Recovering from Injury
The precipitating event
On July 4, 2020, I descended steep switchbacks shortly before beginning my climb up James Peak on the CDT in Colorado. I slipped on a patch of loose gravel and landed hard on my right thigh and hip on a massive, flat boulder right beside the trail. Shaken, I sat for a minute to collect my wits. Nothing seemed to be broken or dislocated so I got up and continued hiking. Several weeks later on the day after camping beside the Sweetwater River, a half-day hike east of South Pass City, WY, excruciating pain in my right foot forced me off the trail. Over the years, my right foot has acted up now and then with transient yet sharp pains in my instep. My usual and effective response is to slow down to half speed for 5 minutes after which the pain disappears. This time, the pain persisted for several weeks, even after I got home. So I decided to stop my CDT hike for the year. Back home, the podiatrist couldn’t find anything wrong with my right foot.
While my fall didn’t seem to amount to much at the time, I believe it caused nerve damage that somehow led my right glute to take an extended vacation. Perhaps my subconscious mind “thought” it needed to protect my injured glutes by limiting my walking speed. The fall also likely damaged tendons and ligaments near my right hip joint.
Back on the CDT
I got back on CDT in 2021 near South Pass City only to be hammered by massive blowdowns at the southern end of the Wind River Mountains. I stumbled 14 grueling miles under and over jack-strawed trees because I didn’t feel confident that I could negotiate the alternate route over Temple Pass. I’d been over that pass in 1972 and remembered it as bouldery on the west side. My balance has deteriorated to the point that I can’t boulder hop anymore without major anxiety that I might fall. I got rescued once and don’t want to repeat that experience. Anyway, when I arrived at the trail junction near the Big Sandy Lake Trailhead, I was totally beat. My feet and ankles were swollen like balloons. My shorts were ripped to shreds. My motivation to continue hiking was gone. I slinked back home to Boulder, thanks to nice folks who gave me rides.
Back on the CDT again
In July 2022, my right leg/hip still wasn’t working correctly, but I thought I could still hike. I resumed my CDT hike at the Big Sandy Lake Trailhead at the southern end of the Bridger Wilderness. In spite of plenty of training prior to getting back on the trail, my right leg/hip felt weak. I didn’t have much leg strength, especially going uphill. People commented that I limped, although I couldn’t tell that for myself.
On day number three, I approached steep, snow-covered Lester Pass (elevation 11,060 feet). The prospect of skirting the snow and walking along the boulder-strewn ridge gave me pause. I lacked the confidence that I could traverse below the snow then scramble up and along the bouldery, snow-free portions of the pass and descend safely. Plus, my right foot didn’t seem to know where it was going to land much of the time. That caused me lots of concern about tripping over a rock and falling badly. As I said, I got rescued once and didn’t want to be rescued again. I walked to the Elkhart Park Trailhead, hitched to Pinedale, and went home totally dispirited.
Back home in medical land
Back home, my wife, Betsy, told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to get medical attention. Grudgingly, I agreed. I held a secret, goofy hope that my right hip/leg affliction reflected a defective hip joint. A hip replacement would fix that. But the orthopedist looked at the x-rays and pronounced my right hip joint healthy. Good news and bad news all rolled into one. The ortho did say that the sack (bursa) on my right greater trochanter (the bone that sticks out to the right below my hip joint) was inflamed, which might account for some of my pain. A few days of vitamin I (aka ibuprofen) banished the bursitis, but my leg pain and weakness continued. Another, more holistic orthopedist, scanned my unhappy leg and hip with ultrasound. He found soft tissue damage and recommended physical therapy. Off to my primary care doctor for a PT referral.
On September 20, 2022, I began a physical therapy regimen with Brian at Altitude PT in Boulder. Based on my fall and my symptoms of pain and muscle weakness, Brian assigned exercises (see photo) to strengthen my right leg/hip muscles and to awaken them from their slumbers. He also applied heavy direct pressure with his elbow on my recalcitrant muscles which caused me to flinch and yelp frequently. Brian was nice enough not to call me a wimp. Every other week, I reported for PT and more challenging exercises and more heavy direct pressure from elbows and thumbs. More flinching and yelping. I made slow progress for three months and began to wonder if PT was really what I should be doing. But starting in late December things started to turn around. To my relief, my right leg and hip stopped hurting on January 15, 2023—just like that.
(Re)learning to Walk
Now I’m learning to walk normally. My subconscious mind evidently decided that it no longer needs to limit my walking speed. Plus, one of my neighbors told me that I no longer limp. I now feel confident that my right foot knows where it’s going. All of a sudden, my right leg feels strong, as it it’s been released from some sort of bondage. Lately, mindful walking seems to be retraining my leg and hip muscles and brain so I can walk properly.
The Camino de Santiago
On my long-distance hikes, I’ve met a number of folks who’ve hiked the Camino de Santiago in Spain. They all raved about the Camino, even though it’s not a wilderness hike at all. Thus, I put the Camino on my list. Last fall, I pitched the idea of hiking the Camino with Betsy and she agreed. Of course, that assumed that my physical problems would disappear prior to the hike. It looks like that will be the case. We bought our plane tickets to Paris in early January and will embark on the Camino in late April. After the Camino, I intend to finish the CDT.
Now, you might think that at age 76 I should accept my physical limitations and stop long-distance hiking before something terrible happens. But I love long-distance hiking so much that I can’t imagine throwing in the towel – at least until I hike the Camino, finish my triple crown, and hike the Arizona Trail. Boatloads of motivation keep me moving.
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