprise, it’s cancer!
Of course, I know it’s not dire; my foot hasn’t fallen off and I’m still walking. Luckily, I haven’t felt it in recent weeks (knock on digital wood), but I know it’s there, waiting, like an insidious movie villain, in its inflamed lair of connective tissue, biding the hours, the days until I’ve forgotten there was anything wrong at all until it, in its evil plotting, returns, reminding me again of my human frailty, in turn causing me to question whether I’ll finish this thru-hike or, worse, ever hike – nay, walk – again. But right now, things are good. So, yeah.
Shortly before the ankle tendonitis, I broke the big toe of the same foot. I was bouldering and reaching for a hold that wasn’t there. In practice, it was less of a reach and more of a desperate throw of the leg, an end-of-the-day attempt I should have had the common sense to pass on. Instead, I was bullheaded and went for the final send anyway. The desperation throw resulted in spiking my large toe like the tip of a spear into the body of the rock. I hobbled back down the two-mile logging road and continued hobbling weeks after.
I have a feeling it may be the root cause of my (self-diagnosed) tendonitis. But, then again, I can’t say that definitively. All I can be sure of is that I, in addition to the on-again, off-again dalliance with tendonitis, am now experiencing pain near the very toe I broke and that, according to a trusted expert (i.e., my doctor), had healed a year ago. Again, it’s not hike ending. I’ve been hiking with this unwelcome companion for hundreds of miles and it, too, disappears like an apparition on the wind.
So, what of pain? What do we make of it, those of us endeavoring upon this 2,200 (2,190.9, but I like to round up) mile trail? How do we know the pains we endure are even worth fretting over?
Pain, like all sensory experiences, is nontransferable. It is rooted in individual experience and defined by a limited vocabulary, descriptors that only brush the surface of what it is. Sharp, stabbing, stinging, burning, achy, acute, sore, tender, dull. Hell if I know. I know it hurts.
(Obviously, a burning sensation is different from a sharp, stabbing one. But sometimes pain is more nuanced and blurs the lines drawn by these common descriptors.)
There’s very little clarity. What qualifies as pain and what as mild discomfort? How do you know when a little pain is something to be feared or a big pain feared less? Is it, in situations, subjective?
There is no scale by which we accurately measure pain and compare one to another. We’re alone with it and at a loss to give it voice, save the occasional curse yelled after stubbing a toe. Perhaps that – the pitch of our scream, the audibility of the four-letter word uttered – is the best measuring stick available.
I was trying to explain what I was feeling to Lauren, my wife and hiking partner, shortly after we started, when addressing the pain still felt urgent.
“It’s constant. Every step. Well, every other step, but about every ten seconds for sure. A sharp pain. Sometimes dull. Right there in the same spot!”
When I felt like she wasn’t taking it seriously enough my neuroses kicked in to high gear.
“This could be trip ending! You need to understand that! Everything we’ve worked for and given up and for what, a weeklong backpacking trip to Georgia?!”
I was dramatic. I was anxious. I was feeling pain I’d hoped would go away but hadn’t and though it probably wouldn’t have ranked high on an imaginary and objective pain scale, it was far weightier beneath the nervous energy one feels so palpably early on.
Today, I know better. I occasionally think of it, notice it, but I don’t perceive it as a threat to our hike. I’ve hiked long enough with it now to know it, even if I still can’t describe it.
All that said, pain shouldn’t be ignored. It should be paid the attention owed it. If pain alters how you walk, that’s a sure sign you need to do something (duh). If it’s a mild annoyance, check it out as you see fit. But know that pain is part of the journey and it’s presence doesn’t necessarily signal the end.
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