Pushing Through

As the decades accumulate, the cautious among us may retreat into being ultra-careful of our bodies, guarding against accidents and illnesses to cultivate the illusion of safety. But others of us want to leap over the limitations, real or imaginary, that prevent us from doing some of the things we did before. We’re not willing to give up meeting new challenges to our joints, our stamina, our image of ourselves as empowered human beings.

The four writers in this section are challengers. They move forward with what they can do, taking some chances, even risking injury, to experience the satisfaction of intense physical activity and the pleasures of the natural world. One hikes alone in rugged backcountry, pushing through fear and exhaustion. Another takes up bicycle riding in her sixties, and another runs in marathons. One writer sets forth on a solo canoe trip in the waters of the north woods with her dog, learning to navigate, survive storms and leeches, and in the process come to terms with personal loss.

These tales can inspire us, perhaps, to dust off those hiking boots in the back of our closet, get out the tennis racquet, start looking at maps of national forests, or maybe just get up off the couch and take a walk around the block. The risks described are real, the struggle is sometimes intense, and the rewards—well, these writers will tell you.

Sandy Boucher, Associate Editor

Karen Frank
by Karen Frank

I bushwhacked up the hillside, thrashing through ferns and crunching through the crust of rotting logs. I was panting and struggling and scared. The Shady Lane trail sign had warned hikers to beware of cougars, and I expected one to pounce and gobble me up. In its cougar heart and mind, it would sense a weaker member of the human herd and cull me. Although Dana, my partner, would organize a search party at dusk, my remains would probably elude the searchers since I was not on the right path.

I’d left the new Shady Lane trail because I’m stubborn and a little bit paranoid. I knew the old route —clearly blocked off with logs—was shorter and prettier. It followed the bank of the North Fork of the Skokomish River, with meanders into old-growth forest, and it ended by the causeway at the head of Lake Cushman. The new route led uphill onto a long, dusty gravel road. I’d theorized that the way had been changed because the residents at Lake Cushman protested watching grimy hikers trudge down their road.

But I quickly learned that the new route was necessary because the hillside above the old trail had eroded, creating mud slides in two places. Natural causes had erased the path, covering it with downed trees and an overgrowth of ferns. This resembled an obstacle course designed for football players, not women like me. Constructed of tangles of twigs designed to trap ankles, and unexpected holes I had to drag my legs out of, the old trail provided more of a workout than I needed.

I navigated the morass with one working arm and flared-up asthma. I sweated, breathed dust, and just barely avoided panicking myself into a wallowing, floundering flight. My solitary jaunt had become a challenge in unknown territory.

For the last few years, I’d struggled with cervical dystonia, a debilitating movement disorder involving my head, spine, and right arm. I’d begun the hike wanting to prove myself to myself. I’d always been independent. I wanted to show that I was capable of exploring the world alone. So, this was a test: Would my eroding body do what I wanted it to do?

We had arrived at the Staircase campground the Thursday before Labor Day weekend and lucked into the best riverfront campsite. Friday morning we ate breakfast sitting in the sun on river rocks. Dana and I had decided to go on separate hikes. She wanted to clamber up to Wagonwheel Lake—a steep, gnarly climb—and I needed the flatlands. Dana refused to accept any surgical or age-related limitations and enthusiastically flung herself at mountain paths and ridge scrambles. More cautious and sedentary, I hesitantly explored my boundaries.

Much had changed for me since I first visited Staircase in 1996, right before my knee surgery. This operation was only the first in a series of medical events that altered my physical terrain and my ability to deal with the unknown. I’d staggered through four surgeries, three 911 calls, two emergency room visits, and diagnoses of three chronic, incurable illnesses. Pain often left me breathless or perched on the edge of my couch in tears.

In 1996, life had been all joy and possibility. I’d camped with my best friend, Donna, and Dana joined us for Labor Day weekend. I celebrated the end of my Masters in Theological Studies program and prepared for a new career. On Saturday, the three of us strolled down the trail about half a mile then took off our clothes and splashed around in the river. While we stood there naked, laughing, we heard voices on the other bank and realized that a trail passed right by the river at that bend and we were in full view of the hikers. Oh well, we thought, and continued our water fight.

I had been full of eternity in 1996. On the same Saturday night we cavorted in the river, I laid on my back on the bridge crossing the Skokomish River, star-gazing. The phrase “for the glory, the glory of the Lord” from The Messiah sang in my mind. I saw stars above and white-tipped waves below, but only thick darkness in the middle.

The bridge I sprawled on was not your usual hewn log, swaying over mountain river rapids. The original crossing had been a rock staircase built for explorers, prospectors, and homesteaders, but the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed a wide, modern footbridge in the 1940s. All that remained from the original rock staircase was a 20-foot-high foundation rock, rooted upriver. It looked like a glacier erratic. I knew that both the bridge and foundation stone would outlast me—they’ll most likely age gradually and wear away.

That day, when I took the old trail instead of the new, my physical erosion seemed likely to accelerate in the midst of the tangle of Douglas fir and cedar branches. I fretted about snapping a leg or twisting an ankle. Disoriented by my convoluted path through the underbrush, I craved sight of the river or main path. I stumbled up the hillside trying to find the gravel road, but the approach was blocked by logs stacked like pick-up sticks. Too hard. I had to blaze a new course. It took me a strained hour zigzagging back down the slope before I saw the river.

After sliding down a short bluff on my butt, I soaked myself in glacier water runoff and took off my cap and dumped Skokomish ice water on my overheated brain. Plopping down on a rock, I wished I could stay. I was on open ground, with no cougar hiding places, and I could always wade out and swim away if one appeared—although in reality the river would grab me, rumble me over the rocks and spit me out under the causeway. No need for more doctor appointments, then.

I dumped more cold water on my body with my cap and clambered up the bluff on the other side of the washout. Onward, to the bridge. In about 100 yards, I reconnected with the official Shady Lane trail and sped up, relieved to be in proximity to people. At an open spot on the path, I looked across to my campsite and waved wildly at Dana, already returned, sitting in her camp chair. She’d turned back about two-thirds of the way to Wagonwheel Lake, realizing the climb was too difficult. I’d have been better off following her lead. But, although I’d stumbled and flailed, I’d made it back to camp with only a few dents and scratches.

In her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Remen disputes the idea that our bodies are fragile. Instead, she says, they are impermanent but tough. We hold fast to life, even as it wears down.

We are tenacious about living, Dana and I, even as our abilities decline and our bodies succumb to entropy. We try. We persist. We rage. Some days—like on the morning following my adventure—we lie awake listening to our own breath, grateful that neither flood nor time has yet ripped us loose and swept us away.

Susan Pope
My Shadow
by Susan Pope

My bike sings its own symphony down the path to Little Campbell Creek. Seat springs creaking, frame rattling like my bones, stones zinging off the spokes, fat tires crunching in loose gravel. Wind whistles softy through my purple helmet. No one’s on the trail. No one waits for me, and no one knows I’m here. I’m free.

Thigh-high grass waves and glistens as the sun peeks in and out of the Alaskan birch forest. I glance side-to-side for dark objects lurking between the trees. Though I’m less than half a mile from my house, this is bear country and I forgot my bear spray. So I whistle loudly to my imaginary dog, Dirk the Doberman, who I pretend is racing beside me somewhere in the bushes, possibly chasing a rabbit. I’m warning bears, rapists, and murderers that I’m not alone. But I am.

At the elementary school, I could have turned right and taken the nice paved trail along the road. Instead, I’ve chosen the path less traveled because on this Friday night after work, my husband is out of town, my daughter is grown and just fine on her own, my grandkids are away on their own adventures, and I have deliberately made no plans to spend time with friends.

Biking is the only cure for this pent-up energy that’s been buzzing in my body all day at work, sitting in front of my computer, boxed in, writing reports, sending emails, trying to pretend I’m useful, wishing I was retired while the few good days of summer weather slip away.

I thought I’d have more company in my solitude, that I’d pass some other bikers or dog walkers or joggers on these back trails. Where is everyone on such a lovely summer’s night? Has there been a mauling recently that I didn’t hear about?

“Pay attention!” I whisper and pull my eyes back to the ground in front of me as I try to steer my bike toward the least rocky route on this long, downhill ride to the creek. I swerve to miss a big spruce root. My fingers ache from squeezing the brakes. If I spin out or tea-kettle over a pot hole, there’s no one near to pick up the pieces.

“Here, Dirk.” I yell. It takes all my concentration to stay upright and avoid catastrophe.

I’m a late-blooming biker. My family bought me my first bike just four years ago. “Go, grandma!” they said.

“No girl of mine is going to ride a bike,” my dad had said when I was a girl. “She might get herself killed.”

He had a similar response when I asked him if I could go camping with my friend Judy in the woods near the railroad track that ran behind our house. All those years he had been telling stories of his boyhood adventures—a regular Huck Finn kind of childhood. But freedom was just too dangerous for a girl.

My neck bounces, vertebrae colliding, wiping out all my hard-earned progress in Rolfing and Pilates. Can all this jostling be good for my brain? After all, I teach people about shaken-baby syndrome. What about shaken-lady syndrome? Should I really be riding a mountain bike at my age? But I have to make up for lost time.

When I strap on my helmet, slip on my fluorescent green reflecting vest, and pull on my bike gloves, I’m an athlete, a woman as fit as the skinny young students who hitch their bikes to the same rack as I do at the university, where I work. But, more than that, I’m the 12-year-old girl who never owned a bike, who sneaked into the alley behind her house and learned to ride on her best friend’s brother’s hand-me-down bike.

The trail levels out and my bike clumps to a stop on the hefty wooden bridge across the creek. This is a multi-use trail: walkers and skiers in the winter, and horses, dogs, and humans in the summer. Oh, and moose, bears, coyotes, and an occasional lynx, whenever they are inclined.

I lean my bike against the wooden railing, take a long slurp from my water bottle, and watch the creek. The water runs clear right now, undisturbed by dogs or curious kids mucking up the sandy bottom. Last spring, I brought my two grandkids, Cason and Carly, down here at break-up. They jumped on the edges of the rotten ice, threw rocks and sticks in the water, generally got themselves thoroughly soaked and filthy before I returned them to their parents, but they were tired and proud of themselves.

This creek and I have come to know each other well these past 25 years. Once you could spot tiny Dolly Varden trout right here at the bridge when the sandy bottom was still. But no more, with all the subdivisions and culverts down below; the fish can’t make it up here to spawn. My husband, Jim, and I had planned to have our wedding ceremony here beside this creek, but it was too far for the old people to walk, and the mosquitoes would have attacked us mercilessly.

Just when I’ve convinced myself that it’s time to turn around, having pushed my luck plenty by not encountering a bear or pervert, a young couple strides briskly up to the bridge from the other direction with their black lab panting in tow. The old dog lifts his head, perks up, and dashes for the creek, where he laps the cool water.

“Seen any big animals out there?” I ask.

“No. Just us,” the woman replies.

That’s all I need. Surely they’ve swept the trail ahead clear of dangerous creatures, so I shove off from the bridge, teetering at first until my cranky knees loosen up, but finally reaching an upright rhythm. I speed up for the wide-open stretch of trail I know is ahead, where I can let my mind wander and release Dirk back to his home.

My shadow races beside me in the alders. She must be that 12-year-old girl I left behind.

Carrie Lugar Slayback
Getting to the End
by Carrie Lugar Slayback

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on until you get to the end, then Stop.” (Lewis Carrol, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

I pulled on my spandex at 4:00 a.m., packed a bag with food and extra clothes, and bundled up for the six hour wait until race time. At 65 years old, I was about to join 28,808 men and 15,369 women to run 26.2 miles through all five boroughs of New York City. I’d flown from California to be part of the biggest marathon in the world.

Runners compete in male or female age-group categories. Mine is Female, 65-69. “If you want to place, get faster or get older,” a running coach once advised me. It’s true that competition decreases for senior females, with only 76 of us running in New York.

I don’t think much about age. Thirty years of recreational running make a marathon almost routine. My bum left knee tells me to slow down and dictates no more than one marathon a year, but that’s about it. Setting off at 4 a.m. that day, I worried more about getting lost in the confusion of thousands of runners than how old I was.

A steady rain fell as I took a cab to the Main Library on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, where I boarded a bus for Fort Wadsworth, the Staging Area. In darkness I surged with other runners off the bus and down a wide avenue, suddenly confronted by flood lights beaming on signs with colored arrows. I turned the way of the green arrow, which matched my bib.

At the green village I found a huge tent, big enough to hold a circus. Runners were crammed in, standing, sitting, and sleeping on the ground. I spotted a tiny strip of unoccupied grass and pulled out two trash bags from my bag—the first became my mattress and the other my blanket. I fell asleep immediately, breathing in the smell of wet earth.

At dawn, I awoke to line up for the port-o-potties. This left me just five minutes to check my bag with the UPS truck assigned to my number. I pulled off my sweat shirt, stuffed it in the bag and checked it just before the driver slammed the back doors shut. I’d be grateful for the warm clothes at the finish.

Walking through the muddy field toward the start, I noticed runners grouped behind a rope fence. I heard the sound of “The Star Spangled Banner,” then the boom of a cannon, and I saw the elite runners taking off. Marathon starts are always emotional, but my teary moment was interrupted by, “Wave Three, get into your corrals.” Wave Three? What happened to Wave Two?

I did not come all this way across a continent, wake up early, and sleep on wet ground to miss my start. I belonged to Wave Two; I’d earned it with my times. I blasted through the tightly packed Wave Three runners, pushing aside volunteers trying to restrain me, and I grasped the chain link fence and slid over knee-high piles of plastic bottles and discarded jackets. I was a small bullet with one trajectory: Wave Two.

Finally, I crossed the last rope, arriving just as the sun shone through the clouds. I took off my throw-away shirt, tossed it over a fence for charity pick-up, and the Wave Two cannon sounded. I was off.

Free at last, I galloped over the Verrazano Bridge with my select group of tens of thousands of mid-pack runners, elation filling every synapse. There was nowhere else on earth I’d rather be. I didn’t see the view from the bridge or the water beneath it. I was too busy watching feet all around me, making sure my wondrous feeling did not end with a splat. I’ve witnessed runners go down near the start—not me, not now.

My first goal was to finish the bridge, and my next was to pass a domed building, visible in the distance. Anyone hear that New Yorkers are brusque? That’s an urban legend. Runners make 10,000 friends at every corner. Crowds stood a dozen deep, offering a hand-slap and cheering encouragement all the way, but I chose not to interact. Running is the only activity I do just for myself.

Through Brooklyn, over the Pulaski Bridge and into Queens I flew, leaving my goal of 6 miles behind so I’d just have 20 to go; completing my goal of 10 miles so I’d just have 16 to go; and coming up on the half at 13.1 miles with a time of 2:06:11.

Two days earlier, boarding the plane for New York, two men told me they’d ran the New York Marathon for ten years, I took a closer look: Cheek bones prominent, lean shoulders topped slender chests. Yep, marathoners, I thought. Their special hint to me was, “Do not go out too fast. Leave something in the bank for the end.” I ignored the hint.

I loved the start and completed the first half of the marathon at a natural pace, 100% confident in my joyful energy—future fatigue was an impossibility. Looking at fellow runners gave me needed distraction. I passed a barefoot runner, a group of guys in kilts. An Asian runner’s shirt said, “My street shoes cost less than your running shoes.” He ran in a pair of leather lace-up men’s dress shoes. Along the course, I savored the jazz bands and rock bands. A young woman, seated in a courtyard, banged out “New York, New York” on her keyboard. Her friend stood to her side, holding a boom-mike pointed at runners.

We left Queens, crossing the Queensboro Bridge at Mile 16. The Manhattan skyline stood out against a blue-gray sky, a living post card. But then I bumped into a feeling I’d forgotten: I got tired. From Mile 17 to Mile 20, I hugged the left side of First Avenue, looking for a friend who was going to hold a sign with my name. I read, “Go Sarah,” “Kelly, run,” and “Hey, Molly!” Nothing with “Carrie.”

At the Mile 20 water stop, I took a walk break, and then I commanded myself to “bring it on home.” Instead of taking off, I kept walking. I told myself I could do anything for six lousy miles. I like running, remember? I didn’t remember. When I resumed running, it was for one reason: Putting one foot in front of the other was the only way to get to the finish and STOP.

By the time I entered Central Park at Mile 23, I’d been running for 3 hours 51 minutes. My pace slowed. On Saturday before the race, I had imagined how happy I’d be to run though the yellow chestnut trees of Central Park. I was not happy. All I cared about was spotting the mile markers that signaled one mile closer to the finish. Myopic and oxygen-deprived, I missed the markers from 23 on.

Those who have raced with me will tell you that the sight of a gray-haired female causes me to pull out a surge of speed. Not only do I pass women who look like they are in my age group, but I pass them good, putting other runners between us so they can’t catch up. For the last four miles, older women passed me. They were better prepared. They had more stamina. I disliked them. The advice I’d ignored about starting slowly turned out to be important, after all.

Crowds roared the advent of an invisible finish line. I don’t like it when I cannot see the finish around a corner. When I finally ran up Central Park West and through the finish, it was an anticlimax. I was done, so what? It would take a few moments before elation filled me, and then the keen anticipation of my next run.

And so I returned to California, where I’d turn 66 in a week, one year closer to the 70-74 age group. On my computer I read that my time in the New York marathon had been 4 hours 26 minutes. When I saw I had made tenth place, I thought at first it was an error—but no, I was the tenth fastest 65-69 year-old woman in the famous New York marathon.

Next year I will run the Chicago Marathon. It will hurt. I expect my training to fix that last five miles of pain, but I’ll probably relive the torture of the New York finish. Then why is it that I can’t wait for Chicago? I love the clarity. There is no conflict, there are no side issues, there is no uncertainty of result. The only task is putting one foot in front of the other, which guarantees that I will make it to the end.

Adriane St. Clare
Wilderness of the Heart
by Adriane St. Clare

As I entered the later years of my life, a call to the north woods wilderness area stirred inside me. I knew better than to ignore it.

The man I had just left would have been a possible partner for my canoe trip, but as fate would have it, the trip itself became an important part in deciding to end our relationship: I could not face going on the greatest wilderness adventure of my life while negotiating power struggles and scrambling to collect shards of my shattered self-esteem. Still, a trip alone in the waters of the north woods could present situations that were life-threatening for a woman no longer young. The best I could do was bring along Dozer. A little guy, part Cocker and part Springer, he was already fourteen years old with a grade-six heart murmur, but we would go on our adventure together, each with an orange lifejacket and a similar degree of naiveté.

Arriving in the wilderness area, I unloaded the little Kevlar “Solitude” canoe. At only 26 pounds, it made an easily-transportable home. I heaved all my gear, which I had carefully packed in watertight boundary bags, into the spaces in front and behind the solo seat, and there was just enough room for Dozer to sit behind me, rest his snout on the gunwale, and watch the water pass by.

Paddling away from the entry point, I felt excitement in every cell of my being. I was equipped with maps, a compass, and a route plan for ten lakes with reasonable portages between them. And the smooth water in the narrow channel was exactly what I had pictured during all my months of planning.

But soon the narrow channel opened up into Seagull Lake, and the expansive feeling in my chest began to disappear with each stroke of my paddle. This lake was huge, and choppy waves signaled that a storm was coming. There were hundreds of inlets along the shore and no markers or signs to show where the portages were. The prospect of navigating this lake became formidable

I felt frantic and frightened, not sure whether I was lost or whether I would find a camping spot before the storm hit. The thunder started around three o’clock, and I pulled into an obvious campsite on a small island, aware that I had no idea where it was on the map. Thankfully the approaching storm gave me time to pitch my sturdy tent and stake out the rain fly, and I was able to start a fire and cook a very welcome dinner. Anxiety must release adrenaline or endorphins because I barely noticed the ache in my arms, shoulders, chest and back from paddling for hours against the wind.

At eleven o’clock that night, I awoke to deafening claps of thunder and spectacular flashes of lightning. The wind picked up to a loud howl and whipped at the sides of the tent. Minutes later, torrential rains began pounding our feeble shelter. The theatrics were dramatic enough that I reached out for Dozer and pulled him close. His poor hearing allowed him to sleep through this violent display of nature and kept him calm. This calmness transferred to me through the warmth of his fur.

It took two hours for the lightning and thunder to move farther away and the winds to abate. My eyes stayed open those two hours, and I realized just how vulnerable I was—especially when I heard the wind pick up my canoe and crash it against some trees. I reassured myself that I had food and supplies for ten days, and although I hadn’t seen other canoes, someone would eventually pass this way if I was indeed stranded. I thought about the worried looks on the faces of my friends when I told them of my plans for this trip. Was I foolish for attempting this challenge? Already, my fear about what was happening was bringing me to places inside myself I had never been.

With dawn came the sun, the stillness of the water, and a new peace of mind. I found my canoe undamaged on the other side of the island. While fixing breakfast and brewing coffee, I saw a canoe within earshot, called out and waved it over. Two gentlemen on a fishing trip pointed out my location, and I gratefully filled their mugs with coffee. Yes, we agreed, it had been quite a storm.

I set out again with renewed energy and made good time before the midday wind came up. Other than the occasional call of the loons and the nearly soundless passing of my paddle through the water, there was nothing to distract my reverie. In these hours of paddling, the canoe was completely under my control, and I felt at ease. By sunset, I had begun to find just a little of the peaceful inner stillness I had been searching for.

As the days passed, I conquered the seemingly impossible task of navigation. I began to take compass readings from my location on the map, and I kept my compass on the boundary pack in front of me. In my exhilaration, I wondered whether the early explorers had navigated in a similar way. I began to enjoy the portages, which gave me a chance to stretch my paddling muscles and get a glimpse of what was coming next.

One day I awoke early and broke camp, launching onto Okishkemuncie Lake before even a hint of wind stirred the water. Directly ahead of my bow were two river otters. They faced me with their heads and chests out of the water, barking loudly, telling me to leave their little cove. None of the wildlife here had ever been hunted, and it showed.

As the otters dove under the water, out of view, a memory surged without warning. It was so strong that my breath caught in my throat. Perhaps inspired by the easy companionship of the two otters, I could see my recent lover sitting next to me in bed, holding my hand as we both read our books. The glow from his lamp was behind his head, and he was wearing that black tank top that emphasized his broad shoulders and chest.

The image came so suddenly and so strongly that I didn’t have time to steel myself against it. I put down the paddle and cried. Cried for the emptiness in my gut where we had once been corded. Cried for my home that I had been forced to abandon for the past five weeks and that no longer seemed like mine. Cried for the destroyed trust in my own judgment. And I cried for the loss of a partnership with this man whose sweet soul had opened for brief moments and shown me small glimpses of itself.

Dozer nudged me as if to say, “I’m here, hug me.” We stayed adrift until the sun rose fully in the sky. I held onto his black-and-white fur as if it were a life preserver. When we pulled out of that cove and found the right channel, I could tell that I had left behind the most central part of my grief. From that point on, everything was a beginning, and my gaze turned to the friendly new water waiting on ahead.