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
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

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.