A daunting diagnosis: Can I walk the Camino?

“Well, the first thing you’ll want to do is thank you parents for passing this on to you,” my doctor smiled ironically. “Osteoarthritis is usually inherited.”

“I’ll be sure to show them some gratitude,” I grinned back.

“Now, I don’t mean to sound negative,” she continued. “I know you like hiking, but I think you’re going to need to find a new hobby. Your knee just can’t take it.”

*   *   *

A few months ago, I lay in the reverberating MRI chamber wondering what the heck was wrong with my knee. A squishy feeling persisted any time I walked or hiked. Sometimes it ached a bit, so I finally got it checked out. The results came today: arthritis. At forty-two.

This wouldn’t normally be a big deal for this world-class couch potato. I could merely have used the diagnosis as an excuse to take my laziness to the next level.

But, given my recent announcement, these times are anything but “normal.” I’m planning to walk the Camino de Santiago again in nine months! That fact alone would be concerning, but the truth is hiking has become a lot more to me than what my doc called a hobby. Being out in nature is what got my life back on track after falling apart post-Camino. Hiking is what saved me from the most paralyzing depression of my life. Later, when I was whole again, it’s what saved my relationship with Mary. Simply put, hiking is what I do to encounter the Divine and restore my soul.

For this reason and many others, I can’t stop walking. I simply won’t.

“As you know, I walked across Spain two years ago,” I reminded my doc. “I’m planning to go back again next spring and do at least part of it again.”

“Well…” she started slowly, a cautious look crossing her face. “In that case, we need to focus on strengthening the weaker muscles in your quads and loosening your hamstrings. I also have some supplements I want you to start on that can help reduce swelling and support the cartilage.”

Her thought is if these interventions don’t help with my pain and swelling by December, we’ll explore a more aggressive strategy to help the knees become healthier so I can still walk in spring.

I never imagined this — of all things. To be told that I’m physically incapable of walking — or that doing so would be unwise. The craziest part about today’s revelation is that, up until now, I’ve been feeling scared, resistant, and mildly apathetic about the call to walk the Camino again. I haven’t exactly been jumping for joy about going. But now there’s this hurdle. There’s someone looking over my lab reports evaluating whether I should go. I want to spit nails. Find another hobby, my ass!

This new information is changing my formerly-reluctant assent into a defiant just-try-and-stop-me! Something deep within is rising to the challenge.

*   *   *

My mindset is pumped, but the reality of what I’ll have to do to prepare is daunting. I’m one of those excitable types who starts out all gung-ho about a project and then rapidly loses steam — twenty-four hours is a generous window. I have to do exercises every day: Wii balance board games, leg extensions, rolling on a foam thing to stretch my hamstrings (painful!), and a little move I call the stork leg. Daily. Twice daily for extra credit. How on earth will I find the resolve to do this for nine months?

Taking the supplements diligently will be easy enough with breakfast, but it’s the final challenge that fills me with undeniable dread: I have to lose weight. If I’m honest, I need to lose at least forty pounds (and keep it off) to take the strain off my knee. Losing weight takes diligence I do not inherently possess. Oh, that my arms and legs and torso were like Legos, and I could just pull off the bits I don’t need, piece by piece.

Oh, that I didn’t medicate every shift in my mood with sugar, fats, and carbs. Losing weight might be easy if it were just about my meals, but what keeps me overweight is what I eat in secret, in between meals, when no one is watching. Me and food are thick as thieves.

The arthritis was coming, one way or the other. What I didn’t know was saying yes to this Camino meant facing the inherited, intertwined issues of food and feelings. I can curse my fate or deny it, but there that wound is still there, waiting for me to heal it. Further proof, as if I needed any, that the Camino gives you what you need.

So, dear reader, here I am. As you know, I’m embarking on a physical journey in Spain nine months from now. To prepare for that walk, I begin another journey now toward healing and getting healthy in unexpected, potentially-transformational ways. I am equal parts daunted and eager, but one thing is for certain: I’m keeping my hobby.

Want to know why I’m doing the Camino in reverse — and how you can help? Read on!

A close encounter of the growling kind

I’d only been back from Spain three days before I headed to the mountains to a place my heart calls home. When Camino-induced foot pain hobbled me, and I didn’t think I could walk another step, thoughts of Breitenbush Hot Springs renewed my flagging spirits. I planned this retreat long before leaving for Spain thinking a week in the woods would restore my body and hopefully, in keeping with their motto, bring my life back into balance.

Breitenbush was the first place where, many years before, I’d taken my first-ever retreat as a new Oregon transplant from the East coast. Here I learned the art of self-care, of listening to that tiny voice of guidance within, and the value of taking time out of life. Walking the labyrinth, soaking in the natural stone tubs, and laying prone in the sanctuary under towering, ancient cedars showed me how to surrender and let the earth and the Divine hold me up. This week was meant to be my reward for walking the Camino, sweet relaxation after so many miles of walking.

*    *    *

At daybreak, the distant roar of white water awakened me. A smile crept across my face from the pride of having braved a night in a tent alone. At dusk the evening before, a barred owl had visited me and hooted over my tent. Whoo-cooks-for-you? Whoo-cooks-for-you-all? he asked over and over. Weren’t owls an omen of wisdom and clear sight in darkness? I felt graced by his presence and protection, finding the courage to face my fear of the dark. Now the morning’s swirling birdsong called me out of my cozy bed. As I dressed, pulling on socks and pants evoked memories of my morning pilgrim ritual, and a powerful urge to keep walking surged through my bones.

Located high in the Cascade mountains, the center’s gorgeous trails surround the area and meander along a glacially-fed river. That’s where I’ll walk. I decided to do the whole seven-mile loop.

Despite the lush beauty of the wilderness, walking alone in the woods terrifies me. Oregon is home to cougars and bears. If this fact wasn’t enough for my overactive imagination, occasional reports of attacks and close calls fed the fear. I don’t like finding myself smack dab in the middle of the food chain.

Despite my clear intention relax and replenish for a week, the hike called me.  I’m stronger now, I thought. I walked across Spain, for crying out loud. I can do anything. Why the heck not face all of my fears? Certainly I couldn’t be that hard to be alone in the woods. Besides, I thought bravely, the likelihood of encountering a wild animal is so low. I’m sure it will be fine. 

Tightening the laces on my well-worn trail runners, I set out, feeling every bit the happy pilgrim-self again. The first mile was beautiful, a soft dirt trail winding along the river and its gurgling tributaries. Crossing log bridges, I followed the signage through stands of old growth cedar, fir, and hemlock. The high, broad canopy dappled the forest floor and ferns with polka dots of sunlight.

When the ascent began, everything changed. Away from the river, the air seemed drier and a spooky quiet settled in. Not even a breeze rustled the treetops. Wild rhododendrons formed a dense understory, absorbing sound and blocking any view of the forest around me. My contentment vanished. I grew anxious. To ward off any large creatures waiting around the next corner, I began to sing aloud.

Higher and higher, the trail narrowed and foliage reached into the path. As I passed, a branch snapped back and it me. I yelped in alarm. On edge, I heard a sound that stopped my heart in my chest: a growl. A bear. I was sure of it. Ice cold sweat covered my body. Oh, my God. I knew this was going to happen. I knew it. I’m going to die now. 

My heart thudded wildly. Do I keep walking? Hide? I couldn’t tell from what direction the sound had come, and I couldn’t see anything. Just keep walking. The adrenaline fueled me forward.

I gulped air as I tried to keep singing, “Birds flying high… You know how I feel…” Feeling Good was such an ironic song choice. Several agonizing minutes later, I still hadn’t seen the creature. Any creature.

I began to calm slightly, when I heard it again — only this time the growl had a clear source: a diesel engine revving in the distance.

“Ohmygod!” I laughed, exhaling with relief. Not a bear. The retreat center’s construction crew must have started their morning shift — and the big backhoe — and the sound traveled easily up the river canyon. I’d never been in danger.

When I had my wits about me again, I reflected on my “brush with death.” How often I take tiny bits of information and spin them into a wild worst case scenario, consequently raising my blood pressure sky high. This ability to invent something awful from nothing squelches my ability to be happy and present.

The walk I was on surrounded me with fifteen-foot rhododendrons blooming in frilly pink profusion, and all I could think about was how I might die between the teeth of whatever lurked behind them. I had totally missed the beauty.

The only thing keeping me from happiness are my thoughts.

Although I couldn’t will myself to cease feeling anxious, I spent the rest of this hike focusing on the beauty of small details around me. The forest floor opened up again and the trail became difficult, but I noticed sunlight shimmering through a cobweb, spied a plate-sized mushroom growing overhead, and heard the trickle of new-born streams.

The present is where life’s gifts wait to be discovered. The past has its allures and the future its uncertain opportunity, but that growl in the bushes might just be a blessing. This lesson wasn’t lost on me; I spent the rest of my week in the mountains soaking in the spring-fed hot tubs, rather than hiking the forest — just in case.

 

 

The only thing to fear

“Your antagonist is fear,” she said.

She is one of the insightful people in my writing critique group of seven people, all bound to help give birth to our respective books.

For my submission last week, I turned in some preliminary writing that was more brainstorming and plotting than actual prose. I hoped for encouragement.

“And this,” she said, holding up my eight sheets of ideas, “looks like fear.”

I was shocked. This was not at all the kind of feedback I was expecting.

She looked me in the eye and said, “You just need to write. Stop thinking and start getting the words on the paper.”

I left the meeting feeling hurt, called out, and pissed off. I cried in the car ride home.

But after a few days of thinking, I realized she’s right.

*   *   *

Though I hardly ever listen to the radio, I turned it on yesterday and Sara Bareilles’ song Brave was on. Have you heard it? It’s amazing.

Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave . . .

And since your history of silence
Won’t do you any good,
Did you think it would?
Let your words be anything but empty
Why don’t you tell them the truth?

Okay, Universe! I get it!

Sheesh.

*  *  *

Reading about someone’s writing process can be as fun as watching them gaze at their own navel. I won’t belabor my point, but I will say this: Telling the truth is HARD. No less than three people have asked me in the past week, how do you do it? How can you write about real people you know? Don’t you worry?

YES!

I worry about making my partner look like a schmuck (which she most certainly isn’t). I worry that “Meg” will never speak to me again. My mom and aunt read this blog, as do some of my clients, my boss, and many friends—both from the Camino and at home. I worry about what they will think.

Despite the pressure I feel to say everything nicely and keep topics unoffensive, I have to be brave. I have to fight my lifelong urge to be tactful. I have to just tell it like it is.

Here’s why: I’ve met too many pilgrims who went into their journey hoping to be changed by it, and did not know how to sort out the experience afterward. Telling the truth is a gift to myself and—hopefully—to anyone who struggles after their Camino.

I’m taking a week to work on my writing and may not update the blog for a bit. I’ll be back with more tales that aspire to inspire.

*   *   *

It’s not ALL hard or scary, though!

In the last week, I’ve taken three different hikes with wonderful people. Getting outdoors is awesome nourishment for the heart and soul.

The first hike was a fourteen-miler on Eagle Creek with new Camino friends—including one of my favorite bloggers, Elissa Green from sometimesshetravels.com.

(c) elissa green
Used with permission — photo credit

I loved this photo Elissa took of my favorite hiking shoes (Brooks Cascadias) and a Checker Lily.

(c) elissa green 2
Used with permission — photo credit

Everyone talks about these cool falls with the tunnel carved into rock behind them. Elissa is pointing to me and Laura. (Don’t look at this one, Mom!)

(c) elissa green 3
Used with permission — photo credit

Then! Mary and I took a hike on Saturday in the Opal Creek area on a gorgeous day and saw tons of wildflowers. At one point we could hear the rushing sounds of three separate waterfalls. Amazing!

IMG_20150418_134049_381 (1)
Last, I met Carol and Nancy (more Camino friends) for a hike around Willamette Mission Park. We talked gear, albergues, and life. Such fun!
(c) carol routh

I counted—that’s about 23 miles in one week. Yay!

Let’s get out there be brave together!