When your life revolves around walking and driving and suddenly you can’t, it’s scary. This August, my knee went out, collapsing in a twist of muscles so sudden that I almost toppled onto the paved trail I was photographing. It took an agonizing 15 minutes to hop on one foot and drag the useless leg back to the car. Surprisingly, I was able to drive. But not for long.
The MRI showed a meniscus tear and loose fragments floating inside my right knee. We were about to board a plane for Iceland within the week. The cortisone shot that should have helped me instead put me through the weirdest hormonal rushes I’d had in a decade. And without painkillers, the pain was excruciating. I took the drugs when I had to, and hoped for the best.
We arrived in Iceland, where I quickly discovered I couldn’t walk with much more than a shuffle or I’d be in agonizing pain. Reluctantly, I cancelled every adventure tour I’d signed up for, and told John to go and enjoy exploring. On our first opportunity to take a short hike, within the first five minutes I stubbed my toe on a piece of lava and pain shot up my knee. I almost collapsed. I spent the rest of that tour using my Leki poles to stand at overlooks and watch everyone else hike off into the distance. It was hard.
What was worse is that I hurt so much I couldn’t even walk two blocks from the hotel to a botanical garden. I tried calling the USA to arrange my surgery as quickly as possible, but couldn’t get through.
Fortunately, a fellow conference-goer swapped tours with me so I could spend an afternoon in Iceland’s famed Blue Lagoon. They tout it as the “world’s largest hot tub,” and it essentially is – outdoors, in a lava field. I needed assistance to get in and out of the water – I learned more about accessibility on this trip than I ever knew in my life – but after a two-hour soak in the silica-infused water, I was able to walk the next few days with minimal pain.
The pain and difficulty with walking came back after a day on the Golden Circle, a tour route that took us to places I’ve wanted to visit all of my life. There was no way I couldn’t take a walk through Geysir, where the namesake of all geysers is surrounded by dozens of other bubbling and spewing hot springs, and I wanted to see the immense waterfall at Gulffoss. I did my best to stick to paved paths. At þingvellir, a mile-long path led through the crack in the earth’s crust where the American and European tectonic plates are pulling apart. I was determined to walk it, in agony or not, and I did. John did the side trails where I couldn’t even think of going.
Thankfully, even though it was called out as “forbidden” on the signs at security, they let me take a Leki pole on the plane to use as a cane, which I’d done the entire trip. As soon as we returned home, I quickly got scheduled for surgery. Dr. Murrah zeroed in on the problem, which required an extraction of a loose piece of cartilage that had wedged in a spot that caused the agony.
Afterwards, I had to relearn to walk. A week after surgery I insisted on a quarter mile walk on a paved trail. It exhausted me. Before the stitches were out, I started into physical therapy, with getting my stride and flexibility back as goals. I could quickly tell it would be a slow process.
Within two weeks of surgery, we walked on grassy hills for a couple hours at a car show. It was a good workout, but my knee stayed the size of a grapefruit for two days after, even with regular icing. Verdict: too much too soon.
I couldn’t help the temptation of walking the boardwalk portion of the Timucuan Trail at Alexander Springs a few days later. After all, it’s wheelchair accessible! But as it turned out, it was too much. The next day I had sharp pains in my knee.
The next weekend we took a very short walk on the Florida Trail, less than a half mile of natural surface, well-maintained, up to the Eaton Creek bridge. I went very slowly and it felt good.
It hurt to let go of my plans to hike across Big Cypress with the Class of 2015, but by early December, I knew there was no way I could. I was able to nudge my trail mileage up to three miles at one go, and then five. I drove for the first time since August in mid-December. I still can’t manage a full two hours without my knee squawking back.
Last week, I had my final checkup with Dr. Murrah. Post-surgery, he’d suggested more bicycling and less hiking. Minimal backpacking until I built up strength and got back into hiking shape again, which four months of minimal activity hasn’t helped at all.
It’s a frustrating Catch-22. My mind wants to be out there on the trail, doing the miles, and my body won’t co-operate. I expected to be “myself” again in time for backpacking season. But all I can do, for now, is get outdoors. Do the bicycling, which I’ve enjoyed as long as it’s on paved trails. And keep pushing the day hiking envelope, steadily building up more miles, until my knee stops twinging and I know I can do 10 or 12 miles without ending up with a swollen knee. Only then can I feel like myself again.