Thursday, September 29, 2016

A Moment of Despair on the Trail

            At the end of the second day of the thirteen days of hiking the Alta Via 2 in the Dolomites, I was beginning to feel a strain in the Achilles tendon of my left foot. (Tendonitis, I learned later.) Mike and I were almost at the rifugio where we would stay the night, so I figured that after resting the foot a night, I would be able to continue as normal.
            It was a false assumption. After only half an hour on the trail the next morning, I began to feel the same pain, rapidly worsening. My heart dropped, but I kept on walking. Suddenly I was paralyzed with pain. It was obvious I couldn’t take another step on that foot without doing some serious damage to it.
            I cried real tears. Not three days in, and it was over already. I was so mad, so disappointed! Mike hugged me and reminded me that we had said from the beginning that if for any reason we had to stop, we would just go back to Venice and find other things to do. Venice wasn’t such a bad alternative.
            But I wanted to hike the Alta Via 2! I wanted to walk the whole thing. I hated my feet. In addition to hallux rigidus, bunions, Morton’s neuroma, and a bone spur, did I have to have another foot problem to keep me from walking? “I want new feet!” I wailed.
            Then I stopped crying and tried to figure out what to do. The problem, I thought, was that my boot wasn’t giving enough support to my ankle, since I lace my boots very loosely so they won’t put pressure on the bone spur on my left foot or the Morton’s neuroma on my right foot. But too loose a boot can cause problems, too.
            “I wish I had brought an Ace bandage,” I said ruefully.
            “I brought one,” Mike said and fumbled around in his pack, found it, and gave it to me.
            As I was bandaging my ankle, the young American couple from Berlin we had met a few nights earlier came up the hill. When I explained what the problem was, Ashlie said she wished she had some Ibuprofen to give me.
            “What a good idea!” I said. “I have some.”
            So I bandaged my foot, tied my boot tighter, took an Ibuprofen, and set off again, feeling like an athlete: bandage up, dope up, and keep on going. 
              The first pass of the day looked tough, but in fact Mike and I both went up without stopping and got to the top without difficulty. There was a crucified Christ on a small cross at the top. Mike said I should prostrate myself before it and ask forgiveness and repent so Jesus would heal my heel.
            I wrapped my ankle with an Ace bandage every morning and played the looser-or-tighter game with my boots and had no more than the usual problems with my feet. That is to say, every so often the boinging pain of the bone spur would make me stop and take my boot off. Usually I could put the boot back on and continue after a few minutes, though twice I opted to hike barefooted for a while rather than put the boot back on. 

Nothing ever stopped me again, and at the end of the hike I thanked my feet profusely for taking me on that whole long marvelous journey. After that one moment of despair on the trail, they got me to a rifugio every night, took me up every pass and down the other side, walked over gravel and stones and grass, walked mile after mile, day after day, and, finally, settled under my seat on the airplane, where for ten hours they could rest without shoes.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Achievement!: Alta Via 2, from Plose to Croce d'Aune

            At the end of the twelfth day of hiking the Alta Via 2 in the Dolomites of northern Italy  – all that was left for the next day was a couple of hours’ walk along a road down into the valley – Mike and I and Carina, a woman from Edinburgh who was hiking the AV 2 by herself and who hiked the last day with us, walked into Rifugio G. dal Piaz and took off our packs. We had done it! We hiked approximately 100 miles, up and down, over passes, into valleys and back up into the mountains, hiking mostly in bare-rock Alpine area (between 6000 and 9800 feet) and ascending (and descending) in total 29,530 feet. Exhilaration trumped exhaustion. We told the proprietor at Rifugio dal Piaz that we had just completed AV 2, and he grinned and said did we want to see our rooms first or have a beer first?
            Beer won, hands down. We clinked glasses, our faces beaming. The proprietor brought us each another beer, on the house, in congratulations. We beamed and beamed.
            Walking the Alta Via 2 ranks right up there with other achievements of my life: raising my son, building my house, overcoming schizophrenia, being a Marshall Scholar, getting my Ph.D. (at the age of 68) – and walking AV2, from Plose to Rifugio dal Piaz, day after day, up mountains and down, 6, 7, 8, 9 hours a day,

achieving passes (sometimes three in a day), making steep descents – the rock-climbing, the via ferrata (routes aided with iron cables and ladders for vertical climbs or narrow ledges on crumbling mountainsides),

 up steep chimneys, 

across vertical ways – the steepness above the valleys – the razor-edge walks – the dizzying heights – the marmots and chamois – the flowers purple and yellow – the rifugios in rock settings, where supplies had to be brought in by helicopter

 – the impossible passes – each place demanding its own memory but each memory isolated from the whole. At which rifugio? On which day? Up which pass? Which canyon, which magnificent view, which ferrata, which impossible climb, which impossible descent? Pictures, images, memories come in flashes. How can we ever convey the experience? No one would believe it, even if we could. That’s because it was impossible – impossibly steep, impossible to climb that slope, impossible to work that hard and love every minute, a walk that has made us impossibly strong, impossibly fit, impossibly ecstatic.
            I was, as far as I can tell, the oldest person on the trail during these two weeks. Every once in a while, hiking along, I would think, “I’m 72 years old!” – and look what I was doing!
            Okay, so I’m not the oldest person to do this sort of thing or the most fit, nor was the Alta Via 2, difficult, challenging, and wonderful as it was, the ultimate in difficult hiking. A few days ago a friend in Colorado, who is a year older than I, told me he had just climbed Mt. Craig (12,007 feet) in the Rockies, “a great climb but a 26-mile, 11-hour marathon to get there,” a trek that makes my longest day, 13 miles and 9 hours, look easy.
            However, as I remind myself again and again, hiking is not a competitive sport. My achievement is my achievement. What someone else can do is beside the point. It was I who hiked the Alta Via 2 – it was Mike who did it – and it was one of the most exciting, challenging, wonderful experiences of my life. (Of his, too, Mike says.) After thirteen days I didn’t want it to be over. I still wanted to get up every morning, put on my pack, and climb another pass.
            Of course, though, it had to come to an end with the last night, in Rifugio G. Dal Piaz. But the experience is still so vivid that I dream every night that I am on the trail again.