hike blog

A Tale of Two Hips

Dancer-upon-Stump (a few days ago in Oregon)
Dancer-upon-Stump (a few days ago in Oregon)

Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you’ve lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something that’s good.

Elizabeth Edwards

This article will appear in The Trek later this month. I thought I’d give you a little preview...

I was not a happy camper one late summer afternoon at the doctor’s office. The air conditioning was too cold, I had my legs splayed in an awkward position because I could hardly tolerate sitting and there was nothing to look at but four walls painted institutional-beige where clear plastic holders hung in a row offering up pamphlets on joint replacement.

I did not take one.

“They’re clearly not talking to me,” I thought. “At least not now.” I was here because of pain in my right inner thigh. It had gotten so bad it was throwing off my gait. Vitamin I, as thru-hikers call it, was keeping me upright these days and no amount of stretching or massage helped. Instead, it was getting worse.

The door banged open and Dr. Stroemer, a tall, well-fed Midwesterner with a buzz-cut, strode in. I’d chosen him by accident, picking the first available appointment at Summit Orthopedics in the Twin Cites to just get this thing over with and find some relief. On his computer screen was an X-ray from three years previous of my left hip. “You do know that I’m here about my right hip?” I said, the snark in my voice not at all attractive.

He quickly sat down and, like me, ignored all formalities. “You don’t want to look at that,” he said. “Actually, you don’t want to look at this either.” He then proceeded to pull up the X-ray they had just taken showing my hipbones compressed tightly against my pelvic bone, like a square peg shoved into a round hole. “There’s no cartilage. At all. In EITHER hip.”

“Wait, what?” I stammered. “But this is a pain in my groin. I pulled something or ripped something or…I just walked 5,000 miles!”

“Yeah, well, you wore ‘em out and now, you need new ones.”

My hip looked a bit like a square peg being shoved into a round hole.
My hip looked a bit like a square peg being shoved into a round hole.

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Alison Young, a.k.a Blissful Hiker. As a “full-time pedestrian,” I’ve walked 12,000+ miles on six continents. I walk to focus my energy and stay quite literally grounded. In fact, my earliest memory is of looking down at my shoes at around age three and watching them take me somewhere, knowing moving means power.

And I guess the opposite is true too, not moving means, if not powerlessness, at least depression.

The saga of replacing my hips began three years earlier when I used a heel hook to hoist myself up the crux on an overhanging wall. I felt something snap and screamed for a take, barely able to walk once my feet found the ground. I assumed I’d torn something, but being late-December and only a few months left on my health insurance deductible, my husband Richard drove me an hour across town to get an MRI.

It turns out an X-ray would have told me all I needed to know, and been far less stressful. I did not have a soft-tissue injury, but rather Advanced Osteoarthritis (OA) of the Hip. As a bit of a catastrophizer, hearing that caused a flood of tears. “I’m too young” I wailed. “Walking is what I do! This can not be happening!

The doctor who broke the news to me had seen it all and after an eye-roll she suggested the most logical option – a cortisone shot.

Cortisone is actually a synthetic version of the cortisol steroid we create in our bodies in response to stress. The idea is to inject a higher dose directly into the joint. It doesn’t really hurt since they use a local anesthetic and it can offer results within a few days that can last for months. Most important, a cortisone shot can delay joint replacement. The downside is that repeated shots tend to be less effective and must be spread out with at least three months in between.

Other risks include infection, nerve damage, a flaring up of pain and, most concerning, destroying the bone altogether, in which case I’d need to replace it. But since replacing it was going to happen sooner or later, I figured it was worth a shot. (pun intended)

It’s not as though everything was fine after the shot. It was recommended that I meet with a physical therapist. Now I’m not opposed to physical therapy, but I was starting a whole new year of high deductible health insurance and the idea sounded expensive. Furthermore, I just happened to live down the street from a yoga studio.

This was no ordinary yoga studio. Here, they led 90-minute Bikram-style yoga in a room heated to 106 degrees. With my doctor’s blessing, I began daily practice and was amazed at the improvement in the affected joint, and all my joints for that matter.

On the Presidential Traverse in New Hampshire's White Mountains, my hip pain a distant memory.
On the Presidential Traverse in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, my hip pain a distant memory.
I was just a speck in the vastness of Paria Canyon on the Arizona/Utah border, but feeling strong.
In the Lake District surrounded by all the big peaks in mist, the climb up here easy.

One shot in my left hip, hard-core hot yoga, and walking every day in Minnesota winter and I was back on trail by late spring – Peru’s Vilcabamba Range, New Hampshire’s White Mountains, the Paria Canyon, Minnesota’s Border Route, and England’s Coast-to-Coast and Lake District.

While walking those shorter trails, I never once gave my hip a thought, but I had a funny feeling time was running out. So I took a leave-of-absence and headed out for an adventure of a lifetime on New Zealand’s 2,000-mile Te Araroa, my first long distance thru-hike. When my career break turned into something more permanent, my husband pushed me out the door again to tackle the 2600+ miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, my second long distance thru-hike I completed end-to-end, strong and agile.

Over time, genetics caught up with me. I should pause here to mention that it wasn’t walking that wore out my hips. I’m predisposed for osteoarthritis. Both my parents and my older brother have new hips and another brother is on his way. I also have hip dysplasia, where the hip socket doesn’t fully cover the ball portion of the upper thighbone. Wearing them down was inevitable.

It’s funny, though, that I was not prepared for the eventuality of a replacement, even after the episode three years earlier. It seems denial also runs in my family, as does stubbornness. With pain so bad I could hardly walk, I set out for nine days on Isle Royale, lurching along with the help of painkillers. It was only after I returned that I sought out Dr. Stroemer who gave me the bad news. But I still needed one last thru-hike before surgery. That one was on the Kekekabic in Northern Minnesota. It’s only 41 miles, but remote and oftentimes hard to follow.

I took handfuls of Ibuprofen and planned to walk short distances each day, but that didn’t prevent me from falling – spectacularly and right on my face. This was getting real. I no longer could trust my gait and I knew the time had come. At that moment and in a sort of synchronistic magic reserved only for fairly tales, I met a friend on trail who recently had both his hips replaced one after another – and he was hiking within three months!

That was the clincher. I too wanted my hips replaced one after the other. My thinking was that if I had to take any time away from the trail, I wanted it all in one lump. Furthermore, the degeneration was so far along, both hips had to be replaced sooner rather than later, so waiting really was not an option.

I limped through the Kekekabic Trail and fell twice, realizing the time had come for surgery.
The "Tibetan Chanters" massaging my legs so I don't get a deep vein thrombosis and my beautiful tennis-ball footed walker started me off on my journey of recovery.
The “Tibetan Chanters” massaging my legs so I don’t get a deep vein thrombosis and my beautiful tennis-ball footed walker started me off on my journey of recovery.

I chose Dr. Stroemer as my surgeon, because as it turned out, I liked his direct manner. I knew there’d be no sugar coating, but also no hard sell. That didn’t mean I wouldn’t pepper him with questions like, How many surgeries have you done? What happens if something goes wrong? Are you happy at home? (I was told happy surgeons have happy outcomes)

We compressed the time more than he would have liked with my first surgery just seven weeks before the second. He knew I was fit, but suggested I stay fit before surgery. While the pain caused me to rock from side-to-side as I walked, I still had good form on a bike. It was nearly impossible to open my legs wide enough to hop on, but I found I could lay the bike on the ground, step over and sort of slip it under me. I biked for miles and miles to get as physically strong as I could before D-day, and also to have some agency over my destiny.

By October 28th, I was ready to roll. Summit Orthopedics is a clinic with a surgery center. It’s cheaper than a hospital, which insurance companies like, and dedicated only to orthopedic surgeries, which can be safer for patients.

I had what is called Anterior Arthroplasty. Hip replacements in general are much more straightforward than knee or shoulder replacements (knock on wood, mine are in great shape) but it’s a huge plus when the incision can be made on the front of the body rather than the rear. This is because it’s less invasive and there’s no need to cut muscle or tendon in order to gain access to the bones. Less trauma means less pain and faster healing. Also, because the muscles are still in place, the risk of dislocation decreases.

That being said, the surgery requires a lot of skill and there were seven people working on me in the operating room. I received a spinal anesthetic and was out for all of it. What happens in there? Well, you can watch this video if you like and hear all the sawing, scraping, pounding and drilling that goes into replacing a hip with a metal and ceramic prosthetic that the bone will attach itself to.

The only “first hand” experience I got was when Stroemer agreed to snap a picture of my sawed off femur and text it to me in recovery. Yes, that picture made it to Instagram.

Most of us hikers are fit and slender, so I would recommend discussing with your anesthesiologist taking it easy on the pain meds. After the first surgery, I came out sick as a dog, learning that nausea is actually harder to manage than pain. A trick I learned to avoid a reaction to opioids is to instead alternate between Ibuprofen and Tylenol every 4-6 hours. It’s a strong cocktail.

After surgery, I was immediately taken from recovery to a set of stairs. With one hand on the railing and one on my trekking pole, I slowly waddled up each step, one at a time, then waddled back down. In fact, I wasn’t allowed to go home until I walked up and down stairs. The physical therapy is very easy including tightening the glutes, pressing down the quads, sliding the heels, pumping the ankles and lifting the legs. The key is to do them religiously. One tip is to begin the exercises before surgery. It seems to put the muscles on alert of what’s to come.

The hip bone's connected to the femur bone, the femur bone's connected to the...
The hip bone’s connected to the femur bone. The femur bone’s connected to the…
Only a few days after hip #1 and she’s ready to roll – well, actually is rolling.
Dr. Stroemer snapped a picture of my sawed off femur and texted it to me in recovery. What a sweetie!

Frankly, the pain is not that bad – and this coming from a complete wimp. But very annoying is managing the risk of deep vein thrombosis. I had to wear leg pumps that whizzed and whirred like chanting Tibetan Monks and all on top of compression socks that were impossible to put on or remove on my own. My timing was just right since Richard was working from home due to Covid restrictions.

Because my right hip was deteriorating fast as the left was healing, it was much harder to improve in those seven intervening weeks. I rolled around the neighborhood with my walker and eventually worked my way up to walking carefully with trekking poles.

I was thrilled that I had scheduled the second surgery so close to the first. Sure, I was scared. In the first round, they bruised a nerve and my calf and foot felt like they’d gone to sleep. Nerves heal slowly and it might take years to get back to normal. However, I recently had Electromyography (EMG) that showed the nerve is not permanently damaged and is responding to stimulation. It’s a really cool test because you can listen to your muscles working!

The second time around, Stroemer cushioned me with pillows and was gentler popping me apart. Whatever he did, it worked. There was no neuropathy and suddenly I was standing on two strong hips. I never used a walker for the second recovery, relying only on my trekking poles. I joined the subculture of Mall Walkers setting a timer for 20 minutes, then 30, 45 and finally an hour. Before long, I began daily walks outside in the snow with Yaktrax for traction.

The crowning achievement was a visit to Colorado three months after surgery. We walked up and down and through deep snow in our snowshoes and I felt good. After a storm, the sun rose on a crystal blue sky and I was determined to get to the top of a Fourteener. I marched up slowly and methodically, proudly telling people as they passed that I was walking on brand new hips. “Wow!” they’d exclaim as they left me in the dust.

It was mostly the altitude that dampened my spirits, and an optical illusion that made the summit look further away than it was. Only when two people came down and looked bigger than they should, did I realize Quandary Peak was within my grasp.

three months after a double hip replacement
Thumbs of Dr. Stroemer and shiny new hips that are getting me around even better than before.

I am so lucky. Lucky to live in this age when we can have worn out joints replaced, lucky to have the time and support to recover fully, and lucky to anticipate more years to hike, backpack and explore. Jumping and running are probably off my list of activities. That’s only because they’ll wear down the prosthetic faster, one that’s anticipated to last thirty years.

I’ve already hiked a lot ­– Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the Teton Crest Trail, and the wild and trackless Cape Wrath Trail in Scotland’s Western Highlands. I feel better every day and stronger than I’ve ever been. I still practice hot yoga for flexibility, and sometimes climb walls and push around on skis.

But Stroemer tells me walking is the very best thing I can do to stay healthy and make these new hips last.

Works for me.


Tips for managing osteoarthritis (OA) in the hip

  • Hip OA is not a death sentence to your thru-hiking life!
  • OA presents as pain in the groin and front of the thigh.
  • OA cannot be cured, only managed.
  • Get an X-ray to determine a baseline. Orthopedists can accurately measure the severity of arthritis from an X-ray.
  • Treat pain with NSAIDS like Ibuprofen, Advil, etc.
  • Use physical therapy and targeted exercises. I chose Hot Yoga because the heat helped me stretch further and manage inflammation.
  • Get a steroidal injection. One cortisone shot directly into my hip joint plus yoga helped my hip last three years and around 7,000 miles of walking. There are some risks and you must space out the shots by at least three months.
  • Finally, consider total hip arthroplasty (replacement) The anterior approach is far less invasive and normally a faster recovery than the posterior approach. .
  • Kia kaha! (Maori for “stay strong”) and happy trails
hike blog

out with the old, in with the new

You can get excited about the future. The past won’t mind.

Hillary DePiano
January "Halls of Malls"
January “Halls of Malls”

Forty years ago, my parents left me at home while they went off to church to ring in the new year. They chose to celebrate through contemplation and prayer, while I, behaving in a more quintessentially teenaged manner, invited over a modest sized pack of pals from Lake Forest High School, ones I hadn’t seen in years as I’d been away at boarding school.

Our zany connections through music, acting and sports had changed little, but now most of us were a bit taller, the boys’ voices deeper and every last one us carried fake ID’s. The evening got, shall we say, a bit rowdy. We sang, we danced, we made out, but my strongest memory still is of scrubbing the floor after an errant spill and my mother’s exasperated declaration to just go to bed and let her manage it.

My best friend Georgia wisely spent the night after a few too many, but we were up early to greet the new year, a morning that was crisp and bright. The first thing we did? Put on running shoes and jog up the road. I think 1982 may very well might have been the first time I made new year’s resolutions – to cut sugar out of my diet and move my body every day. And I stuck to it, at least the moving part, all these years.

February "Lake Elmo Snow"
February “Lake Elmo Snow”
March "Fourteener!"
March “Titanium Fourteener!”
April "Solo Backpack on the Superior Hiking Trail"
April “Solo Backpack on the Superior Hiking Trail”

The concept of making a resolution to be a better version of ourselves started like a lot of things in ancient Babylonia. Leave it to the inventors of writing, maps, the wheel and the concept of time itself to mark the beginning of the year with a party, one that curiously lasted 12 days, much like the 12 days of Christmas.

4,000 years ago, the first of the year coincided with the month of planting, March – did I mention the Babylonians also invented modern agriculture? – and was all about an attempt to curry favor with their gods, hoping that in so doing, their gods would look kindly upon the harvest.

They also reaffirmed their loyalty to their king, or crowned a new one, and promised to pay their debts and return anything they had borrowed. That last part makes me giggle. I mean devoting an entire celebration to ensuring you return a rake or a hoe – or have yours returned? Sometimes that’s what it takes.

Fast forward a few thousand years to Julius Caesar and we get a new calendar – aptly named “Julian” – which marks January 1st the beginning of the yearly cycle. January takes its name from Janus, the God with two faces, one looking forward and one looking back, often doing so on doorways and arches.

The symbolism is brilliant, as many of us ponder our past as we move forward deciding what to keep and what to dump. Certainly my bestie Georgia and I were interested in squeezing out the toxins of the previous night’s revelry and promising to make healthier choices. I know John Wesley another couple thousands years later would have approved. The founder of the Methodist Church nabbed New Year’s Eve for his followers, making it a spiritual alternative to the raucous partying during Christmas.

May "Strong as..."
May “Strong as…”
June "The CDT"
June “The CDT”
July "Air Rescue"
July “Air Rescue”

The truth is, about half of us, in the United States anyway, resolve to do better in the coming year and not even 10% of us succeed. So one might be sincere in asking, “What’s the point?” I might even count myself as one of those people.

But that’s not because I think that resolving to do better is a hopeless task in and of itself. It’s more because I believe typical resolutions become an either/or proposition, a kind of zero sum game that pits the “bad” parts of who we are with the possible “good” parts, ones attainable if only we set our minds to it.

That leaves us in a position to deny ourselves things and reach for a new version of ourselves that might be so far off from the person we’ve been, we’re simply setting ourselves for failure. Furthermore, creating a rigid itinerary for change can sometimes cause us to miss alternate routes that just might lead to something more compelling and worth striving for.

As the Blissful Hiker, I deal with change much like walking a trail and my resolutions tend to be broad in definition and thus are more achievable and stand a better chance at becoming a permanent part of me.

August "Return to the Trail"
August “Return to the Trail”
September "Teton Crest"
September “Teton Crest”
October "Cape Wrath"
October “Cape Wrath”

There is another bit to remember while making those resolutions, and that’s to reflect upon and celebrate the past year. A very wise woman once said to me, “I never tell myself ‘You made a mistake,’ rather I say ‘That was an interesting choice.”

I love that attitude! It gives us permission to approach our life story with curiosity rather than chastisement, to explore who we we were at the time we made a choice and what motivated us. To me, that’s how we grow thus invites all sorts of forgiveness so we can approach the future with a clean slate.

With that in mind, I look back at 2021 – the good, the bad and the ugly – with an open mind and heaps of gratitude. Sure, I would have preferred not to have had both hips replaced or need to be plucked off a mountainside because my heart went haywire. It would have been nice to have more clear days in Scotland and fewer unpleasant hiking companions in Montana.

But look at all the opportunities on offer this past year and also my tenacious spirit to recover and get back on trail. To be honest, I wouldn’t change a thing.

November "Clean Bill of Health"
November “Clean Bill of Health”
December "Night Walk between Christmas Eve Church Gigs"
December “Night Walk between Christmas Eve Church Gigs”

Earlier this month, my family celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas together in one long blow-out weekend. We ate a lot of food, took long walks, shot clay pigeons (my first time!) played charades and talked non-stop.

One moment stands out to me that I want to share. My mother picked In The Bleak Mid Winter for charades and gave a whole bunch of obscure clues which none of could guess. We all had a good laugh and then she mentioned that even though she sang it for years in church, she couldn’t quite remember the melody.

There are actually two versions of Christina Rosetti’s poem, one by Gustav Holst and the other, my favorite, written in 1909 by an Englishman named Harold Darke. We located a performance on YouTube of Kings College and when we played it, she almost immediately started crying. “Hearing something this beautiful,” she told us. “Makes me feel happy to be alive.”

Yes, mom. It does me too.

Though I have made a few resolutions this time around, it’s funny, they never change from year to year. It’s still all about cutting out sugar and to exercise every day, especially when I’m not hiking.

But this time I’ll emphasize gratitude and how good it feels, no matter what happens, to be alive.

CDT

ten things I learned while thru-hiking…

…that are helping me get through this moment right now

two beautiful new titanium hip joints are going to keep me walking well into my 80’s.

1. Take Risks

There is nothing more pathetic than caution when headlong might save a life, even possibly, your own.

Meryl Streep

The most important thing I learned even before I set foot on the Te Araroa or the Pacific Crest Trail is that security is a myth. Life itself is full of risk no matter how much we try to control its outcome.

I was terrified when granted a leave-of-absence from my job that I’d risk losing a career I loved. But I desperately needed this pause in my life. I needed to find out what would happen to my body, mind and spirit on a long distance walk, especially with a body already in serious decline from osteoarthritis.

I did all I could to mitigate the risk, ensuring things would be the same when I returned. But it made absolutely no difference. I still lost that career.

But what did I gain? An adventure, experience, self-knowledge, self-reliance, and the realization that I wouldn’t wonder someday in the future, when I’m not capable of walking like I could for those two thru-hikes, why I hadn’t taken the risk.

The truth is we never really know what’s around the corner, so sometimes you just have to take a calculated leap of faith. Funny thing? That day-in-the-future is now and I am in the process of replacing both hips.

On one particularly awful morning after surgery when I was nauseated and had a splitting headache, I told Richard all I needed was hope.

His response? “The most hopeful thing you are doing is taking these months to repair your body for the next hikes.”

2. Live in the present moment

Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.

Alice Morse Earle

A thru-hike forces a kind of single-minded focus that is unlike anything else I’ve ever encountered in life. I find it difficult to plan, at least specifically, too many days in advance. And even if I could, I find that circumstances change and I need to go with the flow.

That being said, I was shocked by the number of hikers who wore headphones and walked at night seemingly just to get in miles. That approach is anathema to me and I became a kind of ascetic of the trail, never listening to music, always hiking within daylight and taking the time to really see things.

My friend Myra, a.k.a. “Wonder,” takes pride in having carefully planned each day on the PCT, very much in the vein of her real life work as an engineer. Since she’s not a fast walker, she knew going in she’d have to stick to some sort of schedule or she’d never make it to the finish line. That being said, she describes in a Guest Post how delicious each day was because she had the spare time to really see everything.

I’m not afraid to be face-to-face with my own thoughts, even if they’re sometimes unpleasant! Part of walking a long distance thru-hike is staying present with all of yourself – the good, the bad and the ugly – and not looking away or trying to distract yourself.

Right now, my thru-hike is slowly recovering from one hip operation and having the courage to go in for the second one. I have suffered setbacks, including catching Covid 19 and developing painful – but temporary – neuropathy in my calf and foot. I use the lesson of staying in the present to experience fully what each day brings, the tiny victories and surprises that my body can heal itself.

3. Practice patience

Patience is not simply the ability to wait – it’s how we behave while we’re waiting.

Joyce Meyer

I’m not a huge fan of FKT’s (Fastest Known Time) I understand the motivation for such a challenge and certainly celebrate the athletic accomplishment of someone running, say, the Appalachian Trail in 40 days.

But for me, walking a long trail is about sauntering, a word which John Muir preferred to hiking because it connotes a kind of mission like a holy pilgrimage as opposed to a physical endurance test.

Over the course of ten months walking two major trails, I discovered this phenomenon that no matter how much I desired to get somewhere faster, I couldn’t really walk much faster. It was simply going to take the time it was going to take.

Much like living in the present, patience is all about letting go of the need to control and giving things time to percolate.

The nature writer Edward Abbey explains it beautifully. He writes, “Walking takes longer…than any other known form of locomotion except crawling. Thus it stretches time and prolongs life. Life is already too short to waste on speed…Walking makes the world much bigger and thus more interesting. You have time to observe the details.”

So patience, my friend, gets us where we’re going and forces us to become observant, which in turn opens us to the possibility of experiencing the divine.

The worst part about my recovery at the moment is this pins-and-needles electric buzz in my lower leg. It was likely caused by my sciatica firing up while they had my femur pulled out. The surgeon told me nerves heal about one millimeter per day, which means this could take months to go way.

That does not sound pleasant at all. But, it should go away and I take into this moment patience with that long process. And just like planning for where to camp and how much food to carry, along with practicing patience, I take vitamins, massage my legs, and keep up good blood flow to encourage recovery.

Read Next: Blissful “Bionic” Hiker

The miracles of modern medical science that I am walking without sticks two weeks after surgery.

4. Let the day unfold

I think that’s what I love about my life. There’s no maniacal master plan. It’s just unfolding before me.

Cate Blanchett

Carpe diem – seize the day. I get it. I do. This idea that we need to put on our big girl pants and Type A personalities and make things happen!

There’s another side to this approach that really becomes apparent on my thru-hikes. For sure, you have to put yourself out there on that trail and be bold, brave and brilliant.

But sometimes, that attitude became too confining, not allowing the flexibility to maybe go a bit further, camp somewhere unexpected, accept a kindness from a trail angel or scrap a tightly held plan altogether.

This was a biggie for me, to wake up each day and just allow things to occur. I may practice mindfulness, but in the back of that mind is a control freak who wants to know what’s ahead, what will happen, where will I end up.

That attitude has often caused me to miss opportunities right in front of my face. We all could sharpen our skills at being nimble, willing to change our minds, our plans and our direction. It can invariably lead to unimaginable wonders, like when I hooked up with a local to climb Mount Taranaki for the sunrise, being the first to summit in 2019.

At this moment, it means developing curiosity rather than certainty, to delight in the twists and turns of my life – like today, when I was finally able, with the use of my cane and the handrail, to walk up and down stairs, one foot after the other on their own step.

A huge accomplishment in comparison to what happened on my “walk.” My right hip is rapidly deteriorating and I simply can’t walk as far until I get that one replaced in December.

And yet, it was warm enough to take a break on my porch and watch the world go by – dog walkers, children on various wheeled forms of transport and neighbors wishing me well.

Not a bad afternoon at all.

5. Trail Angels exist

That’s what I consider true generosity: You give your all, and yet you always feel as if it costs you nothing.

Simone de Beauvoir

I had heard the term “trail angel” for years before walking my first major thru-hike. I certainly benefited from kindnesses on every backpack trip I’ve taken with people offering rides on seemingly abandoned roads, shared meals when when I might have skimped on nutrition and offers of a spot to set my tent on someone’s property.

But I had no concept for the depth of people’s generosity until I arrived in New Zealand. From Day One when Irene offered to pick me up at the airport in Kerikeri and get me to the trailhead to meeting Rob and George in Whanganui who opened their home to me and made me feel part of their Whānau (family) to Ian offering a totally lost and frustrated blissful hiker a ride to the supermarket and back to the trailhead, driving way out of his way and on and on.

And then there’s just the thousands of little things, the beers offered at the right moment, the words of encouragement, the invitations to camp on the lawn and share a meal, not to mention how the “trail provided” in mysterious ways at precisely the moment I needed something.

None of these acts made me feel entitled. Rather I felt deeply blessed and changed inside, wanting to pay forward what I can and be the person that helped me.

You can see in my video that a patient is up and walking soon after a full hip replacement, but for about a week, it’s necessary to use a walker. Richard and I found one at a thrift store in Waconia, Minnesota for $3. It was fine, but clunky, even when we affixed tennis balls to its feet.

I was dreaming of a rollator like my mom’s. with fat tires and a smooth ride. The very next day, someone posted in my “Buy Nothing” Facebook group, the exact rollator I had in mind. Greta gifted it to us with the expectation we’d pass it along at the end of this saga, just like my feelings of passing along trail angel kindnesses.

Trail Angels help with no desire to be repaid, and teach us how to be generous.

6. The point of a thru hike is not to triumph.

The goal of life … is not happiness, peace, or fulfillment, but aliveness.

Hubert Dreyfus

When I finished walking the Pacific Crest Trail, Richard was waiting for me at the southern terminus in Campo as I walked up one last rise towards the blocky monument.

It was not an especially long day, just twenty miles through desert landscape and oddly shaped rock outcroppings. I met two thru-hikers along the way as well as a group of backpackers out for a weekend. The mood was festive, relaxed, and a little resigned. I didn’t feel exhausted or ready to stop, but neither did I feel sorrow that my life as a full-time pedestrian would be coming to an end.

The trail twisted through the mountains and skirted private land dotted with live oaks before I crossed train tracks and followed a road to mile marker number one and the final steps of my odyssey.

I could see Richard’s rental car parked near the razor-topped border wall and his tall body leaning against the door. I had a huge smile on my face as he applauded my arrival, all at the exact moment that another car joined. Richard handed me a margarita with fresh squeezed lime, reasonably tasty tequila and precious ice cubes served in a real glass.

He planned to take it with me as I sat on top of the monument for my finisher photograph, but it seems the man had other plans. He wanted his own picture taken – and taken before me. In a brusque manner – and without acknowledging that I actually walked to this spot from the Canadian border – he asked if I wouldn’t mind getting out of the frame while his wife snapped his picture.

I obliged, waiting for her as she snapped pictures from several angles of this man who walked ten steps of the PCT. At some point, he came down and headed back to his car and I climbed onto the monument.

It was such an odd moment, but it made absolutely no difference to me. I was done and this was just a marker in time and space. All my experiences and all my memories could not possibly be taken away from me whether I sat on the monument for my picture or not.

It occurred to me that there was a lesson in this. The goal to finish is a good one, and gives shape and direction to the walk. But accomplishment isn’t enough. Don’t get me wrong, to triumph by making it to all the way 2,685 miles to the end does feel good. But what feels even better, is being alive for every step.

This journey to new hips has had ups and downs, including both Richard and I contracting Covid, fortunately, as far as we know right now, we have only mild symptoms. But I challenge myself not to get lost in wanting to get over and done with everything, but to search for that feeling of being alive within the tumult of this moment.

It helps that Richard and I both are feeling more “normal” today, still fatigued and coughing a lot, but ever so slightly familiar to ourselves. That in itself makes all of it worth it.

Read Next: Set Your Sights Low

Every journey begins with the first step.

7. Everything changes

If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. 

Maya Angelou

Every day on a thru-hike, you get a chance to redeem yourself. Think about that. It’s like a do-over every single day beginning with letting the air out of your mattress, packing your gear and deciding what you’ll eat for breakfast before lacing up your shoes and walking on.

I found that to be one of the most freeing truths in walking long distances. It’s nearly impossible to get caught in a rut, because by its very nature, the terrain and environment are sometihng new each day.

And there’s nothing saying you have to walk with the same people, use the same trail name or even be the same person. Maybe that’s precisely why people thru-hike, to “find” themselves, lose themselves, then find themselves again.

There’s also that bit about weather changing. Non-stop rain in New Zealand nearly gave me PTSD, and yet just when I couldn’t handle another day of wet, it would clear and I was given a beautiful gift of sunshine, views and easy walking. I guess it shouldn’t surprise you that I longed for hard trail when it got too easy and through myself back into mud when the trail offered no challenge.

It was Abraham Lincoln who told the story about a king who charged his wise men to invent him a sentence which would be appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words, “And thistooshall pass away.”

Hardship, sorrow, confusion, fear, pain, the myriad feelings I have right now as I push through my bionic rebuild – all of these things shall pass, and eventually metamorphose into something else. I suppose that something else could be worse, but like the trail unwinding in front of me and taking me from rain forest to mountain pass to desert, our circumstances change with each passing moment.

8. You will never pass this way again

Sooner or later, we must realize there is no station, no one place to arrive at once and for all. The true joy of life is the trip.

Ann Landers

The most alluring part of a thru-hike for me is the fact that you rarely repeat any of it, rather you hike “thru” an environment. It offers a metaphor for life in being awake and aware as you go since it’s unlikely you will see any of this again.

Perhaps it’s because I’m middle aged and can see the other side of my life towards old age and death, I feel a bit more in touch with this concept. I know I wasn’t always popular with some of the younger hikers who got bored easily and found the trails a never-ending slog.

I would try to learn the names of the plants and creatures, to understand the geology and the cultures I passed through. In effect, I fed my curiosity so I wouldn’t see each day as on repeat and a series of physical challenges to be overcome.

That’s not to say it wasn’t hard as code word: tall grass attests to my complete and utter break down from a combination of hard trail and utter exhaustion. I earned true thru-hiker cred that day when I told it like it is and how hard it can be to keep going.

Perhaps like everything changing, it’s important to remind oneself that even unpleasant sections will soon go from the present to the past, and no amount of picture taking or journaling will help your recall what it felt like if you don’t feel if fully while you’re experiencing it.

When I first started walking on the sidewalk in front of my house, I thought of each place I camped along the PCT, recalling the sounds, the smell, the solitude or lack thereof. It was a fun exercise as I trained my new prosthetic to move smoothly.

I’m not wild about pain and nausea and being away from all I love to do as I heal, but I intend for this hip to last me most of my life and this time is one I hopefully won’t experience again, so perhaps it’s worth reminding myself to take each step deliberately and with intention since these are steps I will never walk again.

9. Let go and forgive

Forgiveness is the economy of the heart… forgiveness saves the expense of anger, the cost of hatred, the waste of spirits.

Hannah More

There’s nothing like a thru-hike to clean the cobwebs of your soul, especially if you’re like me and hike alone. You may have thought you were an ultralight hiker until the weight of excess baggage slowed you down and you knew you needed to deal with things.

I often argues with the air, spoke to old flames and old bosses and gave them a piece of my mind. But I found that interacting with other hikers – many pretty selfish and disagreeable – challenged me just as much.

Unlike our “real” lives, thru-hiking offers freedom from most expectations and demands. And yet, it stresses us to the point of breaking. Temperature extremes, hunger and thirst, exhaustion, injury, animal encounters, etc. can cause us to become selfish and demanding. giving little thought to each other.

In Northern California, I was left in a snowstorm by someone I had been hiking with for weeks and in Southland, New Zealand, I was threatened with physical harm by a Kiwi when I stole his chair. I felt betrayed, hurt and angry in those situations and worried over them for a long time before finally letting them go and deciding those guys needed to do what they did in the moment, and I’m not irreparably hurt.

When I’m vulnerable like I am now as I heal, I also “worry” hurt feelings from the past. Forgiveness is a tall order and not easy to practice even when we know it will set us free. What helps is to believe the people who hurt us did so for their own selfish reasons and not because we deserved it or had it coming.

While I won’t be hiking with either of those men again and there are many people from my past I have cut loose, taking it less personally has helped me move forward – and created the space for trail angels (see #5) to come into my life.

10. You are stronger than you think you are

If I waited for perfection, I’d never write a word.

Margaret Atwood

I’ve always had a talent for going uphill. Richard calls me a mountain goat. I can set a pace and just cruise. It’s just one of my gifts.

But strength is not just in going uphill or downhill, or long distances or in hellacious weather. Strength is something innate, something called upon when we find ourselves maybe a bit over our head or in unknown territory.

I guess I never doubted I’d walk a long way, even if I wasn’t entirely sure my body would hold up for all those miles. What I set out to do was to discover what would happen to my body, mind and spirit if I walked for months on end.

I wasn’t always strong. I cried. I complained. I doubted myself. And I often wondered why I was bothering and if what I was doing was worth it. But something inside me kept me moving forward, even if I had to take breaks or change my plans.

It’s almost precisely a year to the day that I sat on top of the monument in Campo, California after walking nearly 5,000 miles in New Zealand and the United States and I can tell you today it was all worth it. I’m amazed here in Saint Paul after walking just the block around our house, that I had what it took to put one foot in front of the other, make good decisions and see both hikes all the way through.

I got plenty of help from friends and trail angels, but in the end, I did it. We have more strength than we think we have, but we can only know that if we put it to the test.

So get out there, don’t put it off any longer that thing you want to do. Challenge yourself, get into the nitty gritty and see how it feels to be back at square one, like learning to walk again on new hips! You might surprise yourself how strong you really are.

Read Next: Titanium Fourteener

CDT

thank you Summit Orthopedics!

Walking brings me back to myself.

Laurette Mortimer
The hip bone’s connected to the leg bone…

I am thrilled to announce that Summit Orthopedics is supporting my Continental Divide Hike. Thank you so much, Summit, for getting me back on my feet and on my way to #walkingtheworld!


Last October, I was told by lovely Doctor Stroemer at Summit Orthopedics in the Twin Cities that I had no cartilage left in my hip socket. It all came on fast starting with what I thought was a pulled muscle progressing quickly to barely being able to walk. They gave me a cortisone shot and I tested it by taking one last, limping thru-hike of the Kekekabic. The shot took away the pain, but it wasn’t going to grow back cartilage, so under the knife I went for two total hip athroplasty surgeries.

The surgeries were a success and I became very intentional about healing, walking the halls of local malls before progressing to snowy but flat trails using traction and finally a visit to Colorado and a snow shoe walk up 14,271 foot Quandary Peak (it the easiest 14er to climb in winter, but I was only five months out at that point!)

Summit Orthopedics is financially supporting my walk of the Continental Divide Trail.

Since March, I have been on a mission to regain my strength by doing planks and yoga, biking, and, of course loads of walking, like hours on end. You can listen to the Blissful Hiker podcast episode #53 that takes you through some of my getting-in-shape daily routine.

I’m by no means all there. Dr. Stroemer told me it could be a full year before the swelling goes down in my thighs which explains why absolutely nothing fits me right now! And I still have pins and needles plus numbness from neuropathy likely caused by a bruised nerve when they had to pull my thigh out of the socket. It seems to be going away, but it will take time and does get kind of tight.

All that being said, I am on my way to walking the CDT and things are getting real! I’ve taken over our guest room with gear laid out all over the place, I got my butt kicked in a class called GPS Navigation: Using CalTopo and Gaia GPS Workshop with The Mountaineers in Seattle, and I’m preparing meals, sorting out the ones to send ahead right now and making piles for Richard to send as I progress.

Dr. Stroemer at Summit Orthopedics gives me the thumbs up after two surgeries to replace my completely cartilage-free hips.
I was totally knocked out when they sawed off this part of my femur. Stroemer promised he’d snap a picture because we both think it’s pretty cool to see how our bodies are put together.
My “shakedown”hike on the Superior Hiking Trail to test gear and body parts.

There’s a lot to do, but I try and remember what Broken Toe said, advising to not plan too much and make the step I’m taking right now the priority. That’s not to say you don’t get organized, it’s more about adopting an attitude that not every bit of anything can be planned out. There’s always the possibility that I’m not quite as strong as I used to be and I’ll have to change plans or make adjustments – and then there’s the weather, wildfires…

The good news is the posse I’ll start the hike with are all in agreement that we take things slow to start – mainly because Glacier National Park is so astonishingly beautiful. So maybe, even I, the “Bionic” Blissful Hiker, can keep up with the kids on trail!

Thanks again Summit Orthopedics for your care and support!

hike blog

Titanium 14er, climbing Quandary Peak with new hips

No matter what kind of challenges or difficulties or painful situations you go through in your life, we all have something deep within us that we can reach down and find the inner strength to get through them.

Alana Stewart
A selfie with a left over sign atop one of Colorado’s famous 14ers.

It was a blissfully balmy bluebird day last Friday when Richard and I snowshoed up the flanks of a Colorado “fourteener,” one of the state’s nearly sixty mountain peaks over 14,000 feet. We’d driven out from Saint Paul to check out this magnificent playground of a state, mostly just taking in the snow-covered ranges from the vantage point of our car. But when our host Karen suggested we take a walk up McCullough Gulch as far as it would take us, we skipped the gulch for a lapis-blue sky and huffed our way to a whole new experience.

Quandary Peak is the highest summit in the Tenmile Range of the Rocky Mountains and towers over the ski village of Breckenridge. With its proximity to Denver and I-70, it’s one of the most accessible 14ers as well as one of the most straightforward. Peak-baggers usually start their quest with Quandary and its 3,500-foot gain in 3 1/2 miles. Steep, but basically a ramp. A gut-busting, altitude-sickness-inducing ramp, but one requiring only spunk and good weather.

And we had both, including a light dusting of snow creating a white path to the top. The clincher for me was reading that Quandary is one of the easiest and safest winter summits. I had no idea people actually walked to the top of 14ers in the winter, none-the-less we’d wisely packed our fantastic MSR Evo Ascent snowshoes, giant boats with a built-in heel lift that clicks into place and saves your calves on the uphills.

The peak received its name from miners in a quandary over what mineral they were digging up on the peak’s slopes.

We needed those lifts right from the start out of the lightly filled parking lot, a good sign that a trail to the top would be obvious and packed down.

According to legend Quandary was named by miners unable to identify a mineral sample they’d collected on its slopes, in a “quandary” over its nature. Though I like to imagine a more romantic reason for the origin of its name, some perplexing situation that caused great consternation like the one the two of us were experiencing ourselves during our week in Colorado, namely what to do with the rest of our lives.

But as we started our day drinking extra amounts of water and loading up on carbs, we made a conscious decision not to push things and to just let the day unfold, a piece of advice I easily dispense but don’t always follow. I wore only an Ibex wool top and hoodie, a pair of hiking slacks I bought for $5 in Leadville, a baseball cap and sunglasses and stayed plenty warm through the forest, the trees freshly flocked and opening up to portholes looking towards the bright white of the Front Range across the valley.

Richard at the end of the deep snow tunnel.

Two skiers shushing up the trail passed us on skinned skis, turning around to warn us to avoid avalanche terrain. The beauty of Quandary is that the hiker can pretty much avoid getting into trouble by staying high on the ridge, but that means dispensing with the summer route’s switchbacks which are designed to lessen the grade.

Low avalanche danger doesn’t mean no danger, and as we walked higher and higher I did a mental checklist of all I had in my pack:

  • layers of warm clothes
  • water and snacks
  • a headlamp
  • lip balm and sunscreen
  • warm mitts, hat and balaklava

To be honest, the brilliant sunshine lulled me into feeling like it was just a summer’s walk with all the time in the world. Unwisely, we got a late start and were moving slowly, especially when we reached an open patch of deep snow up to our hips, the “trail” a series of postholes in a long trench. Both of us got stuck with an audible “whumph.” My biggest fear was that my foot would go one way and my leg the other and rip my new titanium prosthetic right out of its socket.

I made up for causing this snowboarder to fall by offering up some of our chocolate.

It only turned out to be a short delay before we reached a long flat stretch, the trees disappearing and a rounded snowy summit coming into view. A woman only a few years older approached all smiles. “I was the second one on top today!” she said, assuring me the flanks of the mountain were wind-scoured and easy walking.

The wind, too, was calm as skiers, people training for Everest and a “speed rider” – a sport that combines skiing with paragliding – all joined her on the mountain earlier today, as well as a couple of snowboarders, one flying right towards me unable to stop and crashing into the deep snow next to the trail.

As we cleared the trees, Richard and I spoke up almost at once suggesting I should go on and try for the peak. He made the treeline his goal and I was feeling strong if I went slow. But the morning was waning and a little quick calculation determined that 2:00 was the time I’d need to turn around to avoid being out in the dark – and the bitter cold.

So I put it in low gear and marched on towards the first false summit, blinding white of a vertiginous sweep to nothingness off to my right. I stabbed the ground with my Lekis, my shoes crunching and slapping as I slowly ascended towards rocks all in one gesture, a gesture that only led to more steep whiteness on a sea of cobalt.

A sassy summiter explained the hump I could see was a false summit.

For that section things simplified – there was no more “staying under my breath” by walking slow enough to keep from tiring. Any movement up took my breath away completely. So I got systematic. I walked 100 steps, then took a break. One, two, three, four…by the time I got to fifty, my thighs were burning, and my forced breathing heavier and louder…ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine, STOP!

My MSR’s hung to the side like champs, but resting was not really resting. My calves fired up as I held myself in place on the steep terrain. I’d look up to where I needed to be which was slightly demoralizing, but looking down was surprisingly uplifting since you can get pretty far in just 100 steps.

I saw a man below me at the rocks just starting, moving slow but steady, clearly a local unaffected by the altitude. How far along am I? I wondered. To my left I could see the little hump above Hoosier Pass where Richard and I hiked a few days ago and tested out these new legs of mine in snowshoes. I was just above it, so 12,000 feet or so.

That left me with another 2,000 feet to go.

Wind-carved terrain on the sharp edge looking out towards the Sawatch Range.

Oh hell, get on with it and up I went in my stubborn determination, 100 steps, break, 100 steps, break.

Bit by bit a pyramid of mountain poked out over my snowy hill; the “real” summit ahead. Why I felt elated seeing that distant bit of effort I can’t explain, except that maybe I knew that would be the last of it. Just then, three hikers approached on their return. Dressed much like me but wearing only microspikes, they moved well and fast down the slope. Still, they took time to encourage me along.

“Will I make it?” I asked a bit nervous.

“Of course!” And as if a reward, I reached a flat section brushed clean to the rock. I didn’t bother taking off my shoes as I picked my way from one snow patch to the next along a sheer cliff. Ski tracks directly at its sharp edge were evidence of a solution to the rock problem, though I gladly scratched my shoes to steer clear of a 1,000 foot fall. The man from below passed me, both of us thrilled by our luck with such a day.

I was certain my 100 step method would take me right up the precipitous and rocky ridge, but no such luck as I slowed to 50 paces before breathing hard. Several hikers passed me coming down in mountaineering boots and crampons, awkwardly clomping, heel-toe, heel-toe.

The final ridge was packed hard and easy walking. Skiers got fresh powder in the bowl under the summit.

I saw the skiers from earlier in the day neatly carving S’s in the bowl as my steps shortened yet again. Here it was less a false summit than simply impossible to see the summit being so close and directly beneath it. Alone with my thoughts, my breath, my fear that maybe I was getting out of my comfort zone only two months away from my second hip replacement, I slowed my steps yet again to 10.

Ten steps. Ten breathes, Repeat.

I pulled out my phone to check the time. 1:47. Can I do this thing? I did the mental check again:

  • I’m right on time
  • I’m warm enough
  • I’ve had enough to eat and drink
  • I’m tired, but don’t feel any symptoms of altitude sickness

But where the heck is the summit? It just seems to keep going on and on. Just then, the man that passed me on the ridge section appeared above. In an optical illusion, he looked giant compared to what my eye expected to see above me. If he’s coming down from the top, it’s not that far!

Two snowboarders work their way up the final stretch before launching themselves into the bowl below the summit.

He stopped to talk to me asking, as if I’m a local, if I come here often. Well, no. He then exclaims he’s never seen such a day – crystal clear, warm and no wind. But should I go to the top? Nonchalant in his ski boots ready to fly off this mountain on a glorious day, he tells me just like the others, “Of course! It’s right there!”

As skier man disappeared down the rocks to grab his skis, I headed up now just five steps on and five off. But just as he said, it was right there, the summit flattening off and leading to stone windbreaks, frozen and covered in snow. My breathing never relaxed but I no longer had to count my steps. If there’s a peak logbook, I never found it, but someone did leave a cardboard sign for my selfie.

I didn’t linger long as the time ticks past 2:00. I really had no idea how my snowshoes would grab hold heading down and I was surprised they clung tightly. I placed the handle of my Lekis tightly under my palms and assured the tips grab in front of me as I crawled down the mountain, my quads on fire and the treeline looking a long way away.

The heavy breathing tells it all.

Two snowboarders reached me as well as two more hikers heading up, making me feel less panicky that I was the only one left out there as the sun began to make long shadows in the snow. Down and down and down I went, thinking I really should have rested for a moment, but instead I just kept going, feeling kind of bad I left Richard waiting.

After the false summit, the snow thickened having gotten soft in the sun. It was hard going but I saw someone below in the rocks holding his arms up in a V. Richard! He climbed up one of the steep sections to a dry patch. How many steps will it take me to get to him? 500? I counted as I went, sinking deep and struggling to stay upright. I fell at one point with a thump into deep snow. After all these months afraid of falling, I just went and did it and it was no big deal.

But it was a slippery, messy 500 steps to the rocks and Richard’s congratulations. I did stop for a snack and water, though it was hard to eat with my breathing still heavy, even going down. The next section was even deeper and messier, but we pushed past and soon met our trail through the forest.

Yes, the summit is only half-way there and we all have a tendency to underestimate the strength it will take to get us safely off a mountain. But I was in the home stretch with only the one deep trench section to go, one I managed to bypass by doing a switchback to the far left.

I was afraid getting down would be difficult, but it was only near the treeline that I had trouble walking.

All the way down we talked about our day, the slow but methodical steps I took to the top and Richard’s meeting everyone coming down, most telling him they remember meeting me after he described me as “the hiker smiling from ear-to-ear!” It seemed even without going all the way, he enjoyed the sunshine and the view – and I’m amazed I managed the top, not so much the being in shape and stubborn part, but that my new titanium hips could carry me that far.

I also managed to get down fast enough so we could drive back over Hoosier Pass and reach Fairplay in time to pick up a few items at the store for dinner.

As we cooked in the waning light, Pikes Peak glowing pink from the sunset, I realized I did follow my own advice and let the day unfold. I had no agenda to reach the top and only decided to go when the going looked like a good idea. I also put myself in a position throughout to change my mind and turn around, no regrets. But it would seem people kept appearing in my path to encourage me to go on. Of course you should go!

The other surprising thing was that not once during the entire day did I think about my own quandary and what I direction my life was going to take. Simply putting one foot in front of the other and making progress bit by bit was enough.

Seeing snow-covered mountain upon mountain like waves disappearing into the horizon calmed my worry for the future as well as assuaging my fear of the unknown, that just like the tiny summit crown it will reveal itself when the time comes.

A heart carved in an Aspen in the forest section of the Quandary Peak Trail. I would say the place stole my heart.
hike blog

set your sights low

The secret to true happiness is low expectations and insensitivity.

Olivia Goldsmith
Falling into a bank of snow on a perfect January day five weeks after getting new hips.

I knew the title of this post would get your attention.

And if you know me, you know I tend to think big, go for it and make things happen – at least insofar as walking every step to the bitter end of two long distance trails that have a tendency to spit out the young, the brash and the fast.

So why on earth would I send out a post suggesting happiness comes from setting your goals low?

Let’s talk about that!

Recently, I’ve been in charge of spearheading a new podcast for the online hiking site The Trek. It’s been fascinating speaking with experts from myriad backgrounds and interests all addicted to my favorite sport, backpacking.

One such person is Dr. Elizabeth Andre who teaches in the Outdoor Education department at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. She has a Great Course called Outdoor Fundamentals: Everything You Need to Know to Stay Safe.

At first, it seemed logical that our conversation would cover practices every backpacker should know to manage risks, but what really grabbed me in her course was the psychology of risk – meaning our inability to control our emotions, habits and prejudices when making decisions, ones that often mean the difference between an uncomfortable experience and a devastating one.

My speed is increasing and I hardly notice my prosthetics.

As we spoke, I thought of the concepts of “summit fever” and “sunk-cost fallacy.” These speak to our obsession with a goal, to the point we ignore obvious dangers and might act recklessly to attain said goal. The thinking is often, “I’ve paid so much money –” or “I’ve taken so long to train–” or “I’ve come so far –” with the next sentence being I can’t give up now!

So much has been written about setting high goals and going for it. On the flip side, much has been written about the tragedies of “going for it.” See Deaths on Mount Everest due to Bottlenecks

But curiously, very little is written on setting realistic goals – or maybe I should rephrase that to say, realistic goals (aka low expectations) are not often celebrated as a more powerful means to an end.

Let me explain. When you set one big, hairy, audacious, lofty goal, your life tends to revolve around getting there. You push hard, focussing on it every day and yet, when you can’t reach it, you fail every day – maybe just a little bit, but those little bits, day after day, add up, and the goal begins to feel impossible to reach.

The irony, though, is that if you reach it, the joy you feel inevitably fades quickly and the cycle starts all over.

Day one after surgery number one. It’s a long pathway to being a “full time pedestrian” again, a goal best taken one step at a time.

In addition, that feeling of having to achieve the one big goal, puts blinders on us, feeding into “summit fever” that we need to get this one thing at all costs.

The solution is rather than set goals, build systems. Systems are tiny, bite-sized goals with built-in flexibility. When I looked at months of healing before I could return to some sense of normalcy as a backpacker, it was impossible to digest – too big, too long, too intimidating.

The same held for long thru-hikes, where the end was certainly in mind, but was too far away to comprehend. Every day required patience and a kind of gentleness with myself to make that particular portion a success.

Oddly enough, when we create a system, we find more joy in our accomplishments, because each day brings its own rewards and discoveries, especially if we stay more in the present, and focus ourselves in the “now” of our bite-sized goals.

So “set your sights low” within the context of setting them high, and stay insensitive – and flexible – to your emotions telling you that you have to go for that one goal no matter what. You will find more joy in the small victories, I guarantee it, and before you know it, you’ll be at the summit.

The day I walked to the end of Pike Island was a big (small) success.
hike blog

among the halls of malls

You have to go through the falling down in order to learn to walk. It helps to know that you can survive it. That’s an education in itself.

Carol Burnett
"Training" to walk the Continental Divide Trail this summer begins on terrazzo.
“Training” to walk the Continental Divide Trail this summer begins on terrazzo.

It’s been almost four weeks since I had my second hip replaced. What a drama! I inherited my mother’s laugh and my father’s wanderlust, but also a disposition for osteoarthritis. By the time my surgeon cut out the bad joint, there wasn’t any cartilage left!

When I asked Dr. S if I could walk the Continental Divide Trail this summer, he seemed pretty unfazed. I guess it’s not really up to him, but up to my body and how fast and thoroughly it heals.

Since my surgery used the anterior approach, no muscles were cut and my recovery – while not pleasant – was relatively short. The Physical Therapist gave me a set of exercises at the surgery center to strengthen the muscles then told me, after a few weeks, just walk.

The surgeon told me that simple walking is the best therapy as the bone grows into the prosthetic.
Har Mar Mall in Roseville, Minnesota hosts a whole subculture of mall walkers.
Har Mar Mall in Roseville, Minnesota hosts a whole subculture of mall walkers.

That was music to my ears, of course, but I live in Minnesota and the sidewalks are icy and dangerous. So, it was off to the halls of malls for my rehabilitation. Safe and full of eye candy, I enjoyed my time “thru-hiking” a variety of indoor locations using my trusty Leki trekking poles for balance, but also to strengthen my droopy arms.

I visited Har Mar Mall in Roseville sporting wide halls for an entire subculture of indoor walkers jazzed to move by the adult rock playing over the sound system. At the Saint Paul Skyway, magic doors would spring open as I arrived with a whoosh or a ka-bong. It’s a bit sketch downtown and most people were sadly maskless, but I never felt unsafe. I was approached by a couple of dudes wondering if I was skiing with my poles.

Mall walking is safe and always has lots of eye-candy.
Mall walking is safe and always has lots of eye-candy.
I timed my walks near sunset so the winter darkness didn't compound my feeling of isolation.
I timed my walks near sunset so the winter darkness didn’t compound my feeling of isolation.

Maplewood Mall has a lovely carousel and a carpeted second floor. That’s where I started to take long strides, no hands. Rosedale is the home to the glowing moose and fantastic eats from local restaurants. It’s all about history at Southdale with wall text and photographs telling the story of a time forgotten when people dressed up to go to the mall. They also have wide halls and a 3,000 pound floor-to-ceiling bronze sculpture.

The Twin Cities’ signature mall is the Mall of America or MOA. I have special affection for this monstrous temple to capitalism because it was the first place I walked after surgery. No stores were open when we headed over, but the halls were available to put one foot in front of the other.

Today, nearly four weeks after my second hip replacement, I'm ready to risk a bit of ice.
Today, nearly four weeks after my second hip replacement, I’m ready to risk a bit of ice.
hike blog

Blissful (Bionic) Hiker

Surgeons must be very careful when they take the knife! Underneath their fine incisions stirs the Culprit – Life!   

Emily Dickinson
These hips (at the moment anyway) are not made for walking.
These hips (at the moment anyway) are not made for walking.

Arthritis runs in my genes

By the time you read this, my surgeon Dr. S, will have made an incision in my left hip, pulled the muscles aside, sawed of all the damaged bits at the top of my femur before popping out the ball of my hip joint and its surrounding deteriorated cartilage, and finally installing brand new parts made of titanium and ceramic. This late in the day, he might even be well on his way to closing the incision and wheeling me out to recovery.

I knew this moment was coming. Arthritis runs in my genes and it’s been causing swelling and disfigurement in my fingers and toes over the past decade. Time was running out for me as a full-time pedestrian, and that was the very reason I secured permission for a leave of absence from my job to walk my first long distance trail. My thought was that if I waited until retirement, the window of opportunity would pass me by.

You can revisit the whole story surrounding my decision to walk a long distance thru-hike on Episode 1 of the Blissful Hiker podcast.

Four years ago, I developed disabling pain in my left hip. An MRI showed significant wear, but I was terrified of having the hip replaced so soon. I opted for a cortisone shot, signed up for three months of daily hot yoga and rehabilitated myself right back on the trail, walking in Peru, England, Utah, New Hampshire and all over the Upper Midwest, as well as the entire length of the Te Araroa, five New Zealand Great Walks and the Pacific Crest Trail.

But this summer, I developed some weird pain in the other hip. I didn’t even know what hit me, thinking it must be my overzealousness on kettle bell gitups injuring a muscle. But when heat/ice, stretching and Richard’s magic fingers didn’t help the pain and I watched my gait go from smooth to gimpy, I knew something was very wrong.

I should point out here that I come from the school of “unless you’re bleeding in the middle of the road, you don’t need a doctor,” and I didn’t bother checking things out until after I walked nine days on Isle Royale. My leg hurt all the way down to my toes and only massive quantities of Ibuprofen got me through, what to be completely honest about, was easy hiking.

I walked around 6,000 miles on just one cortisone shot in my left hip.
I walked around 6,000 miles on just one cortisone shot in my left hip.

You gotta have ’em both replaced.

I may not have been bleeding in the middle of the road, but I was definitely getting worse, not able to cross my legs or even pull them together to walk since massive swelling has left the leg lengths uneven. So I bit the bullet and visited an orthopedist.

Dr. S. is about ten years younger than me and has a direct manner I find refreshing. He walked in all masked up holding my Xray and said, “You’re not gonna wanna see this!” pointing to the spots where bone was grinding directly on bone. FUCK! “Yup, you gotta have ’em both replaced.”

Your bedside manner sucks. To which he laughed, amused that this small, smiley woman possesses such a potty mouth. Of course, I liked him right away,

At the risk of making this an “organ recital” I’ll cut to the chase. He gave me another shot which allowed me to walk one more mini thru-hike assuring me I couldn’t possibly hurt myself any more than I already was. Then we set up two surgeries for this fall, one right after the other, along with double the number of pre-ops, post-ops, blood work, PT – and my personal favorite – “Joint Camp” – where I’m pretty sure they don’t pass around actual joints.

Am I scared? Yup.
Am I excited? Sure.
Am I planning another thru-hike? Of course!
When? As soon as I can walk like a thru-hiker.

It actually turns out in a weird way that this is the best time to get this thing done. Nothing is happening, my fledgling career is just getting starting, we can’t travel (much), winter is setting in and we both work from home, a home we’ve set up to be walker-ready including my extendo-toilet seat which Richard has dubbed “the long drop.”

FUN FACT: I’ll get my first bionic hip two years to the day I started walking the Te Araroa.

I know it’s going to be a long haul before I’m back, but I know all about long hauls, walking month after month on big trails. How the heck did I do that? One step at a time.

Today is surgery number one. Let’s hope it all goes smoothly and my body says, “yes, please!” to surgery number two right around my birthday in December.

All I ask of you guys? Make me laugh, send me movie/book/streaming-concert suggestions and hold me to my word to hike next season!

And here’s to what one of my surgeon friends Lynn told me…

Happy patients have happy outcomes!

My gait is wobbly right now, but I'm glad I took two short backpack trips this summer anyway.
My gait is wobbly right now, but I’m glad I took two short backpack trips this summer anyway.
hike blog

The Kekekabic

You never know where a blessing can come from.

Teena Marie
Gabimichigami Lake as seen through regenerating forest of Aspen.

Day One, Gunflint Trail to Agamok Bridge 12.6 miles (plus 1.5)

What strikes me at first walking on the Kekekabic, or ‘the Kek,’ is how quiet it is. Wind sets the Aspen leaves quaking, a deep gold against the soft blue sky, gray clouds hanging near the summits, a mosaic of yellow and dark green. 

Richard and I drove up in pounding rain and bumper-to-bumper traffic, but we woke in Grand Marais to clear skies above Gitcheegumee and hopped up the Gunflint Trail, an hour’s drive deep into forest and the land of millions of glacier-made lakes begin.

I woke up again in a panic about my future, feeling ungrounded and unsettled, learning just this past week my right hip joint is ground to nothing – and the left is not far behind. A cortisone shot is only going to buy me time until I’m going to have to get new ones. 

But I’ll get to call myself the bionic hiker! Turns out it’s genetics and there’s not much I can do about it. Nonetheless, Rich and decide I’ll hike in an hour then send him a message via GPS if I need to turn around. 

Only a few miles before a view of Canada, we meet the trailhead and see four cars parked. I wonder if I’ll see many people on Minnesota’s most rugged and remote trail. 

Richard grabs his sticks and a few photos, then starts walking with me up the hill. It feels like the Te Araroa when so many lovely trail angels who became friends got me started on the next section after their town. It gave them a chance to experience at least a taste of what I’ll see, and give me just the right sendoff.

This area was burned to the ground by the Ham Lake Fire and the new growth is mostly Aspen, bright yellow now with a bit of Maple in such a deep red, it could almost be called purple. Nearly a mile in, we take the spur trail for the fire tower, only a stone foundation, its metal housing crumpled in the bushes. 

Richard lags slightly behind, due to asthma, and tells me at the top, “Even with gimpy hips, you kick my ass!” We flush two grouse, flapping their wings in a spastic panic that lifts their bodies just enough to clear one side of the trail to the other. We decide that I’m going to go for it. I’ll take my time – and my Vitamin I – then meet him on the other side, about a 4 1/2 hour drive near Ely, Minnesota and three days walking.

At a little over 40 miles, the ‘Kek’ is not a long trail, but it’s remote and rugged.
Fall was at peak when I started the Kek in late September.

It’s always a bit strange to kiss then go in opposite directions, turning our backs, each step pulling us away from each other. What awaits me ahead? When I woke up last night shaky and insecure, something calmed me, a voice telling me to say, “Yes” to all things, including uncertainty. That definitely goes against the grain, but what I believe it means is to accept the challenges I face rather than deny or question them or feel picked on. I think perhaps agreeing instead of arguing with just might give me more power of myself. 

The trail sidles a hill and even after last nights rain the bushes are bone dry. This trail is infamous for being so overgrown with brush, people get lost. In fact, there’s a word to describe this – getting “Kekked.”

Established in the 1930s as a route to a fire tower, the Kekekabic Trail is a 41 mile long trail through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness from the top of the Gunflint Trail to Fernberg Road, near Ely. I put it off for years because it’s incredibly inconvenient to get to either trailhead, the Gunflint about an hour north of Grand Marais, which is about four hours north of my home of Saint Paul.

And Ely on the western end is another four and half hour drive from the trailhead. You need a permit to hike in this wilderness of moose, wolf bear and beaver habitat and it is notoriously difficult to follow because its remoteness makes it’s difficult to maintain.

After its heyday in the ‘70s, the trail fell into disrepair until volunteers established a a club in the ‘90s, but severe blowdowns as recent as 2016 with 100 mph straight-line winds took down millions of trees and left the trail a jumble of impassible limbs. Only last year was the trail cleared end to end and I feel confident I can manage it.

I’m moving well even on rocky and uneven trail, but I’m careful, using my sticks to stay upright and take off some of the stress. And this hike is not just about pushing myself on a deteriorating joint, I’m also experimenting with cold soak food, leaving my stove, fuel and pot at home. The weight and volume savings is eradicated by my half-size plastic bear canister, a bit of gear I thought wise to carry as hungry creatures prepare to hibernate.

The views are beautiful looking down to a pond filled with lily pads, spruce trees a mirror image on the opposite bank. I meet a day hiker named Wendy, impressed I’m walking all the way. I know I must sound cocky when I answer her question about having picked out all my camp spots along the way. Truthfully, this might be the first hike where I’m not sure how far I’ll get limping along on shorter days. 

Yellow birds come when I call, “psh-psh-psh-psh,” but they make no sound this time of year, only the wind whistles in the pines. I pass mines from the nineteenth century, fences in place to keep people from slipping in. At aptly named Mine Lake, trail crews cut a steep detour straight up, then straight down to avoid a notoriously wet section. 

The trail crew made hiking easy.
Warclub Lake filled with Lily Pads.

I soon enter the Boundary Waters Wilderness, stopping at the stunning campsite on Bingshik Lake with views on three sides. It’s definitely too early to stop, but I drink a liter of “sweet (electrolyte-fueled) water.” A man passes me totally distracted by his headphones jammed in. I suggest he enjoy nature’s sound. “I’ve heard it for three straight days,” he retorts. I guess not everyone needs the quiet as much as I do. 

Quiet except for the wind and a banditry of black-capped chickadees, whirring as they flit from tree to tree. I work my way between a series of lakes – Honker, Glee, Fay, Warclub – and get lost momentarily, shooting confidently right down a portage that ends at the water’s edge and having to shoot right back up. When I return to the intersection and see the blue ribbons pointing the way, I realize everything looks the same making it near impossible to tell which way to go. 

Hooray for the compass which is never wrong. Sure, I know to turn right but I check anyway that I’m headed west, more ribbons and giant rock cairns keeping me on track. Five hikers come my way, joined by a ‘caboose’ of two more – what’s the term for a group of trail crew? They’re all packing loppers and made things passable!

I take a picture and gush with gratitude, one commenting, “I didn’t realize we were celebrities!” Indeed you are. The scrappy opportunists that take over a burn area could potentially erase any hint of trail, and teams like this keep it open for hikers like me from getting lost. 

They tell me they’re happy people are walking it and I head on into a mossy area of rocks and sun-dappled light through trees. Massive erratics sit isolated right where they were dropped thousands of year’s ago by a sheet of ice. I cross streams, beaver dams, and step gingerly over boulders. I laugh remembering that I told Richard on our drive up here that I never feel alone hiking anymore. He responded, “That’s good…right?” I guess he thinks I have a stable of imaginary friends. 

I am alone and that requires being careful I don’t get into trouble or hurt myself, but I feel full and happy with my own company. And lookie here, I’m definitely not all alone as another young man comes my way. He’s friendly with advice of sites ahead, confident that I’ll make it to Agamok Bridge before dark, my intended stopping point. 

I take a pause at the wee campsite at Howard Lake to filter water for a peanut butter/chocolate shake and eat a few dried mangoes. The young man told me I’d have lots of views ahead, and I need to drink up before heading uphill. 

The trail goes up and down steeply, never very far, but enough to get me breathing hard. It’s rugged – rocks, roots and plants obstruct the path and I stay vigilant. To my left are waves of golden aspen glowing in the setting sun above chains of azure lakes. The color is so bright and rich, the air itself pulses with color. 

I’m on a ridge, but out of views now, so I press on, the trail obvious though still rough. I just got to have one more of those amazing mangos I dehydrated, so I slip my sticks under my arm and reach in my pocket. At that moment, my foot catches a stump hidden under grass and trips me sending me flying through the air. 

Pristine falls from the bridge.
The colors were so intense, the air glowed.

It’s true that accidents often seem to go in slow motion. I try to right myself but my sticks are under one arm, my hand stuck in my pocket and I fail, landing with a thud on my shoulder followed by a kind of afterthought of a face-plant.

I stand up and look behind me to see if I had an audience, brushing off bits of dried grass stuck to my blouse. Nope, I’m still alone and not hurt in the least, though from now one, no more walking this trail without a stick in each hand. 

Before heading down, I get one last view of golden hillsides, dark clouds forming quickly above. I hear the waterfall below and walk straight into a brief whiteout of rain. But it passes quickly and I don’t bother putting on my raincoat. 

It’s steep now and I pay extra attention to where I put my feet on the wet rocks. I cross a beaver dam, negotiating a few holes in the mud that cements together stacked logs with beaver-teeth sharpened points. Agamok Falls is a cataract cutting through ancient exposed magma, crossed by a splendidly engineered wooden bridge. 

I’m slightly disappointed in the site, just a large flat opening in the forest. But I have the bridge, the falls, and two rock ledge verandas on separate bodies of water where I split my time to filter water and soak noodles for dinner. 

It’s absolutely deserted, only the susurrus of the falls keeping me company. Suddenly I hear a kind of banging sound followed by yelling. “Henry!” Well, there goes the neighborhood. I stand up and head into the site to ensure I claim the one flat tent spot. 

There’s more banging and laughing, but I never see anyone. Aha! That banging is made by canoes! Of course, there’s a portage past these falls and just down the trail a bit more, hidden in the trees. This canoe party likely has no intention of carrying their canoe over here. 

And I’m right, as I hear their voices – and the banging – fade slowly before disappearing entirely, leaving me utterly alone with my falls in this magical spot. 

And I’m rewarded with a delicious cold soaked meal gobbling it up before it goes pitch dark at 7:30. The moon guides me back to the alicoop just before a light rain patters the tarp. I’m tucked into Big Greenie, marveling at this day of peak autumn colors, beautifully maintained trail, no injury from a wicked fall and this sweet solitude . 

My big brother Eric also wore his hip to the nubs and had it replaced a few years ago. When I called to ask for advice I admitted I was feeling down. “DON’T BE DEPRESSED!” he emailed me in all caps. “Life is a stokeathon,” – I should point out that Eric lives in a beach town in Southern California – “It’s a bag of blessings.”

Eric’s absolutely right. Safe and warm inside the ‘coop, I’m counting those blessings before my eyes get heavy and I rest up for tomorrow’s edition.  

On the final descent to Agamok Falls, the weather changed.
My cold soak noodles precluded any need for a stove and tasted delicious.

Day Two, Agamok Bridge to Strup Lake 8.9 miles

Should you shield the canyons from the windstorms you would never see the true beauty of their carvings.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

A gibbous moon shone into the alicoop creating a spectacle of leaf shadows. But it didn’t last long before it started raining – on and off all night. I’m cozy warm, but everything is damp when I wake up. I drink up a peanut butter/chocolate shake and put on all my rain gear. I scored bringing my bear vault on this hike as here comes a chipmunk looking for handouts. 

The trail leaves the lakes behind and heads directly into forest, dark, wet and slippery, the rocky path hard to negotiate. Now my sticks are firmly in hand and stab bright red maple leaves like an old fashioned receipt spindle.

The brush acts as a carwash and I sweat under my jacket, out of breath on a steep undulating track. I’m supposed to come to a view, but every time I ascend to what looks like a clearing, I go right back down again. The trail is obvious, but it’s hard walking and starting to look, as my friend Neil in Christchurch would say, “samey.” It’s so silent in here, like I’m inside, though a few chickadees chip as a woodpecker knocks. Massive black fungi cling to trees, now all conifers as I pass out of the burn zone. 

I unwisely step directly on a root and wipe out fast like I’m wearing roller skates. I’m ok and thankful I’m geared up for the wet leaves that break my fall.. The forest is pungent with a spicy freshness mixed with a thick but fleeting balsam that portends life rather than decay, the moist air magnifying the sweetness. 

Ahead is a pond with a giant beaver house, so old, half of it is sporting grass. The only way through this wetland is over a dam, a fifty foot serpentine pile of pointy logs. I step carefully, not wanting to repeat my latest wipeout especially here where a fall could launch me into the water or onto one of those spikes. 

A rock cairn that would fit in on Easter Island.
A yellow carpet extends into the horizon.

It’s not so hard, and I love the openess to the sky for a change even if a flat gray. Just around the corner is Harness Lake, a rock slab veranda sloping to the water’s edge. I stop for a snack looking out into white pine twisted like palm trees high above perfect triangles of spruce, and bright yellow aspen. 

It begins to rain, and I shiver in the damp cold, shoving off. It’s up steeply now towards views out to big lakes, including this trail’s namesake. It’s hard to know how far I go before taking a sharp left. Judging from my map, it’s up, down then up again. But the trail is not as clean as topographical lines and after an hour – even on this ankle twisting, Blissful tripping terrain – I’m fairly certain I’ve walked the two miles to the junction. 

But I never see it. Lost in thought, I begin heading steeply down, careful on slick rock hidden by autumn leaves. A bit of view to a massive lake opens to my left, and then an even bigger lake to my right. Wait a minute, this trail is heading steeply down to that massive lake – and the two lakes are actually one and the same. 

I pull out my compass and see I’m heading directly north now. Maybe the trail turns west? Not on your life! Somehow, I missed the intersection and just kept going. 

It’s a big climb back up, but I am naturally gifted for up – and tend to wipe out less often. It’s up and up, but where the hell is the intersection? F-bombs drop from my mouth as a raindrops join in. I come upon a few blue ribbons I hadn’t noticed before, so I guess I’m back on trail. But which way am I going, and why am I not seeing a junction? 

I check the GPS, which shows me connecting with my trail and seemingly heading the right way. But with no sun and everything looking exactly the same, walking the wrong way is an easy mistake to make. So forget the GPS, let’s take another look at the compass. I set the dial to north, then spin the baseplate so my direction of travel is heading southwest and hold it up to the map. Yup, this is the right way.

But how in God’s green earth did I miss the intersection, not just coming, but going?!

One of several masterfully constructed beaver dams along the Kek.
Beaver House.

The answer to that question is never forthcoming, and maybe it doesn’t matter even if it puzzles me. I start to feel more confident when I pass a tree taken over completely by stacks of white fungus. There’s no way I would have passed this without stopping for a picture. A few more minutes walking and I come to a blue triangle nailed to a tree reading, “Kek” with arrows pointing east and west. I really could have used that sign back a few yards, guys, but at least now I’m heading the right way. Late’s better than never. 

I think back to the Guest Post by my friend Alison Heebsh, warning us backpackers that day two always sucks. It’s wet and dreary, the views are obscured and I got “Kekked.” But c’mon, now, Blissful, there’re views coming up and you’re back on trail.

As I get closer to a burn area, I see a pile of moose poop, but never come upon one, more elusive in the vastness of the Boundary Waters than on Isle Royale. Young Aspen in showy yellow flutter like thousands of jazz hands.

My path is overtaken with massive ferns, dried tan and crumbling.  A few white pines survived the Cavity Lake fire, which must have burned hot, leaving several towering sentinels, blackened and solitary. But the fire opened the view of sprawling blue lakes below cliffs of gold. A wood pecker pounds into one of the towering trunks. 

The path leaves the ridge and returns to thick boreal forest and its intense autumn bromide. I cross a stream carefully on rock rather than the slippery boards and take a spur to Strump Lake. On the way in, I spy the throne toilet, sitting right out in the open below a tiny rise to the camp spot, an apron a granite dropping into the tranquil water, white oak and aspen beyond. 

I set the alicoop soaking wet, but it quickly dries in the wind. I change into dry clothes and hang the wet ones on branches away from sticky sap, then head to the water for another cold soak meal. It’s quiet and perfect, the sun trying to peak out just as two hikers wander in. 

Glad I brought the bear vault.
Opportunistic ferns obscure the path in the Cavity Lake fire section of the Kek.

OK, so obviously when hiking, we have to share, but what is it with people? It’s like they’re annoyed I’m here and rather than engage, don’t say a word and begin searching for a place to set.

Finally I say hi, and the man says, “How are you?”  Now, why exactly does this annoy me? Don’t get me wrong, I understand sharing, but there’s an art to it. Rather than barge in all assuming and aggressive, how about a more deferential tone, “Hi! Would it be ok if we shared tonight? We’re really quiet and we’re really tired and…we’ve got chocolate!” 

No, that did not happen. 

So it’s up to to me to introduce myself and welcome them, which finally softens the edges. Anna and Sam. They give me campsite beta, admire the view, pull out some food and relax on the rocky apron. They then tell me about coming upon an occupied site, where “the people took the best tent pad and didn’t seem to want us there.”

Right, pal, that’s because there’s an art to sharing.

Well, they turn out to be pretty nice, really, and quiet as church mice, their exceedingly low voices just a mumble under the wind as I take a wee nap in the ‘coop after an early dinner. I’m awakened by a cocky camp chipmunk standing right on top of my bear canister.

I head back to the water’s edge with my book as Chippie hoovers up leftover crumbs. The clouds part in a burst of sunshine, but close after only a few minutes.

My neighbors are in bed by 6:00.  

Helpful sign located in a less than helpful place.
Luminous fungus.

Day Three, Strup Lake to Benezie Lake 13.3 miles

The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.

Ursula K. Le Guin 

It rained all night, sometimes just loud pingy drips shaken from the trees, but mostly a steady pattering that left me feeling down and damp. 

I had a dream mixing my former boss and my flute playing. Obviously it left me anxious at 4 am when I woke with a start. The book I loaded in my Kobo reader helped, “The Great Influenza,” though maybe a bit of a sick joke at this particular moment in time.

I’m glad I brought it anyway and sat out reading on the rock veranda looking out to the row of rocks – a humpback whale and shark fins – until it was almost too dark to find my way to the tent.

I’m warm inside even a few stray drips hit the sleeping bag. My chipmunk – or one of his friends – is creeping through the dried leaves looking for crumbs. I fall back asleep awakened by a cannonball beaver tail splash and the sky lightening. The rain’s let up for a few moments, so time to move while it’s relatively dry. 

The air is thick and gray, almost making it too dark to see. A light drizzle follows me onto the trail, all ‘flat and easy’ today, which is just fine. My hip is making fewer protests and I move along smoothly on a wet carpet of yellow, orange and red. I pass a beaver pond misty in the drizzle, black stumps reaching into the gloom. 

James meets me coming the other way as he begins his bid to walk all the way to Duluth.
At the intersection for Disappointment Lake. I skipped it because I’d likely share a site with canoeists.
A coil of saw in the woods betrays the Boundary Waters past.

Ducks quack loudly, not bothered at all by a little moisture. Ahead, dozens of chickadees flit from branch to branch, noisily chattering. One lands right near me for a better look. 

The trail is easy, though I still need to watch my step to avoid wiping out on moss-covered rocks or oily roots. I straddle one blow down after another, then crawl on my hands and knees under a few more. I notice hundreds of trees today brought down by a massive windstorm in 1999 followed by another in 2016. 

The trail crew has worked mighty hard to remove the mess, and it’s especially incredible the work they do, since only hand tools are allowed in wilderness areas. I wonder how they moved some of the biggest as I bounce along a tunnel of sawed trunks. 

At the falls between Hatchet and Thomas Lakes, I gingerly cross on rocks to avoid the slippery log bridge. I hear canoeists on the portage. Moose tracks are everywhere, but I never see one, just chattery red squirrels. 

I cross a spectacular beaver dam of mud and humpy grass. I am exactly at the level of the water with a healthy drop to my right. I can’t see a house but I hear a huge warning splash. A vole peaks out of the sticks as I pass.

Even in rain the fall colors were astounding.
A slippy log bridge at the rapids between Hatchet and Thomas Lakes.

The trail heads on through alder turning yellowish-green and spruce in perfect Christmas-tree shapes. A man comes towards me. “James!” I yell. “Bliss!” It’s the young trail worker from two days ago now starting his journey of the Kek, the Border Route, and finally the Superior Hiking Trail. 

We share beta and commiserate about the weather just as it begins to rain hard. He ensures I’m ok and tells me tomorrow the weather will be worse, so I decide to keep moving and walk as far as the last of the sites before the short walk to the end. 

I take lunch at Moiyaka Lake, my view a perfect rectangle of rock with a brilliant yellow aspen growing out of a chink. The sun peaks out from the clouds as I sit next to a gigantic downed white pine. It would be hard to get water here, so I press on. 

A coiled up bit of saw marks the turn off for Drumstick Lake where I need the privy. Again, the site seems an awkward distance from water. But no matter as I have my eye on a site down a side trail James told me about. The sites on Benezie and Becoosin Lakes are not on canoeists’ maps, in fact I don’t think there’s any portage to them at all. Hopefully that means I’ll find my own private nook.  

The sun comes out strong now and I stop to take off my rain coat and put on my hat. Leaves twirl as they fall like glittery gilt snow. The turnoff is marked with a pink ribbon and takes me on an undulating and recently cleared path. The first site is ideal, the actual tent pad above the lake, but a glorious rock veranda next to it. 

Cloud reflections building into a thunderstorm at Benezie Lake.
The moonrise and Maxfield Parrish hues.

I set the alicoop to dry in the sun and filter water for dinner, watching the clouds change shape in mirror reflection. Thunder rumbles in the distance and even as the sun turns clouds pink, droplets fall in absolutely silent rings. I stay for the show until they pelt down harder in a ricochet of ‘plinks’ and ‘plunks’ causing me to race up the hill and dive into the ‘coop. 

But it doesn’t last long and I return to Maxfield Parrish colors, the clouds seemingly lit from inside. To the south, an enormous thunderhead in the shape of a wise woman in a billowing blouse glows orangey-pink. Lightning zig zags out of her followed by menacing rumbling.

A duck quacks and fusses his feathers. A small fish jumps and a beaver splashes in the distance. In front of me are rock cliffs studded with spruce and aspen. To my left, sherbet clouds float past, a large white head riding atop. I spy the first twinkle star of the night, though I’m pretty sure it’s orange brightness means it’s Mars, joining the clouds in reflection.

Just then, as if to cap off an extraordinary day, a gold orb sneaks out of hiding behind gray clouds. I realize I’m facing east and don’t even need to turn my head to see the full moon rising.

I greet her and remind myself that just because I hadn’t seen her, she is always there. Her regal self reflects in the lake before disappearing behind a cloud only to shine more brilliantly as she’s expelled from a silver cushion of light. Just a few months ago, the Boundary Waters was named a Dark Sky Sanctuary, one of only thirteen in the world.

And it’s getting dark now, though clouds are bringing rain. As my moon moves towards a thicker cloud, I say goodnight, and head back up to my perch for my last, solo night on the Kek, the rain falling hard on the ‘coop. 

Day Four, Benezie Lake to Snowbank Lake 6.2 miles

The key to abundance is meeting limited circumstances with unlimited thoughts.

Marianne Williamson
Bright gold aspen leaves fade to black in the rain.

Today was supposed to be worse and yet after the heavy rain just as I cuddled in, the night was dry and the morning, clear. I’m on the trail fast sending Richard a message I’m ‘starting my trip,’ though unsure if he’ll see it with the forest making connection to a satellite difficult.

It’s just a mile to Becoosin Lake up and down through brushy trail, mostly cleared of fallen logs. The sites are not so great and neither looks east. I scored at my little spot last night where I looked directly at the rising moon.

James told me about these sites on this little loop, but he didn’t come down the trail because of a mossy mini rock cliff I have to descend. Even this young man with good hips didn’t want to take chances on twisting an ankle at the beginning of his thru-hike.

When I arrive, I decide to slide down safely on my wet behind. A beaver dam holds back a small pond right at the trail intersection, where I take off my rain gear, tempting the skies to stay clear until I’m off the trail.

The final beaver dam and slick rock climb on the Benezie-Becoosin loop.
The final miles of the Kek are on land owned by the timber industry.

And they do, a cool breeze leading me up steep climbs to views of Snowbank Lake, one more dam and one more view with a sign explaining the benefits of forest clearcutting for the wildlife residents. In my final descent and deep again into the forest I come around the corner and there’s Richard followed by our good friends Debby and Todd.

I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to be met on the trail by loved ones. We chit chat the mile and half back to our cars, arriving just in time for a few photographs before the rain starts up again and we drive back to their home in Biwabik, and even before I can change out of my clothes, head right back out and up to the top of Giants Ridge for a last look at autumn’s splendor.

Having checked off one of just two trails I’d planned for this season, I muse on the panic that still overtakes me – trying to very literally get a foothold in my career during a pandemic-fueled recession and now facing surgery and a recovery that will hopefully allow me to continue being a Blissful Hiker.

Remember that message I received just before I started this trip to simply say “yes” to all things, good and bad? Well, there’s a lesson in this hike. It rained and I somehow managed to say “yes” not allowing it to wreck my mood. I chose an attitude of abundance, that things will change, and there’s no reason to let the fact that it’s less than ideal to ruin my trip.

And it’s not like I just sit back with a dopey grin on my face. It’s more like I’m prepared for the problems that will inevitably come. I accept them with grace and that gives me the power to decide how I will react, freeing me to plan and then to act.

And at this moment the action I will take is to head into a sauna – and as my big brother Eric would say, life’s a bag of blessings, a “stokeathon.”

Blissful at the western end of the Kekekabic Trail on the Snowbank Lake Road near Ely, Minnesota.
Debby and Todd walk into a postcard on Giant’s Ridge near Biwabik.