Everyone needs a goal and lately I’ve had one. It’s to complete a walk of about 2 1/4 miles in my Scottsdale neighborhood, from my home to the end of a cul de sac next to the Indian reservation just to the south, and back again. I’ve gotten about two-thirds of the way; next time might be the charm.
Actually, that’s only an interim goal, because what I’d really like to do is hike again in my nearby desert preserve. I know that terrain is everything, and that hiking in the rocky, rolling desert isn’t much like the walking-on-pavement I’ve been doing the last few weeks, but first things first.
Time was when I could walk just about all day, and I mean three or four years ago, not when I was a kid. I was a kind of hiking professional, having spent six years running the adult hiking program at the local community college and three years beyond that continuing the program after the college dropped it. I got paid for that-- not much but enough to claim the status. I think I’m the only ex-pro athlete in my social circle, no small brag.
A not-so-funny thing happened to me in my treks around the desert, though. A few years back my legs started to hurt after a few miles, and my feet started to go numb. At first I walked through the discomfort, but that became increasingly difficult. Soon I no longer could do the long hikes, then the medium ones and, about a year ago, the short ones.
Wife Susie told me to see my doctor. I could get around OK for normal purposes, and could get my exercise from the lap-swimming I’ve been doing for the last 10 years, so I resisted, fearing the three little words no one wants to hear (“see a neurologist”). But last February I went, heard them, and was marched off for an MRI, which the athletes say stands for “maybe really injured.” Mine was outstanding for its badness.
My next stop was to see a neurosurgeon. He told me that a gunk build up in my spine was squeezing the nerves that led to my lower body, and that my spinal column generally was in poor shape. If I didn’t have spinal-fusion surgery pronto difficulty hiking might be the least of my problems, he said.
Thoroughly scared, I relented, and the operation was performed in early April. My surgeon, a hearty, confident type (they all are, I’d bet), told me it came off brilliantly, meaning, I guess, that if I didn’t get better it was my fault, not his.
And in fact, my recovery wasn’t difficult. I was on my feet in a few days, ditched my walker (and oxycodone) in about a week, and was back in the pool in three weeks. I’d cancelled a fishing trip for early June for fear I wouldn’t be up to it, but I was, and regretted the decision. Susie and I were off to Lake Tahoe as usual in mid-July, and there we did just about everything we usually do. I even went white-water rafting without a hitch.
The hiking, however, hasn’t gone well. Back on the track now that the weather has moderated a bit, I’ve found that my leg pain and foot numbness have been reduced from what they were before the surgery, but they’ve been replaced by a sore back, which hurts in ways and places it never used to. Before, my legs and feet forced me to sit after about 15 minutes of standing activity. Now, I can go for about 20 minutes before an aching back does pretty much the same thing.
I’d guess that about now you’re asking why I don’t just forget about hiking and continue as I am, getting my workouts in friendly, forgiving aquatic environs. The answer is that while I’m aware aging means letting go of things we once enjoyed, I’ve had about enough of that.
As a teen and young man I played golf, and got good enough to break 80 on a good course, but had to give it up at age 30 when the demands of parenthood and job mounted. I grew up playing 16-inch softball on Chicago’s playgrounds, and, after a decade of wandering among the softball heathen, resumed the game on my return to the city in my robust 30s and 40s, stopping only when my team quit.
I played tennis for 35 years—from age 30 until 65—and while you’re never really good at any sport you take up as an adult, I became a solid “B” player before my quickness went. I was even better at racquetball but quit when my move to Arizona (in 1997) separated me from my longtime playing partner and Wall Street Journal colleague, Jon Laing. In racquetball a small difference in skill can cause lopsided results, and Jon and I were providentially matched to have competitive games. I still play racquetball in my dreams.
You can roll a bowling ball from one end of Chicago to the other, so nobody there hikes much. I took it up on a dare at age 47, when Ray Sokolov, a veteran hiker and my editor on the WSJ’s Leisure & Arts page, asked me to accompany him on a trek up 14,000-feet-high Mt. Massive in Colorado.
It would be incorrect to say that I found the outing pleasant. I’d never been above Denver, and Ray neglected to tell me about proper hiking shoes, so I did the climb in Hush Puppies. Further, the trail up Massive petered out about 1,000 feet below the summit and we wound up an hour later in a rocky dead end with afternoon clouds building, forcing us to declare victory and turn back short of our goal. My blisters took two weeks to heal and my calves longer to stop mooing.
But I loved the wilderness and sought it again, doing other (more successful) expeditions with Sokolov and plunging wholeheartedly into the desert and mountains upon arriving in Arizona. I joined a conservancy and took classes in the local flora and fauna, helped on public group hikes and quickly came to lead them. I loved both the group experience and the clean solitude of hiking alone, which I did often. It’s a cliché to say that the desert called to me, but it did.
It still does, darn it, from right across the street, and it bugs me not to be able to answer. If the answer turns out to be “no,” at least I can say I tried.